Why are body politics important? [Loving Our Bodies, Part 4]

If I had a penny for every time I’ve seen people, both men and women, call issues such as shaving “petty” or otherwise mock them when someone brings up the double standard as an example of why we aren’t equal, I would be a rich, rich woman. But why is something that, on the surface, seems so minor and so tied-in with personal choice a continual talking-point within discussions of equality?

The easy answer is that it’s not about the act of shaving or not shaving, but rather what those personal experiences mean when they are put into the greater context of socialization and gender roles. What does it mean to learn womanhood? What impact does it have on how we view women’s personhood? Continue reading

"I'm cute, not smart", an explanation [Intent versus Message, Part 2]

If you haven’t yet, go read the first part of this series.

So now for some context. I was contacted by a representative from Spielerz.com not so long ago about me writing a promotion post for their site in order to try to generate interest with a female audience. So I, not willing to promote something without first knowing if what I was promoting would be a good community for my readers, asked some questions.

As part of the response, the representative linked me to the T-shirt design from the previous post. She did this in the interest of full disclosure, and I’m glad she did. From there ensued a small discussion on the shirt and I found that I was interested in critiquing it, and moreover that I was presented with the rare opportunity to get an explanation from the designer, a friend of said representative.

So, I asked if the designer would write up her reasoning behind the design and here’s what she wrote:

So, the idea behind this shirt was inspired by my friend who is very cute and very smart. She says “I’m cute, not smart” whenever she has missed something obvious or made a mistake of some sort. This always gets a laugh because, well, it’s funny and anyone who knows her is well aware of her intelligence (she recently earned a full scholarship to law school and is working toward her goal of becoming a judge).
She is also a gamer – she plays RPGs – and in one notable Call of Cthulhu game, her character went insane and killed the entire party. So, using that idea I made the very cute character (who resembles my friend) quoting her saying after having presumably wiped out her fellow adventurers.

The intentions behind this shirt aren’t to degrade women in any way, or to perpetuate any negative stereotypes. For example, I chose not to give the character blonde hair, because the “dumb blonde” stereotype annoys me to no end and I did not want the shirt to be another blonde joke. It is more subtle than that. The fact is, some women (and men) are cute, but not smart, and some are both or neither – people shouldn’t be judged on gender or looks and I would love to live in a world where they weren’t. But reality is that humans classify, compare and judge others, and so there is a stereotype in our society that “pretty” girls lack intelligence. Some women play to this idea to get what they want, others fight it, others ignore it and some are it. I’ve found that smart women tend to like this shirt because it pokes fun at the stereotype – it says that the “cute” girl could be playing dumb so you won’t know that she’s a force to be reckoned with till it’s too late, or that the girl who’s “not smart” shouldn’t be written off.

So, now, fully armed with context, what do you think of the shirt? I’ll put it behind the cut for those who want to refresh their memories. Continue reading

"I'm cute, not smart", first impressions [Intent versus Message, Part 1]

Cute Not Smart

I would like all of your help on doing an experiment. This will be part of a short series that, among other things, will look at how intent and message interact. But in order to make my arguments, I need input from my readers. Even if you normally don’t comment, even if you don’t consider yourself to be a feminist, please take a couple minutes to participate in this series. It would mean a lot to me.

So, what I want you to do is first to look at the image. Without any context, what does it say to you? Is your impression a positive or negative one?

Now, have some context: this is a shirt design for a gaming site. Does that change your perception at all? If so, is it a positive, negative, or neutral influence? What has changed?

If you want, include whatever about your personality, politics, or anything else that you find to be relevant to your reading of the image.

Within the next few days, I will be posting the “intent” part of this series and I hope that all of you who participate here will add your voice to that post as well, because seeing what changes (and what doesn’t) is an important part of what I’m trying to understand/illustrate.

Edit (2007.07.18): I would appreciate if people could be more sensitive in the way that they phrase their analysis. A real person designed this shirt and there is nothing gained by being insensitive to her feelings while criticizing the image. On that note, I will also not be publishing any more comments that are about the quality of the artwork, unless they are constructive criticism.

X-posted: Iris Forums.

"If I were [x] I wouldn't do that!" [Loving Our Bodies, Part 3]

It’s summer again in Japan, which means torrential downpours, blisteringly hot days, and enough humidity to make you feel like you need to shower again right after you step out of the house. It is not weather that is conducive to pants and sleeves, but rather one that lends itself better to shorts, skirts, and tank tops.

And this is where we begin this part of the Loving Our Bodies series, because it is where I am confronted with the consequences of my choice not to shave every single time I walk out of the house. But, first, a brief interlude to refresh what brought up this subject, and discuss the pressures that hinder a free choice for a woman when it comes to shaving. Continue reading

The obligatory FGC post [Women and Violence, Part 6]

[This is part of my series on Women and Violence, which I am writing as a project for a Women Studies course I’m taking. For an explanation and information on my intentions with this series, please see the introduction.]

Yesterday some of my classmates gave a presentation about female genital cutting (though the terminology they used, and which is probably more familiar to people, is “female genital mutilation” – a difference which I’ll address later on). It’s an important, worthwhile issue, and I’m glad our class is addressing it.

Still, every time the topic comes up in conversation I cringe inwardly.

I didn’t always have this reaction. An explanation of why I do now lies in this quote by Sherene Razack, from her (fantastic) book Looking White People in the Eye:

[I]n many legal texts, both feminist and non-feminist scholars have actively participated in reproducing the binary of the civilized and liberated Western woman and her oppressed Third World sister […] One has only to think of the energy so many scholars and legal activists have poured into the legal proscription of FGM in North America (in comparison with the energy directed to antiracist strategies) to recognize a preoccupation with scripts of cultural inferiority and an affirmation of white female superiority. (6)

The binary that Razack describes is not limited to discussions of FGC, of course; but it is this tendency to divide “First World” and “Third World” women that causes my discomfort when such discussions arise among Western feminists.

This binary is inaccurate and misleading. There is no sharp division between us civilized, non-sexist Westerners and those barbaric, woman-hating brown people over there. The cultural beliefs and gender divisions that foster FGC in certain African, Middle Eastern, and Asian countries are not so different from the ones in non-FGC countries, including the U.S. and Europe. I touched on this topic for last year’s Blog Against Heteronormativity day – policing and mutilating women’s bodies, even their sexual organs, is not an alien concept to the West. And yet, the similarities between the two practices – the spectrum of body modification that spans so-called “advanced” and “backwards” societies – is rarely touched upon. Instead, much of the energy in discussions about FGC center on the horrific things that those people do.

The results of such an imbalance in discussion are multiple, and troubling. As Razack points out, how much of that time could be spent on anti-racism? I don’t want to engage in “my activism is more worthwhile than your activism” hierarchies; I mean, rather, that excessive attention to FGC can actually harm other activism against racism. In other words, those who engage in Western condemnation of non-Western FGC (note the emphasis) do more than take time away from anti-racism, and can actually compound the problems of racism and imperialism by perpetuating the false civilized/uncivilized dichotomy.

This imbalance can also obscure the problems that Western women face, in terms of cosmetic surgery and related pressures, in a “mote in thy brother’s eye” kind of way. This is, of course, unhelpful for Western women’s goals. By relegating “Third World” countries to the “bad” group, it also alienates the women from those countries who could be valuable members of transnational feminist alliances. Condemning a woman’s country as primitive and ignorant and more-sexist-than-us is no way to build coalitions.

All these risks from Western discourse about FGC fueled my decision to use “female genital cutting” as opposed to “female genital mutilation.” It’s not that I believe the practice to not be mutilating, but rather, I don’t think it ought to be singled out as the mutilating practice, when there are so many (Western) practices that also fit the term. If it confuses people who are used to hearing “female genital mutilation,” then at least I get the opportunity to explain my reasons and bring their attention to the hidden racist/imperialist risks of the Western discourse.

“Female genital cutting” also connects the experiences of Western and non-Western women, because labiaplasty is included just as easily as infibulation. By doing so, I hope to highlight how both groups of women can succumb to pressures about their bodies, and how they both can be victimized into coerced surgeries. Western women are not totally liberated from patriarchy, and struggle against oppression just as non-Western women do. At the same time, Western women do not want to see themselves as passive victims – so by connecting these two groups of women, I want to draw attention to non-Western women as active agents, as well.

Recognizing the agency of women in societies that practice FGC means one, very significant thing: debunking the false dichotomy between paternalistically controlling FGC-practicing societies in order to end FGC, or leaving them alone and abandoning the women victimized by FGC. As I said in my earlier post on tradition, there is always the option to support the women who are helping themselves.

There is one other factor playing into Western discourse on FGC that I want to mention, and it’s the idea of “the gaze.” This is not exactly an official theoretical term, I think, but it’s a common idea in writings on racism and imperialism, as well as a central feature of Looking White People in the Eye. Writings about the gaze, or similar concepts, focus on who gets to look, to be the one who observes and judges. This is the party who has power to see, authority to make true judgments. As David Roediger says in the introduction to Black on White:

White writers have long been positioned as the leading and most dispassionate investigators of the lives, values, and abilities of people of color. White writing about whiteness is rarer, with discussions of what it means to be human standing in for considerations of how racial identity influences white lives. Writers of color, and most notably African-American writers, are cast as providing insight, often presumed to be highly subjective, of what it is like to be “a minority. Lost in this destructive shuffle is the fact that from folktales onward African Americans have been among the nation’s keenest students of white consciousness and white behavior. (4)

So white people have held authority over knowledge about people of color. On the other hand, people of color have not held authority over knowledge about white people. White people hold that authority – though they don’t often use it to record knowledge about themselves. Roediger continues:

What bell hooks describes as the fantastic white ability to imagine “that black people cannot see them” constitutes a white illusion at once durable, powerful, and fragile. It exists alongside a profound fear of actually being seen by people of color […] From the beatings of house slaves who knew too much to the lynchings of African Americans thought to look too long, [African Americans’] safety has often turned not just on being unseen, but also on being perceived as unseeing […] Discounting and suppressing the knowledge of whiteness held by people of color was not just a byproduct of white supremacy but an imperative of racial domination. (6)

To be powerful means to be the one who sees, not the one who is seen. I think this understanding of power fuels the Western treatment of FGC, which is so skewed towards viewing the Other (societies who practice FGC) and not being seen (for similar practices such as labiaplasty).

According to Razack, in April 1995 CNN “showed an FGM in progress, and did so throughout an entire day” (124). The fact that someone even considered that this was okay to do relies on certain ideas of who is the object of the gaze, and who the rightful gazer. One of these ideas was the objectification of women in general; our bodies are always to be gazed upon. Yet the treatment of the racial Other as an object was also necessary for the decision to broadcast such intimate images for sensationalist purposes. I can’t imagine the U.S. being comfortable with another country broadcasting, say, a labiaplasty in progress in order to show how “barbaric” we were.

So perhaps some of the inordinate amount of attention that Western feminists have centered around FGC draws from this need to be the gazer. We have a discomfort with being the object of the gaze, either by others or by ourselves.

This is not to say that Western feminists ought to ignore FGC, or never examine patriarchal tendencies in societies outside of our own. This is not to say that all examinations of FGC by Western feminists are innately imperialist. What I am saying is that we ought to be very careful of the judgments we make in the name of feminism, when that feminism can be used to obscure our own complicity in imperialism.

To return once again to Razack, she quotes from Isabelle Gunning to list some basic necessities for feminist analyses of international human rights: “1) seeing oneself in historical context; 2) seeing oneself as the “other” might see you; and 3) seeing the “other” within her own cultural context” (97). These steps do not give us a complete guide on how to avoid perpetuating imperialism through our feminism – but they’re a start.

The violence beneath 'beauty' [Women and Violence, Part 5]

[This is part of my series on Women and Violence, which I am writing as a project for a Women Studies course I’m taking. For an explanation and information on my intentions with this series, please see the introduction.]

Next week I’m giving a presentation in class on cosmetic surgery in regards to women of color. Now, cosmetic surgery does not readily fall under most common definitions of ‘violence,’ and I find myself hesitant to categorically label it as such.

On the one hand, while cosmetic surgery does involve bloody alterations on a person’s body, so does surgery in general, and we generally don’t label that as violent – especially when voluntarily consented to by the patient. The fact that cosmetic surgery is often (though not always) agreed to by an autonomous individual does mitigate the physical damage it brings.

Of course, we are all aware that ‘consent’ is a sticky issue, and that we can’t ignore the pressures that can constrain a person’s ability to make a choice – particularly in the case of women facing pressures to be ‘beautiful’ in a certain way.

Furthermore, the same level of physical damage can be construed as ‘violent’ or ‘non-violent’ depending on the context. Full-contact sports can be performed just as ferociously as a street brawl, yet not be uncontrolled and violent. What’s more, a session of safe, sane, and consensual BDSM can be non-violent, while the quietest rape perpetrated under clearly communicated threat is clearly not.

Still, I find it difficult to attach the label of ‘violent’ to cosmetic surgery in its entirety. There is still a risk of compromising the agency of the woman who elects to have that surgery. This risk is exacerbated by the fact that ‘cosmetic surgery’ is a difficult category for me to define, because its borders blur with what is considered ‘reconstructive surgery,’ as well as decorative body modifications.

So all I have right now are the beginnings of an analysis of the level of violence within cosmetic surgery. One of the most important pieces that I have so far comes out of my study of women of color. While researching for my presentation, I ran across a book by Margaret L. Hunter called Race, Gender, and the Politics of Skin Tone. While her object of analysis is colorism, or racial prejudice based on skin color, she examines the connection between the creation of beauty standards and the exploitation of women of color’s bodies in a way that I find useful for contextualizing cosmetic surgery.

Consider this passage on the construction of blackness:

“African-ness” came to be known as evil and “whiteness” came to be known as virtuous. These abstract concepts, however, quickly manifest themselves in the actual phenotypic characteristics of the racial groups […] Blackness and whiteness were no longer merely abstract concepts. Actual physical traits associated with each racial group began to take on these ideological meanings. Dark brown skin, kinky hair, and broad noses started to represent barbarism and ugliness. Similarly, straight blonde hair and white skin began to represent civility and beauty. (Hunter 20-1)

For women of color, this racist pressure is combined with a sexist one: for instance, Latina women are faced with the history of imagery that constructed dark-skinned Mexican American women as not only inferior, but as whores, while light-skinned and therefore favored women were tied to the Madonna (Hunter 31). Thus even the light-skinned and white women who are seen as ‘good’ are subjected to the same overarching system that judges and degrades women based on their physical appearance. Or, as Hunter puts it, “The racist action of the beauty queue seems obvious, but the fact that there is a queue at all is the less obvious but equally damaging effect. So the beauty queue is racist in its hierarchy of women by color and misogynist in its function to objectify all women” (28).

Physicality, and physical beauty, are not just about the body, but are intimately tied with ideas of social and sexual worth. This is, of course, true for more people than just women of color – women of all races are judged on how attractive they are to heterosexual men, people with disabilities are judged as less intelligent or capable or worthwhile than able-bodied people.

From value judgments, it is a frighteningly easy transition to actual violence. Consider the dark-skinned Latina ‘whore’ who is denied the sexual innocence of the ‘Madonna.’ When such a woman is raped, her violation is minimized in the same way that all violations of the sexually deviant are minimized – with excuses that she was ‘asking for it,’ or that it doesn’t matter because she’s already ‘used.’ How many other racialized constructions can we think of that justify sexual violence based on a woman’s appearance as non-white – the oversexed Black woman, the Oriental geisha girl, the Indian squaw?

And now we can change some of those features that identify us as ethnic minority women. Eyelid surgeries add creases to Asian people’s eyelids, making them look more similar to white people. Rhinoplasty is used to alter the noses of members of various races, bringing them more in line with the longer and narrower Anglo nose (Hunter 56).

Are women of color who choose such surgeries aware of the violence that has historically plagued women who look different from the (white) standard? Certainly not all of them are. But can we honestly say that such women are completely unaffected by the continuing judgments leveled upon the worth of women of color, which are based in such a history?

So what Hunter provides for me is the possibility that the violence of cosmetic surgery lies not in the practice itself, but in the history that shapes the parameters of that practice: what is performed, why it is performed, and how women are pressured into participating in this practice.

This conclusion, half-formed as it is, still leaves open the question of whether or not cosmetic surgery is violent in and of itself, or whether it is just surrounded by violence. I’m still working that one out.

Tradition and the obscuring of gender violence [Women and Violence, Part 4]

[This is part of my series on Women and Violence, which I am writing as a project for a Women Studies course I’m taking. For an explanation and information on my intentions with this series, please see the introduction.]

One of the most insidious ways of normalizing and justifying gendered violence is by tying it to tradition. By portraying perpetrators as if they were enacting the accepted practices of a culture, those in power position victims of violence not only against their victimizer, but also against the weight of a culture’s history. Additionally, “tradition” is a popular buzzword that protects a practice from interrogation, hiding it behind a shield of maintaining history or honoring ancestors.

Examples of this kind of use of tradition can be found in Niamh Reilly’s book Without Reservation: The Beijing Tribunal on Accountability for Women’s Human Rights, in which a number of women from all over the world provide accounts of gendered violence against women. A woman named Ruth Manorama writes about Dalit women in India, describing how “the ideology of caste, which classifies people as unclean and untouchable, has become an instrument to legitimize power and privilege in a hierarchical and unjust social order” (118). The result is a devaluation of Dalit women, which legitimizes their physical and sexual abuse by members of upper castes. The “tradition” of economic and social stratification within the caste system (already problematic by itself) becomes twisted into a justification for all forms of gendered violence.

In another account from the same book, Sultana Kamal tells the story of Nurjahan, a Bangladeshi woman who was driven to suicide “because of a fatwaa – a decree issued by an illegal and self-appointed village court” (129). The local imam, furious at his marriage offer being rejected by Nurjahan’s family, charged the woman with an illegal marriage and sentenced her to death by stoning. Kamal notes that “This was not a normal or customary punishment in the village or in Bangladesh” (130). Nurjahan did not have the chance to be inflicted with this punishment; she committed suicide out of the dishonor faced by her and her family from this spurious charge – a dishonor constructed out of the imam’s manipulation of authority, which allowed him to bring the power of tradition into the service of his own misogynistic desires.

Traditions don’t need to be respected in order to be used in the service of gendered violence, though. Even traditions that are dismissed as “backwards” or “exotic” can obscure the practice of gendered violence by relegating it to the domain of the Other – in fact, the weirder the better. It mean the perpetrators are freaks, uncivilized people who aren’t like us. As a result, we forgo any analysis of our own, “normal” violence against women, because we think it’s only caused by people “over there.”

Consider the case of Ciudad Juárez, a city in Mexico just across the border from El Paso, Texas, which has been the site of a series of disappearances of young women for over a dozen years. These women are often found murdered and sexually assaulted. Lourdes Portillo’s 2001 documentary, Señorita Extraviada, details both the pattern of the murders and the various responses by officials in the state of Chihuahua, Mexico, and abroad. These “responses” have been notoriously unhelpful, and have done little if anything to halt the murders.

There are many noteworthy aspects of the Juárez murders and the responses to them in connection to an analysis of gendered violence, but for now I’m interested in a particular, though brief, bit of the documentary. At some point, several years after the murders began, investigators recovered a body with strange, deliberate wounds in a scene with other evidence of some sort of ritual. When news of this broke, there was fear and horror in the public’s reaction – a fear and horror which were conspicuously missing when the murders began, and the numbers of missing women added up. The possibility of “crazy devil worshippers” got the attention, while the possibility of normal, local people causing the deaths of hundreds of women did not.

In an article titled, “Girls and War Zones: Troubling Questions,” Carolyn Nordstrom describes the pervasive victimization of girl children both in and out of war. In the early 1990s, a series of disappearances of children from Maputo, Mozambique raised media attention. The media claimed that the origin of these disappearances was tied to feiticeiria, “indigenous medicine used to cause harm and to gain power at the expense of others. Body parts, often of children, are claimed to be the ingredients in the more powerful and dangerous medicines of feiticeiria” (68).

This was not actually the case, of course; the purpose behind the kidnappings was a child trafficking industry that sold children into domestic slave labor in white South African homes, or into prostitution. However, “while the fanciful stories of selling ‘body parts’ in the pursuit of sorcery were widely circulated in the media, the actual selling of living children was not” (69).

My examples have come from non-U.S. countries, but of course the United States and other Western powers are not immune from this manipulation of tradition. We have our own insidious ways of perpetuating gender bias, from the tradition of making women take their husband’s last name to the idealization of the private sphere, which sets up the nuclear family as the domain of the head of the household (read: men). The latter tradition directly influences the practice of gendered violence, as it has historically been one of the biggest obstacles to feminist attempts to raise awareness and resistance to domestic violence. And of course, none of these traditions are immovable barriers – they can be resisted, but to do so would mean resisting the cultural weight of society alongside the individual people directly involved.

However, relatively little attention is given to Western traditions that enable gendered violence, even when we identify traditions from other cultures that are harmful to women. We hear all about misogynistic laws in Middle Eastern countries that punish women for being raped, or machismo among Latino cultures. Then we can give ourselves a feel-good pat on the back for being concerned about women – all the while ignoring the women who are victims of violence in our own backyard, and maintaining the racist belief in the superiority of enlightened Western civilization.

But then, you may protest, does that mean we should just ignore the sexist traditions in other countries and cultures? Should we let sexism go because we don’t want to be racist?

But the question is a false one, one which serves both misogynist and white supremacist interests by trying to make us choose between one oppression or the other. The real answer is evident in the examples I gave, particularly from Reilly’s book. That is, we ought to listen to the women who are, at this moment, fighting against the patriarchy within their respective cultures. We don’t need to stick our hands in their business and try to solve their problems our way; nor do we need to lay off completely and ignore their plight.

Listening to the women and giving them support (rather than exerting control) would mean acknowledging their agency as an oppositional force to their own oppressions. It would also result in more culturally viable solutions to practices of patriarchy that draw upon the needs and desires of a people, rather than what would serve our own interests – not to mention a real understanding of the culture’s traditions that recognizes which practices are authentic, which are constructed, and how they need to be changed.

Discursive patterns regarding sexual violence [Women and Violence, Part 3]

[This is part of my series on Women and Violence, which I am writing as a project for a Women Studies course I’m taking. For an explanation and information on my intentions with this series, please see the introduction.]

A couple of disclaimers, to start:

-First, this is not about me being angry at, or blaming, any particular individuals. This is also not about placing the responsibility for a society-wide problem on these particular individuals.

-Second, this entry is for everyone to read, even though I refer to a specific example in which only a few people were involved. The point of this entry is, again, not to pin the responsibility on anyone. The point is to raise awareness of a common, problematic pattern that we all engage in.

The other day I posted this rant to my journal concerning an incident at work. I was disturbed and angry about what seems to me an instance of sexual harassment (not because it was necessarily aimed at women, but because it was sexual and it was harassment). I was also aware of the ways in which sexism played into my reaction: my first instinct was to minimize my own discomfort and stay quiet about it, though in the end I realized what I was doing and spoke up.

Several people commented on that entry (though I have since screened the comments – again, so that attention or blame is not focused on one or two people). Here is the layout of the comments as of today, April 14:

-One short thread (one person’s comment and my reply) expressing sympathy about my experience.
-One long thread that begins with a person expressing sympathy, then suggesting an alternate explanation that would excuse the anonymous man’s actions as being something other than sexual harassment. The thread continues with two other people joining in to support the idea of an alternate explanation, and the topic of my distress leaves the conversation.

Why did the conversation end up like this?

Let me tell you a short anecdote, to provide a bit of perspective: About a year and a half ago, I hurt my back and walking was painful and difficult for a few months. During this time, while I was crossing a crowded crosswalk on campus, a man walking in the opposite direction bumped into me with enough force that, in my normal physical state, I would have stumbled backwards. As it was, I exerted effort to not fall over. The man said nothing, and as I turned around to glare at him I saw him walking blithely away, talking to someone next to him. When I found some friends I ranted about what had happened, in much the same state as I was in when I wrote the abovementioned entry. A guy had run into me, I told them, and didn’t care enough to apologize or see if I was all right.

Every single person I talked to asked if I was okay. Not a single person attempted to second-guess my account by asking, “But what if he didn’t notice? What if he said ‘sorry’ but you didn’t hear him?”

These are, of course, possible alternate explanations. Not hugely likely, but possible. And yet no one seemed to consider it important to bring them up.

I bring up this example not to say that we should never look for alternate explanations of harmful or harassing behavior, or to say that this reaction was Right and the one to my recent post was Wrong. I bring it up to show that the way the conversation that ensued on my post was not automatic or natural. My anecdote shows how it could have gone another way – how it did not have to end up with the majority of the emphasis on finding ways to excuse the anonymous man’s actions.

What’s the difference between these two cases? It certainly isn’t that the commenters on my blog are ruder or dumber than the people I talked to after I got bumped into. It isn’t that they intended to minimize my feelings and discredit me in favor of the anonymous man. It wasn’t even about any single person or comment turning a perfectly-good conversation into a perfectly-bad one. What bothers me was not the mere mention of an alternate explanation, but rather the way the conversation progressed; the cumulative effect was a prioritizing of the anonymous man’s need for a fair ‘trial’ at the expense of neglecting my distress. It was the replication of a pattern that occurs time and time again when it comes to sexual violence and harassment, particularly when perpetrated by men against women.

In cases of sexual violence against women, the conversation is not always about comforting and believing the victim. It should be, but unfortunately there are many, many places – the legal system, the media, the community, the victim’s peers or family – where the conversation is skewed into being about the perpetrator’s credibility instead of the victim’s need for justice. Excuses are given for the perpetrator. The victim’s reliability is questioned. The conversation is made up of statements such as, “But he’s such a nice guy,” “I’m sure he didn’t mean to hurt you,” “He’s so attractive he wouldn’t need to rape a woman.” To complement these sentiments is the questioning of the woman, in ways such as, “She must have been mistaken,” “She’s just overreacting,” “She was flirting and sending the wrong messages,” “Did she make it clear she didn’t want to have sex?” And, of course, the old standard of, “She’s just making it up.”

Most of all, this isn’t recognized as an unfair or misogynistic in mainstream circles. It is seen as normal. The discursive shift, from treating the victim as credible and rational to manipulative/misinformed/deceitful, occurs seemlessly. It isn’t seen as remarkable. It certainly isn’t seen as being biased toward the perpetrator.

Obviously my experience was not nearly this severe. I wasn’t outright accused of being uncredible, or criticized as vindictive, or told I was somehow to blame for what happened. I didn’t experience a great trauma. I bring up my example because it represents the same pattern, though to a much smaller degree. I want people to see what happened here and understand how we can participate in this pattern without realizing it, and without intending to be unfair to women who experience sexual violence. Because these kinds of situations are a training ground for the more extreme and damaging variety, where victims of greater forms of violence are belittled and dismissed, letting those who commit violence off the hook and leaving them free to victimize again.

That lesser-degree discursive shift is the precursor to things like the current mistreatment of Kathy Sierra, whose account of being viciously harassed and stalked is being minimized and dismissed, while Sierra herself is accused of overreacting and being unreliable. Because, much as I hate to admit it, the people who are engaging in the discrediting of Sierra’s story are not excessively ignorant or hateful people. They simply fail to examine how they are buying into the same violence-excusing, victim-blaming discourse that allows for such rampant victimization of women to be disregarded, and their voices to be silenced. The ones who are crying foul over this treatment of Sierra are feminist bloggers, who are most familiar with this insidious discourse and its effects.

It is a seductive discourse, though, and not least because it’s so common. When regular, intelligent people engage in the same thought processes, it’s hard to recognize them as biased (though of course we could say that about privilege in general). There’s also a comfort gleaned from engaging in this discourse, because by denying the plausibility of sexual violence we can continue to deny how prevalent it is – especially for women who are assailed with terror tactics based on this issue all the time, and especially in cases of victims who are uncomfortably ‘just like us.’

The key, I think, to eliminating this discursive pattern is to ask ourselves, What are we assuming:

About the victim’s credibility or motives? Do we start off believing that she must be mistaken, that her version of things is incorrect? Do we assume that she’s lying? Do we assume that she must have been ’emotional’ or ‘overreacting’?
About the perpetrator? Do we assume that he must not have intended to hurt anyone? Do we assume that he has an excuse? Do we assume that his past good behavior indicates that he is innocent now?
About the likelihood of sexual violence? Do we assume that it ‘just doesn’t happen around here’? Do we assume that sexual violence is the least likely explanation?
About what is most important? The victim’s comfort, or the possibility of proving her wrong, and making ourselves feel comforted?

It’s tough to question ourselves like this, and it can be discomfiting. There’s still the risk that we’ll mess up anyway and wrong a victim. But at the very least, we must remember that these questions can and should be asked, so that the discursive pattern that harms victims of sexual violence can be interrupted.

Denying responsibility for sexism [Women and Violence, Part 2]

[This is part of my series on Women and Violence, which I am writing as a project for a Women Studies course I’m taking. For an explanation and information on my intentions with this series, please see the introduction.]

One of the first readings assigned for this class has been Albert Bandura’s “Selective Activation and Disengagement of Moral Control,” published in volume 46, number 1 of Journal of Social Issues. The purpose of the article is to examine how, in normal and everyday circumstances, people can commit actions that they typically consider immoral. Most of the time, barring deviant individuals, we keep ourselves in check. We decide not to commit immoral actions according to what we understand as ‘moral,’ without needing other people to force us to do so.

According to Bandura, we regulate ourselves through the use of “self-sanctions.” I guess it’s like the superego, but without dealing with issues of the unconscious. For a psychological layperson like me, it’s useful just to think of it as a conscience. Basically it means that we watch and judge ourselves, and that is what determines our behavior. So if those judgments are somehow deactivated, then we can engage in behavior that we would normally consider wrong, but without making ourselves feel shame.

This is a pretty useful concept for a class on gendered violence, because it helps explain why something normally heinous (violence, particularly sexual violence) has become so common against women. I also find it useful for wider discussions about sexism in general – why something as awful-sounding as discriminating against people based on their sex is nonetheless such a widespread part of our societies. Not by a few of the absolute worst people. Not by the people who mean to do it. But by everybody.

That’s what Bandura’s article is about – how normal, good people do bad things. For the purposes of a feminist discussion, the article explains how Nice Guys can engage in sexism. Because there aren’t enough horribly evil and sadistic and devious men out there to be responsible for all of patriarchy. The bulk of the responsibility lies in the collective, relatively minor abuses of regular guys – guys who are usually nice, but sometimes deactivate their self-sanctions in ways that let them justify sexism.

“But look at how sexist they are in China!”

Whenever events occur or are presented contiguously, the first one colors how the second one is perceived and judged. By exploiting the contrast principle, moral judgments of conduct can be influenced by expedient structuring of the comparison. Thus, self-deplored acts can be made righteous by contrasting them with flagrant inhumanities. The more outrageous the contrasted actions, the more likely it is that one’s own destructive conduct will appear trifling or even benevolent. (Bandura 32-3)

Everyone knows this one, right? The one where someone interrupts a feminist conversation by raising a comparison to some Other: if we’re discussing the United States, we’ll get comparisons to places like China or the Middle East; if we’re discussing states in the Northwest or New England, we’ll get comparisons to places like the South; if we’re discussing the behavior of predominantly white populations, we’ll get comparisons to people of color. Hell, it can even come down to comparisons between the speaker and another person in the conversation, that other guy who’s “so much more sexist than me.”

Not only is this behavior problematic because of its tendency toward racism – or really, any bias that makes some group into the Other, and therefore a potential scapegoat – it also lowers the speaker’s opposition to sexism that hits closer to home. If a guy is spending all of his time bemoaning how sexist they are over there, it lets him pretend that he’s really a good guy who gets outraged about sexism. He can believe that he’s a good guy, or even a feminist guy. But he isn’t helping our cause over here by calling it (relatively) unimportant – and he sure as hell isn’t helping the Other when he demonizes them like that. All he’s doing is giving himself a pat on the back for not being the worst sexist around, which means that he’s far less likely to examine his own male privilege.

“I don’t have enough power to be an oppressor!”

Self-sanctions are activated most strongly when personal agency for detrimental effects is unambiguous. Another set of disengagement practices operates by obscuring or distorting the relationship between actions and the effects they cause. […] Under conditions of displaced responsibility, people view their actions as springing from the dictates of authorities rather than from their own personal responsibility. Since they feel they are not the actual agent of their actions, they are spared self-prohibiting reactions. (Bandura 34)

The pseudo-nice guy who uses this strategy isn’t the one who’s responsible for patriarchy – he just plays along with (and benefits from) it, all the while denying that his inaction translates into implicit consent to the status quo, which then supports its continued existence. In an extreme form, this can be the guy who watches but doesn’t stop a gang rape; on a more common basis, it’s the guy who lets other guys use sexist epithets, and perhaps uses them himself. He’ll deny that he’s doing anything wrong – after all, he isn’t the one who instigated the behavior – so how can he be to blame?

This is a strategic adoption of powerlessness that is used to make a person seem less culpable. The man who uses this strategy minimizes the impact of his actions, so that they couldn’t possibly be blamed for the eventual negative results on women. He’ll deny his own power and pass the buck on to others – large structures such as the government, individual men with economic or political power, or the peer pressure of his social group – to excuse his own sexist behaviors. Or he’ll insist that his lack of social power elsewhere, as a poor man or a man of color, means that his own actions are ineffectual. They made me or I can’t stop this is the general sentiment. That way, he doesn’t have to feel bad about his lack of courage or reliability.

Of course, regardless of who’s ultimately responsible for a sexist action, that action still has the same sexist effects. When a million different guys talk like this, and a million different guys thus fail to speak up against misogynistic behavior, sexism gets that many more passive supporters. And female feminists – who do appreciate all the true allies they can get – are left with that many more Nice Guys who fail to step up when they’re really needed.

“But feminists kicked my puppy!”

Imputing blame to one’s antagonists or to environmental circumstances is still another expedient that can serve self-exonerative purposes. In this process, people view themselves as faultless victims and see their detrimental conduct as compelled by forcible provocation. Detrimental interactions usually involve a series of reciprocally escalating actions, in which the antagonists are rarely faultless. One can always select from the chain of events an instance of the adversary’s defensive behavior and consider it as the original instigation. One’s own injurious conduct thus becomes a justifiable defensive reaction to belligerent provocations. Those who are victimized are not entirely faultless because, by their own behavior, they usually contribute at least partly to their own plight. Victims can therefore be blamed for bringing suffering on themselves […] By blaming others or circumstances, not only are one’s own actions made excusable, but one can even feel self-righteous in the process. (41)

I like to call this the Feminists Kicked My Puppy approach because men who engage in it portray themselves as the hapless victims of feminist cruelty. They assert that they can’t/don’t want to be feminists because some feminist, somewhere in the past, was mean to them – and, well, they can’t be expected to help people who are rude to them, right? The man himself becomes the target of victimization, rather than the women whom he’s abandoning through his self-pity.

This behavior isn’t always enacted by the poor, sad victim type. The same justification is behind the wannabe rebels who think being anti-feminist is cool and edgy, who think they’re fighting back against “those castrating bitches” who just have so much power over men – usually because they’ve seen a handful of instances in which a woman was in a position to exert authority over a man (without taking into account intersecting hierarchies of race, gender, or sexuality), and took that to be the defining model of gender power relations.

Of course feminists are not all perfectly kind and discerning people who never wrongfully judge men or abuse their authority. No doubt there have been feminists who have actually been, y’know, mean to a dude. Yet note how a single feminist (or a few feminists) is taken to represent all feminists, anywhere; and how individual instances of rudeness are portrayed as equal to or greater than women’s suffering under patriarchy.

“You’re being rude to me? Fine, you deserve to suffer under sexism!” If that’s not an example of male privilege, I don’t know what is.

This is only a handful of the various justifications used to make men feel better about being sexist. The common thread among these behaviors is the attitude that being not-the-worst somehow excuses any sexist actions. As long as there’s some sexism, somewhere, that’s worse than you, that makes what you’re doing okay. All the censure is deflected onto someone else, and the Nice Guys avoid having to face up to the consequences of their behaviors.

Introduction [Women and Violence, Part 1]

This is a bit of an experiment.

This quarter I’m taking a Women Studies course titled “Women and Violence.” The final project for this class is open to creative interpretation, and so I’m attempting to bring together my academic feminism with my online feminism by using blogging as a part of that project. Over the next eight weeks, until the final week of the quarter, I’ll be making weekly posts on the topic of women and violence. Each post will (hopefully) be inspired by the readings or discussions from class. They will be posted both here and on my LiveJournal, and can be accessed through this link.

The course itself approaches gendered violence as a continuum of behaviors that affect women, from the private to the public, the individual to the institutional, the legally prohibited to the socially permissible. This includes the most commonly discussed forms of gendered violence, such as rape and domestic violence; and also forms of violence such as war, abuse by prisons and other institutions, and indirect violence by the media. My series of posts will cover any of these topics, depending on what strikes me, or perhaps what is most relevant to the feminist blogosphere at the time.

If this all sounds kind of vague to you all, that’s on purpose. I’m actually not sure how these next eight weeks will go, or what kind of writing I will do. I’m hoping to let the writing come organically out of influences from the course and online, so I’m not putting any limitations on this series for now.

Speaking of influences – while I always welcome responses from readers, I invite them even more heartily for this project. Comments or criticism – even if you don’t have anything to add beyond, “I agree with you/Commenter A!” – please do make your voice heard. Part of the reason I’m using a blog format is so I can examine the responses I get, and how other people might connect to what I’m writing.