Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Rape Shield Law-- or, Who Wouldn't Want to be Force-Fed a Chocolate Cake?

Now, I might attack the implementation or execution of rape laws in the US, but there's some times when I have to be reminded that they're there for a reason. And hey, what's Britain good for if not a damn tasty cup o' tea and a reminder about the importance of the rape shield law?

The rape shield law protects women in the good ol' US of A (and to an extent, in Canada) from having their reputations, which were determined by the opinions of peers, or previous sexual endeavors-- even in the realm of fantasy-- used to invalidate rape charges in court. This makes sense. A prostitute walking home after a night out can still get knocked over the head, dragged into an alleyway and viciously raped. A young woman who wonders what it would be like to have sex with a white man, since she's already had sex with black and Asian men, does not want any and all white men to stick it in her. And a woman who's had the gall to mention that she fantasizes about group sex with strangers does not automatically consent to have any random group of strange men forcibly spring said group sex upon her without warning or chance to consent. That, my friends, is called rape.

The woman in question met one of her rapists on MSN, chatted with him, presumably told him about her group sex fantasy, and then agreed to meet him to have sex with him. Singular. Consenting to have sex with one person does not include consent to have sex with more than one.

Let's take a moment and consider how ridiculous this is. Say Alice is talking with her friend Bob, who she's never met in real life, over the Internet about chocolate cake. "I say!" she tells Bob (because she is in Britain). "Chocolate cake is so delicious. If I had a chocolate cake, I would eat it all up right now. My diet just goes out the window when I think about cake. Mm, chocolate cake, how verily I fantasize of you!" Bob mentions that he has some cake over at his place, and she's welcome to come eat it. "Oh yes!" she says. "I would love to come over and have a piece of your cake. Where do you live again?" Bob tells her and she heads over. In the meantime, Bob has pulled together four of his friends. "Hey guys," he says. "There's this chick coming over and she said she fantasizes about eating a whole chocolate cake. Let's make her dream come true." They all agree. When she arrives, they force-feed her the whole cake.

Now here comes the question: (T/F) Alice consented to eating Bob's whole cake by admitting that she enjoys chocolate cake and fantasizes about having a whole cake to herself.

Of course not, right? We recognize that just because you are hungry and like cake does not mean that you want to eat a whole cake right now. And, frankly, to force someone to eat a whole cake without warning can have dangerous health consequences. Why do we get this with cake and not with sex? Just because you enjoy sex doesn't mean that you want it right now, just because you have a fantasy doesn't mean you want to act it out with any and everyone at any and everytime. Doing so can have dangerous health consequences, including STDs and pregnancy, in addition to emotional trauma.

Diligent readers will have noticed that whenever I mention sex I've been referring to the rapists as male and the victims as female, both in my hypothetical still-a-rapes and the cake story. I'd like to point out that the Sluts Love All Sex fallacy is a large part of why people don't take male rape victims seriously when they come forward. Since all men want sex all the time, how can you rape a man?

There's an excellent article at The Curvature on this topic. For a more recent example, last April a man attempted to rob a hair salon in a small town in Russia. The (female) proprietor of the place knocked him down, tied him up in the utility room, and raped him for three days- enough to injure his genitals. Sounds pretty gruesome, right? Look at the comments. Almost all of them are "I don't believe this could happen for a minute" or "What a lucky guy-- I wish I were in his shoes!" How could this guy not want to be raped? He is a man, after all, and we know how they are.

I mean, really, if you like chocolate cake, you should be thankful to get it whenever you do.

We really need to stop characterizing human sexuality as a big "ON/OFF" switch. Just because you are turned "ON" by some circumstance, like meeting a (singular) person for sex or canoodling in a backseat, does not mean you are "ON" to have sex with four of their friends. And just because you have had anonymous sex in the past, fantasize about sex, wear revealing clothes, or are a man does not automatically flip your switch to "ON" either. Whatever happened to nuanced conversations about sexuality and consent? Oh, right, we're not there yet.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Misandry in the New York Times

So I was reading the New York Times Magazine, as I am wont to do of a Sunday afternoon, when I came across this interview with the president of Liberia. This being the issue of the Times Magazine devoted to women's rights, I suppose blatant misandry was to be expected.

I'd like to take a moment to point out to you just how pervasive these ideas about the "nature" of men as aggressive and hostile are: they can be published in a news source like the New York Times with nary an eye batted. A direct quote, with President Sirleaf's responses in italics:

Yes, there's that recent case in Phoenix, Ariz., where an 8-year-old Liberian refugee was raped by four Liberian boys, only to have her parents initially shut her out of the house.
We have asked our ambassador to work with the family to see that the child is put in some protective shelter for a while. Also, we think the boys need counseling because during the years of war, morality and discipline and legality all broke down. It made these young people men before their time.

What does that say about the inherent character of men?
I just think that unless you have that cohesiveness in the family unit, the male character tends to become very dominant, repressive and insensitive. So much of this comes also from a lack of education. As more men become more educated and women get educated, the value system has to be more enhanced and the respect for human dignity and human life is made better.

Once you ask that question, you've answered it. Four war-torn boys perform a crime- four boys at the extremity of human ability to cope- and this is supposed to speak to the inherent character of men. Why the inherent character of men and not of people? Her parents, both male and female, shut her out. Does that speak to the inherent quality of parents? Of mothers? Of people?

I do have to give the president credit for pointing out both that the boys came from a horrific background themselves, and that the solution is education. Her responses to other questions indicates to me that her attitude towards the "character of men" is not that it is so much inherent as learned: she blames male insensitivity on a lack of cohesiveness in the family unit, and concedes that if women were given absolute power, over a long period of time they would "become men."

Still, this Deborah Solomon interviewer person is on my short list.

Monday, July 27, 2009

The "Problem" with Women's Magazines

The problem with women's magazines is not that they feed women double-talk about whether we should feel shame about our bodies. "Celebrate your cellulite! But quick, here's a cream to get rid of it!"

The problem with women's magazines is that they work. People devour these things. They love to be told they're ugly, they relish the idea of "quick fixes" to make them beautiful, and they love ripping apart celebrities for the crime of falling just short of perfect. Women's magazines wouldn't exist, let alone flourish, if people didn't want this stuff.

That's the disease. Women's magazines are the symptom.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Elementary Schools and the Modern Workplace: Food for Thought

Everyone knows about the wage gap, and everyone knows that it sucks. Some people know about the performance gap that's rising between boys and girls in schools, with more girls now graduating from high school, college, graduate school, and so on. Girls are also performing better on all sorts of aptitude tests as far back as elementary school. The question is: why?

I posit that the wage gap is in some part due to the actual structure of the standard workplace. Things that are rewarded include working fulltime (as opposed to part time), working overtime, not taking time off, and asking for pay raises. It evolved over many years in a male-dominated workforce, with men in positions of power, and as a result, it's not well-suited for people who don't behave in the same standard male way. For whatever reasons, be they social, biological or both, women are less likely to do these things that would raise their salaries than men are: they tend to value their time at home more, are more likely to call in sick, and tend to feel uncomfortable asking for pay raises. The system that is in place is ill-suited for women workers, and women workers are ill-suited for the system that is in place. (Note also that young women workers, before child-rearing age, actually make more than men nowadays in a lot of circumstances.)

Similarly, elementary schools are nowadays largely populated by women teachers. Encouraged behaviors include sitting still and quietly for long periods of time, learning things through worksheets and lecture rather than through labs and hands-on workshops, collaborating rather than competing, and so on. These are things that, for whatever reasons, are easier for little girls. Perhaps the gender gap in school performance and the gender gap in salary have similar roots? Some schools have already started examining this possibility. I have high hopes.

"Anti-feminist Bingo."

This is "anti-feminist bingo." When having a feminist conversation with someone who "just doesn't get it," or in other words does not agree with the author, you are supposed to whip out this card and check off all the statements that your opponent has said. It is my opinion that precisely this author's attitude that leads towards a lot of the statements on the anti-feminist bingo card. Let's take a gander:

Before we even get to the Bingo card, the author says: "If you're a man trying not to be an arsehole in feminist conversations, but you seem to find yourself floundering and can't figure out why, you might like to scrutinise your comments critically to see if some of these messages are inadvertently coming across."

Clearly only men can be arseholes in a feminist conversation, because women are imbued with a natural inclination towards being good feminists. We're all just so supportive of our sisters, always! This is why women in the office do much better when they don't have a female boss, and why female directors in the theater biz are so much harsher on women playwrights than male directors. Women bosses are more likely to advance men over women than men bosses are. What the hell.

I count nine out of twenty-five statements that are not in fact "anti-feminist" in any way:

"But I like my women feminine!" Yes, everyone is entitled to an opinion about what traits they find attractive. Women spend a lot of time saying that they like their men some way or another, and feminists do not give them shit for it.
"Feminists have got it all wrong. I'm an equalist." In a lot of ways, I agree with this. "Feminism," theoretically, is the system of beliefs that women should have equal rights as men. That's not what the feminist movement is about anymore: now Western feminists are concerned with equal social treatment of women and the removal of social stigma surrounding women, which is- I'm just going to come right out and say it- not sufficient to remove sexism, genderism, or what have you. I see precious few feminists (but bless the precious few) who actually make a fuss about men being portrayed as big stupid lugs in the media, but I fail to see how that is any less important than women being portrayed as sex objects for the ultimate end goal of eradicating sexism.
"It's your job to teach me about feminism. Now do it." If you are having a conversation with someone about feminist issues, you are taking an authority position, and you are claiming that they "do not get it," then you have put yourself in a teaching position. You might notice that your "student" is not willing to learn, and that might be because you're refusing to talk to them on the level, probably claiming that as a woman you have a monopoly on gender issues and that he is being an "arsehole."
"Patriarchy hurts men too." It does. This is a common bone that feminists throw to men's rights activists and equalists who frequent the feminist blogosphere when they try to bring up men as victims of gender discrimination.
"Women just can't be objective about gender issues." NO, they can't! No one can! So, how does it make sense to give women the monopoly on gender issues, if they only represent one gender?
"You give feminists a bad name." Yes, author of this article, you do. You really, really do.
"You feminists all hate men!" While I would not put this on this list normally, after reading this post (particularly the quoted sentence at the top o' the page and the sexist assumption later down that only women can be raped and that only men can be rapists), I can definitely see where someone would get that idea after talking with you.
"I'll tell you what's wrong with feminism..." You know, it's possible, sometimes, for you to be wrong, author of this article. Please, instead of being frustrated that someone "does not get it," listen to them. They might be saying something that you've never thought of before.
"But I want to talk about this. Listen to me!" Isn't that exactly what you're saying? Yes. I thought so.

I wish people thought a little bit more about what they were saying sometimes.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

"Men in Power"

I came across this Tribune article about the new University of Chicago "Men in Power" group a few days ago. When I first saw it, I thought: "Oh! Isn't this cute. I bet the University of Chicago, being an extremely liberal environment, might be ready for a group like this!" and then I thought nothing more of it. I sent it to my gentleman friend, who said something along the lines of "Oh, Feministing did an article on that," and when I asked for the link, he gave it to me. My OpenID through LiveJournal apparently doesn't work on Feministing (I've had this error before, and apparently it's still not been fixed), so the only way I can respond is here.

That Feministing article hurt. I honestly expected more from Feministing. I expected an intelligent discussion of what it means for feminism, why the author does or does not support the group, and thoughts about the future of gender equalism movements. Instead, I read a character attack on the founder. How is responding to the community's needs not humble, authentic or empathetic? This man did not write the article actually intending to make such a group, but he realized after the response that he got that it was his responsibility to do so.

A little background might help. I grew up in the neighborhood of the University of Chicago, I attended its attached preschool, elementary school, middle school and high school, my sister and I have both taken several classes there, and I have friends who go there. Both my parents are graduates. I am pretty familiar with the culture, and I can tell you that it's liberal. Extremely liberal. Acceptance and support of feminist ideas, if not self-identification as a feminist, is practically a given. And beyond the University, the neighborhood of Hyde Park is a liberal activist neighborhood. It's no surprise that Obama chose to make his home here.

If there is anywhere in the country that feminism can be said to have "worked," destroying male privilege, I would argue that it is small liberal-arts colleges and universities. While this might not be true of the country at large, America is not a monolith of culture, and we have to assume that there will be places where certain groups have privileges that they might not elsewhere.

Honestly, can't we give feminism some credit? Having grown up in this environment and shipping myself off to another small liberal-arts college, I can tell you that I have never, ever felt oppressed or discriminated against or anything of the sort. I have experienced the exact opposite, being encouraged sometimes through the actual curriculum of the school- particularly in Humanities classes- to celebrate the triumphs of women over men. I don't think my experience was unique, either, because it appears that girls now outperform boys at most levels of education and are more likely to graduate from secondary school.

My point here is that whatever might have been the case in the past does not mean that it is the case now. At least in some environments, feminism works. The new generation of women who grew up in these environments and go to these colleges and so on nowadays do not suffer the same trials and tribulations that past generations of women did. Just because the older generations have not achieved this does not mean that it is not the case for the youngest generations. Not all women are victims of patriarchy, because patriarchy is an overly simplistic term when applied to the entirety of Western culture or even to the entirety of American society. And if we accept that not all women are victims- that in some places, there are other privileges that might surpass that of gender in strength, or that in some places there are no privileges based on gender, or even that in some places gender privilege is reversed- then we have to accept that in some places, men do need solidarity groups like this.

Even if you disagree with the premise of the group, which as far as I can tell is to provide support and solidarity for men in the same way that women's groups provide those things for women, to bring speakers onto campus to discuss gender issues, and to reach out to the community and help underachieving boys and men by giving them positive role models, consider what its existence means for the progress of feminism.

First, it means that gender privilege has been erased in this environment to the point that there is sufficient interest in supporting men as a minority or underserved group, even if that is not true in the country at large. This group started as a joke. The leader of the group (who is not a very good speaker, it sadly appears) wrote a satirical article for the Maroon (the U of C's newspaper), and received a number of emails from University of Chicago students who took it quite seriously and thought that there was indeed a need for such a group on campus. Personally I don't think this is such a stretch. Here at Vassar, we have a women's health clinic with several doctors and nurses, but only one male doctor in the entire health facilities who is only a part-time employee. If you have a problem under your boxers and you don't feel comfortable exposing yourself to a nurse, or if you're having a problem with your penis and you need a male specialist, good luck getting an appointment. I've heard that this discrepancy is because of demand, but who puts demand forward? Advocacy groups, that's who. Women have an advocacy group on this campus who can ensure that that they're properly treated by health services, but men do not. Is there a male gender privilege here?

Second, it means that feminism has encouraged gender dismantling to the point that such a support group is not a distasteful idea to men. Isn't one hypermasculine trait supposed to be the ability to bear hardship with a stiff upper lip and fight your own battles if there are battles to be fought? I would think the macho response to perceived inequity would not be to form a girly support group but to start breaking things and setting fire to them. That this group exists and is supported by the male element should indicate some triumph for feminism, if feminism is fighting against negative judgment based on feminine characteristics.

The progress of feminism aside, I actually think the group is pretty cute and I like the idea. Why does gender stereotype dismantling have to come from women, or on women's terms? If Patriarchy Hurts Men Too, what's the big idea denying men the ability to address their own issues their own way? Feminist organizations often fail to address many elements of gender stereotypes that disproportionately harm men, such as the assumption of a nurturing, kind nature in women. Male rape is a problem, but not everyone seems to even realize it's possible. News articles discussing molestation of children by women often refer to the molestation as an "affair" or a "relationship" rather than "rape." Children are taught to gravitate towards "nurturing" women and away from "dangerous" men. When two teenagers have sex, even if it should legally be rape because the male was sufficiently younger than the female, he still often bears legal responsibility for sex or she is not prosecuted. Even college administrators have started to notice men falling behind. Men are more likely to have grave occupational hazards because they're more likely to be blue-collar workers (such as construction workers) and have been hit much harder by the recession than women. Nowhere is the importance of advocacy groups more obvious than reverse sexist advertisements (British example), but rarely do I see advocacy groups for men supported by other gender equalists or thriving.

Even though these are stereotypes and problems that should theoretically be feminist issues if feminism is all about gender equality, I don't see the feminist blogosphere up in arms about these issues. Please, do correct me if I'm wrong here. I would love to be.

If feminist groups aren't going to address these issues, then they ought to band together with groups who will, since they're both heading towards the same goal: gender equality.

Before I finish, a note on the name. The hugest complaints I've heard about the group are about its name. Realize that the name was birthed in satire. I don't think it's inappropriate to discuss gender issues starting with a discussion of the widely-held assumption that men are in power. Why would it be?

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Wage Gap

I was reading this article about the wage gap today, and was thoroughly unsatisfied by its treatment of the wage gap and the possible causes for it. While it claims to address and refute the reasons pundits often give to "excuse" the wage gap, I found it lacking. It correctly summarized its opposition with the following four points (I found the others to be extraneous and not common in my readings of the literature).

1) Women voluntarily take lower-paying jobs than men.
Women do, in fact, voluntarily take lower-paying jobs than men do. This is usually because those jobs offer benefits other than pay that they find attractive, such as job security, health benefits, part-time status and the freedom to take off time from work to spend with family. Study after study has shown this. The writer does not refute this point, commenting only: "While its true that, say, a registered nurse doesn't make as much as a lawyer, these are all highly professionalized fields. Each requires at least four years of schooling and almost all require some kind of specialized training."

2) Women "take time off" to have children
The quotes here are meant to indicate that women have no choice but to take time off for pregnancy and birth. This is quite true. Maternity laws in this country suck- no argument here!

3) Women don't ask for better pay
Unfortunately, this is true. A lot of wage raises are negotiated by the employee aggressively asking the employer for a pay raise. Women, for whatever social or biological reason, are less inclined to do this than men. They are more easily intimidated by employers and less likely to think that they "deserve" a better pay.

4) Women have family and household responsibilities (and presumably men don't)
The argument here is that women spend time taking care of the family- and employers should expect that and give them time for it. Here, I think the argument is somewhat flawed. No logical employer is going to pay someone who works less time as much as someone who works more time, regardless of gender. As long as some employees are willing to work 9-5 every day and overtime on some days and some weekends, that's what the employers are going to want and that's what they're going to reward and encourage. Unfortunately, women are the ones hurt hardest by this, because women are more likely to take time off work to take care of children and sick relatives, more likely to use up their sick days, and less likely to work overtime than men are.

The questions we should be asking in response to this situation are "Why is the workplace set up the way that it is?" and "How can we encourage them to become more androgynous?" rather than "How can we force employers to meet the unique needs of female employees?" As we all know, the workplace evolved as a space for men only- male workers who were sole breadwinners within particular social roles. As a result, the current model for companies is set up to maximize productivity from people who are sole breadwinners and not caretakers. If we remove this assumption, the rest follows easily.

In answer to the first objection, the draws for women to lower-paying jobs appear to be health care, freedom to take time off and part-time status. Frankly, these are all good reasons to pay an employee less. The more health benefits, the less money the company actually has for salaries; the more time the employee is free to take off, the less guaranteed productivity the employer has; and having a larger sheer number of part-time employees who all have benefits is more costly to employers than employing a smaller number of full-time workers. However, the benefits for the workers are obviously enormous. Health care is expensive, and the extra time afforded by not working can allow the employee to either hold another job or spend priceless time with the family. These are non-monetary trade-offs that the current system for determining the wage gap does not take into consideration, and which I believe it should.

The second objection points to a more obvious problem. In a lot of careers, taking any time off at all means that you literally lose market value as an employee. Parents of both sexes should be allowed to take time off for childbirth and early childhood development. Other countries have already recognized the rights of parents to a family. Giving a month or less to pregnant women treats children as a sort of tumor to be removed before the employee can get on with her job. If the workforce is actually going to try to integrate caretakers, employers will have to assume that parents of both sexes will want to take time off to care for the child during its first formative months, and will have to accord them this time.

Unfortunately, the third objection is a good one. The system of negotiation for better pay is one that was evolved during the workforce's all-male history. Competition and fights for dominance simply come more naturally to a majority of men than women, for whatever social or biological reasons. And unfortunately, there really is no reason why negotiating for better pay should result in a wage increase. Enforcing employer-decided pay is the only solution that I can think of to this problem.

The fourth objection rests on society at large to change, not on the workplace. So long as there are employees of whatever gender who are willing to work more hours, employers will try to push employees towards that ideal. If women are to gain ground in this arena, society has to change to allow men to take on caretaker roles without derision. Stay-at-home dads are objects of ridicule. If feminists is to help women in this arena, they've got to widen their vision and stop focusing on women. Or a different take, if you don't like that one: Single mothers are significantly more common than single fathers, and do in fact have more family and household responsibilities than other male employees who either do not have families or are not the sole parent. While it is unfair to employers to force them to pay these mothers the same amount that they would employees who do not have these large family time requirements, the government is perfectly capable of providing tax breaks for the number of dependents and the lack of a spouse- which, if I'm not mistaken, it does. I would personally be curious to see how the increase in non-taxable wages as opposed to taxable wages changes the wage gap between single mothers and the average male employee, but I don't know of any studies that have addressed this. A change in government policy could easily help here, in any case.

These reasons for the wage gap are explanations, not excuses. My main fault with this article was that it assumed the former meant the latter. Explaining the mechanism does not excuse the result, but it does allow us and policymakers to examine the system more closely, determine whether policies need to be changed, and if so which ones. Most of the wage gap can actually be explained by these four points- the real question is, how can we change policy to alter families' situations that led to those four points?