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.

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18 thoughts on “The Disbelieving of Women

  1. It’s weird, but I remember reading a piece recently with relatedly baffling connotations: that now men are somehow the big names on discussing sexism in SF/F genre books. http://www.kameronhurley.com/?p=13317

    I know it’s important for men to speak up on issues women have been talking about for decades, but, come on. :P

    • Haha. Reminds me of the time when loads of people were falling all over that video by Jackson Katz about language and sexism. It was a great video, but even though much of what he’d said had been said by women for years and years, and though Katz himself explicitly credits women in the video, people continued to treat it as a revolutionary take on sexism, while ignoring all the stuff that women have said on the subject. Enraging!

  2. Reblogged this on feimineach.com and commented:
    “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.”

    • Its spread through sexist media like lads mags and porn … if you look at every porn site that portrays rape of women or children the victim is always a willing participant in their own abuse. Too many men and women watch that shit and think it is real, that women and children are inheritently evil whilst men are born good … no man enters a legal process with guilty until proven innocent unless … gasp … he is the victim of prejudice … we need to stamp out male superioty … no one is born biologically gooder than any other genre of people ….

  3. Vox populi. Vocem hominum. Vox mulieribus.
    “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.”

    It is not only when we say something that we are disbelieved. When we write something too, in an academic setting, women are expected to back up their arguments with more rigour than their male counterparts. I do not know whether this expectation comes from without or from within. It is very possible that no such external expectation exists. Or if it does exist that it applies equally to men and women.
    Yet I have seen this discrepancy in attitudes towards referencing between my male and female colleagues. So many of my male colleagues are comfortable making statements and constructing arguments without searching for evidence to back them up with. Or at least, when they do include secondary sources, they are fewer than the number included by female counterparts. They confidently make their argument and move on to the next. Their female counterparts, on the other hand, whilst making a similarly confident argument, feel compelled to go searching for countless others who may have said the same (often male) to ensure that what they say will not be challenged or dismissed as mere opinion.
    I wonder whether these attitudes you refer to in this brilliantly written article may have something to do with engendering this type of behaviour.

    On a (is it?) humorous note:
    When asked for evidence one could ask for evidence to the contrary in return. When such evidence is denied – on the basis of their not being the ones making the argument and therefore not needing to support it as such – then one could insist that since the request for evidence implies the challenger’s knowledge of something to the contrary then perhaps they would do well to support with evidence the implied claim.
    Or accept the truth of one’s utterings without demanding evidentiary support for the same.

    The alternative could use your line of argument.
    When asked for evidence one could ask whether the questioner has ever asked a male counterpart for evidence in such cases.
    When they answer that of course they had, then one could ask for evidence of such former lines of questioning, preferably in video form, although written might do just as well.

    Not exactly an opener for dialogue, but perhaps it may give those who insist on disbelieving women some food for thought.

  4. I have recently come across your blog. I like your style of writing. Sexism and racism are deep rooted evils, which must be systematically uprooted from everyone’s minds. There is no place for stereotypes in a globalised world. Articles such as your’s should be read and shared by every person who can read.

    R

  5. I just have to say that not all women experience childbirth as tremendously painful. Statistics from the drug-free childbirths indicate that perhaps as many as 20% of women (my numbers are old since it is many years since i particularly following childbirth issues :) don’t perceive the sensation as pain, although it is still described as very intense. And really, I’m not making this up. One of my friends back in the 90’s was one of those women – and I have to admit i was a bit jealous after my own experiences with my children.

    I know it’s missing your own point about how patriarchy discount’s women’s credibility, but i felt i needed to say it.

  6. The problem is that we play men’s game and let them decide what is believable or acceptable and what not. We constantly have to prove and explain ourselves and we are judged much more harshly in the public sphere for just about everything. The only way for this to change is for us to stop caring so much. We only need to ask ourselves is it really that important for us men to know that childbirth is painful? I don’t think so, what matters us that we know. As for men if they wish to learn more about us they are welcome but we should be done constantly explaining ourselves.

    • I think the problem is much more than whether explaining ourselves works, i think we have to go back to history. The times human equality moves forward is when the underclasses get militant. We need to learn the lessons of sociology …. The hierarchy will always hang on to first in the queue through covert violence, which is why the judicial system has such a poor record on make human rights violations of women and children.

  7. I’m baffled at what this article has to say because it seems to suggest the problem is quite prevalent. Or am I mistaken? I’m a woman and I don’t think I’ve been treated with disbelief.

    • If you look at the furore over Newsnight where the editor chose not to run a piece on Jimmy Saville as he said ‘we’ve only the women’s words for this’, or the thousands of times the police/judiciary have put the victim of rape/sexist assault on the street or in the home on trial as they cite ‘false accusation’ syndrome you will see it is very very prevalent. You may be lucky, but 2 in 3 girls in UK schools report they have been subject to sexist abuse and 1 in 3 have been subjected to sexist attack (sexual assault) on school property and say there is no point reporting it to teachers as they are disbelieved or ignored. Likewise, of the 85,000 rapes that take place every year in the UK, less than 1 in 10 are reported, despite 97% of victims being able to name their attacker due to the victims very real understanding that it will be them and not the alleged assailant that is put on trial for their choice of clothing, their behaviour, how much they’ve had to drink or their previous relationship with the accused. That’s enough to be going on with. The moment you report sexism as a female you are subject to a barrage of abuse about your integrity, looks, sexuality or anything else you care to mention. My 6 year old daughter was sexually assaulted in her primary school in a 4 month long series of assaults and she, not the attackers was put in a special needs therapy class and finally I got her out of the school as she was treated as a liar, even with ripped clothing, attacks on other girls and 2 letters from her doctor citing deteriorating health due to the attacks. Count yourself lucky that you haven’t noticed all this going on round you, in social media and in the law courts …

  8. dear vicki i cant tell you how scary the feeling is for a mom to know that her six year old was sexually assaulted. Being a single mom myself of a six year old i can understand the pain.

    • Thanks Skyla – my heart bleeds for those girls in Rotherham, not only not believed, but held in contempt by the police and social service officials taking big fat pay cheques for so called child safekeeping. Am not sure men should be in charge of safekeeping given their investment and defensiveness around male supremacy. I think being treated as guilty of lying until proven innocent is a mechanism for maintaining our second class status.

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