Reports on ‘Leaked Nude Photos‘ — Just Another Form of Victim-Blaming

As most of you will have heard by now, an anonymous hacker has stolen the private images of a large number of female celebrities, and posted them on 4chan, an imageboard website notorious for being a cesspit of misogyny.

Here are a selection of headlines I’ve seen today:

The Great Naked Celebrity Photo Leak of 2014 is Just the Beginning -  Guardian

Jennifer Lawrence Nude Photos Leaked ‘After iCloud Hack’ – BBC

Leaked Nude Celeb Photos Spark Hacking Fears – Sky News

Jennifer Lawrence’s Nude Photos Leak Online, Other Celebs Targeted – Huffington Post

Leaked: Photos of Naked Celebrities, Including Jennifer Lawrence – The Sydney Morning Herald

Nude Photos of Many A-List Celebrities Leaked Online After Apparent Hacking – CTV News

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Leaked. Over and over, the same phrase is being employed. The photographs were leaked.

What a strange word to use. A leak is what happens when I fail to turn my tap all the way off. If my water bottle is not properly sealed, it leaks. If I had a baby, and then forgot to change its diaper often enough, that would leak too.

But is that what has happened here? Did the photos of these women suddenly find themselves on the internet in an unfortunate accident, brought about through the laws of physics and a defective containment system? Or was there something else at work here?

Make no mistake, these photos were not leaked. They were stolen by an unscrupulous individual who hacked his (or her, I suppose, but I think we all know that ‘his’ is far more likely) way into personal online accounts, saved the images, and then distributed them on the internet without consent. As Van Badham rightly points out, this is an act of sexual violation, and those who enjoy and continue to share those images are perpetuating this abuse.

Of course, this is not the first time that a crime of this nature has happened, and it appears that the use of the word “leaked” in this context is common practice. Countless women, celebrities or not, have had their photos stolen and shared around by men, and each time the media has reported it as an act of nature — “Oh, there those photos go, leaking into the web again!”

What this standard terminology serves to do, however, is to obscure the (almost always) male perpetrator, focusing the attention, critique and shame solely on the (almost always) female victim. The fact that a man has committed a repulsive crime is swept under the carpet, and it is her actions that are scrutinised. “Why did she take those photos?” “Shouldn’t she have hidden them better?” “She’s ruined her career now.” “Shame on her!”

As we all know, this is victim-blaming. The responsibility does not lie with women to ensure that our private images are not shared on the internet, but with the would-be perpetrator not to steal and share them. In the wake of the most recent crime, victim-blaming sentiments are running amok on social media, most famously by Ricky Gervais, who tweeted, “Celebrities, make it harder for hackers to get nude pics of you from your computer by not putting nude pics of yourself on your computer,” and most horrifyingly, by a Twitter user who claimed that the women deserved this exposure, for the crime of not allowing any and every man access to their bodies.

The use of the word “leaked” to describe the photographs may not be as blatantly victim-blaming as the statements above, but they do imply that if the pictures are being illegally posted and shared, it is due to the women’s carelessness and neglect — they did not protect the photos well enough, and thus allowed them to slip away into the world wide web.

After all, if a pickpocket were to take my wallet out of my pocket, and distribute my money to all his friends, would you say that my money had simply “leaked”?

The Blame Game — We Need to Stop Blaming Women for Gender Inequality

One of the more slippery tricks that the patriarchy employs to uphold itself is to further the illusion that gender inequality is really the fault of women themselves, and a natural and inevitable state of affairs. If the gender pay gap exists, it is argued, it is because women lack the ability to negotiate salaries; if the duties of childcare fall predominantly to women, it is said to be because women choose to stay at home; if women are underrepresented in government, it is the female disinterest in politics that takes the blame; if women are attacked by men, it is once again presented as somehow the woman’s fault. This blaming of women is a handy excuse to avert one’s gaze from the problems of gender inequality; if it can be framed as something that is caused by the very people who are its victims, then it can be more easily dismissed and ignored, and members of the dominant group are spared feelings of guilt or responsibility.

Of course, blaming women for everything, or putting inequality down to women’s individual choices, obscures the very real discrimination that women face on a day-to-day basis, and conceals the societal pressures behind the choices that women make. Let’s explore three myths that seek to blame women for gender inequality, and see why they should never be allowed to go unchallenged.

 

Myth 1: Women are generally less successful in their careers than men are because they don’t negotiate for their salary, and are not assertive enough.

From jesadaphorn, freedigitalphotos.net

From jesadaphorn, freedigitalphotos.net

This myth is an absolute favourite of the business world, and is the foundation of countless ‘inspirational’ books for women such as Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In”, Gail Evans’ “Play Like a Man, Win Like a Woman: What Men Know About Success that Women Need to Learn”, Lois Frankel’s “Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office – 101 Unconscious Mistakes Women Make That Sabotage Their Careers”, among many others. The recurring theme is that women are currently going about their careers all wrong, and while there is usually a cursory nod to the existence of sexism, the gist of the message is that it is women’s behaviour that needs to change, and if only we could act more like men, gender inequality in the workplace would slowly disappear.

What makes this idea so popular is that there are indeed documented differences between the way women and men behave at work. For instance, in a study by Babcock, it was found that while 57% of men attempt to negotiate their salaries, only 7% of women do. And when it comes to communication in the workplace, Deborah Tannen has found that women tend to be more apologetic, gentle, and indirect. Such discoveries have been pounced on eagerly as evidence of women’s cluelessness in the workplace, as evidence of institutional sexism being merely a small factor in comparison to the enormity of women’s mistakes.

Certainly, women behave differently from men in the workplace. But is this difference in behaviour really a mistake on the part of women, or is it simply a way of adapting to the difference in the way women are treated and responded to at work? Study after study has shown that while men are rated favourably for behaving in an assertive, even aggressive manner, women acting in the same way are disapproved of and punished, be it through social sanctions like isolation and name-calling, or by being rejected for promotions and denied career opportunities. The same is true when it comes to negotiating salaries. Most women choose not to negotiate for a very good reason — they believe, rightly, that any attempt to negotiate will reflect badly on them, something that would not occur to the same degree if they were male. As researcher Hannah Bowles says, “This isn’t about fixing the women. It isn’t about telling women, “You need self-confidence or training.” They are responding to incentives within the social environment… You have to weigh that against social risks of negotiating. What we show is those risks are higher for women than for men.”

Another aspect of this myth that I find irksome is the assumption that the current dynamics of the workplace are immutable, even desirable. There is no link between confidence and competence, and if there is one, research suggests it is an inverse relationship, meaning that it may be the most incompetent individuals who seem the most confident (look up the Dunning-Kruger effect). Quieter qualities like cooperativeness and empathy are essential to good leaders, yet are sadly too often overlooked, or scorned as ‘feminine traits’. In a society where a culture of aggression, over-confidence and reckless risk-taking led to the financial crash, are these really the behaviours that we want to continue to promote?

 

Myth 2: Women take on more housework and childcare responsibilities because they choose not to work outside the home.

from freedigitalphotos.net

From tiverylucky, freedigitalphotos.net

This myth is annoyingly persistent, and it’s not hard to see why. To some, there is a pleasing symmetry and fairness in the idea of women and men occupying different spheres of work — she in the home, and he in the workplace, happily toiling away at their respective tasks. Yet, not only does this completely erase same-sex couples and non-traditional living arrangements, the idea that women shoulder the brunt of domestic responsibilities within the family in exchange for men working outside the home is completely inaccurate.

While women have been making greater gains in the workplace, with more than 40% of women now taking on the role of primary breadwinners, the division of labour when it comes to domestic chores has not shifted. Women working full-time do more than three times as much housework as men working full-time; even more appallingly, in households where the female partner is the primary breadwinner and the male partner does not work, domestic chores still fall to the woman. Women do not do the bulk of the housework because they spend less time in paid employment, they simply do the bulk of the housework, full stop.

The second part of this myth is the concept of a woman’s ‘choice’ to stay at home, combined with a man’s ‘choice’ to seek paid employment. Let’s take a look at some of the factors that might lead to this choice, starting with maternity and paternity leave. In the UK, women can generally take up to 52 weeks of maternity leave, while paternity leave is only 2 weeks long (though this may hopefully be changed next year). When a heterosexual couple expecting a baby discusses future working arrangements, what makes economic sense? For the mother to stay home with the baby of course. And when one partner has to stay home permanently or work part-time, who will it be? Given that the mother has already spent close to a year caring for the child and is thus a lot more comfortable with the routine of childcare, added to this the fact that the female partner is likely to be earning less than the male partner, owing not only to the gender wage gap but men’s socialised reluctance to be the lower earner in the relationship, plus societal expectations of what a good mother should do, and society’s mocking of men who decide to stay home… given all this and more, it is hardly a surprise that most households fit neatly into the pattern of the man being the primary breadwinner, and the woman taking full responsibility for the domestic sphere. Can this really be said to be women’s free choice at all?

 

Myth 3: Women’s clothing and behaviour lead to sexual assault.

And now we come to the most painful myth of all. On average, 404 000 women are victims of sexual offences every year in the UK, compared to 72 000 men, and 98% of perpetrators are men, making this a crime that is heavily gendered. However, society seems to think that it is women who are to blame for this state of affairs, and up to us to prevent sexual assault. Even as a child, my friends and I were familiar with all the rules we had to live by, and these messages were drummed into us again and again — wearing short skirts leads to sexual assault; drinking leads to sexual assault; going out alone at night leads to sexual assault; taking lifts from strangers leads to sexual assault; flirting or ‘sending mixed messages’ leads to sexual assault; having many sexual partners leads to sexual assault. We were told, in subtle (and often not-so-subtle) ways, that if we were to do any of the things above, we were “asking for it”, and were being stupid, and had no one to blame but ourselves, for “what did we expect, really”?

Except it isn’t women who are causing rape and sexual assault. Women have been assaulted while wearing anything, from dresses, to jeans, to hoodies, to burqas. Women have been assaulted when drunk or sober. And women have been assaulted anywhere, be it a deserted alley, or the bedroom of a trusted friend, or at a crowded party. And there is nothing women can do to prevent these assaults, for they are not our fault. We do not cause them, and so we cannot stop them.

 

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These three myths are only a small selection of the myriad ways in which women are blamed for manifestations of gender inequality, and for gender inequality itself. From a young age, boys are taught to exert control over their world, through building, inventing, fighting, and being aggressive. Girls, on the other hand, are taught to internalise this control, to master not our surroundings but ourselves, through dieting, cosmetics, fashion, and being agreeable. Too often, then, women are told to change ourselves, and that if we do not succeed in this society, then it is we who must readjust, and not social structures and societal attitudes that are flawed. This habit of blaming women has gone on far too long, and it is only once we shift our focus from women’s ‘mistakes’ to analysing and overhauling unequal power structures in society, that any real progress can be made.

On #YesAllWomen, and the Discomfort of ‘Good Men’

YesAllWomen

 

Following Elliot Rodger’s hate crime against women (yes, I know many news reports seem to have missed the misogynistic message he was sending, I know Wikipedia has decided to classify it as generic violence instead of violence against women, and I know The Good Men Project has decided it was really all about virginity, but make no mistake, it was a hate crime nonetheless), women all over the internet rose up with the hashtag #YesAllWomen, sharing stories of misogyny and sexual violence, pointing out how the little and not-so-little experiences that women are subjected to on a regular basis combine to create a society in which a killer like Rodger is made.

Somewhat predictably, there has been resistance from men reluctant to acknowledge the sexist culture that surrounds us; more specifically, they are uncomfortable with the idea that they, with their ‘harmless banter’ or only slightly sexist behaviour, could be complicit in a hate crime of such immense proportions.

One example of this is this piece by T.J Holmes, who believes that the hashtag is unfairly placing blame on men who consider themselves good men, who have never attacked women and probably never will, who are only guilty of what he sees as innocuous sexist behaviours, such as giving a woman their arm, or getting women to pass through doors before themselves. He states that “there is a huge gap between the man who catcalls a woman walking down the street and the man who opens fire on her”, and that #YesAllWomen has somehow led to a confused population of women who are unable to see the distinction between these two actions.

Yet, as someone who has followed the hashtag quite closely over the last week, I see no evidence of this “sense that all sexism is created equal”. There is nothing on the hashtag to suggest that shooting a woman is just the same as whistling at her on the street. What I have seen though, over and over again, is women asserting that we must connect the everyday sexism and harassment that women experience, with the underlying attitude of male entitlement to female bodies, thereby creating the conditions necessary for Rodger’s hatred of women to take root and flourish in that particular way. I have seen women point out how charged with fear many romantic / sexual interactions are for women, where it is often hard to tell if rejecting a man’s advances will lead to an uneventful evening, or an encounter with violence. I have seen women unite in their common experiences of being women in a man’s world, and call on men to take the responsibility of tackling the misogyny rampant in socialised masculinity. Nowhere have I witnessed the notion that a man who has regressive beliefs about being a “gentleman” is exactly the same as a mass murderer, which makes Holmes’ opening lines puzzling, to say the least.

And let’s not forget that we live in a world where women are brought up to expect and get over unwanted touching in bars and clubs, a world where a woman’s clothing and behaviour can be blamed for her rape, and where an unambiguously woman-hating killer is called a ‘madman’ rather than an extremist in a misogynistic society. Given this background, can you imagine that from now on, due to #YesAllWomen, any man who engages in sexist behaviour will be viewed and treated as no better than a mass murderer? Of course not. The idea that this is a serious concern for men is patently ludicrous.

I’m not surprised that many men are feeling uncomfortable after reading tweets on the #YesAllWomen hashtag. If one has lived one’s life completely oblivious to the systemic sexism that pervades everything we do, it can be a shock to suddenly realise that you, a well-meaning, kind-hearted man who would never hurt a fly, are complicit in a culture that has led to horrific instances of male violence against women. In fact, I’m glad of this discomfort. I would find it much more worrying if all men read about the harassment, fear and violence that women experience, and felt absolutely nothing. But don’t pretend that this discomfort is in anyway comparable to the actual lived reality of women’s oppression. Don’t ask women to censor their words and hide the truth because it makes some men feel unfairly blamed. Recognise how tiny sexist acts, while so seemingly harmless to you, can add up and add up and add up, to a culture where women are assigned inferior status, and hate crimes against women are a dime a dozen. Then take that discomfort and use it to drive change, rather than taking the easy path of denial.

When Women and Girls Are Attacked by Men, We Blame Everything Except Male Violence

Last Tuesday night, two teenage girls from India went out into the fields, looking for a place to relieve themselves, due to the lack of toilets in their village. On their way, they were brutally attacked by a group of men, gang-raped, and murdered. Their bodies were found the next day hanging from a tree, in a sickening display of complacence that speaks volumes not only about the men’s arrogance and lack of shame, but also their sense of entitlement to female bodies. Activists in India have rallied in protest against the problem of sexual violence in the country, and villagers have condemned police inaction relating to the incident.

Yesterday, an article appeared in The Guardian, citing the lack of basic sanitation as the main reason for the death of the girls. It was the lack of toilets in their village, the article suggests, that resulted in the attack, never mind the perpetrators themselves, never mind the global ideal of masculinity that accepts, even encourages, violence in men, never mind the global culture of misogyny that normalises violence against women.

Don’t get me wrong — I do believe that basic sanitation is crucial. It is of the utmost importance for reasons of hygiene, leading to cleaner surroundings, safer food and water, lower rates of diarrhoea and illness, lower risk of snake bites, and lower mortality rates. Access to toilets provides privacy and dignity, and having a toilet in schools can encourage girls to continue with their schooling after hitting puberty. And with around 2.7 billion people around the world without access to basic sanitation, the problem is a pressing one.

Neither do I deny the fact that many men choose to attack women when they are seeking a secluded spot in the fields to relieve themselves. Yet, to focus exclusively on the circumstances surrounding the attack, while ignoring the main source of the attack (the perpetrators), fits into a pattern that feminists have been decrying for decades — society’s propensity to treat male violence as an accepted fact of life, to make allowances for it, to try to avoid it, and to attempt to redirect it. None of these can keep women safe.

Around the world, men have been raping and murdering women in every conceivable situation. They have carried out violence against women in their own homes, on the street, in clubs, at parties, in hostels on a school trip, on public buses, in school toilets, in high school hallways, at concerts, while camping, during piano lessons, in taxis, during a football game, the list goes on. Women can avoid going to dark and secluded areas, we can stay at home, we can take all the precautions we have been told to take. No wearing short skirts, no going out alone at night, no getting drunk in public, no trusting a strange man. But as long as men continue their violent behaviour, as long as they continue to rape and murder women, then — naturally — women will continue to be raped and murdered. They will be raped and murdered no matter where they are, no matter what they happen to be doing at the time.

The global epidemic of male violence against women must end, but we will never end it by refusing to place our finger on the key issue at hand, the link between socialised masculinity and violence. If we continue to ignore this, then the only world where men no longer attack women will be a world where women and girls do not exist at all.

Speech – The Fetishisation of Asian Women, from the Race and Sex Event by The Runnymede Trust

Runnymede Trust event

Picture by Runnymede Trust

Last night, I took part in a panel debate organised by The Runnymede Trust, on how race influences our ideas around beauty, sex and desire. Chaired by Sondhya Gupta, my fellow panelists were Christina Fonthes and Dr Ornette Clennon, and it was a fantastic evening filled with insightful and stimulating discussion. Follow this link for a summary of our opening presentations, and learn more about the End Racism This Generation campaign here.

My speech centered around the fetishisation experienced by Asian women; you can read it in full below:

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First of all I’d like to thank the Runnymede Trust for inviting me here, it is an honour to be able to speak to all of you on a subject I’m very passionate about, which is the sexualisation of race. I’ll be talking about the fetishisation of Asian women, more specifically East Asian and South East Asian women.

So, 2 years ago, I was working in a job that required interaction with customers. A man started a conversation with me, and after the inevitable “Where are you from” question and finding out that I was from Singapore, he asked, “Shall I go there? Does everyone in Singapore look like you?”

There was also the time a man asked if it was true that Asian women had no hair on our bodies, and the time a stranger said, with a look in his eye, “I dated an Asian woman once.”

Most Asian women will have plenty of stories like these, but where the fetishisation of Asian women really reveals itself is on the internet, where anonymity and the lack of perceived need for social niceties allows racist attitudes to flourish. A tumblr called creepywhiteguys.tumblr.com even collates offensive messages sent to Asian women on online dating sites, which makes for some interesting reading. So widespread is the phenomenon of mainly white men exoticising Asian women, that the term “Yellow Fever” has been coined, with sites and forums filled with men ‘celebrating’ this ‘special interest’. The Asian woman is held up as the feminine ideal — having long hair, soft skin, and most importantly to them, a meek and submissive attitude towards men.

But where do these ideas about Asian women come from? It is easy to dismiss them as isolated instances of ignorant, individual men, but the truth is, these comments and attitudes are reflective of our society at large; they both stem from, as well as feed back into, the status quo.

The portrayal of Asian women in the media is seriously problematic. Often, we are rendered invisible, or relegated to the background, or portrayed as submissive, subservient, and in need of a white male hero. Films like The Last Samurai enact the ultimate patriarchal, colonialist fantasy — where a white man enters an Asian community, kills an Asian man, then claims his wife as his prize. And in the musical Miss Saigon, the story centres around Kim’s need to be saved by a white American GI, ending with her sacrificing her life for him and their son. In British TV, East Asian women almost never appear, except maybe for ten minutes in Peep Show, where we meet an Asian love interest with no speaking lines at all.

This stereotyping of Asian women denies us our individuality and humanity, casting us as merely sexual objects for the pleasure of white men. Type “Caucasian” into Google Images, and compare what comes up to what appears when you type in the word “Asian”. It is clear what many think of when they think “Asian” — scantily clad women in sexually submissive poses — ready to please, ready to serve.

6 months ago I wrote a piece for Media Diversified, entitled “I’m Not Your Pretty Little Lotus Flower”, in which I condemned the exotification of Asian women by white men. I received many responses from white men, the most common sentiment being that Asian women exoticised them, and it was therefore the same. The thing is, this idea reveals a lack of understanding of sexism and racism, and ignores the power imbalances at play. Of course, there are Asian women who prefer white men, but this comes from imperialistic notions of white supremacy, the equating of whiteness with power and prestige, and descends directly from colonialism. This is a far cry from the fetishisation of submissiveness and powerlessness that Asian women are subjected to.

So why are fetishisation and stereotypes so harmful? It has been well-documented that sexual objectification is harmful to women. In studies by Caroline Heldman and Lisa Wade, objectification, in particular internalised sexual objectification, has been linked to depression, eating disorders, a decrease in self-worth, a decrease in cognitive and motor functioning, and a lack of political efficacy.

For Asian girls in particular, it creates a society where they grow up seeing themselves through the eyes of white men, their identity a sexual fantasy above all else, moulding themselves to fit the demands of a white supremacist, patriarchal society.

Asian girls and women deserve better than this. We will not be silent, we will not be submissive, we will not be content to be lovable dolls and playthings. We have a voice, and we will be heard.

Thank you.

Patriarchy’s Magic Trick: How Anything Perceived As Women’s Work Immediately Sheds Its Value

Doctors

The gender wage gap has long been an issue of importance for feminists, and one that consistently finds itself on the UN and government agendas. Despite this, there is a persistent idea among many in mainstream society (mostly men, and some women) that the gender wage gap is simply a myth, that women are paid less on average because of the specific choices that women make in their careers. Everything, they claim, from the industry a woman chooses to establish herself in, to the hours she chooses to work, to her decision to take time off to spend with her children, and so on, leads to lower pay, for reasons, they confidently assure us, that have nothing at all to do with sexism. Now we could delve into, and rebut, these points at length, but in this post, I will focus only on the assertion that the wage gap exists partly because women choose to go into industries that just happen — what a coincidence! — to be lower paid.

So here’s how the argument usually goes. Women, they say, gravitate towards lower-paid industries such as nursing, cleaning, teaching, social work, childcare, customer service or administrative work, while men choose to work in politics, business, science, and other manly, well-paid industries. Those who propagate this idea usually aren’t interested in a solution, since they see no problem, but if asked to provide one, they might suggest that women behave more like men, one aspect of this being to take up careers in male-dominated industries that are more well-paid (and respected, but they seldom say this out loud).

But is this really a solution, even a small one? What their analysis misses out is the question of how the average pay levels of different industries are decided in the first place. There’s demand and supply, of course, but another factor is the perceived value of the role, and what it means to society. Let’s examine a traditionally male-dominated role that is very well-respected, and well-paid, in many parts of the world — that of a doctor. In the UK, it is listed as one of the top ten lucrative careers, and the average annual income of a family doctor in the US is well into six figures. It also confers on you significant social status, and a common stereotype in Asian communities is of parents encouraging their children to become doctors.

One of my lecturers at university once presented us with this thought exercise: why are doctors so highly paid, and so well-respected? Our answers were predictable. Because they save lives, their skills are extremely important, and it takes years and years of education to become one. All sound, logical reasons. But these traits that doctors possess are universal. So why is it, she asked, that doctors in Russia are so lowly paid? Making less than £7,500 a year, it is one of the lowest paid professions in Russia, and poorly respected at that. Why is this?

The answer is crushingly, breathtakingly simple. In Russia, the majority of doctors are women. Here’s a quote from Carol Schmidt, a geriatric nurse practitioner who toured medical facilities in Moscow: “Their status and pay are more like our blue-collar workers, even though they require about the same amount of training as the American doctor… medical practice is stereotyped as a caring vocation ‘naturally suited‘ to women, [which puts it at] a second-class level in the Soviet psyche.”

What this illustrates perfectly is this — women are not devalued in the job market because women’s work is seen to have little value. It is the other way round. Women’s work is devalued in the job market because women are seen to have little value. This means that anything a woman does, be it childcare, teaching, or doctoring, or rocket science, will be seen to be of less value simply because it is done mainly by women. It isn’t that women choose jobs that are in lower-paid industries, it is that any industry that women dominate automatically becomes less respected and less well-paid.

So it is not enough for us to demand access to traditionally male-dominated fields. Yes, we need to stop holding women back in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) careers, and yes, we need to allow more women to take an interest in, and succeed in business and politics. But far more than that, we need to change the culture that imbues us with a sense of the inferiority of women, that tells us, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, that anything a woman does is obviously easy, requires little effort, and is of minimal value to society.

The Disbelieving of Women

Earlier this year, two male television hosts from The Netherlands decided to go through simulated labour contractions to have a small inkling of what childbirth might be like. The video, which shows them writhing and screaming in agony, went viral on social media, attracting many comments from men who, it appeared, had just had the realisation that childbirth was indeed rather painful after all. The two Dutch TV hosts are not the only men to have done this. The narrative seems to pan out in a similar manner each time — the men begin their journey happy and intrepid, sometimes even cocky, and end up wracked with pain, expressing a newfound respect for mothers. The audience is delighted, and the videos make their rounds.

Yet, one question continues to bug me — why did these men feel the need to ‘experience’ it for themselves before they could acknowledge the extent of the pain of childbirth? What astounds me is that despite the well-known fact of the agony of childbirth, a common theme of doubt lingers among these men. Before undergoing the simulation, Zeno, one half of the Dutch duo, wonders, “Do you think the pain will make us scream?” Another video contains a pre-simulation quote from one of the participants — “According to women childbirth is the worst kind of pain there is. But did you know, according to men, women exaggerate everything?”

And there we arrive at the heart of the matter. Disbelief, the curse of Cassandra in Greek mythology, is a curse that has fallen on, and continues to plague women today. Represented in popular culture as either unable to fully understand or articulate her own experiences, or scheming and manipulative, or else histrionic drama queens, or simply irrational, society has been conditioned to take women’s words with a pinch of salt. The default reaction to anything a woman says seems to be to disbelieve her, unless faced with incontrovertible evidence.

Cassandra. From: Wikipedia

Cassandra. From: Wikipedia

If you are a woman who holds and expresses strong opinions, particularly online, you’ll be able to relate to this — the unceasing demand from men for us to present them with academic studies to back up our points. Now, not for a second am I denigrating the importance of using hard evidence in an argument, or the citing of one’s sources. Yet, when men are constantly asking women — and only women — for sources during casual conversation, and in a challenging, sneering manner at that, something else is certainly at work here, and it isn’t simply a passion for academic rigour.

Nowhere is the knee-jerk disbelief of women more apparent than in the public reaction to a woman’s reporting of rape or sexual abuse, particularly if the man in question is a celebrity or in a position of power. Despite all the evidence pointing towards the extreme rarity of false rape accusations, too many people automatically dismiss a victim’s story when she speaks up, preferring to believe the protestations of innocence coming from the accused instead. Often, not even a guilty verdict can convince them of the victim’s veracity; Ched Evans’ victim has had to endure anger and threats of violence, and is called a liar by complete strangers to this day.

This habit of disbelieving women is no trivial matter, and it has to end. Not only does it deny victims justice and deter other victims from coming forward, it also enables perpetrators to get away with their crimes, and reassures other would-be perpetrators that their chances of evading punishment are high. If our words carry no weight, then it serves to reaffirm and cement the second-class status of women in society, by invalidating our experiences and dismissing our interpretations of them as exaggerated, ill-informed, or straight-out malicious lies.

And you know what? If men can only believe in the agony of childbirth by watching another man go through a mini simulation of contractions, it’s a very sad state of affairs indeed.

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First published at The F Word.