Posts Tagged ‘misogyny’

“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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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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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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