Archive for category feminism
As I mentioned this morning, there’s been a lot of stuff going on that I haven’t been able to get to, but that I would like to. I’ve only done this a couple of times before, but instead of a full-fledged Crommunist Manifesto treatment, I’m going to have to provide mini-commentary on these. Please do not interpret this as an indication of anything other than the fact that there are only so many hours in a day, and days in a week. This post is for the ladies.
Women in Saudi Arabia are to be given the right to vote and run in future municipal elections, King Abdullah has announced. He said they would also have the right to be appointed to the consultative Shura Council. The move was welcomed by activists who have called for greater rights for women in the kingdom, which enforces a strict version of Sunni Islamic law. The changes will occur after municipal polls on Thursday, the king said.
This move is so obvious and risibly behind the times that it’s almost hard to praise it. However, this small concession could potentially have profound meaning for the women of Saudi Arabia. That’s the problem, I suppose, with trying to impress liberals like me: you do something we ask you to do, and then we ask you why you didn’t get it done faster. There seems to be a lot of popular support for this move, and the least cynical side of me is inclined to say that this is indicative of a desire for true reform from the Saudi royal family. Within the structure of Shariah law there will never be legal equality for women in Saudi Arabia; however, it’s still a positive step that women will be allowed to make some decisions for themselves. Now maybe the car keys too?
The Nigerian police have arrested two people in connection with the gang-rape of a woman posted on the internet. Bala Hassan, the commissioner for police in Abia State, said the two men were detained after cyber activists posted pictures and names online. The video has shocked Nigeria both for the brutal nature of the rape and the initial failure to investigate.
Once again, I have no words to describe the contempt I have for the vile slime that would participate in a gang-rape, let alone videotape it. They are perhaps one level below the police who, given evidence that can clearly identify the victim and perpetrators, decide to drop the case. While we (rightly or wrongly) often deride internet activism under the increasingly-inaccurate label of ‘slacktivism’, it’s great to see it being used as a tool for greater justice. While it is a double-edged sword that can be used to shame victims, this is a case where the reverse is true and those who failed to uphold their duty to justice were shamed into doing their jobs.
Kenya’s Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai has died in Nairobi while undergoing cancer treatment. She was 71. She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for promoting conservation, women’s rights and transparent government – the first African woman to get the award. She was elected as an MP in 2002 and served as a minister in the Kenyan government for a time. Ms Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement, which has planted 20-30 million trees in Africa.
It’s a shame, and a testament to my shitty scholarship, that I only learned about Wangari Maathai – a black African woman with a Nobel prize. Talk about your stereotype smashers. Reading her obituary, Ms. Maathai was a consummate warrior against the sexist status quo, and refused to let the patriarchy back her down. Kenya is one of the more stable and progressive countries in Africa (man… that makes me sad – Kenya is no Norway), and it owes quite a bit of that to the work of Ms. Maathai and those she inspired.
Angela Marie MacDougall was exploited as a young girl, trafficked to grown men for sex. From ages 15-21, she continued working in the sex trade, mostly in Vancouver. It’s the usual story of how girls are inducted into sex work, she told a public hearing Thursday at Vancouver city hall on a city staff report about how to deal with sexual exploitation and Vancouver’s sex trade. “We hear in the report that we’re talking about women,” MacDougall said. “But guess what? Many of us aged into adulthood in terms of [selling sex]. We did not start as adults. We can’t pretend we’re not talking about girls here. By ignoring that in the report, we are failing.” MacDougall, who now works for Battered Women’s Support Services, told council the report needs to focus more on how and why young girls are being pulled into the sex trade in the first place, to get to the root of the problem.
I had a blog reader e-mail me (I love it when y’all do that, by the way) to encourage me to speak more about issues of the sex trade. For the record, I am pro-sex, provided that both parties consent and there is no coercion or exploitation involved. If that means money changes hands, then by all means throw those bucks down. Criminalizing prostitution only makes it more dangerous for all parties involved, particularly those who work as prostitutes. Vancouver has a thriving sex trade, but the structure of Canada’s laws and our puritanical views of sex make it a dangerous occupation. While some of the opinions expressed in the article are mind-numbingly stupid, it is a good sign that this kind of conversation is happening in the open.
My apologies for not giving these stories the individual attention they deserve. I invite your chastisement and further exploration of the issues behind the stories in the comments section.
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There’s a video that has been running through the feminist segment of the atheism community from popular atheist, skeptic and feminist Rebecca Watson from The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe and Skepchick:
The video describes an interaction that Rebecca had with an attendee of an atheist/skeptic conference. She had been hanging out int he hotel bar with some of the people at the conference. It was late, and she said goodnight to everyone and went to head back to her room. One of the people who had been at the bar followed her onto the elevator and asked Rebecca if she wanted to go back to his hotel room with him, which she didn’t. Rebecca thought this was a clear-cut example of behaviour that men should avoid when attending conferences – don’t assume that just because a woman is out drinking that she wants to have sex with you. It was particularly on the nose for her, since she was there to talk about how to make these conferences more woman-friendly.
I had a difficult time getting on board with Rebecca on this one, because I couldn’t really see where the offense was. When I read Jen McCreight’s response, I was even more baffled. Surely she wasn’t suggesting that atheists ought not to proposition each other for casual sex – that’s really much more puritanical than the general atheist community tends to be. Was she suggesting that we don’t do it when we’re drunk? Or when it’s that late at night? Or when you don’t know the person well? I was sincerely confused.
Also, there’s Elevator Guy to consider. It seemed as though he was being passed off as a clueless lout that made sexual advances at someone and should have known better. But how? How could he have known his interests were unwanted? We don’t know if they’d spoken before, or if he was just a random creeper. We don’t know if he was drunk we don’t know how he asked the question (it might have been super-awkward, or it might have been with Don Draper-like poise and suaveness). As a guy who’s been rejected for making the first move, and also rejected for taking too long to make the first move, I wanted to make sure I understood what was going on so I didn’t make the same mistake.
So I posted a comment:
“cornering a woman in an elevator at 4AM and asking her up to your hotel room, after not having said two words to her the whole night, is about a 9.0 on the creepy scale.”
And here’s my problem with this whole discussion. Even from Rebecca’s video, we don’t know that he “cornered” her except insofar as there isn’t much besides corners in an elevator. We don’t know that they hadn’t spoken before. We don’t know what his reaction was when she said “no” – he might have just said “okay, cool.” It’s entirely conceivable to me that he was waiting for the crowd to thin out before making his proposition, but when she went for the elevator he threw a last-ditch “Hail Mary” pass, got shot down, and went on his merry way.
I can understand feeling threatened by an unwelcome advance in an elevator, but why are we assuming that this guy was physically threatening her, or that he was particularly creepy about it? There are some salient details missing from this story that we should have before we pass judgment on this guy for being a 9.0 creep.
The response to what I thought was a totally innocuous comment was… less than friendly. I suddenly realized that, to all eyes, I was trolling the comment threads trying to pick a fight, or to make some stupid statement about “men’s rights”, standing up for every guy’s right to sexually harass whomever he wants. Having dealt with trolls before, I knew immediately what would and wouldn’t work, and so I thought I would share some of those insights with you.
If you ever find yourself commenting on a forum where your opinion is in the strong minority (especially if it is diametrically opposed to the position of the author of the forum/blog post), here are some important lessons to keep in mind if you don’t want to get written off as a troll.
The hallmark of a troll, in fact the defining characteristic of a troll, is that she/he is not posting to gain information or change a perspective – she/he is there to propagate conflict. If you are sincerely interested in offering a dissenting opinion, make sure you actually listen to the responses that come back your way.
You will accomplish nothing besides looking silly if you lose your temper. You’re going to need to maintain a level of zen-like calm to avoid being drawn into a flame war. Since you are surrounded by people that disagree with you, they will be ready to dismiss your perspective if you look like a raving lunatic.
3. Realize there’s a good chance that you’re wrong
It’s far more likely that your disagreement is due to misunderstanding some point or nuance of the argument than it is that everyone (including the author) is a moron.
4. Assume they’ve already heard your arguments
When dealing with a group of people who are passionately defending a position, it’s reasonable to assume that they’ve already heard what you have to say. If it’s a topic you’re very unfamiliar with, it’s not a bad idea to point that out. Some websites are “101 level” websites, meaning they are populated by people who are willing to explain basic concepts to newcomers. Others assume that you have a certain level of knowledge. Asking “how come there are still monkeys” on a biology blog won’t go over well. (Note: I like to consider this a 101-level blog, although sometimes I forget).
5. Prepare to be Insulted
It’s going to happen. Learn to deal with it. If your self-esteem gets tied up in what people on the internet think about you, then you’ve got to stay away from forums.
6. Don’t respond to insults
The knee-jerk reaction to being attacked is to fight back. Avoid this temptation. You’re only hurting yourself (see #2). A tactic I like to use is to agree with the person insulting you (‘I must be as stupid as you say, but please try to show me where I’m wrong anyway’) – it pivots you away from emotional reactions and shows people that you’re not going to get stuck in the mud.
7. Point out areas of agreement
This one is major. If you can identify where you agree, it’s easier for both sides to tone things down a bit. It may also help you to realize where the other side is coming from (see #1).
8. Admit your mistakes
If you take a statement out of context, get called on a fallacy, or are proven to be incorrect in one or more assertions, acknowledge it. “Yeah, but…” isn’t an acknowledgment, it’s a dodge. It’s a sign of maturity when you can say “You’re right, and I shouldn’t have said that” or “You’re right, and I should have made that more clear.”
9. Prepare to walk away
If after all the talk you still think you’re right and they’re wrong, there’s no shame in just walking away. Don’t burn the bridge (“I’m done with you idiots”) or try to get the last word (“I guess you’ll never understand X”), just bow out gracefully (“I guess I’m just not getting it. I’ll take some time to think about what you said”). Many people will prefer to communicate through e-mail rather than continue spam on a forum. I myself have received e-mails from people who want to talk about an issue outside the context of a public forum – sometimes the venue inhibits the conversation. Be the bigger person genuinely – don’t try to win by walking away.
10. Be honest
This is probably the most important of these points. Don’t go in trying to win, don’t go in trying to score points or shove it in someone’s face. Be honest about your intentions, be honest in your words. Part of honesty is logical consistency – don’t twist or distort facts or others’ statements. This is where every troll fails – if you want to not be seen as trolling then you need to obey this scrupulously.
Keep in mind, of course, that none of this will save you from being seen as a troll, or being called a troll, but then the problem is with your accuser, not you. If you’re not trolling, then hopefully your audience will pick up on that and extend you the benefit of the doubt. Of course, if you’re not willing to do these steps then you probably are trolling, in which case you deserve whatever treatment you get
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Can we, for a moment, assume that nobody is saying (at least publicly) that women should not be allowed to be part of the workforce? At some point in the past, sure, people were saying that a woman has no place outside the home. That argument has morphed somewhat (“a woman’s rightful place ought to be in the home, but they can work if they want/need to”), but I think all sides can agree that nobody is seriously suggesting that it is a bad thing that women have the right to work. Is that fair?
Okay, can we also agree that statistically speaking, fewer women are working than should be? There is a real gender disparity at all levels, where women are underrepresented in all sectors of business. Some of the disparity can be chalked up to women choosing to stay home at a greater frequency than men, but that has no relationship whatsoever to how high they rise in the echelons. So we still have to explain the remaining disparity – why are there fewer women in positions of power? Why don’t we see a more balanced gender ratio?
Maybe… just maybe… it’s shit like this:
A Gatineau, Que., woman says she was wrongfully dismissed after complaining about continual sexual harassment at her federal government job. Zabia Chamberlain worked as a director inside Human Resources and Skills Development Canada until, she says, chronic abuse from her director general forced her to leave her job. She says the department refused to transfer her to an equivalent job, away from the aggressor.
In the fall of 2007, Chamberlain was seconded to a director position in the Skills and Employment branch at HRSDC. Chamberlain says her boss regularly intruded into her personal space, with inappropriate touching, pushing himself against her and rubbing her shoulders… Through tears, with shaking hands, Chamberlain explains the harassment didn’t end there. She says he would sometimes fly into a rage and storm into her office. ”It was so volatile. He came into my office and slammed the door so loud, it’s the loudest sound I’ve ever heard. He swore. Don’t you ever F—ing do that again.”
She says she asked her boss not to raise his voice or touch her. Then Chamberlain started applying for other jobs inside the public service. She says she had a lot of responsibilities so she was working long hours. She started losing weight and having nightmares. Several of Chamberlain’s co-workers say they witnessed harassment. Some felt bullied themselves by the same manager. Several have written sworn affidavits, documenting what they saw, heard and experienced.
Anyone can have a shitty boss (except me, my boss is awesome). Anyone can face abuse and harassment at the hands of a superior – this is a sad fact of life. People, women more than men, can face sexual harassment in the workplace. People aren’t perfect, and the people in charge tend to be even less so. The world is a shitty place, and shitty things happen.
That isn’t what this story is about.
Given that human beings can to some extent recognize things as being just or unjust, we can attempt to mitigate injustices. The way that Ms. Chamberlain was treated is quite clearly unjust. Regardless of her job performance (which, as far as I can tell, was not in question) her supervisor had no business abusing her the way he did. His conduct was both unprofessional and incredibly harmful to his employees and the work environment generally. But again, some people have shitty bosses. The real problem here is that absolutely nothing was done to correct this circumstance. Complaints were filed about the abuse, and were then promptly ignored. People higher up the ladder insulated the supervisor from criticism, implicitly threatening those who came forward to complain.
If any of this sounds familiar, it absolutely should. This is the same river of bullshit that Stacey Walker in Toronto had to wade through last year. Considering the ‘chilling’ effect that these kinds of situations have – where people are afraid to come forward for fear of professional reprisal – it’s probably a river of bullshit that many women have lots of experience with. It then becomes no mystery why there aren’t more women in the workplace. While this probably doesn’t represent the sum total of obstacles to gender parity, this is certainly an example of a hurdle that women face at a much higher rate than men do. When looked at in context of other barriers (gender attitudes about ability, “masculine” traits being valued over “feminine” ones, in-group biases from male superiors), the picture becomes more and more clear. The system is structured in such a way as to make it tougher for women to compete.
Once again assuming that we actually want more women in positions of authority, what can we do to balance the scales? Is it enough to simply rap our sceptre on our soapbox and say “I declare women to be equal!“ The problems are multifaceted and require a concerted level of effort and vigilance. It’s not enough, at this point, to simply say “we will enforce our harassment policies” and expect that to fix the problem. In a perfect world, maybe, that would be enough; of course in a perfect world people wouldn’t get sexually harassed. Complaints about harassment need to be handled particularly assertively (I hesitate to use the word ‘zealously’) – while carefully avoiding arriving at a conclusion in advance of evidence, a woman who has the gumption to come forward and plead her case has to be taken seriously.
Then again, maybe we really don’t want women in positions of power. If that’s the case, we should just keep on keepin’ on.
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In my earlier post about SlutWalk, I made reference to a blog post that called the white blindness prevalent in SlutWalk – the complete failure to recognize that slut is not only gendered but racialized as well. There’s a lot of really good stuff in there:
Had SlutWalk organizers considered New Orleans – or perhaps any city in the Northern Hemisphere where undocumented women possess a very real fear that a call to the police for any reason will result in her own deportation – they might have thought twice about sinking so much time and energy into their event. They might have had to listen to women of color, and actually involve them in visioning for what an equitable future would look like. Instead, they decided to celebrate a term not everyone is comfortable even saying.
There is no indication that SlutWalk will even strip the word “slut” from its hateful meaning. The n-word, for example, is still used to dehumanize black folks, regardless of how many black folks use it among themselves. Just moments before BART officer James Mehserle shot Oscar Grant to death in Oakland in 2009, video footage captured officers calling Grant a “bitch ass nigger.” It didn’t matter how many people claimed the n-word as theirs – it still marked the last hateful words Grant heard before a white officer violently killed him.
Whether white supremacist hegemony was SlutWalk’s intent or not is beyond my concern – because it has certainly been so in effect. This event will not stop the criminalization of black women in New Orleans, nor will it stop one woman from being potentially deported after she calls the police subsequent to being raped. SlutWalk completely ignores the way institutional violence is leveled against women of color. The event highlights its origins from a privileged position of relative power, replete with an entitlement of assumed safety that women of color would never even dream of. We do not come from communities in which it feels at all harmless to call ourselves “sluts.” Aside from that, our skin color, not our style of dress, often signifies slut-hood to the white gaze.
A common problem in discussions of minority groups is that it becomes too temptingly easy to focus on your own oppression and ignore the fact that some of your compatriots feel things quite a bit differently. It certainly doesn’t help when you are then accused of “hating” the majority group because you level reasonable criticisms at them (poke through the comments at the bottom of the link for examples of what I mean):
If you want to open space for a new dialogue, you need to take down the “white supremacist” nonsense from your article. This is such BS – you are being an enemy to ANYONE who wants to speak out against rape, regardless of what their color is. Oh, but that’s right, you don’t give a **** if white women get raped. They deserve it, right? Who the he** cares if THEY get raped – is that what you are trying to say?
That’s a direct quote from a race-baiting sock puppet that haunts the comments section.
Over at PoCO, much the same argument is being made:
I thought to myself, after hearing of SlutWalk, about how much language and empowerment is racialized. How would the Mexican-American mothers I know feel about their daughters calling themselves whores? Or the Black mothers of friends react to their daughters calling themselves sluts? Probably not well. Many communities of color have had growing movements against anti-woman language for good reason. For communities of color, even those who aren’t expressly political, there’s a visceral reaction to name-calling aimed at women of color, who are seemingly always the targets of names whose historical, cultural, social and political edge white women will never confront.
From ‘welfare queens‘ to ‘unwed mothers,’ images are almost always racial. As a Latino male, people who look like me (and Black men as well) are often the ones visualized when people think gender oppression. But white supremacy means Caucasians do not, for the most part, need to think about messaging regarding normalcy and deviance, or that people of color, especially women of color, have been subject to these issues all our lives. Historically, the masses of white women have not fought with women of color, but instead sided with white men in exchange for their own freedoms.
These are legitimate criticisms, not dismissals of the event as a whole. The point of such criticism is not to tear down the cause, but to expose some of the hypocrisy and unexplored biases and cognitive hiccups that might (and usually are) otherwise be ignored. Read the criticisms, learn from them, do better next time.
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This past Sunday, I participated in the local (to Vancouver) SlutWalk event. I have spoken previously about the issues that preceded this event, so if you haven’t heard of it you should probably read that post. I will attempt to summarize: a police officer in Toronto suggested that women who don’t want to get raped probably shouldn’t “dress like a slut”. Giving Constable Sanguinetti the benefit of the doubt for a moment, I’m sure what he was trying to say is that rapists are more likely to target women who are wearing clothes that expose skin than someone dressed in, say, business casual (more on this later). What followed was a backlash against the idea that rape victims are “asking for it” through their dress, as though a woman’s job is to not provoke the ravenous male hordes through improper dress.
Obviously, when put into context, this idea is not only wrong but very dangerous. Women are often blamed for being raped, disbelieved by even their own families and the judicial system. This kind of slut-shaming double standard inherently disadvantages women – “slut” is always a gendered term even when used (subversively) to describe men. Inherent in the word slut is the idea that a woman enjoying her sexuality is dirty and immoral. It is leveled against women irrespective of their level of sexual activity – a girl who sleeps with her boyfriend for the first time (or indeed, who has never done anything sexual) is just as likely to be called a slut by those around her as is a professional sex worker. Neither of them deserves the appellation – the word should never be used.
In this post, I will give some of my reactions to the event.
I wasn’t sure how many people would bother to come to an event like this. Keep in mind that it was pouring rain at various points that day (this is Vancouver, after all), but there was a crowd of around 1,000 people (my estimate would have been higher, but that’s what the paper said) there. Some were dressed in a variety of costumes: three men in operatic drag, a woman in a Saran Wrap dress, a young woman in a really uncomfortable-looking corset, a guy wearing a tiny t-shirt and silver bicycle shorts (not a flattering look… they kept slipping down), and my personal favourite: bandana man – so named because that’s all that covered his junk. My response to my friend (who I will call “Julie” just for simplicity’s sake) was “wow, who knew people actually cared about women’s rights?”
2. Who Attended
One would expect that an event like this would be almost entirely women. I was pleasantly surprised at the gender mix: still majority women but with a lot of friends, spouses, boyfriends, and people like me who simply care about the issue there. It is a sad fact of the sexual double-standard that these kinds of issues only seem to gain real traction when men start speaking about them, but at least the Y chromosome camp was well-represented. It certainly surprised a couple of knuckle-draggers who showed up expecting a parade of sluts, and were instead confronted by a group of passionate feminist allies.
This was not a fringe event where only a few whackos showed up (although there were a few of those, to be sure). In addition to various legal and social support organizations, the deputy mayor of Vancouver Ellen Woodworth showed up and spoke at the kickoff to the march (“As a lesbian, a queer, a dyke… I know the power that words have”). Media were present, and sponsors had donated materials and time to the event. The Vancouver Police were also on hand to block traffic, which was important because there were a lot of people on the streets.
4. The Reaction
Nothing was more rewarding than seeing people’s faces as the parade moved past. People were shocked to see not only the attire, but the word “SLUT” paraded defiantly and openly through the streets. I said to Julie “that is the face of consciousnesses being raised.”
One of the stated purposes of SlutWalk was to reclaim the word ‘slut’, in order to rob it of its power. Ultimately, I disagreed with this part of the campaign. Like with the word “nigger”, I don’t think that re-appropriating words is a useful endeavour. I am of the opinion that people should be forced to deal with the full history and implication of a word like ‘slut’, and to understand that it is a word that cannot be separated from inherent hatred of women. Once people understand not only where it comes from, but how it is used to silence, shame and victimize women, they won’t want to use it. I have never been the target of the word ‘slut’, and so it is not my place to say that women shouldn’t re-appropriate it; my criticism is of the idea of re-appropriating words in general.
2. Failing to understand the point
I spotted a number of signs saying things like “real men don’t rape” and “don’t tell me how to dress; tell men how not to rape” and “rapists cause rape, not women”. Even one of the organizers went up and said “women don’t need to be reminded not to dress slutty; men need to be reminded that they will go to jail!” While I understand the spirit behind the statement, I think it demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of rape and slut-shaming. Men that rape women do not do so because they want to get laid*. They certainly don’t do it because they “are rapists” any more than people commit crimes because they “are criminals”. Failing to understand this is committing a fundamental attribution error.
Rape is an issue of control and respect. Rape is the result of someone believing that their own wishes supercede the rights of another person, and that the victim deserves her/his treatment for whatever reason. Rape, like all violence against women, is the product of the idea that women do not have the right to sexual self-determination. The word ‘slut’ is a manifestation of that idea. It is the idea that needs to be fought, rather than focussing on “rapists” – as though that was a group in and of itself that must be identified and punished. A man who doesn’t rape because it’s illegal will rape as soon as he thinks he can get away with it. Better to make fewer men that think rape is acceptable.
3. Failing to address the fallacy
There was a particularly powerful moment during the introductory speeches, where one of the organizers said “I am a woman, a colleague, a friend, a girlfriend, and a person deserving of respect.” She then removed her pants, revealing a short sequined skirt, followed by the words “I am still a woman, a colleague, a friend, a girlfriend, and I am still a person deserving of respect.” It was a perfect demonstration of the fact that regardless of a person’s apparel, she/he should be treated as a self-determining individual whose body is her/his own. However, as great as the demonstration was, it skipped over an important point.
While it is difficult to get exact numbers on this (since many sexual assaults go unreported, particularly in places where they are not taken seriously), I hope those of you who are skeptically-minded will allow me to get away with the following assertion: places that have strict dress codes for women do not have lower rates of sexual assault. While it is my suspicion that these places have higher rates of assault, at least we can conclusively state that covering women head to toe does not eliminate the risk of sexual victimization. The fallacy committed by Constable Sanguinetti was not that he was impolitic in his wording, it’s that the original statement is nonsense. The way that women dress is not related to their risk of being raped, at least at a population level.
I am reminded of the old joke about the two hikers that run afoul of a bear. While the first hiker starts running, the second quickly starts putting on his running shoes. “You fool!” calls the first hiker “Those shoes aren’t enough to outrun a bear!” The second hiker says “I don’t have to outrun the bear, I only have to outrun you.” There is no standard definition or quantitative parameters for what “dressing like a slut” means. It is entirely subjective – the things that are worn by the women I work with would be considered pornographic in many Middle-Eastern countries. The problem is not the clothes; it’s our attitudes towards women and sexuality.
This point was not adequately addressed by the speakers, and I think it was a real missed opportunity.
1. The Racial Double-Standard
Vancouver is a city with a large East- and South-Asian population. Black women and aboriginal women are disproportionately more likely to be victims of sexual assault (including rape) than are white women. Neither of these facts would have been apparent while looking at the crowd. Like most feminist and social activist causes in North America, SlutWalk Vancouver was attended by white people, organized by white people, and focused on issues that do not include race. One of the speakers was Angela, a woman who works front-line for a victim support service in Vancouver’s downtown East Side (DTES). She began talking about the work that she and her colleagues did while dealing with assault victims, and whenever she talked about defending women from rapists, her every sentence was greeted with enthusiastic applause and cheering.
When Angela pivoted to point out that there is a racial component of the word “slut” that is largely ignored, that women of colour don’t particularly want to take back the word “slut”, that this wasn’t an issue of wearing a little black dress but of not being beaten and subsequently ignored by the legal system, the reaction was far more muted. I think I might have been the only person who cheered.
There is a common theme in the intersection between race and feminism. Feminism is well-tended by white women, and many women of colour recognize that there is a need for shared mutual struggle. However, when issues of race and racism – particularly the fact that PoC are disproportionately affected by sexism – come up, there is significant hesitation to face those head-on. Aura Blogando calls this ‘white supremacy’ – I think that characterization is perhaps a bit strong. I think of it more in terms of “white blindness”, or more familiarily, privilege. White women are very enthusiastic to address those issues that are germane to themselves, but more reluctant (it seems) to bring issues affecting PoCs to the fore except in very tokenistic ways (for example, the organizers of SWV noted correctly that Vancouver is built on unceded Saalish territory, but didn’t say word one about the fact that Aboriginal women are more often the victims of assault).
By completely dismissing, or at least not making a point of raising, the issues associated with race, SlutWalk Vancouver allowed white people to feel good about themselves for standing up to one injustice, without having to deal with the related injustice in which their own (unexplored) attitudes play a role. This criticism should not be interpreted as an indemnification of white people, merely an observation that these issues tend not to become publicly-relevant until they affect the majority (in much the same way as sexism issues don’t get treated seriously until men complain about it too).
So in all of it, the good bad and ugly, I think SlutWalk Vancouver was a success. People from many different walks of life were present to raise consciousness about an issue that I think is very important, and hopefully a conversation will be sparked about not only the word “slut”, but how we think of women in our society in general. I was proud to participate, and look forward to more opportunities to do the same.
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* I will no doubt be criticized for making the generalization that it is only men that rape women, or that only women are raped. I fully recognize that men rape men, and less frequently women rape men or other women. Rapists are not exclusively male, and victims are not exclusively female. I also recognize that transpersons are caught in a tricky gender classification limbo, and are disproportionately more likely to be victims of sexual assault and rape than are cispersons. It is not my intention to diminish these cases, and I hope I do not come across as dismissive of this very real issue.
So this whole past week I was visiting two of my good friends in the Northeastern United States. One, a friend from graduate school, lives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The other, a friend I’ve known since I was a kid, lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I talk about things in Canada quite a bit, and was excited to get a bit of a perspective on the differences between living in Vancouver and being in a major American city.
I’ve never been to Philadelphia before, and I wasn’t really sure what to expect. My preconception was to think of Philadelphia as a mostly white industrial city, but I was surprised to learn that it has one of the oldest black communities in the country. In our touring around town we came across the African American Museum of Philadelphia, which had a very cool interactive display that detailed some of the stories that comprise the history of Philadelphia. I was happy to see a number of couples of various ages and racial backgrounds there (at 2:00 on a Wednesday afternoon). It was particularly eye-opening to hear some of the stories of how black entrepreneurs, politicians and activists had to struggle simply to achieve basic human recognition.
Because of its lengthy black history, Philadelphia has a huge black population. In fact, the city has roughly an even number of white and black residents. There is a thing that is common among black people (at least in places where there aren’t a lot of black people) where we will recognize each other with a reverse head tilt (also known as “the black guy nod”). I kept catching myself having to inhibit my instinct to perform this action every 5 or 6 seconds, as I’m sure I would look like a total spaz.
Here’s me at the Liberty Bell:
The bell is a profound symbol of liberty and was used by the Abolition, Suffrage and Native rights movements alike. There is a certain irony present in the fact that a nation founded on liberty took more than 100 years to recognize the equal status of women, and another 50 to recognize certain ethnicities:
I really enjoyed my time in Philadelphia, minus the fact that the city seemed to be completely bereft of people having any fun (except the gay bars). It was then off to Boston for the second half of the trip.
I’ve been to Boston once before, back in 2008. The city has a feel that is not very dissimilar to being in a Canadian city – it’s clean, people are friendly, and there is government-funded health care. There were far fewer people of colour in the city, but more than I expected and definitely more than I see in Vancouver. The “black guy nod” might have made an appearance once or twice in a moment of distraction when I forgot I wasn’t at home.
Boston has a deep connection to the history of the United States. The whole city is structured to allow even casual tourists the opportunity to connect with history. As I might have mentioned before, I find cemeteries fascinating. Boston has old cemeteries in the middle of the city that you can visit. It was there that I learned that one of the first victims to be shot in the Boston Massacre was a black former slave named Crispus Atticus. We also saw a tomb marked with the name “Freeman” – usually the name of a freed slave (but not necessarily a black slave).
Part of tourism in Boston is what is called the “Freedom Trail” – a self-guided footpath through the city that highlights a number of sites of historical interest. Part of the trail is the Black Heritage Trail – a side-trip that showcases a few sites of import to the African-American community in Boston, one of which is the Abiel Smith School:
Sadly, I didn’t have time to go inside the museum, so I’ll have to save that for either a later trip or a few afternoons spent poking around with Google to see what I can see.
Anyway, for a history nerd like myself, walking through Boston was great. Philadelphia too. While my agenda was to party (hence last Wednesday’s post… for which I apologize), I’m glad I was able to learn something and get to connect physically with sites that marked major events in world history. As I said, it will take me a couple of days to get back into my groove, but expect me to go back to my regular post quantity and quality starting next week.
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Crommunist is on vacation this week, so blogging will be spotty. I’m going to make sure there’s at least SOMETHING up every day, but they’ll be short. Things should be back to normal by April.
If there is one thing that science can do for us, it’s challenging our assumptions and the resulting underlying myths that they propagate. While we are mostly blind to the narrative that we tell ourselves on a day-to-day basis, we can at least test the truth of those assumptions through the scientific method:
Despite its relative wealth, Canada is tied with Australia as the sixth best place in the Commonwealth to have been born a girl, a new study has found. New Zealand took the top spot in 54-country ranking, released Monday, followed by Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago, Dominica and Seychelles. Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Tonga, the Solomon Islands, Pakistan, Gambia and Bangladesh were among the lowest-ranked countries.
We have an amazing, wonderful country in which women do better than in most places in the world. We should not take for granted the fact that women in Canada are among the most privileged in the history of the world. We as a society worked hard (women particularly) to ensure that women have a greater level of opportunity than any woman has had as long as human society has existed.
However, going hand in hand with not taking the advances of women for granted comes not being complacent about the progress that has been made. Are we doing better by women than we have done in the past? Absolutely. Is that enough? Absolutely not.
Canadian girls, she added, report that gender-based violence remains pervasive in schools, on dates, in workplaces and over the Internet. They complain that girls remain under-represented in science and technology and that the problems are even worse for aboriginal girls, girls with disabilities and visible minorities.
This is the age-old problem of the downward comparison. Just because we are doing better than other places – countries that cannot compare to us in terms of economic power or political stability – does not mean that we can lean back and rest on our laurels when it comes to the rights and treatment of women.
The great strength of the scientific method is that it allows us to challenge the assumptions that lead to our gender complacency. We can make specific, targeted observations about the differential treatment of the disadvantaged sex, allowing us to investigate specific discrepancies in how we treat our vulnerable groups, of which women are one. It is this ability to ask specific, targeted questions – rather than simply relying on our cultural prejudices – that allows us to ensure that all people are treated fairly, regardless of the circumstances of their birth.
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Jeez, it seems like forever since I did one of these.
Regular readers may have noticed a significant up-tick in the number of times I’ve talked explicitly about women’s issues in these past couple of weeks. Really regular readers will have noticed that I often go to bat on behalf of the ladies, even on issues that have nothing to do with race, free speech or religion. The same goes for LGBT issues, actually – it seems as though I can’t stay away from women and gay shit.
It may seem somewhat antithetical, or at least counterproductive, to spend the amount of time and energy that I do talking about issues facing communities to which I have little-to-no connection. Sure, I have sort of a vested interest in women’s issues – many of my friends are women. However, I don’t really have any close gay friends (a fact that has baffled me for years), nor do I think that blogging about women’s issues will somehow impress or mollify my female friends (the women I am friends with are smart enough to judge someone based on his/her actions, rather than his/her blog). Why then do I put so much effort into pointing out women’s and LGBT issues?
First of all, I defend those positions because it’s the right thing to do. Not having a selfish interest in an issue is not license to simply ignore it. To be sure, there are a number of issues that I don’t talk about (quick list: genocide in Sudan, global warming, third world exploitation, naval piracy in Somalia, loss of the manufacturing sector… the list goes on). These topics are all worthy of intense discussion, but there are only so many hours in a day and, as callous as it sounds, there are things I am more passionate about. It doesn’t mean that I don’t care, so much as it means that I have different priorities. I am glad that there are people out there who care more about world hunger than they do about race issues – both are problems that need passionate advocates. I’ve chosen my fight.
Second, I actually do have a selfish interest in the advancement of women. As the rights of women improve, so too does the standard of living for the entire society. From the moment we are conceived, the health of our mother is of direct impact to our physical health. The better educated both of our parents are, the better chance we have of receiving education ourselves. Our interactions with women in the workplace or out in society generally give us a wider viewpoint than we’d expect in a male-dominated society, which allows for cultural progression and growth. From the moment we are born to the moment we die, the welfare of women is directly tied to our own well-being, regardless of our sex.
Thirdly, and perhaps most selfishly, when I speak on behalf of women I am actually speaking on behalf of myself as well. While I may not be a woman, women are a political minority that face generations of prejudice and antiquated attitudes. They are marginalized, and have been for so long that it has simply become the norm – so much so that sometimes it is other women who are doing the marginalizing. Women in North America face economic disparity, are more likely to be victims of crime, and face a disembodied and largely invisible series of obstacles that seem, without discernible effort, to put them at the bottom of the ladder.
The above description could have just as easily been written about black people. The cultural establishment has been, for years, stacked against the advancement of black people, to the point where our standing in the social ladder is thought to be essentially inevitable. The forces we struggle against are no longer concerted efforts by a shadowy cabal of active racists who are trying to disenfranchise the black population, but if one takes a step back, the outcomes are identical – black people are pushed as though by active effort into the margins of society. Being a minority within a minority (black atheist), this kind of cultural pressure is even more palpable to me.
So wherefore the gays? Well it shouldn’t be too difficult to piece together the fact that the same kind of ancient hatred and exclusion that has faced women and black people is currently shouldered by the gay community. The absurd taboo about same-sex attraction is older than the scriptures that are used to justify it. We have begun, as a society, to recognize that gay people are part of the human population and have been since time immemorial. There is no reasonable justification for the way they are treated, or to curtail their civil rights.
So even though Glenn Beck has forever ruined the quote for me (and he gets it wrong in that clip, which I wouldn’t bother watching unless you enjoy the paranoia-stoking ravings of a carefully-cultivated clown act), it does remind me of the old adage:
First they came for the communists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me.
Or perhaps even better expressed by Martin Luther King Jr.
Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere
I speak about women’s issues, LGBT issues, atheist issues, race issues – all of these and more – because they are all the same thing. The forces stacked against women and against gay people are also stacked against me, and they’re stacked against you too regardless of who you are. It is only by recognizing the shared threat that we all face that we can struggle against them, and prevail.
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Today is the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day, which should be some cause for celebration. After all, 100 years of progress is an incredibly long time in human history. In the past 100 years we moved from horse-drawn carriages and plows to an international space station orbiting the planet. In 100 years we went from a largely-illiterate population with extremely limited access to information to a planet-wide network that puts virtually the sum total of all human knowledge at ready access from something that we can slip into our pockets. Our understanding of the universe has gone from the deterministic passage of small particles to a nuanced, varied and complex probabilistic model, allowing us to probe concepts previously written off as unsolvable “mysteries”.
Surely in all that time, with all that progress, we’ve made similar strides in the way we treat each other. The answer, as always, seems to be “yes and no”.
Across the globe by almost every measure, women lag well behind men. Even though women do 66 per cent of the work and produce half of the food, UNICEF reports that they earn only 10 per cent of the global income and own just one per cent of the property. Nowhere in the world do women account for even a third of the national parliamentarians and, in most regions, including Canada, it is considerably less.
Still, this represents progress.
This article, published in the Vancouver Sun, is a pretty decent overview of the various stalls and starts of the movement for women’s equality, but it doesn’t do an explicit job of answering the question implied by its own title – why does feminism still matter? Why should we be focusing on issues that affect women? Anti-feminists, in their attempts to resemble reasonable and decent human beings (rather than reactionary dicks) often refute the feminist position by arguing that we should focus on having equal rights for everyone, and that focusing on women is the same as ignoring men. And while feminists sometimes just want to scream “men are doing just fine, shut your face hole!”, that’s a quick way to lose an argument for a stupid reason.
In the U.S., 70 per cent of companies surveyed lacked strategies for promoting women, compared to 71 per cent internationally. Despatie noted that the Canadian survey also showed that 43 per cent of companies didn’t feel they had a problem with promoting women to top jobs. To women, however, the lack of support strategies was clear. More than half (53 per cent) of all Canadian women and about 38 per cent of American women thought their organization provided “no or minimal support” for their promotion.
It’s right here that the importance of feminism is revealed: companies think they’re doing an excellent job promoting women, but the reality is that they are even worse here than they are in the United States, a place that we’re all happy to look down on socially (to my great chagrin). When there is such a huge gap between perception and reality, the status quo becomes deeply entrenched and progress becomes next to impossible. I am somewhat reminded of the bromide from Alcoholics Anonymous – the first step is admitting you have a problem.
When confronted with this kind of information, the usual reaction of the anti-feminists is to go with the old standby excuse of “maybe there aren’t enough qualified women for the positions”. To me that seems to invite the question: why the hell aren’t there? Women are statistically better educated, are supposedly guaranteed by law to be free from official discrimination based on sex, and equally intelligent as their male counterparts – wherefore the disparity?
In both years, a full 30 per cent of the largest companies in Canada did not have a single woman in their executive ranks. ”Time is up for ‘give it time’,” Gillis said, though she added that the solution is not simple tokenism. Research indicates that on average, companies with more women senior officers outperform those with fewer (emphasis mine).
That agrees very much with what one of Canada’s largest companies has found in its efforts to reduce the homogeneity of its executive ranks. ”If you start to see it as one versus the other, you miss the point,” TD Bank CEO Ed Clark said of the bank’s efforts to promote more women in a recent CBC interview. ”By framing it as a people development issue, you don’t get this zero-sum game; everybody wins.”
More and more we are finding that the stereotypical underperformance of women in “men’s fields” like sciences and mathematics are a product of the stereotypes, and not due to any actual difference in cognitive ability. Tearing down stereotypes is a process that requires the intentional encouragement of cognitive dissonance – creating highly visible and immediately recognizable violations of the stereotype. Faced with observed reality and “what I’ve always heard”, reality wins out in the end. Add to that the fact that encouraging women appears to have beneficial outcomes above and beyond being the right thing to do, and you’ve got the recipe for a winner.
(There is an important fact raised in that article that doesn’t fit the overall theme of the argument, but I thought it should be raised anyway. While Crown corporations had the largest proportion of women in executive positions, the private sector came in second place, a number that has increased slightly in the past 2 years. It appears that the private sector is doing a better job of promoting women than the public sector. Just food for thought.)
It may not be kosher to discuss the premier-designate (Christy Clark) in terms of her sex, given we are conditioned to believe that a person’s capability has nothing to do with gender, but it’s clearly a factor, because when it comes to positions of power, whether it’s Parliament Hill or a corporate boardroom, a skirt is still an anomaly in Canada.
And it is relevant. The majority of the population is female, and yet women remain woefully under-represented at the top -be it by historical choice or entrenched sexism. Women, despite making up the bulk of the workforce, are still traditionally considered custodians of the home and hearth and, as such, are often viewed as weaker than men, slower to decision and less likely to be strong political leaders who will go the distance.
My home province of British Columbia (or at least those who are registered members of the provincial Liberal party) recently appointed a new leader… and it’s a lady! If you scratch the surface of the image of the B.C. granola hippie yoga hipster, you’ll find that B.C. is still a western province with deep entrenched Conservative (note the capitalization) values. It is indeed, therefore, a big deal that the person with her finger on the button is a “her”. Despite the fact that the provincial Liberals would pass for Conservatives just about anywhere else in the country, a female premier (designate) is just the kind of high-profile stereotype-busting position I was talking about, and I wish premier-designate Clark success.
Soldiers backing Ivory Coast’s defiant leader mowed down women protesting his refusal to leave power in a hail of gunfire Thursday, killing at least six and shocking a nation where women’s marches have historically been used as a last resort against an unrestrained army. Because the president’s security force has shown almost no reserve in opening fire on unarmed civilians, the women decided this week to organize the march in the nation’s commercial capital Abidjan, assuming soldiers would be too ashamed to open fire. But at least six of the thousands of women demonstrating Thursday were killed on the spot, said Mohamed Dosso, an assistant to the mayor of Abobo, a suburb of the city.
Women bring another set of sensibilities to the table when discussing issues, and a diversity of viewpoints is a strength. Whatever the final decision, having a plurality of insight allows decision-making authorities to consider a variety of potential outcomes. In the Ivory Coast, women have traditionally exercised a different kind of power to their male counterparts, and have been able to blunt the more outrageous actions of a male-dominated culture. Their execution by the army signals a disturbing new development in an already-disturbing conflict.
Which brings me back to the question I tried to address earlier: why does feminism still matter?
Well, do women experience disproportionately little political and economic power? Is the improvement of the standing of women irrevocably linked to the improvement of society in general? Have gains been made? Is there still work to do?
The answer to all of the above questions is “yes”. We are not yet, as a society, in a position to let feminism slide into history as obsolete. While I am primarily a commentator on race and associated issues, I am not so blind as to fail to recognize that the same societal forces that are stacked against black people are stacked against women. A victory for women is a victory for all of us, and there can be no equality until we see the advancement of women as being part of our own self-interest. In order to achieve that, people need to be talking about it.
Happy International Women’s Day.
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Note: This article first appeared on Monday, February 28th on Canadian Atheist. While it is CA policy not to cross-post, I felt that this case needed to be made on as many outlets as I could.
A good friend of mine posted a story on my Facebook wall last week about a police officer who fell victim to the arch-stupidity of the “she was asking for it” argument:
A police officer who suggested women can avoid sexual assault by not dressing like “sluts” has apologized, saying he is “embarrassed” by the remark and that assaulted women are “not victims by choice.”
“I made a comment which was poorly thought out and did not reflect the commitment of the Toronto Police Service to the victims of sexual assaults,” Const. Michael Sanguinetti wrote on Thursday to Osgoode Hall Law School where he made the comment. “Violent crimes such as sexual assaults can have a traumatizing effect on their victims. . . . My comment was hurtful in this respect.”
It’s a tired trope that is almost guaranteed to come up in any discussion of women and sexuality – if women didn’t make themselves so open to sexual predators then they’d be safer. It is due to the privilege of being male that this argument offends me only intellectually, since I will never be the target of a sexual assault. I will never appreciate the visceral part of the feminist response to this argument, try as I might. The reason this particular friend posted the link on my wall is that she and I have gone 9 rounds on it in the past, with me articulating the “personal responsibility” position. Don’t worry – I got better.
However, a second friend of mine saw this and posted what he thought was an entirely reasonable response. His response (I’ll call him “Billy” just so we can avoid pronoun confusion) was that the story failed to take the police officer’s side into account. It is a fact, said Billy, that women will be less inviting targets for assault if they are dressed more conservatively and hide their sexuality. Billy didn’t understand why this was such a controversial statement, and was taken aback with Sheila’s (again, for the same of pronoun confusion) full-throated and confrontational response. Billy messaged me afterward to apologize for starting a fight on my wall, and confessing that he couldn’t really understand what he had said that was so inflammatory.
The problem with this “she was asking for it” argument, aside from the fact that it isn’t true (sexual assault is just as common in Muslim countries where women have to stay covered and none of them dress sexy for fear of being arrested, beaten, or scalded with acid), is that it completely misses the point, and tries to derive an “ought” from an “is”. The mere fact that a woman is more likely to be assaulted if she wears certain types of clothing does not make it right. The solution to the problem is not for women to “dress less slutty” (a phrase which is provocative enough on its own), but for men to realize that a woman’s choice of dress is not an open invitation to sexual assault.
It seems as though this seemingly-obvious (once explained) argument still has yet to suffuse through common consciousness:
A University of Manitoba law professor has concerns about a judge’s comments at a sexual assault sentencing. Karen Busby said the remarks by Justice Robert Dewar are a legal throwback to the time when how a woman dressed or acted could be treated as implied consent to sex. Dewar said “sex was in the air” when he spared a man jail time by handing him a two-year conditional sentence instead and allowing him to remain free in the community.
During the sentencing, Dewar also commented on the way the woman was dressed and her actions the night she was forced to have sex in the woods along a dark highway outside Thompson in 2006. The man and a friend met the 26-year-old woman and her girlfriend earlier that night outside a bar under what the judge called “inviting circumstances.” He pointed out the victim and her friend were dressed in tube tops, no bras, and high heels and noted they were wearing plenty of makeup. Dewar called the man a “clumsy Don Juan” who may have misunderstood what the victim wanted.
On a Facebook wall, the kind of statement that Billy made (although, to be sure, he didn’t intend to suggest that it is a rape victim’s fault for being assaulted and he went out of his way to say so) is merely annoying. When it comes from a judge’s mouth, it carries behind it the force of law. I do not wish to derogate Justice Dewar’s abilities as a jurist – perhaps he would have handed down an identical sentence if the victim’s clothing had not been a factor. One cannot guarantee that this would have been the case for all judges, although it certainly should be.
And certainly, this kind of cavalier attitude toward sexual assault does appear in other places:
Reports that women are being sexually assaulted at a Downtown Eastside shelter are being ignored, a coalition of women and women’s groups is charging. But the agency that oversees the First United Church co-ed shelter at Gore and Hastings says it has had meetings with both police and women’s groups on the matter and is actively working to address it. “The safety and security of people using provincially funded shelters are our top priority,” said a statement from BC Housing, which funds and has an operation agreement with the shelter. “We will continue working together to make sure the shelter is a safe place to stay.” But Harsha Walia, a coordinator at the Downtown Eastside Women’s Shelter, said women have reported sexual abuse to front-line workers, police and staff at the shelter, and nothing has been done about it.
When it is a woman’s fault for being assaulted, when her mere presence is provocation enough to justify some kind of violence against her, we know something has gone terribly wrong. When we turn a blind eye to women being assaulted, we cannot call ourselves a society where women enjoy equal or sufficient rights under the law. And because language like “she was asking for it” or “don’t dress like a slut” only serves to reinforce the casual tolerance of violence against women that leads to assault, it is the job of every feminist to speak out against it whenever it comes up. It will forever be a source of chagrin for me that I didn’t always speak this way, but I bloody well will from now on.
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