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Archive for the ‘sexism’ Category

“Mansplaining” is the portmanteau word coined by feminists for men’s tendency to lecture women – at length, on the obvious, and even on subjects on which the woman is an expert. Ever since I was alerted to mansplaining, I have noticed it several times a day, and it never fails to make me wince.

For one thing, mansplaining is an embarrassment, like an elderly relative who makes loud racist comments at a family dinner. Worse, it is an embarrassment that I am rarely in a position to divert or shut down. When I try, either I am labeled rude for interrupting, or the intervention flounders with my attempt to explain what is offensive, and ends up with me taking the blame for disturbing a social gathering.

Instead, I am left feeling the discomfort that the mansplaining man ought to feel for himself, but never does. The man goes on and on in a hectoring tone of voice, as often as not getting the facts wrong, impervious to interruption, and all the while leaning closer and closer to his victim, apparently under the impression that he has become endless fascinating to her.

Meanwhile, the woman tries to stay polite, interjecting a few vague words or a polite laugh that the man mistakes for interest. She is rarely able to turn the monologue into a discussion, because the man does not detect anything except the fact that he has audience. He never dreams that she has mostly tuned him out, because, in his world view, the main reason for her current existence is to make him feel important or charming – and, for the most part, cultural conventions back him up. And, just like when I try to intervene, any other response from her puts her in the wrong socially instead of him.

All this is so wrong on so many levels, that I am torn between moving out of earshot and leaning closer, morbidly fascinated that anyone could be so crass and unobservant as the mansplainer.

Yet that is not all that bothers me. I am what some people call a high verbal, and for many years I was a university instructor. Regardless of whether I am talking to a man or a woman, my interest in a discussion frequently causes me to interrupt as I become excited by an idea that has struck me, and I have to apologize frequently and back down to avoid monopolizing the conversation. This behavior is not helped by the fact that, as an instructor, I actually was the expert (at least most of the time), and partly paid for lecturing, although I usually tried to turn the lecture into a discussion after I conveyed a few basic facts.

Consequently, whenever I see a demonstration of mansplaining, I am apt to review my recent conversations, and wonder if I have been guilty of the same behavior that I am privately denouncing. Given the social norms between men and women, mansplaining can be appalling easy to commit, even when, intellectually, I am determined to avoid it.

Sometimes, I go so far as to ask a woman I am having a one-on-one conversation with if I am talking too much. However, that is not much help, because her social role is to reassure me, and even the most activist woman can sometimes fall into it. Although I am pleased when a woman tells me that I haven’t been dominating the conversation, or that I am a man who knows how to talk to women, I can never be sure she is not offering me a bit of conventional politeness, woman to man. In the end, I am left to my own self-observations. The result is that the mansplaining is not only boring a nearby woman (or sometimes women), but also leaving me full of self-doubt and self-accusation.

I grew to understand what mansplaining feels like to a woman when I published a book. The reviews were mostly upbeat, and the criticisms minor, but a few reviewers insisted on explaining why I should have done one thing or another. Had they asked, I could have told them I had considered their ideas months ago, and discarded them for well-founded reasons – but of course they never did ask. They simply expressed their opinions, and, like a mansplainer’s victim, I could say nothing without sounding ungracious myself. However, I did start wondering why there were not more instances of women lunging across restaurant tables, intent on mayhem with the cutlery, and I became more determined than ever not to be a mansplainer myself.

To me, a mansplainer is a Jungian Shadow, an embodiment of things I do not want to be or even have around me. Consequently, whenever I encounter one, I cannot help but react with distaste and self-doubt, hoping against hope that the situation will soon be over. Unfortunately, though, it almost never is.

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Justin Trudeau’s announcement that half his cabinet will be women has misogynists creeping out of their closets all across Canada. Their concerns are as predictable as their intent is obvious as they mask their sexism with a facade of concern and pseudo-logic.

Some of the point they studiously avoid include:

  • Their assumption is that most men become cabinet ministers based on merit. While they will acknowledge that nepotism and politics play major roles in cabinet, they immediately go on to talk as though merit was the only criteria.
  • Their assumption is that most women will be hired because of a quota, not because of merit. This is a common complaint against affirmative action, but it ignores the fact that Trudeau , like any other boss would be rash to hire someone who lacked any qualities that made them fit for their job.
  • The only people who could unreservedly be said to be qualified to be a cabinet minister is someone who has held the position before. Obviously, though, there has to be a first time for all cabinet ministers.
  • No one complains seriously about nepotism, political favors, regional representation, or any of the other considerations that go into putting a cabinet together. Even the tainted considerations are simply accepted as the way things are done. How is affirmative action is supposed to be any worse?
  • Cabinet ministers, no matter how qualified, depend on staff and deputies, especially when they are first sworn in. So long as they listen to to all this experience, cabinet ministers have trouble being completely incompetent.
  • If cabinet minsters prove unsuitable for their position, they can be asked to resign, or cabinet positions can be canceled. It’s not as though there is no precedence for dealing with incompetence in cabinet.
  • No concrete set of criteria exists for being a cabinet minister except that the prime minister is willing to work with someone. Therefore, it is nonsense to talk about whether anyone is qualified for the position or not.

Anyone who is really concerned about fairness should be advocating ways to guarantee fairness, not sniping at the idea of more women in cabinet. As things are, their choice tells us all we need to know about their motives, and why we shouldn’t take them seriously.

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Today is Ada Lovelace Day, which honors the first computer programmer. The custom is to observe the day by writing about women you admire in the sciences or computing. This year, I have chosen to mention Cordelia Fine, whose book Delusions of Gender gave me a coherent argument for what I have always believed – that, contrary to the prevailing outlook the brains of men and women are largely the same.

I can’t remember a time I didn’t have this belief, but it received strong confirmation when I taught at university and dealt with several thousand students. However, it was Fine’s book that gave me the evidence and reasoned argument and turned the belief into an even deeper conviction.

To say the least, this conviction is a minority viewpoint. Modern alleged science is full of poorly designed research, and unsupported speculations about the differences between the sexes – to say nothing of Just So stories about pre-historic humans that are supposed to have implications for life today in the suburbs. All this mix is reported uncritically in the media to reinforce common stereotypes. Much of my pleasure in Delusions of Gender is Fine’s obvious delight in debunking such things with a combination of dry wit and thorough analysis, proving that most of the conclusions promoted by people like Simon Baron-Cohen (who actually reviewed the book), Leonard Sax, and John Gray are based on flawed experiments and is little more than a rationalization of conventional sexism – a logical fallacy based on an appeal to biological authority, although Fine never actually uses the term.

In particular, Fine discusses how differences in the organization of men’s and women’s brains are used as evidence that stereotypes about mental capacities. Her dissection is lengthy, but her basic point is simple: how does anyone know that the physical differences translate into behavioral differences and limitations? There is no mechanism for this translation – it is simply assumed. Yet, by contrast, when people are brain-damaged, and one part of the brain takes over the functions of another, nobody automatically assumes a similar translation. In the end, Fine condemns such views as the modern descendant of discredited views such as phrenology and cranial capacity as determinants of behavior. She calls this assumption “neuro-sexism.”

Fine also provides the answer I had been waiting for to those well-meaning parents who insist that gender must be biological, because their children are showing stereotypical behavior. Fine’s answer is that the reinforcement of stereotypes is unconscious, even among those who try to avoid them. In fact, stereotyping is so prevalent that expectant parents who learn the sex of their offspring before birth immediately start referring to him or her in traditional masculine and feminine ways. Under these circumstances, a biological explanation is unwarranted – it simply fits into people’s conventional ways of thinking.

Currently, the biological determinists prevail in our cultural, along with their sub-text that there is not much we can do about gender differences. By contrast, Fine makes the case for environmental differences, which means that change is possible. The first time I read Delusions of Grandeur, my reaction could be summarized as, “Finally!” and I continue to regard Fine as a voice of sanity. and scientific reasoning.

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“Yes means yes, and no means no – whatever we wear, wherever we go!”

These words have been chanted by feminists and their allies for decades. I’ve never doubted they described the way things should be, but I sometimes wondered if they described the way things are.

In other words, does the way a woman dress affect her chances of facing sexual or street harassment? A researched answer proved surprisingly hard to find.

Anecdotal evidence seems to support the feminist viewpoint. If you look, for example, at maps of reported incidents of street harassment, you sometimes find annotations about what women were wearing. Often, the women doing the reporting note that they were dressed in a sweat suit or a T-shirt and jeans. At times, they sound surprised, as though they expected to be untroubled in such clothes.

If they were surprised, they would hardly be alone. A web search quickly locates studies that show that a majority of both men and women believe a woman is in greater danger of harassment if she is wearing revealing clothing. In some countries, this belief can be strengthened by the association of such clothing with Western decadence and immorality, but it seems a world-wide assumption that few people care to examine.

But is the assumption true? That is harder to answer, although perhaps it would be easier if more academic research was open access. Probably not, however, given that few search results even sound as though they are relevant to the question, regardless of whether they are freely available for reading.

In fact, after searching for half an hour, I found only one accessible, relevant paper: Theresa M. Beiner’s “Sexy Dressing Revisited: Does Target Dress Play a Part in Sexual Harassment Cases?” There may be more, but it is well-worth summarizing (and reading in full if you’ve followed me this far).

Beiner begins by noting that American rules of evidence prohibit discussing how a woman dresses or acts in sexual harassment cases unless its use outweighs the danger of harm to the victim or is likely to incite prejudice. That may not sound very satisfactory, but, in practice, this means that such evidence is almost never introduced.

The two exceptions Beiner notes are extremes: in one, a victim wore a sign implying she would give blow jobs, and encouraged men to leave impressions of their hands in paint upon her back and buttocks, and, in another, a woman offered private lingerie displays. However, according to Beiner, “even in cases in which the evidence of the target’s dress was admitted, its impact was minimal in persuading trial judges that the plaintiff welcomed the harassment.”

What these practices suggest is that the American legal system (which is hardly a center of radicalism) is generally unconvinced that how a woman dresses or acts is relevant to sexual harassment – and, after all, those with experience with such cases should have a better idea than the majority of us.

However, the most interesting part of Beiner’s article is the last third. There, Beiner establishes a reason to believe that rapists and sexual harassers are on a continuum of behavior and personality, and turns to studies of rapists for insight into harassers.

According to the studies that Beiner cites, what rapists look for in victims is not revealing clothing at all. Instead, “rapists look for signs of passiveness and submissiveness.” Furthermore, not only can men accurately detect passiveness and submissiveness, but tend to regard attractive women as less submissive – and, while attraction is not synonymous with any particular style of dress, the two do have some connection. It might even be that revealingly dressed women intimidate rapists and harassers.

By contrast, passiveness and submissiveness, “studies suggest, are more likely to coincide with more body-concealing clothing.” Sexual harassment, she suggests, “appears to be triggered by power imbalances – the kind of imbalances that might well be triggered by target submissiveness.”

In other words, so far as clothing plays any role in who is targeted, it might actually be that concealing clothing is more dangerous.

As for why people are so quick to believe the opposite, Beiner offers two possible reasons. Both men and women, she says, may want to believe in a just world, where nothing happens to someone unless they deserve it. Possibly, too, they want to blame the victims so they can sustain an illusion of control. They would prefer to believe that if they don’t do certain things or go to certain areas, they will be safe.

“Sexy Dressing” is not definitive, but it does provide a logical argument about who is likely to be harassed. I’d need more convincing that concealing clothing might be dangerous, but, thanks to Beiner, I’m reasonably confident that revealing clothing is not a factor in harassment.

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Considering how anti-intellectual North Americans are, we show a curious eagerness to justify ourselves by mentioning science. Sometimes we mention science to make our ideas respectable, sometimes to make our prejudices seem true, and other times to dramatize our illnesses and fears, but we almost always do so in a way that shows that we know little about what we talking about.

Evoking science is, of course, a form of appeal to authority, one of the most basic forms of invalid argument. In former times, we might have appealed to God in the same way, but the debating tactic remains the same – by mentioning an unassailable authority, we hope to reinforce our positions while deflating any counter arguments.

Take, for example, many New Age beliefs and medical treatments. New Age practitioners frequently dismiss science as being narrow minded. Yet, when called upon to justify their own beliefs, almost all of them depend on a veneer of science.

Sometimes, they refer at second or third hand to scientists who seem closest to their beliefs, such as Carl Jung, or to discredited studies such as those that claimed to prove the power of prayer.

More often, though, New Agers fall back on pseudo-scientific jargon. By far the most common is to describe what they are doing as a transfer of energy, either from themselves to their clients, or from an inanimate object to a person. Since no trace of such energies has ever been found, at best the reference is a metaphor, but at worst it is simply wrong.

Personally, I’ve always thought that New Agers would do better to come into the Computer Age and talk about a transfer of information, which often can’t be expected to leave any detectable trace. But instead they remain bemired in vague recollections of Newtonian physics, and make dismissing their ideas all too easy.

In other cases, science is mentioned to reinforce prejudice. For example, sexism is often justified by an appeal to biology. If men’s and women’s brains are structured differently, for example, sexists will claim that the two sexes must have different capacities, as well – never mind that no one has ever shown that brain structure and capacity have any relation to one another.

If anything, the fact that the radically different brain structure of parrots does not keep them from having an intelligence at the lower end of the human scale suggests that the differences between male and female brain capacity are trivial or non-existent.

Similarly, many parents claim that behavioral differences between the sexes must be biological because, despite their best efforts, their children act in stereotyped ways. This idea is not only ridiculous in that any connection between our fixed ideas of masculinity or femininity and our DNA seems so remote as to be non-existent, but conveniently ignores the fact that stereotyped expectations are placed upon children from their birth.

In fact, when parents know the sex of their child before birth, they begin talking about the child in stereotyped terms. But the biological explanation sounds better than suggesting we are unaware of our own sexism, and has the added benefit of excusing us from any responsibility.

Science is also used to elevate our infirmities and insecurities. Like someone who has found a book of medical or psychological diagnosis, many of us like to exaggerate our conditions by claiming that we have a recognized condition. If we are always sleepy because we stay up until 2AM every morning, we decide – often without any expert diagnosis – that we have Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. If we are anxious, we have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. If we have react naturally in a stressful situation, then we have Impostor Syndrome.

By making these self-diagnoses, we make life harder for those who actually have the conditions we have claimed. After all, when people have heard enough spurious claims, they are less likely to believe in genuine ones, or give them any consideration. Through this verbal hypochondria, we create the impression that anyone who claims these conditions must be as insincere or as misguided as we are.

Just as importantly, by claiming a condition, we evade responsibility for doing anything about our behavior. For example, if we acknowledge that we have problems interacting with others socially, then society pressures us to try to improve. But if, like some computer programmers do, we insist that we have Asperger’s Syndrome, then we are freed of any obligation to act better. The fact that Asperger’s Syndrome might indicate that, while we are highly functional autistics, we might also be geniuses doesn’t hurt our self-esteem, either.

But the truth is, we are only being dishonest with ourselves. We are renaming our problems with a scientific name – not to gain understanding but so we can feel better about ourselves without having to do anything. At the very least, we are elevating our problems to a medical drama.

Even practicing scientists, or graduates with science degrees can use science in these ways. Historians of science are a minority, and few of us in any field have any clear idea of what constitutes scientific principles or practices. But the prestige of science! Of that we are all too aware, and we rush to claim it for our own petty reasons.

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If I talk or write long enough, I’ve concluded, I’m going to say accidentally something that I didn’t mean to say. I don’t mean that my words will suggest a double entendre, which nine times out of ten only causes everyone to laugh. I mean that what I say will have implications that I didn’t intend, or will be interpreted in a way that I never meant them. No matter how hard I try, sooner or later I’m going to slip and embarrass myself.

The first of these situations that I can recall happened shortly before Trish and I married. We were sitting with a mixture of friends and strangers in the pub at Simon Fraser University. Naturally, the talk turned to the possibility of children. I said that one of the reasons that I wanted to work from home after I graduated was that I thought that toddlers would benefit from having a parent at home.

I got up to get another round of drinks, and, when I returned, a woman who had arrived when I was speaking was blasting me for being a sexist. With Trish’s help, I managed to convince the woman that I was not talking about female social roles, but my own.

However, for the rest of the evening, my cheeks could have served as neon lights at the thought that anyone – even a stranger – could have imagined that I was expressing views so foreign to my actual ones.

Another cringe-worthy moment happened when I was teaching a first year composition class to a class with a large proportion of foreign students. I got on well with the class, and I often bantered with the students.

Just before the start of a class, I heard one Asian student complaining about staying up late the previous night to finish the assignment that was due that day. “Oh, you people have it easy,” I said.

By “you people,”I meant “students.” But as an awful silence fell and students started to stare at me, I realized that what people were hearing was “Asians.”

With nightmare visions of official accusations of racism scrabbling around in my head, I quickly added, “You students don’t know when you’re well off.” To my relief, everybody immediately relaxed, and the moment passed without ever being mentioned again. But after that, I was considerably more careful about what I said in class.

In fact, for a couple of decades I was successful enough in watching what I said that I managed to forget such incidences were possible. There was the time that I remarked, “small world,” to a dwarf I kept meeting at the elevators of the Skytrain, but I only realized what I had said afterward, and he didn’t seem to have taken my words as a joke at his expense.

Then, a few days ago, another one happened.

I had just finished a biography of Ada Lovelace, the first computer programmer and colleague of Charles Babbage. As you may know, she was the daughter of Lord Byron and Annabella Millbank. She was raised entirely by her mother, who fled Lord Byron’s sexual abuse and mental cruelties and divorced him.

I have always had a great deal of sympathy for Millbank. Any of Byron’s victims might be pitied, but as an infatuated innocent, Millbank must have suffered more than anyone else would have under his treatment.

However, after reading how Millbank continually tried to control her daughter, right to her dying day, I developed a strong distaste for her as well. Tweeting comments about the biography, I said, “I wonder if there were two sides to the divorce of Lord & Lady Byron.”

Shortly afterward, a colleague objected to the comment. My first reply was, “Not saying that Lady B. wasn’t right to divorce. Lord B. was impossible. But her treatment of Ada suggests she was a control freak.”

Another protest followed. I realized that, in attempting to express sympathy for Lovelace, I was minimizing Byron’s cruelties by suggesting that aggravating but commonplace behavior was just as bad.

I’ve done it again, I thought, and admitted that I’d been too flippant. Perhaps Millbank’s self-righteous evangelism would have been irksome to Byron and to many other men as well, but that can’t possibly justify his rapes and sadism – and, put that way, I had to agree that I had implied something I had never intended to say.

Later, I told the colleague that they were quite right to call me on the comment, and I believe the apology was accepted.

However, the embarrassment – the utter chagrin – lingers. I suppose three or four mistakes of this kind in as many decades isn’t the worst possible record. Some political leaders make as many slips in a single ten minute speech.

But the memories aren’t comfortable ones, all the same. Remembering them, I almost don’t want to write or speak at all. Like many writers, I’m overly-fond of sarcasm and flippancy, and, if I’m not careful, being pithy sometimes matters more to me than being accurate or thinking of implications. As a result, the possibility of another episode is always there.

But not speaking would be cowardly (to say nothing of impossible for someone like me). Anyway, I can imagine situations where silence could be as damning as speaking.

As a result, I’ve decided that, while I plan to watch what I say, some misunderstandings are inevitable. In fact, my determination to avoid them just might make me nervous enough that they become more common.

However, I have decided that, the next time I find myself in such a situation, I will explain what is happening as soon as possible. An apology is embarrassing in itself – but not nearly as embarrassing as being wrong, or branded in someone else’s mind as sexist or racist because of a few poorly chosen words.

Even with an apology, I suspect that some people will say that my original words are a Freudian slip that reveals what I really think. But I can only deal with my imperfections as best I can.

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Ever since the Vancouver Slutwalk a couple of weeks ago, I’ve been thinking about why society is so quick to blame victims for being sexually assaulted. I suppose that many people would attribute the tendency to sexism, and probably they wouldn’t be wrong. But discussion usually ends with that diagnosis, so it still leaves me wondering why.

Logic, of course, has nothing to do with this assignment of blame. Both anecdotal and statistical evidence make clear over and over, that what a woman wears has no correlation to how likely she is endure catcalls or face assaults. Whether a woman is wearing a baggy sweat suit or a mini-skirt and stilettos just doesn’t seem to affect her safety; if clothing did make a difference, then a niqab would be a sensible outfit.

So why is the idea that the victim is to blame so much a part of our culture?

Part of the reason may be that our modern industrial culture usually assumes that women are responsible for all forms of sexuality. Just as women are the ones supposed to be responsible for contraception, so they are assumed to be responsible for being assaulted. The fact that power is at least as important as sex in sexual assault is simply ignored.

But the main reason, I suspect, is connected to the middle-class perception of autonomy. Given the degree of comfort in technological society, middle-class, urban North Americans generally assume that they have complete control of their lives. This assumption is strengthened by the fact that life is so comfortable in our suburbs that many of us are well into our third or fourth decade before we personally encounter serious injury or death. That is why the September 11th attacks were so devastating in the US, even on the other side of the country – people were used to assuming that such violence could never happen so close to home.

In this shielded world view (which affects almost all North Americans, because middle-class values are the ones that the media mostly depicts), the first tendency when faced with a crime is to wonder what you (or the victim) could have done to avoid it. Assuming that wearing different clothes or that walking in a different part of town could have avoided the crime is a way to preserve the belief in autonomy in the face of overwhelming evidence that it is often false.

Faced with the details of a sexual assault, assuming that certain actions can prevent them may be more comforting than the truth that these incidents are random and largely outside anyone’s control. And from there, it would only be a short step to blaming the victim for not following the practices that are supposed to ensure safety.

Never mind that these practices are as useful as carrying a lucky rabbit’s foot. Perhaps psychologically, what matters is not so much whether the precautions work, but that believing in them helps preserve the illusion of autonomy.

Perhaps that is why, too, the victims are ostracized. Just as people who have been seriously hurt or lost someone close often find that friends expect them to get over their problems quickly and will drift away if they don’t, so a victim is shunned because they are living witnesses to the fact that our self-autonomy doesn’t exist. Only those who have seen enough of the randomness of the world to understand it are likely to stand by a victim, because no one else can understand their experience – and because, secretly, everyone else is afraid to see the illusion for what it is.

In other words, what I am suggesting is that blaming the victim is not just a matter of callousness or stereotyping. For some people, the assumption may simply be hiding the fear that something similar might happen to them.

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Last weekend, I had coffee with a woman I hadn’t seen in six months. Well, actually I had a milk shake and bagel, but you know what I mean: we were eating and drinking in a public place as an excuse to talk. She was unemployed, and the doubts she was having about herself demonstrated, very concretely, one of the reasons why feminism is still important.

This woman, you should understand, is someone who could only be called accomplished. When she was young, she not only traveled around the world by herself, but lived in the Middle East and Japan. She is a mainstay of one social advocacy group, and worked for poverty wages to set up another from scratch. At times, she assists a leading civic politician. Intelligent, occasionally rowdy, committed and well-read, she is very much the sort of person I would like to be like more often, but whose example I can only occasionally match (if that).

She was just back in town after three months away, and having trouble finding work. But, where a man would probably blame the economy and try harder, she was convincing herself that the fault was hers. She had been ousted from the group she set up by office politics, and had a reputation in some circles as overbearing and aggressive.

Having worked with her a couple of times, I am in the position to say that this reputation is in no way deserved. Yes, she is business-like when organization needs to be done. But she never gives needless orders, and the way that she always pitches in with whatever work needed doing is proof that she doesn’t let authority go to her head. If she were a man, you’d say she was a competent and efficient leader.

All the same, I know the gossip that circulates about her. More to the point, I know the type of people who spread the gossip. One that comes to mind (who probably isn’t the one you’re thinking of if you’re familiar with the situation I’m describing)  is a middle-aged man who compensates for living in his mother’s basement by trying to convince everyone how important he is. Another (who probably isn’t who you think, either) is a male geek with a soccer ball for a paunch who is always getting into arguments because nobody is as impressed with his views as he believes they should be.

Both are the sort of men who not only act as though they are single (even if they happen to be married), but give the impression of not having had a date in some time. They are men who are made profoundly uneasy by women, and feel threatened by any woman who does not value them at their own estimation, and who deals with them on her own terms.

Knowing those responsible for the woman’s reputation, I suggested that the problem was theirs, not hers. That was not just a bit of coffee shop philosophy, but literally true. The sort of men I describe are rarely in positions of influence – in fact, that is one of the reasons for their bitterness and for their envy of women who succeed.

But the woman I was talking to only said, “That would be easy to believe.” She went on to describe the difficulty of getting a recommendation from the group she had setup.

Realizing that I would not persuade her easily, I said no more on the subject, not even to mention that she was exaggerating the difficulties. Sometimes, people just want to articulate their worries, and don’t want to hear suggestions. As she went on to wonder if she had made the city unlivable for herself – obviously contemplating a move elsewhere – I realized that this was one of those times.

Inside, though, I was full of indignation on her behalf. Nearly forty years after feminism’s second wave began, this smart and independent woman was blaming herself – never mind that the only alternative was to conform and to hide her talents and kowtow to those whose only claim to superiority was their sex. How dare those petty-minded men take out their own insecurities in spiteful whispers against her? And how stupid are we as a culture, that we raise such obstacles against the capable, solely because they happen to be female?

For all the progress of the last few decades, the woman I was talking to, despite her abilities, had been so worn down by the gossip about her that she was assuming blame in exactly the stereotypical way that women are supposed to do. Nor is she the first capable women whom I have seen act in this way.

Often, of course, feminism is about helping the helpless, from the working mother who needs day care to the victim of abuse. However, it seems to me that feminism is also about enabling the talented, about making sure that talents aren’t crippled by an agony of frustration by the roles that women are still expected to play.

Yet, at that moment, all I could do was provide a sympathetic ear. And let me tell you, I didn’t feel like I was doing nearly enough.

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Sometimes when I have a spare moment, I browse the Geek Feminism web site. Often, it doesn’t tell me anything I don’t already know, but it almost always gives details that help to broaden my understanding. However, one issue caught me completely by surprise: the verbal and physical intimidation and abuse of women on the street.

My first reaction to evidence like a Google map of where one blogger had been harassed in San Francisco was disbelief. For the short period the map covered, it showed at least daily incidents, sometimes more.Catcalling, staring and sizing up, unwelcome innuendo and sexual invitations, being forced off the sidewalk and otherwise physically threatened — if you can imagine a petty piece of nastiness, it was described in the first hand accounts that I read, and I wanted to disbelieve it. Could such behavior really be so prevalent?

But the comments whenever someone blogs about this issue and the responses of various women I know rapidly convinced me that, if any hyperbole existed in the accounts, it was not enough to change the basic truth. The degree and frequency might vary from city to city, or from woman to woman depending on what they were prepared to endure, but such things really were a common part of many women’s lives.

Needless to say, I was shocked. But I was also left feeling naïve and wondering how I could have missed this basic fact.

So much, I thought for the powers of observation on which I pride myself. How could I have missed something so obvious?

Part of the reason, I suppose, is the widespread assumption during my teen years that such actions were disappearing as they were denounced by the second wave of feminism. They seemed then to be a remnant of a dying set of social norms. Cheering the change, I had unconsciously assumed what I wanted to be true – that no modern man would find this type of abuse acceptable behavior. I should have known better, considering how much the culture has changed since my teen years, but somehow I didn’t

Another reason for my ignorance may be that many of these actions apparently take place where no witnesses are about. The type of man who would accost a woman on the street would not want witnesses, especially another man, who might respond aggressively.

Of course, some men in groups also make life difficult to passing women, but I wouldn’t see that, either, because I rarely hang out in all-male groups, and wouldn’t linger in one that would find amusement in making women miserable and uncomfortable.

Or so I would like to think, anyway – a revelation of this kind leaves me wondering if I would know whether friends acted this way or not.

However, I suspect that the main reason I never imagined the extent of this behavior is that it is utterly removed from what I would consider proper behavior.

It’s not that I don’t notice attractive women. Like most men and women, I am well aware when I am in the vicinity of a good-looking person of the gender that I’m attracted to – it’s just that I consider it rude to impose my passing interest on them. I can easily imagine how little I would welcome such attention intruding upon me and my concerns, so I don’t inflict mine on others.

Instead, I observe and appreciate quietly, and without obvious or extraordinary efforts to do so. To do otherwise would be a form of rudeness, like stepping too far into someone’s personal space or touching them unnecessarily. To call out on the street, or to deliberately make someone uncomfortable just wouldn’t occur to me.

I suppose I am guilty of egocentricity – of assuming unconsciously that the way I ordered my daily life was the way that everybody did. Could I have failed to see this kind of abuse going on around me simply because I did not think to look for it? Worse – was there ever a time when I could have done something against the abuse, if only stood and glared, but didn’t because I didn’t notice what was going on? I can only hope not, but the possibility seems all too likely.

I’m left feeling appalled and humbled – and worrying what else is going on around me that my expectations and assumptions leave me oblivious about.

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I know that many men are more obsessed with gender stereotypes than I am. However, I have a renewed appreciation of how crippling such obsessions can be after reading a comment left last week on my Linux Pro Magazine blog.

The comment was placed on a blog entry about the gap between Linux Fund’s intentions to produce an anti-harassment policy and its reputation and recent statements. It was not a direct response to any of the issues raised in the blog entry, but a reaction to the fact that I had written about such a topic at all.

“You are desperately in need of an intervention, Mr. Byfield,” the comment read. “Your self-hatred and conditioned sense of male-inferiority are obvious. I would suggest you spend some time reading _____, a site that exposes the fraud of ‘misogyny’ while exposing the very real sexism, misandry, that is poisoning and destroying Western Civilization.”

I’ve left out the site’s name and URL, since I have no wish to promote it.

I replied that, contrary to this statement, I was quite comfortable with myself, and had enough self-confidence not to find feminist goals a threat. I also said I would add this comment to the Abuse page of my personal web site. This dismissal produced a second message (which I did not post) denouncing me as a “neutered male” and denying any intention to abuse.

These comments were so mis-directed that my first response was a good, long laugh – and that’s something that I don’t do very often when I’m alone. But the only logical conclusion I could reach was that the name hurling was supposed to sting me into action. Apparently, male stereotypes are such a preoccupation for the sender that he could not conceive of a man who would not respond to them. The idea that his comments were so absurd that I refused to take them seriously never seems to have occurred to him – so much so that, in his second comment, he could only repeat himself in stronger terms, and not deal at all with the fact that I found his comments humorous.

Self-hating? Feelings of inferiority? Me? If the people who dislike me were to categorize my faults, I assure you that neither would be on the list.

But, then, anyone who could toss such adjectives around then deny that they were designed to insult shows such a lack of self-perspective that I could hardly expect them to understand that someone might think differently from them. However, no doubt he would claim that he was simply telling the truth.

Perhaps, too, like many fanatics, he imagined that I had never encountered his arguments. Once I went to the site he suggested, the truth of the comments on it would be so self-evident that I would immediately reverse my position. The fact that I had read male supremacists as well as feminists (just as I had theologians and atheists, anarchists and fascists) and found the male supremacists wanting in logic and powers of observation never seems to have occurred to him.

Possible proof of this perspective is that the sender described the essays on the site as well-argued and insightful. (The teacher in me longs to explain that, just because you agree with a statement does not make it well-expressed or well-argued, but, judging from his comments, this distinction would probably be too subtle for him.)

Still, curiosity and ingrained fairness made me look through the site. It was all that I had expected, and then some. Anger, hatred, paranoia, poorly-defined grievances, even worse-argued claims – it was all there. Sometimes, this mixture was subdued into a thin semblance of rational thought, and other times it approached incoherence, but it was never completely absent.

I came away marveling at the self-inflicted perversity of the writers, and an impression of baffled grievance that the degree of privilege they would like to have become accustomed to was not unquestioningly theirs (which brings up another point: why do modern reactionaries always claim to be victims – a point of view they profess to despise in their opponents?).

I also wanted to rinse my brain – repeatedly, with bleach. The degree of hatred expressed was so extreme and so unreasoning, so utterly lacking in any generosity of spirit that I was never even remotely tempted to alter my views. Instead, I was left with the belief that every term of abused hurled at me was a projection of male supremacists’ own insecurities. In fact, male supremacists themselves are by far the strongest argument against their own views.

I’m still not convinced that we need gender roles of any sort in modern industrial society. However, if we must have them, the best suggestion I’ve heard for men comes from Susan Faludi’s Stiffed!, which points out that all male groups from sailors to industrial workers have an unspoken tradition of older men teaching younger ones what they need to survive. That would be a role in which a man could take justified pride.

No doubt more is needed, but one thing is sure: we won’t find healthy male roles for those who need them by retreating into a fantasy of a past of privilege. In the end, my strongest impression was that those writing for the site were ineffectual losers, more ready to find scapegoats in feminism than to take control of their own lives – an attitude, I can’t help pointing out that, by their own standards, is as unmanly as they could get.

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