“Women just need to learn to say no.”

[Content note: sexual assault]

Every time people talk about coercive sex–you know, the kind where someone manipulates someone into having sex with them as opposed to physically forcing them–the concern trolls come out in droves.

“You can’t expect men* to only ask once!” they prattle. “Women* just need to learn how to keep saying no! It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there! If you don’t learn how to stand up for yourself you’ll get screwed over!”

The asterisks are there because these Very Concerned Individuals never seem to realize that sex doesn’t just happen between men and women. Neither do they realize that men aren’t the only ones who rape, and women aren’t the only ones who sometimes have trouble repeatedly saying no. But since these are the objections that they continually spew forth, these are the objections I will have to address.

Here’s an Imperfect Analogy™. If everyone were trained in self-defense, we would be able to prevent the majority of muggings and “stranger” rapes (except perhaps the ones involving weapons, but let’s ignore that for a moment). After all, just about anyone, regardless of body type and fitness level, can learn how to defend themselves with a trained instructor. Got a physical disability? Just get over it. Get panicky when you have to fight? You’re a pansy. There’s no need to discourage mugging and assault because people should just learn self-defense. And if you don’t learn self-defense, well, you’re not taking responsibility for yourself and it’s not our job to keep you from getting yourself mugged or assaulted.

It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there, after all.

The ability to say “no” over and over despite wheedling, manipulation, and implied threat is not that different from the ability to disarm an attacker, target vulnerable body parts, or block a punch.

That is, the ability to defend yourself emotionally is not that different from the ability to defend yourself physically. We are not born knowing how to do either of those things.

Furthermore, just as some people have physical disabilities that prevent them from being able to fight off an attacker, some people–many people, in fact–have mental disorders that make it difficult for them to say “no” over and over. Just as some people panic and freeze rather than fighting back, some people are terrified by unceasing social pressure and do whatever they can to make the pressure stop–even if that means relenting to it.

This is not consent.

This. Is. Not. Consent.

Now, here’s where the analogy breaks down. Humans are psychologically wired to give in to social pressure. It makes sense, because acquiescing to the demands of others–especially others who are stronger than you–helps groups and societies run smoothly. The amount of research evidence for this is astounding, which is why I think everyone should be required to take a psychology 101 class. Stanley Milgram famously showed that most people are willing even to cause extreme pain to someone just because a person in a position of power is telling them to.

How is this relevant to (heterosexual) sexual encounters? Because men typically hold the reins. Men buy drinks and dinner, men invite women on dates, men initiate sex. Men are usually physically stronger. Women are likely to see their male partners as being in a position of power. And understand that this isn’t really a conscious thing–most women don’t think, “Gee, this guy has social and physical power over me, so I’d better do what he says.” It’s subtle. Subconscious. It sometimes makes “no” the hardest thing in the world to say.

And about buying drinks and dinner. This activates what psychologists call the norm of reciprocity. When someone does something nice for you–even if you didn’t ask for it–you may feel a strong urge to do something nice for them, especially if they’re asking you too. Lots of salespeople use this to their advantage, and it doesn’t surprise me at all that our dating system is set up this way.

Add to this a culture that claims, over and over, that a woman’s agency means little. Think of that “romantic” scene in The Amazing Spiderman, when Peter ropes Gwen in with his web and essentially forces her to kiss him. Think of the movie (500) Days of Summer, in which Tom uses a different type of coercion–he repeatedly badgers Summer for a relationship even though she’s told him many times that she’s not looking for one. Think of that Yale fraternity’s infamous chant, “No means yes, yes means anal.” Think of pickup artist (PUA) subculture, which literally teaches men how to coerce women into sex. Think of the expectation that a girl who’s asked to a high school prom by a guy sleeps with him afterwards.

Think of the irony of teaching women that they shouldn’t say no while demanding that they learn how to “take responsibility for themselves” by saying it.

And remember that many women–especially (and tragically) those who have already experienced sexual assault–make the assumption that “consenting” to sex is better than taking the risk of having it forced on you. If someone won’t take “no” for an answer, relenting may seem like the safer option. Remember that. Remember that this is not consent.

It’s absolutely true that women (and anyone else) can learn how to override their psychology and stand up to social pressure. But it’s true in the same way that it’s true that they can learn self-defense. It takes a long time–years, maybe–and lots of effort. It probably requires working with a professional or at least reading some useful books on the subject. You can’t just wake up one morning and “choose” to have a new personality.

And yet, that’s never what these concern trolls actually say. There is no advice about getting a therapist or improving your confidence. There is no acknowledgement that these things are difficult and take time. There is no compassion. There is only “Yeah well, she needs to learn how to say no. Not his fault she was such a pushover.”

That’s how I know that none of this is really about your supposed “concern” for these women. If you refuse to condemn people who use coercion and instead condemn people who allow themselves to be coerced, you are, to put it bluntly, on the wrong side.

In that case, here’s a challenge for you. Why is it so important to you that people be permitted by our social conventions to pressure, manipulate, and coerce each other into doing things–sometimes deeply personal and vulnerable things? Why do you insist that women can just magically “grow a backbone,” but that men can’t just stop coercing them?

And if the reason is that you think you’re being “realistic” and “pragmatic” because “things will never change anyway,” then I challenge you to direct fewer of your efforts at blaming victims of sexual assault, and more of them at actually fighting sexual assault.

Putting the burden on others to resist your attempts to get your way–rather than putting the burden on yourself to leave unwilling people alone–is deeply unethical. It is selfish. It prioritizes your desires over the needs of others.

No means no. A single no means no just as much as five of them do. We should only need to say it once.

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Save the People, Not the Boobies: The Ethics of Breast Cancer Awareness

Few ad campaigns make me as misanthropic as the breast cancer awareness ones I’ve been seeing at an especially high volume for the past month:

There’s also this video (NSFW).

I hate these campaigns for many reasons. First of all, they make breast cancer all about boobs. Yes, it has “breast” in the name, but reducing an illness as complex and life-shattering as breast cancer into a cutesy “save the boobies!” campaign seems callous and inappropriate.

I’m not sure everyone would even agree that the prospect of losing your breasts is the worst thing about breast cancer, and yet that’s what these campaigns almost universally target. It’s not the “boobies” or “ta-tas” that need to be saved–it’s the human beings who have breast cancer.

It’s even worse when the campaigns are created by and/or targeted at men and involve that hint-hint-nudge-nudge assumption that men should care about breast cancer because men love tits. Never mind that men can get breast cancer too, and never mind that men care about breast cancer not (just) because they care about boobs, but also because they care about their friends, girlfriends, wives, mothers, sisters, daughters, and etc. who might get breast cancer, or who already have.

Campaigns like these also completely ignore women who have chosen (or been forced to) undergo mastectomies. If breast cancer research and awareness is all about “saving the boobies,” does losing your breasts mean you’ve lost the fight?

This preoccupation with breasts is probably what inspires awful ads like this one by the Cancer Patients Aid Association, an Indian NGO:

The text at the bottom reads, “One out of every eight women develops breast cancer in her lifetime. Early detection helps recovery. Get yourself examined before it’s too late.” So there you have it. If you get a mastectomy, you’re “making yourself ugly.”

This is all to say nothing of Susan G. Komen for the Cure, the hypocrisy and reactionism of which should by now be well-known. (Incidentally, the former Komen executive who was responsible for that move was not content with merely that; she just had to write a book-length screed against Planned Parenthood, as well.) This unethical organization seems to be the beneficiary of most (if not all) of the sexualized ads I’ve seen. I still refuse to give them a single cent, which is difficult given how easy it is to accidentally pick up one of those pink-ribbon-branded products at the grocery store.

On the bright side, this is a great opportunity to explain what feminists mean when we prattle on about “objectification” and “sexualization,” which are closely related concepts that often (but not always) occur together. Objectification is the reduction of a person to their body parts (usually the sexual ones; hence the frequent co-occurence of objectification and sexualization). An advertisement that objectifies women might show, for instance, a single female leg in front of a flashy car, or a woman lying in a martini glass–literally like an object to be consumed. Sometimes men are objectified too, but that seems to be rarer. Ads that objectify people often don’t show their faces (or eyes), thus making them seem less like people and more like bodies.

Sexualization, meanwhile, is when a person (again, usually a woman) is represented in such a way as to arouse the viewer or otherwise connote sex when the actual purpose of the representation has nothing to do with sex at all. You wouldn’t call pornography “sexualization” because the purpose of pornography is to depict sexual acts and to be arousing. But when an advertisement designed to sell cars or alcohol–or solicit donations for breast cancer research–portrays women in a sexual way, that’s sexualization.

The objectification and sexualization of women in the media has a great deal of negative effects, both on an individual level–for the people who view them–and on a cultural level. Check out the work of Jean Kilbourne if that interests you.

However, I am not a marketing expert. If I were, and if I were charged with designing an ad campaign that elicits as much attention and donations for breast cancer research as possible, there’s a good chance I would feel compelled to create an ad like this, because there’s a good chance that this is the kind of ad that works best.

Hence the misanthropy I mentioned earlier. Marketing people know what they’re doing. If this is really the best way to get people to pay attention to this important cause, I would say that not using ads like these is even more unethical than using them–at least until we shift our culture enough that we don’t need them anymore. But that still means that we’re choosing the lesser of two evils. I would rather more money went to breast cancer research than less, but I would also rather we stopped reducing women to their erogenous zones in our media.

After all, I don’t agree with this rubbish that men are “programmed” or “hardwired” by biology to be obsessed with breasts, at least not to the level that our society seems to think they are. As I already discussed when I wrote about public breastfeeding, the sexualization of breasts is not universal to all cultures and time periods. Even if “sex sells,” breasts don’t necessarily have to always be part of “sex,” and I think it would be beneficial to our society if they were not.

For the record, whether straight men’s love of boobs is entirely biological or not, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it, as long as it doesn’t infringe upon public policy or trivialize serious illnesses. Besides, you can totally be an awesome (male) feminist and a boob enthusiast at the same time.

Edit: Here’s a great article that basically makes my point for me.

Guess What: Rape’s Not Funny When the Victim is a Man, Either

I know Jezebel is low-hanging fruit, but I can’t resist picking apart their new “Sexytime Dilemmas” column and its endorsement of sexual assault, which apparently is okay when the target is a man.

One of the letter-writers wants to know how to get a guy to try anal play. Jezebel’s “sexpert” responds (TW for sexual assault):

If you want this to work you’re going to have to be very delicate, and take things slowly. No one wants a dry finger shoved up their butt at random. In my experience, guys are generally more open to new concepts, and trying out new things, when you have their dick in your mouth. (This is because fellatio slows their brain down to a point of temporary retardation, which means their guard is down.)

…So, while you’re sucking, start playing with his balls and then slowly move moving your fingers back in the desired direction. Be conscious of how he’s responding to your touch. If he flinches as soon as you start poking around in that area, that’s not a good sign, but don’t give up hope just yet. Wait a minute or so, then do something fancy with your tongue to distract him and try again, rubbing lightly around the outside of the hole, as not to scare it….Basically, never give up and remember that with a little perseverance you can do anything you put your mind to, Susie!

I’ll say it several times since apparently people still don’t get it:

This is sexual assault.

This is sexual assault.

This is sexual assault.

I’ll let the much-more-talented Rebecca Watson explain this further, along with the many other ways in which that Jezebel post is horrible. For now, I want to address the assertion–which I’ve seen a few self-identified feminists make–that this piece is somehow “funny” because “humor” and “satire” and “lol rape against men.”

First of all, blindly regurgitating problematic crap is not satire, and it’s not any other kind of humor, either. Just as it wasn’t funny when Daniel Tosh said, “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by like, five guys right now?”, it’s not funny to be like, “LOLOL JUST STICK A FINGER UP HIS ASS WITHOUT CONSENT LOL.” And that’s basically what this piece is saying.

Now, if sexual assault of men were extremely rare, to the point of being unheard of, I can see how this might be funny. Sometimes, creating a satirical world–in which something that seems ludicrous in real life is commonplace–is humorous. That sort of role reversal inspired a play I saw recently, Venus Envy, which depicted a world in which men, not women, were the “weaker sex.” This type of satire points out problems in our society that are so entrenched that we take them for granted.

But this is not the case for sexual assault of men. Men are less likely than women to be raped, yes, but it’s not that rare. Men also face unique barriers in admitting and prosecuting sexual assault–from the perception that they “can’t” be raped to the victim-blamey belief that they ought to be able to defend themselves. Knowing that the hypothetical man in the article would receive very little support from others if he accused his female partner of violating him–knowing, in fact, that he may have internalized the “men can’t get raped” myth to the point that he wouldn’t even have the words to talk about what had happened–it’s just not funny to me.

As another (much better) Jezebel article once pointed out, it’s quite possible to joke about rape. Since the article was in response to the Tosh incident, it’s mostly talking about standup comedy, but it’s still relevant:

So, comics. This doesn’t mean that everyone is obligated to be the savior of mankind. You can be edgy and creepy and offensive and trivial and, yes, you can talk about rape. Doing comedy in front of a silent room is scary, and shocking people is a really easy way to get a reaction. But if you want people to not hate you (and wanting to not be hated is not the same thing as wanting to be liked), you should probably try and do it in a responsible, thoughtful way. Easy shortcut: DO NOT MAKE RAPE VICTIMS THE BUTT OF THE JOKE.

Do not make rape victims the butt of the joke.

It’s not funny when they’re female, and it’s equally not-funny when they’re male.

After I read the Sexytime Dilemmas article, I participated in a few online discussions about it and I found numerous (female) feminists who found it funny–and who openly admitted that they wouldn’t find it funny if the genders were flipped. And I felt sickened.

Yes, women are more likely than men to be sexually assaulted. But how on earth does that statistical fact make it any less tragic when a man is assaulted? Is the fact that it’s less likely supposed to make it more palatable somehow?

I don’t think so.

I am reminded of this wonderful post in which the author screams, “My feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit!”

My feminism will concern itself with all rape victims or it will be bullshit.

My feminism will care about the ways in which men are harmed by patriarchy or it will be bullshit.

My feminism may not devote equal time to men’s issues as it does to women’s issues, but it will show compassion for all genders, or it will be bullshit.

Oh, and for heaven’s sake: if you want to try something sexual with someone, communicate and get consent.

On Men Who Think Street Harassment Would Be Awesome

Whenever women are discussing street harassment and what causes it and how to prevent it, a man inevitably comes along to inform us that, actually, our feelings about harassment are Wrong because he, personally, would just love it if women catcalled him on the street or came up and slapped his ass without consent.

There are lots of things wrong here.

1. This is male privilege.

It’s a perfect example of it, in fact. Having privilege isn’t a “bad” thing, and it doesn’t mean you should have to lose that privilege–rather, it means the rest of society should gain it. In this case, that privilege is being able to walk down the street without being subjected to sexualized attention, and that privilege is one men have and women do not, in our society. (Of course, men are more likely than women to face other kinds of unwanted attention on the streets, but that’s not what we’re talking about here.)

When you say that you would “love” it if women catcalled you, you are speaking from a place of privilege because catcalling isn’t something you ever have to deal with. The only reason you are even able to imagine enjoying it because you’ve never experienced it.

Some men do experience sexual harassment from women or other men. But these generally aren’t the men butting into our conversations and telling us that we should take harassment as a compliment, because they understand what it’s actually like.

2. Harassment means you don’t want it.

Why is this so hard to understand? If you want sexual attention, then it’s not harassment or assault. It’s flirting or sex. If you want to be catcalled, then it won’t feel like harassment to you. When you make a sexual comment towards someone without their consent, you are running a huge risk of harassing them, but if it turns out that they wanted to hear that comment, they’re probably not going to complain.

But of course, none of us are mindreaders, or else men who harass women on the street would probably realize that they don’t want it in the least.

3. And anyway, your penis is not the arbiter of everyone’s sexuality.

As in, I don’t really care what you like. Just because you may like getting catcalled without your consent doesn’t mean the rest of us have to like it too, and it definitely doesn’t mean you have the right to do it to others. It’s just like I wrote about people who prefer not to be asked for consent during sex–that’s totally cool. But you cannot assume that others feel the same way you do.

If being catcalled in public is your thing (which, as I’ll explain, I kind of doubt, anyway), you’ll need to find a way to arrange that without advocating that everyone should be okay with catcalling. Just like if you get off on emulating rape, you’ll need to find a consenting partner to do that with rather than suggesting that everyone should be okay with getting raped because that’s what your penis likes.

4. Harassment is never a one-time thing, and that changes everything.

If you’ve never gotten catcalled (and likely never will), it may indeed seem like it’ll be pleasant and flattering. In fact, I distinctly remember thinking something similar when I was a teenager–old enough to want sexual attention, but too young to really get it (not to mention living in a quiet suburb rather than a big city).

The first time a man ever made a comment to me on the street, it was a bit weird but also kind of cool. I still remember it–I had just graduated from high school and was taking a trip to Chicago alone for the first time. I was in the Loop and there was a group of guys. One of them said, “Hey! You look good.” That was it. Fairly harmless as catcalling goes.

The second or third time, which I don’t remember, probably went much the same way, and I didn’t mind it much. But it’s never just a few times. It’s dozens, hundreds of times over a lifetime. It’s when you wear a cute dress. It’s when you wear sweats. It’s when you’re excitedly on your way to a date. it’s when you’re dragging yourself home after an exhausting day at work. It’s when you’re taking a run. It’s when you’re carrying groceries. It’s all. The. Fucking. Time.

And that, as this blogger explains beautifully, makes all the difference.

5. It’s also different when you’ve been a victim of sexual violence.

My guess is that men who say these things have not, and this is another type of privilege at play. If you’ve never experienced sexual violence, unwanted come-ons will feel different to you than they will to someone who has. To survivors of sexual violence, street harassment can be anything from a mildly uncomfortable reminder of a past experience to an actual trigger for a panic attack, depressive episode, or flashback.

And here’s the thing–if you haven’t had that experience, you cannot know what it’s like to be triggered or reminded of it. You just can’t. But luckily, you don’t need to understand it to respect those who do know. You just have to shut up for a change, and listen.

6. Who, exactly, would you want to be catcalled by?

My guess is that when you imagine getting catcalled, you’re imagining a gorgeous woman doing it. What about an ugly woman? A fat woman? A gay man? In my experience, the men who go around whining that nobody ever catcalls them on the street are the same ones who get horrified when someone they don’t find desirable pays them any attention.

Also, men who are perceived as gay are often bullied or assaulted for even seeming like they’re coming on to straight men. Apparently it’s not such a “compliment” anymore when it’s coming from someone you’re prejudiced against.

And remember that the whole problem with non-consensual interaction is that you don’t get to choose who interacts with you.

7. Gender matters.

Although men are not immune to violence (sexual or otherwise, from women or from other men), the dynamics are demonstrably different because most men are stronger than most women. If you’re a man walking down the street and a woman starts harassing you, you generally don’t have to worry that she’ll brutally rape and attack you if you try to get her to stop (TW for that link).

For women, the awfulness of street harassment isn’t just what it actually is, but also in what it could become. It could just be an offhand comment, or it could lead to stalking, groping, assault, mugging, or murder. You may think that you’re a perfectly nice guy who’d never actually hurt anyone as you stand there and whistle at a woman, but she doesn’t know that, and therein lies the horror of it.

The humiliation makes it even worse. When a man catcalls me, I can feel the eyes of the passerby on me and I know what they’re thinking: She shouldn’t have dressed like a slut. She shouldn’t be here alone this late at night. I wonder what she did to get his attention. 

When women come on to men, on the other hand, this generally reflects well on the men because getting attention from women is seen as an accomplishment, not a failure to stay modest and unobtrusive enough.

On the other hand, though, this mindset also contributes to the huge problem of sexual assault not being taken seriously when men are the victims, which brings me right to my final point.

8. Comments like these erase male victims.

This is perhaps the most important point I’ll make in this entire piece: men who say things like this are effectively erasing the experiences of male victims of sexual harassment and assault. Believe it or not, many (if not most) men don’t actually enjoy it when women pay them unwanted sexual attention, “unwanted” being the key word.

A male friend of mine mentioned that whenever a guy points out that, no, he does not want to be harassed by women on the street, he gets ridiculed by other men. That, right there, is why it’s so difficult for men to admit being harassed or assaulted, and why male victims are marginalized. Male rape is still largely considered either impossible, “not a big deal,” or, as I’m discussing in an upcoming post, simply hilarious. I don’t know how else to say it: this is a fucking problem.

Anyway, I’m at 1,400 words now, so this seems as good a time as any to stop. Here’s the tl;dr version for people who minimize the problem of street harassment: check your privilege, put yourself into someone else’s shoes, and consider the fact that the world doesn’t fucking revolve around you.

[In Brief] Do Feminists Care About Men’s Issues? (A handy list!)

Men’s rights activists (MRAs) would have you believe that feminism is sexist against men because feminists don’t care about issues that affect men, such as restrictive gender roles, circumcision, sexual violence against men, the military draft, and custody rights.

That always seemed like a strange argument to me because, as a female feminist, I care about these issues quite a lot, and so do all of my feminist friends of all genders.

But of course, that’s circumstantial evidence. So I decided to make this list of articles about men’s issues written by feminists. Most of these aren’t some sort of niche feminists, either–the articles on this list come from well-known outlets like Feministing, Feministe, RH Reality Check, and Alas, A Blog.

(A note: it took me and two friends about fifteen minutes to make this list over two pages long. That should speak for itself.)

I’ve also compiled it into a Google Doc, which you can access here. I will keep updating it!

Hopefully others will find this useful in countering MRAs who claim that feminists just don’t care about men.