Gender

Sexual Harassment and the Single Story

Sexual harassment allegations continue to dominate the news. I applaud the social movement to change our culture on this issue, but there is something in our national discourse that has been troubling me.

The individual tales of bad behavior are being merged into one story. There is no distinction between transgressions, whether they are isolated or part of a pattern, whether with adults or people under age, whether in a social setting or at work, whether a rebuff was followed by retaliation or not, whether it was decades ago or ongoing, whether the accusation has been carefully vetted or is just something someone posted on social media with a MeToo hashtag. All transgressions are equal, none can be examined deeply without accusations of victim blaming, and the only remedy on offer is firing the perpetrator and permanent ostracization.

The noted scholar Mary Beard wrote in the Times Literary Supplement that she is “conflicted” on the issue of public shamings.

When I say ‘conflicted’ I mean exactly that. Part of me feels that the majority of the allegations that have followed since the Harvey Weinstein cases are probably true, and — in the absence of any real likelihood of criminal prosecutions  (even in cases where that would be a technical possibility) — a bit of public naming and shaming might be the best way of changing the culture on this (and, as I said before, changing the culture in ordinary workplaces as much as in celebrity culture).

But another part of me feels that some of these allegations are probably not true (or at least there is another side to them) — and that no newspaper account is ever going to let us judge which those (albeit minority) cases are. And those innocents have no way  of putting their side of it (at least a legal trial allows you to do that).

In a recent article in Jezebel, Stassa Edwards argues against appeals to due process or any talk of redemption for the accused. She makes the case that such talk is an attempt to sweep the problem under the rug and to return to a comfortable status quo. Certainly such arguments can be, but they are not by definition, and we should not be so quick to dismiss the idea of giving the accused a fair hearing. We need to be especially careful precisely in cases where emotions and stakes are high.

Edwards argues against a New Yorker piece by Masha Gessen, who she quotes here:

“The affirmative-consent and preponderance-of-the-evidence regimes shift the burden of proof from the accuser to the accused, eliminating the presumption of innocence,” she writes, never pausing to consider that jail, suspension or expulsion from school, or job loss are hardly synonymous, or that their long-term repercussions are the same.

Indeed, jail and losing a job are not the same. But we should not be too quick to minimize the impact of social shaming, loss of career and personal identity.

Jon Ronson, who studied those who have been publicly shamed found that years later, the shamers had gone on with their lives and assumed the forgotten targets of their public shamings had too. They’d just lost a job, what’s the big deal? But, he reported, “…we want to think they’re fine, but they’re not fine. The people I met were mangled.”

So “only a job” is not a good excuse to abandon the presumption of innocence. If you were accused of something, you would want an opportunity to respond and be heard whether in court or in the court of public opinion– whether the stakes were jail or losing your job or simply a loss of face, wouldn’t you?

Are we not sophisticated enough to hold these two thoughts at once: that these offenses represent a serious, far-reaching, systemic problem and that we need to be fair to the people who are accused as well as the accusers?

Those who have, at some period in our lives, experienced unwanted sexual advances and want change, should be the most concerned with giving the accused a fair shake. Exaggerating and conflating undermine our own efforts by making us easy to dismiss. Every example of over-zealousness provides an excuse for someone to say the problem doesn’t really exist.

We are a culture that uses celebrities as symbols in our shared mythology, much as we once told tales of the gods. Politicians and film stars are a common point of reference to talk about our dreams, aspirations and values. So the celebrity who transgresses is shunned in order to demonstrate our cultural values. Symbolically, if Louis CK’s actions are forgivable, then so are your wretched boss’s, and therefore we cannot yield.

Nor do we welcome much nuance if it disturbs the important process of myth-making. If individual cases do not quite fit the pattern, they are sometimes made to. Let me give you an example. I believe Anthony Rapp’s accusation against Kevin Spacey. Spacey did not deny it. What was outrageous in that case was Rapp’s age– 14 at the time Spacey allegedly made a move on him.

Since then, many additional accounts of bad behavior have been levied against Spacey, but they have mostly been by adults, although you would be forgiven for not noticing that. To be clear here, I am not dismissing any of the accusations against Spacey here or arguing that they are not truthful or serious. I simply wish to make a point about how the various cases have been synthesized in the reporting to create a seamless narrative.

Consider this passage in a USA Today article on another Spacey accuser. I have edited it to remove the name and some identifying information of the accuser:

It was July in New York and [he] was just 27, in his first major job out of college [at a theater where] he was running the fledgling film program. He was in his office one day, phone in hand, when Spacey walked in and sat down at an empty desk.

 [He] knew who [Spacey] was. Then 22, Spacey was an up-and-coming actor, playing a minor role in Henry IV Part 1, according to records.

The narrator goes on to report that Spacey groped him and became angry when he was rebuffed.

The article goes on “… he was shocked, then freaked out. Would Spacey get him fired?”

I removed the accuser’s name because I do not want to make this about him or to make it appear I am trying to minimize his experience or call his story into question. That is not my point. Rather, I have some questions on how USA Today chose to relate his story.

If you scanned the article quickly, you’d be forgiven for not noticing a few things. The victim is described as being “just 27.” The word “just” emphasizes his youth, although 27 is an adult in anyone’s book.  Spacey’s age does not earn a “just” even though– take note– he was five years younger than the other man. Note also that Spacey is described as an “up-and-coming” actor. This makes him sound notable. This is in contrast to the language used to describe the 27-year-old’s job: his first out of college, a fledgling program.

Other language could have been used to describe an actor who was not-yet-famous and who had only managed to land a “minor role” in a Shakespeare production. You might go so far as to call him a “struggling actor.”

It is not clear whether the victim’s concerns about being fired were his own. They were not presented in the form of a direct quotation. Was this 27 year old, who ran the film program at the theater really worried that a 22 year-old, then-unknown actor in a minor (easy to recast) role would get him fired? Was that what was on his mind? Or did he simply describe behavior that he found notably aggressive and the reporter speculated on his feelings? Perhaps the writer decided that a story of an awkward and unpleasant sexual advance between two co-workers (in which the person who made the advance arguably had lower status) did not fit the growing narrative of male abuses of power well enough.

These stories get reported under headlines saying that “a new accuser” has appeared.  Six out of ten people share news stories having only read the headline, which means most people will naturally assume that the stories that follow are more of the same even if there are important differences. To people who see headlines flashed across their newsfeeds, they are all Anthony Rapps.

A person does not have to be innocent to be a scapegoat. A scapegoat is someone who is made to carry the sins of others, to take on the burden of punishment to absolve an entire group. We use our celebrities this way, as symbols. We have always used them this way. They deserve it, we feel, because they courted fame in the first place. They get to be treated as small gods, and when they fall, they take on the sins of all who shared their transgressions.

But celebrities are just people. They should be held accountable for their actions in proportion to their severity, not in proportion to the severity of the social problem as a whole. Each accuser should be listened to and judged on the basis of her own story, not as a representative of the collective sufferings of women.

Edwards writes “what’s at issue here is civil rights—freedom from discrimination in the form of harassment because of gender or sex.”

She is right. Civil rights is the issue.

We can’t be champions of civil rights without having a concern for fair treatment of both the accused and the accuser.

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“Me Too” Stories and Thoughts on “Vulnerability”

The “Me Too” campaign is about abuses of power in the workplace, but it brought an episode from my past to mind.

In France they have a word for a man who takes sexual pleasure in rubbing against people in public places. He’s called a frotteur. I didn’t know that when I was sixteen.

I was an exchange student in high school. I lived in a village outside of Paris. It was a short train ride and a metro line or two to get to my favorite place, an English-language bookstore on the Rue de Rivoli. I often went into the city on my own, and bought Smash Hits Magazine to look at pictures of Simon Le Bon and INXS.

One day I was in the metro, riding back to the train station, when a man took the handrail beside my seat. He stood close, and it seemed odd because the car was not that crowded. There was someone in the seat beside me, and I inched closer to him to make room for the standing stranger. As the car began to move, I felt him rubbing against me. My first thought was that it was the motion of the train that was causing him to bump me, and I scooted closer to my neighbor’s lap. The man in the aisle continued to rub against me, and I soon realized it had nothing to do with the motion of the train. He moved in waves, emphasizing the motion of his pelvis. I had never had sex, but I understood the motion was sexual. I curled inward towards the man on my other side, catching a glimpse of the stranger out of the corner of my eye. He had a sickening, satisfied grin on his face.

My stop was a ways down the line, but as soon as the car stopped moving I bolted for the door and ran to another line. I didn’t know where I was going– just away. As the next train arrived at the platform, the man came around the corner. I got onto one of the cars, hoping he had not seen me, but he followed, still grinning. I took a seat and began to cry. The man looked at me, surprised. He seems to have believed that I was enjoying his game. When he saw my tears, thankfully, he got off the train and left me to find my way back to my route in peace.

I never told anyone about the incident, but not for the reasons you might think. It was shocking, upsetting and gross but I did not feel humiliated or ashamed. I knew the pervert was the one with the problem, not me. I was just taking my train home. The reason I kept it secret was that I was afraid that if I told anyone I would not be allowed to go to the city by myself any more, which was something I liked doing.  I was afraid that because I had been treated in an abusive manner I would lose my freedom.

“In our society, we socialize women to be aware of threats, especially from strangers,” wrote Sally Raskoff in the Everyday Sociology blog. “Girls are kept closer than boys when they are playing outside. Women don’t tend to go out alone at night, and there are a host of other protective behaviors that constrain what they do on a daily basis. We are taught these things to stay safe. In general, men don’t learn these things and they don’t grow up thinking about how safe they are at any given moment.”

How often have we heard the expression “vulnerable women and children.”  We’re trained to think of ourselves as at risk, and that it is our primary duty to stay safe.

When we are victims, we are often blamed for not doing enough to protect ourselves. Why were you in that neighborhood? Why did you go with him after midnight? Why were you wearing that dress?

I once told a boyfriend about an unwanted advance I had received after having a couple of drinks with some friends and he said, “You silly girl.” (I didn’t stay with him long.)

These questions are posed by people who want to believe that if they do the right things violence will never happen to them. Avoid drinking with male friends. Avoid drinking. Avoid going out on your own. Avoid being out at night.

School authorities think they have to train girls to dress modestly. Girls are vulnerable and boys cannot be controlled.

Jennifer Drew had this to say on the British feminist site The F Word:

There is a buzzword circulating the legal, media and societal systems, and it is being used to deflect attention away from male accountability and responsibility for men’s violence against women and girls. What is this word? Why ‘vulnerability’, and we increasingly hear this word being used by judges when sentencing men convicted of raping or murdering women and girls. Prosecution council too depicts female victims of male violence as ‘vulnerable’ creatures. The media, politicians and society in general are all claiming acts of male violence are ones perpetrated upon vulnerable women or girls. But rarely have I heard or read male victims of male portrayed as vulnerable victims…women survivors of male violence are victims of the crimes these misogynist males commit. Therein lies the difference – not powerless victims but victims of crimes men commit against them…

This is something different from how we treat men and risk. If, for example, a young man decided to take a year off after high school and drive around South America on his own, he would be taking a risk. If something bad happened to him on that trip, it would be seen as unfortunate, maybe tragic, but it would be much less likely that he would be asked in an accusatory tone “Well, why did you go to that South American village anyway?”

Young men are encouraged to go on adventures, and the stories of some of their foolhardy and ill-fated adventures become dramas. Women, on the other hand, in the same period of life when men are being encouraged to take risks and experience the world, are constantly reminded of our vulnerability. The orientation at my college dorm was almost entirely about not getting raped.

This is all a great advantage to men when it comes to careers and life experience. They work on fishing trawlers, hitchhike across Europe, go mountain climbing. They have great stories to tell and our culture values them as more interesting people. They’re the subject of most of our fiction. They’re who we think of when we imagine people who do things.

You may be interested to learn that men are more likely than women to be victims in every category except for sexual assault. So you could say that with the exception of one particular category of violence, men are more vulnerable than women.

Sally Raskoff analyzed the threat of sexual violence and she concluded:

…Adult males are much more likely to be raped or assaulted by strangers while women’s threat comes primarily from their intimate partners. Considering this data, do we socialize men and women appropriately?

If we socialize girls and women to suspect strangers and people outside their families, does that work effectively to protect them since most of the real threat comes from people they know?

If we socialize boys and men to assume they are safe from outside threats, are they adequately prepared to protect themselves in childhood and adolescence from people they know and from strangers when they are adults?

 

I kept my secret. I’m sorry that I felt I had to stay silent to protect my own freedom, but I am glad that I didn’t miss out on more afternoons in Paris.

What Does a Writer Look Like?

Today GQ posted a feature on “How to Dress Like a Writer.” My answer: stay in your pajamas all day. You are an introvert with a home office. GQ took a more dapper approach. Now, GQ is a men’s fashion magazine. So it would be unfair of me to point out the well-dressed writers they featured were all men. I came to the story through a side door and so I was struck by the absence of women before I realized what the publication was.  But this led me to wonder: when the average person hears the word “writer” what comes to mind?

I have written about gender and trends in publishing here in the past, so I won’t look up and link all the articles again, but research has shown that women read more than men, women make up the vast majority of publishing professionals, and this has been true for ages. In the Victorian era, female writers outsold their male counterparts by a comfortable margin.

Given all of this, you might expect the image that comes to mind when you say “writer” to be a woman. I’m guessing, however, that it is not. Your picture was probably more Ernest Hemmingway or Stephen King than Jane Austen or J.K. Rowling.

For even though women do more reading, and undoubtedly more writing, research shows books by male writers find a clearer path to publication, books that are seen as appealing to male readers are more likely to be published, to be taken seriously as literature and to get reviews. And even though female writers were more popular than male writers in the Victorian era, we have little historical memory of them. The serious writers studied in literature courses have overwhelmingly been male.

I did a little unscientific test to see what images the word “writer” evokes when not in the pages of a men’s fashion magazine. I typed “writer” into Google image search. Pictures of typewriters and fountain pens are the most common images associated with the term. More often than not, if there is a person in the picture, it is a man who is using the tool.

Writer at work

But the male images are not as overwhelmingly dominant as you might expect. At a quick glance my impression is that it is perhaps a 60/40 split of men to women. There was also one dog:

Boxer dog making note

What struck me more than the number of male images vs. female was the way male and female writers seem to be depicted. Here are three of the first images of women writers that came up in my search:

The women are in pastoral settings, getting inspiration from nature. Men are more likely to be shown in a professional setting, struggling over words at a typewriter in a book-filled office.

The overall impression I get from looking at these pictures is that writing is serious business for men, they labor and struggle over their text, whereas women write for pleasure and self-expression.

How does a writer dress? If he is a man, he dresses for the office and is correspondingly taken seriously as a professional. If she is a woman, she dresses for the beach or the forest, and probably carries a diary.

 

For more on initial assumptions about identity categories see my 2015 post What is an Identity?

To Throw Oneself, Continued

seductionI decided to test my theory that “to throw oneself at” is a gendered phrase– that a woman can “throw herself at” a man, but a man is rarely said to “throw himself at” a woman.

The Oxford English Dictionary includes the phrase “to throw oneself at” and it defines it as referring to a woman:

to throw oneself or be thrown at (a man), of a woman, to put herself or be put designedly in the way of, so as to invite the attention of; to throw oneself into the arms of, to become the wife or mistress of.

Here are some of the early appearances:

1789 H. More Lett. (1925) 127 The women all threw themselves at his head.

1871 E. A. Freeman Hist. Norman Conquest IV. xviii. 231 Their wives were throwing themselves into the arms of other men.

1891 Besant in J. M. Dixon Dict. Idiomatic Eng. Phrases (1891) 336 As for the girls, Claire, they just throw themselves at a man.

So women have been flinging themselves for a while.

When I did a search on Google Books of “threw herself at,” of the ten snippets that appeared, six used “threw herself” in the sense of making a sexual or romantic advance on a man. When I did a search of “threw himself at” none of the snippets used the phrase in that way.

I don’t have the means at my disposal to be as scientific as Blatt, but given the limits of my research, I think I can confirm my hypothesis for the purposes of this blog.

I mentioned in my previous post that she “threw herself at him” has a different connotation and feeling than he “made a pass at her.” A pass seems to be a sport metaphor. You throw the ball, and the other person can catch it or drop it.

As for the origin of “make a pass at” in this sense, The OED didn’t have a lot to say, only noting that it is an Americanism and quoting Dorothy Parker’s famous “Boys don’t make passes at girls who wear glasses” from 1925 as its first use in print.

This was probably not the first use of the phrase, Parker assumed her readers would know what she meant. It is interesting, however, that a man making a pass at a woman was, in its first recorded appearance in print, presented as desirable.

Men don’t welcome having a woman “throw herself” at him. In the examples in my limited and unscientific sample of Google books, it is most often used by a man as an excuse to his wife in order to minimize his responsibility in an affair. Inherent in the notion of “throwing oneself” is that it is at least undignified and humorous, if not outright shameful and humiliating. It is not worthy of a woman to “put herself designedly in the way of” a man. If she does, it is really not the man’s fault if he yields to the temptation, and anyway the woman is no threat because she is obviously not the kind of woman he would want to have a relationship with. Boys don’t make passes at girls who wear glasses, but Girls who make passes are embarrassing asses.

Cue up a chorus of The Monkees Cuddly Toy…

 

 

 

 

 

“Making a Pass” vs. “Throwing Oneself At”

I’ve been reading Nabokov’s Favorite Word is Mauve by Ben Blatt. The book takes a statistician’s view of literature. One of the chapters was on gender difference. There are a number of common words that computer analysis can use to determine whether a text was written by a man or a woman.  For whatever reason (Blatt does not hazard a guess) male writers use “this” more often than female writers, and women use “because” more often than men.

Blatt discovered, not surprisingly, “that in books by female authors, men and women are described at close to equal rates. Yet male authors include women less than half as often as they write about men… Classic literature by men is about men by a quantifiable and overwhelming margin. Classic literature by women is about women more than men, but it’s within a short distance of an even split.”

Blatt went further, examining the words that authors use when describing characters of different genders. An interesting example was the word “scream.”

In the top 100 classic literature books, a form of scream appears after the word he or she a total of 158 times… “If we look at all the instances where male writers used the word scream, it is used twice as often after she than he. In other words, male writers make their female characters scream more often than their male characters. But that’s not enough to say that male authors have gone rogue. For if you look at the use of scream by female authors, the result holds at an almost identical rate. In other words, female writers also make their female characters scream more often than their male characters.”

Male characters do not scream. They shout.

Below are the top five words, like screamed, that are used most often in classic literature to describe women over men. Words Most Likely to Be Found as “She _________” as Opposed to “He _________” 1. Shivered 2. Wept 3. Murmured 4. Screamed 5. Married And here are the top five words, like grinned, that are used most often in classic literature to describe men over women. Words Most Likely to Be Found as “He _________” as Opposed to “She _________” 1. Muttered 2. Grinned 3. Shouted 4. Chuckled 5. Killed Women murmur yet men mutter. Men shout; women scream. Women neither grin nor chuckle, but smile is more likely to follow she. Each of these trends holds across recent popular and literary fiction…

And then there is interrupted.

It’s not the most common word in any writer’s works, but especially in classic literature it is used much more commonly in reference to female characters when the author is male.

I don’t have access to Blatt’s computer programs but I have a couple of phrases I would like to test. The expression “making a pass at” versus “to throw oneself at someone.”

Both expressions connote someone who is making a sexual advance toward someone else. To throw oneself is more degrading than to make a pass, and it carries a greater connotation that the object is not interested– although either a pass or throwing oneself at someone could end with either rejection or sex. If you were to run the numbers, I have a strong suspicion that they would show that “throwing oneself” is something attributed to women and “making a pass” is more often attributed to men. I suspect that an analysis of how these two phrases are used could be quite revealing.

The Most Adorable Way to Call Someone A Slut

I used to sing along to the Monkees “Cuddly Toy” when I was a little girl. It was not until years later that I realized that this song has got to be the most charming and adorable bit of slut shaming ever set to music.

It’s joined in the Monkees canon by loose-woman anthems “She Hangs Out” and “Star Collector,” all of which were sung by cute-as-a-button Davy Jones.  Interestingly, it also fell to Jones to make a song about a lack of commitment sound like a love song.

I wanna be free
Don’t say you love me, say you like me
But when I need you beside me
Stay close enough to guide me
Confide in me, whoa-oh-oh

I wanna hold your hand
Walk along the sand
Laughing in the sun
Always having fun
Doing all those things
Without any strings to tie me down
I wanna be free

In other words, if I’m understanding this right, he wants her to be there for him whenever he needs her, but when he’s not in the mood for her, she should respect his space and not try to tie him down, man.

When you’re a kid you learn by rote in school. You recite the Pledge of Allegiance even though you don’t know what the word “allegiance” means. The idea is that the refrain will lodge in your brain and become part of your thoughts.

When I sang along to these tunes was I assimilating their messages? If you are too promiscuous you can’t expect to be loved and if you’re a serious person you will be there for a man when he needs you, but not pressure him too much to return the favor.

 

“Religious Liberty”

For some reason, I don’t know why, I am on the e-mail list for the National Organization for Marriage, the organization that opposes same-sex marriage. I know I did not sign up, and I can only assume someone else signed me up to influence my opinion?

In any case, today I decided to click through and take a look at a petition they are circulating asking their members to contact Jeff Sessions and encourage him “to protect the religious liberty rights of individuals and groups who hold traditional viewpoints on marriage, life, gender and similar issues.”

Now, the phrase “religious liberty rights” on its face would seem to mean the right of people to practice their religion without the government taking sides. So you can worship God as a literal judge who sits in the heavens, while I am free to “affirm and promote the interconnected web of life of which we are all a part.” You can practice religion by wearing a specific costume and doing a particular dance, and I can practice by reciting tales of my ancestors or praying five times a day.

But what this petition is requesting is not liberty in this sense, rather it is asking for the government to take sides and protect a specific set of religious beliefs and practices– they don’t want to protect everyone’s liberty, just the liberty “of individuals and groups who hold traditional viewpoints…” (If you would like to read my views on this notion of “tradition,” incidentally, do a search on that word, and you’ll find a number of old posts.)

This wording aside, an argument could be made that those who created the petition are not asking for their religion to be given preference over others. Fundamentalist Christians who take the Bible literally are a minority religion, after all, in spite of their loud voices. Christians in general make up almost 80% of our population, but most are not Fundamentalists. As I have mentioned here before, a poll done by a Christian organization showed that only 30% of self-identified Christians approach the Bible as the literal and inerrant word of God. So the case can be made that a religious minority is asking to be excused from certain aspects of civil society, as a pacifist Quaker might ask to be excused from participating in war. They will not impose their faith on others if we agree not to impose our values on them.

This point of view, however, is undercut by some of the comments posted on the petition’s page. The very first commenter expresses his or her concern that “My fear is that an Executive Order would also likely have to provide ‘religious protections’ to other religious groups…” This person was especially worried about the “Big Love” scenario, in which fundamentalist Mormons and Muslims would push for plural marriage.  (Plural marriage is, as it happens, quite well represented in the Bible.)

The result of the nightmare scenario of giving other religious groups the same freedom to opt out of mainstream law and practice is clear to the poster.  Plural marriage would be accepted and “the Muslims will be breeding like rats on the public dole until they gain enough numbers to subvert the US into an Islamic Republic under Shariah!” (They’re going to have to get busy, as Muslims currently make up .8 percent of the U.S. population.)

This should make it clear enough that the petition is not really about “liberty.” A second poster agreed that what we really need to do is to “start asserting our right to keep all people who do not want to assimilate to our way of life out of this country.”

Using the language of individualism and choice, these posters are asking to have their traditions, and only their traditions, enforced. They don’t want to just be left alone to practice their minority religion in peace, they want those of us who are not practitioners to assimilate or get out. They are asking for the right to define the “real America” as people like them.