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Safety and Sexism

May 9th, 2007 · 19 Comments

In the aftermath of a few well publicized rape/murder cases in New York last year, I wrote that I found it somewhat unsettling how quick some folks were to decry as “victim blaming” or “slut shaming” any suggestion that these ought to serve as tragic reminders that, for instance, there are parts of Manhattan where it’s very dangerous to be alone and extremely drunk at 3 am. A couple of recent blog posts I came across brought this back to mind.

First, at Feministing, Vanessa cites a CDC report in which it’s described as “alarming” that more girls than boys aged 12-14 are engaged in binge drinking, and that the dangers associated with this include “being more likely to be sexually active; more likely to be engaged in sex without protection; more likely to be in physical fighting; more likely to have sexual abuse; more likely to use drugs.” Vanessa writes:

A lot of “sex” dangers in there. I would think most of these are the same “risks” for boys, don’t you think? By saying this finding is “alarming,” are they implying that a 13-year old boy is more capable of handling serious drinking than a 13-year old girl? Just a thought.

I’m not going to go digging for the data, but I would be utterly shocked if these were, in fact, “the same” risks. Most obviously, they’re different insofar as the girls bear the direct physical consequences of potential pregnancy if they have drunk, unprotected sex. And I’m willing to bet just about any amount of money that a drunk 13-year-old boy is not at anything remotely near the same added risk of being a victim of rape or other sexual abuse as a drunk 13-year-old girl. Maybe there are other sorts of risks where the consequences are more grave for young boys, but at any rate, they’re clearly not precisely the same risks.

Closer to the original case, Majikthise recently complained about a series of public service announcements, featuring creepy old stalkers, warning young people about the dangers of making too much personal information publicly available on social networking sites like MySpace. She writes:

Predictably, the Ad Council’s message is “Think before you post, little girl.” Just once I’d like to see a campaign called “Think before you stalk, dude.” Or: “Just because a minor posted this doesn’t give you the right to throw it in her face, creepy adult.”

I’m especially disturbed by the scene where the school coach yells “Loved your tattoo, Sarah” as the main character walks by football practice. In real life, such a coach would be fired for harassment.

Why is the AC making it seem as if clear-cut sexual harassment is a natural “consequence” of posting personal info online?


Now, I’ll agree it would be better to add something reminding young people that they should, in fact, report sexual harassment rather than suffering in silence. But I think the broader critique misses the mark for the same reason I’m not much impressed when conservatives think it’s a fabulous “gotcha” to point out that lefty activists are more likely to protest perceived US misdeeds than the actions of utterly horrible dictatorships. Protesting evil dictatorships is typically a waste of time, because evil dictatorships are notably unresponsive to popular sentiment. Similarly, I think it makes sense for ads like these to focus on reminding people of the risks of disclosure rather than trying to change the behavior of creepy stalkers. Why? Because it seems likely that, for the most part, stalkers are well aware that their actions are creepy and fucked up and wrong. They just don’t care: That’s why they’re stalkers. You don’t see a lot of “just say no to murder” PSAs either. Kids, on the other hand, have ample motivation to avoid drawing the attention of such creeps if they’re reminded of the risks.

Update: Jesus… this isn’t the same thing at all, but from Samhita at Feministing, who seems to have a special gift for drawing bizarre inferences:

According to a post left on Digg, when you search Google for ‘she invented,’ it asks you, did you mean ‘he invented.’ Not shocking I suppose, but no doubt one of the many ways that cultural and social norms get embedded in language. Adding ‘she’ confused the search engine, because it is assumed that an inventor is always he. According to the post and many of Digg’s thoughtful comments from mini-misogynist D&D playing teenagers it must be because women don’t invent things and never have.

Google does not get confused. Google does not make assumptions. Google is not a tool of the patriarchy. Google just compares the relative prevalence of similar search terms, and when the phrase you entered is very close to another that returns about seven million more hits, it spits out a “did you mean?” And do we actually need the collective brains of the blogosphere churning away to divine why it might be that there have historically been many more things invented by (and credited to) men? Is there anyone not a complete imbecile who actually requires a recitation of the “historical, social, racial, economic and gendered reasons” for that disparity?

Update 2: A fair enough point in the comments: This might be a case where rhetoric that’s not inherently objectionable is nevertheless deployed in an unreasonably one-sided way. You much less frequently see that sort of thing when men are victims of violent crimes.

Tags: Sexual Politics


       

 

19 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Neil the Ethical Werewolf // May 9, 2007 at 5:10 pm

    Having written an unhappy email to the Ad Council protesting that very PSA, I think there’s useful work that needs to be done educating men about how they ought to act with regard to women whose sexual history becomes public knowledge. Dudes need to know that because you saw some girl in a state of moderate undress on MySpace doesn’t give you some kind of special relationship with her where you can casually bring up intimate topics. Norms of politeness and civility still apply.

    Educating deranged stalkers may be impossible, but there’s still plenty of issues that I’d want to make sure normal guys are clear on, and which the PSA completely mishandled.

  • 2 Joseph // May 9, 2007 at 6:18 pm

    I think you are missing the point here.

    The issue is that this risky behavior is made so by a misogynistic culture and the ways in which it conditions the men in it. It isn’t, as you maintain, about the relatively small amount of “stalkers” who won’t respond to social pressure but the much larger population of men in our society who think raping a woman is fine if she dresses provocatively. These men, unlike the “stalker”, are open to social pressure.

    Furthermore, in a typical incident in which a woman is raped the fact that she engaged in risky behavior is seen by the rapist and the society at large as somehow obviating blame on the part of the rapist. The claim that the rape victim shouldn’t have dressed that way or acted so sexual isn’t simply a mater of trying to keep people safe. Rather it’s a way for society to place blame on the victim. There’s a reason why we have rape shield laws that explicitly prohibit bringing up a victim’s past sexual behavior (“Hey if she had sex before she clearly always wants to have sex and therefore because she’s a slut it isn’t rape”).

    Notice how whenever these discussions of “risky behavior” come up in our culture the issue of rapist’s agency is almost never brought up. This huge blind spot is what feminists are trying to underline.

  • 3 Amanda // May 9, 2007 at 6:55 pm

    I found the PSA pretty creepy. I think part of the reason it seems to blame the victim is that the sort of harassment it depicts is extremely unrealistic – seeing a football coach take time out from practice to publicly compliment a student on her tattoo is so bizarre that it seems the ad *must* be implying that she brought it on herself, because how else would that happen? (I don’t mean to imply that I think coaches never sexually harass students, or that no young girls experience multiple episodes of harassment in a single day, but as depicted in the ad, it’s certainly not common.)

    Of course it’s not like PSAs are generally known for their accuracy, but I think a better PSA might feature scenes where the teen’s aunt finds her Myspace, or a potential employer Googles her. Presenting likely consequences seems like a better plan, and helps to avoid the appearance (if not fact) of blaming the victim.

  • 4 Sandy // May 9, 2007 at 7:27 pm

    Joseph, Amanda, and Neil:

    Can you explain what the difference is between cautioning a woman against drinking heavily and wandering around alone at 3AM in dark alleys and cautioning a car owner to take their keys with them and lock their car up when they park it?

  • 5 Timon // May 9, 2007 at 8:43 pm

    Actually if you Google “she invented -gore -internet -digg -google” the “did you mean he” suggestion goes away. Often a small number of famous and frequently searched phrases dominate the spell-check, and the proximity of off letters is more important than you’d think, so brivettanny speors will be immediately corrected while bayowolf stumbles to “did you mean bay wolf?”

    The question of how to increase the security of women and girls is a classic people-dont-think-rationally-about-security problem. This is a political perennial, it might almost be a definition of politics. In a rape attack scenario only the rapist knows who he is beforehand. Therefore the information prong of the defense has to inform the victim profile as a class – where is the attacker likely to be, how alcohol makes things worse, etc. Both the PSAs and Google are only political to the kind of people who think math is political.

  • 6 Neil the Ethical Werewolf // May 9, 2007 at 8:53 pm

    Sandy, I think you’re confusing the PSA and the study. You can see the PSA that my comment was about if you follow Julian’s link to Majikthise.

  • 7 Barry // May 10, 2007 at 10:25 am

    Sandy, yes, I can explain the difference:

    If you are on trial for car theft, any implication that it was OK because the car was expensive, and parked in a known bad area, probably would not help you.

    One reason that such arguments are used with right-wingers is that justifying theft by the temptation of having expensive goods tauntingly left where you could take them doesn’t work. Right-wingers are not sympathetic to such arguments.

  • 8 carson17 // May 10, 2007 at 2:06 pm

    And I’m willing to bet just about any amount of money that a drunk 13-year-old boy is not at anything remotely near the same added risk of being a victim of rape or other sexual abuse as a drunk 13-year-old girl.

    I don’t think anyone is suggesting that women don’t face greater risk of rape and abuse. I would suggest that 1) that’s a problem, and 2) the fault lies not with the women, but with the rapists and abusers.

  • 9 Julian Sanchez // May 10, 2007 at 2:35 pm

    “I would suggest that 1) that’s a problem, and 2) the fault lies not with the women, but with the rapists and abusers.”

    Err… obviously. Did anyone suggest otherwise?

  • 10 carson17 // May 10, 2007 at 6:39 pm

    You seem to be saying, in the passage I quoted, that Vanessa’s objection is based on the mistaken notion that boys and girls face the same risks (“I’m not going to go digging for the data, but I would be utterly shocked if these were, in fact, ‘the same’ risks.”).

    I’m saying Vanessa knows they don’t face the same risks. That’s the problem. Pointing out to women that they face extra risk is not helpful, especially when it’s combined with the suggestion that the way to deal with the added risk is for women to limit their activities. A little more “there is never an excuse for rape,” a little less “what was she wearing?” would be nice.

  • 11 sangfroid826 // May 10, 2007 at 7:42 pm

    Males are more capable of handling large amounts of ethanol than females. 1) Women metabolize alcohol more quickly than a men. 2) Women have less of an enzyme (dehydrogenase) that makes alcohol inactive. Ergo, Women get drunk faster & stay drunk longer. So of course the risks are greater, even if you removed sex from the equation.

  • 12 Julian Sanchez // May 10, 2007 at 8:43 pm

    Carson:
    Well, that would be an accurate if somewhat banal point if that’s what she meant. But I think it’s also very clearly not what she meant.

  • 13 joeo // May 10, 2007 at 10:03 pm

    Men are more at at danger of violent crime than women.

    http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/abstract/fvvc.htm

    If my math is right, men are about 2 1/2 times as likely to be victimized by strangers than men.

    Women in general take fewer risks. But for some reason, each time a women is killed by a stranger and it makes the news is an occasion to say that women need to take even fewer risks. You really don’t see anything similar when men are victimized.

  • 14 X. Trapnel // May 11, 2007 at 1:05 pm

    I think Joeo gets at an important aspect of this: the perception of risk and causality is both moralized and lacking in evidentiary basis … and it’s precisely *because* it’s moralized in a sexist way that the “common sense” causality and statistics go unquestioned. There’s absolutely no evidence I know of that responding to the latest drunk-man-gets-killed-in-the-wee-hours incident with “guys, be careful in your drinking!” would save fewer lives than the standard script for a dead-female incident, and yet only the latter ever gets pulled out. I think there’s good reason to suspect patriarchal cultural influences in our eagerness to insist expression-for-safety tradeoffs are always obviously sensible for women, and yet not so much for men.

  • 15 Roach // May 11, 2007 at 2:05 pm

    First, it is pretty stupid to suggest that women do not and should not be more careful than men (if they do not mean to be subject to violence). Wishes are not horses. Men are still men, and some of them are violent. This is not changing. . . . ever. Men have rough physical parity with one another, but women do not. They are smaller and, more important, are sexually attractive to men and may be raped by bad and violent men.

    Drinking to excess is problematic for men and women; but for a man, he might lose his wallet and get beat up, most likely. A woman will have to deal with the trauma of rape. Is this fair? Nope. Why do people think life is fair or that by wishing and whining and hectoring men in general that somehow demented criminal behavior will be lessened significantly. Criminals are not normal. They are low IQ, many are socipathic, most have prior criminal records, they have short time horizons, etc.

    Violent criminals should be identified and locked up. It’s pollyanish to think this group that also likes to fight with itself, other men, steal cars, and otherwise act abominably will listen to alternative PSAs about how wrong it is to rape or assume a woman wants sex because she’s drunk and in your bed and naked. I’m sure most know it’s “wrong,” they just don’t give a crap.

    Economists have a concept called the cheapest cost avoider. The car theft example is a good one. There is an optimal mix of expenditure on street lights, police patrols, and devices like the club. The first dollar spent on things like locking doors, windows, and physical protection like the club or an alarm system are often much more wisely spent than the second or third or fourth dollar on police patrols. And, in this instance, the ounce of prevention in not having 40 ounces of malt liquor with a stranger while dressed like a whore is well worth the pound of cure in avoiding being raped.

    I suppose, though, one can wish the world were fair, act any old stupid way, and feel righteous as one recovers in the emergency room.

    This is the ridiculous world we live in. We have told women it is wrong for them to be treated differently than men and wrong for men to lust after them and hurt them and all the rest, even though we know that a certain percentage of men will do these things and that these things are more likely if you’re scantily clad or drunk or in an unsupervised situation.

    Life is not fair. You must act accordingly.

  • 16 Anonymous // May 15, 2007 at 8:17 pm

    Furthermore, in a typical incident in which a woman is raped the fact that she engaged in risky behavior is seen by the rapist and the society at large as somehow obviating blame on the part of the rapist.

    By the rapist? Sure, I guess that’s why they’re rapists. By society at large? What “society at large” do you hang out with? In the world I inhabit, when credible accusations of rape come to light, they are investigated, and if found true, armed men seize the rapist and imprison him, not the victim, for several years.

    Even those who might express a (I agree, wrongheaded) sentiment that “she had it coming” because of her dress or being in a bad neighborhood or being intoxicated, do those people actually consider the rapist to be less blameworthy? Do they advocate reduced sentences for rapists who target victims who in their opinion, did something to increase the likelihood that they would be victimized?

  • 17 Samhita // May 15, 2007 at 11:58 pm

    Amazing where technorati can lead you sometimes.

    Is there anyone not a complete imbecile who actually requires a recitation of the “historical, social, racial, economic and gendered reasons” for that disparity?

    Yes, or I wouldn’t have written it. Did you read the comments on Digg?

    But really, I don’t think google is to blame, I recognize that it is a technical thing, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t fucked up.

  • 18 Samhita // May 15, 2007 at 11:59 pm

    Amazing where technorati can lead you sometimes.

    Is there anyone not a complete imbecile who actually requires a recitation of the “historical, social, racial, economic and gendered reasons” for that disparity?

    Yes, or I wouldn’t have written it. Did you read the comments on Digg?

    But really, I don’t think google is to blame, I recognize that it is a technical thing, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t fucked up.

    Oh and thank you for the bizarre inference comment. So sweet that you read all my writing. ;)

  • 19 bumbledraven // May 19, 2007 at 4:22 am

    Interesting. Liberals here are making the same conceptual error as the conservatives who misinterpret Ron Paul’s observations on “blowback” as “blaming America”.