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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Telegraph Article – Why Are Black Female Victims Seemingly Invisible?

I wrote a piece for The Telegraph today!

In it, I talk about the media representation, dehumanisation, and apathy towards black women who are victims of violence.

Read more here –

Why Are Black Female Victims Seemingly Invisible?

Who Owns Our Bodies?

Source: whoneedsfeminism.tumblr.com

Source: whoneedsfeminism.tumblr.com

Who owns your body? Well, you do, of course. But if you’re a woman, I’m afraid society doesn’t quite see it that way.

Earlier this week, Angelina Jolie made headlines when she disclosed her decision to undergo a preventative double mastectomy, to reduce her risk of breast cancer from 87% to less than 5%. While many were supportive of her choice and courage, hordes of outraged men (and some women) took to Twitter and Facebook to mock and condemn her for it. Among them were comments expressing sympathy for Brad (“Poor Brad”), jeering at Brad (“Serves him right for leaving Jennifer Aniston”), sadness for themselves that Angelina’s breasts had been removed (“There is no God”, “The best thing about her is gone”), as well as downright commands that she reverse the procedure (“Please put the boobs back on your chest”).

Here’s a small selection, credit to @isawfireworks on Twitter:

TwitterScreenshot

Let’s think about that for a little bit. Here is a woman, who is a world-famous actor, director and screenwriter, with Golden Globe and Academy awards to her name. Not only does she have a great career and a loving family, she is a UNHCR ambassador, and has invested her time and effort in bringing humanitarian aid around the world. But apparently, none of that matters. The greatest thing about her, that she should never let go of, no matter what the cost to her health, are her breasts.

We’ll come back to this later, but for now, let’s move on to another incident that ignited social media in the UK this week. UKIP, a far-right political party, has always been associated with offensive views, and yesterday saw them the butt of many a joke as it was revealed that one of their biggest donors believed that women wearing trousers were being deliberately hostile towards men. In fact, he believed this so deeply that he wrote an entire book about it, entitled ‘Women in Trousers: A Rear View’.

Here are some priceless quotes:

“Women have big bottoms, they are meant to have big bottoms. Countless women who would look lovely in dresses or skirts are embarrassingly unattractive in trousers.”

“Walk along any street and you see women using trousers like a uniform every single day. This is hostile behaviour. They are deliberately dressing in a way that is opposite to what men would like. It is behaviour that flies against common sense, and also flies against the normal human desire to please.”

Fortunately, his remarks were met with hilarity and ridicule, but as pointed out in the blog HerbsandHags, his comments are merely an extreme example of what many men truly feel — that they have a right to be pleased by the female body. Any, and every, female body.

And that is what links the incident of the hostile trousers with the backlash against Angelina Jolie. It stems from the idea that women’s bodies are public property, in particular, men’s property, and thus everything that a woman chooses to do with it is viewed as a way of pleasing them, or as an affront to them. It is for this reason that strange men on the Internet feel entitled to chastise Angelina Jolie for prioritizing her health over their right to ogle her breasts, and it is for this reason that whenever a woman is unhappy about her weight, random men think it a great comfort to her to proclaim, “It’s fine, I prefer larger women.” Because, didn’t you know, women’s bodies exist primarily for male pleasure.

The unspoken notion that it is not women, but men, who possess the rights to our bodies, is a dangerous one. Today, I was dismayed to find out that three men in Sweden had been cleared of rape charges, despite the horrific nature of what they had done, and the fact that they clearly had not had consent. (Read more about the case here. TW.) The judge’s verdict? “People involved in sexual activities do things naturally to each other’s body in a spontaneous way, without asking for consent.”

You see, when we are not considered to be the legitimate owners of our bodies, then our decisions regarding them become unimportant. Thus, the Swedish woman’s desire to not have something done to her body was seen as less valid than the rapists’ desire to carry it out; Angelina Jolie’s desire to have surgery was seen as less valid than men’s desire to leer at her breasts; and women’s desire to wear what they like is seen as less valid than men’s opinions on what they should be wearing. These vary in severity and the horror of their consequences, but it is the same pernicious mentality that underlies them all.

Who owns our bodies? We do. And it’s time the world knew that.

The Pampering Trap

An extremely pervasive idea exists in society— that women are to be pampered, especially by the men in their lives. Everywhere you look, adverts for flowers, chocolates and jewellery encourage men to ‘pamper her’, ‘spoil her’, ‘indulge her’, and even on International Women’s Day yesterday, which originated in 1909 to promote gender equality, my Facebook feed was full of friends and acquaintances talking about what they, or someone else had done for IWD, which usually boiled down to (you guessed it) giving/receiving flowers, chocolates or cards, stripping the day of all political meaning.

spoilhervalentines

From Pajamagrams

Indulge-Her-1

From indulge-her.com

pamperinginajar

But what exactly is wrong with pampering? Isn’t it simply showing your loved one how much you love them? Well, yes and no. First, let’s look at the definition of ‘pampering’ so we know exactly what we’re dealing with.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines ‘pamper’ as follows:
a. to treat with extreme or excessive care and attention
b. to gratify, humour.

And here are the synonyms—cocker, coddle, cosset, dandle, indulge, mollycoddle, nurse, baby, spoil, wet-nurse.

Finally, who are most often the objects of pampering? Babies… children… puppies… and women, of course.

Indeed, there is nothing wrong with the act of pampering or being pampered per se. But when it is tied up inextricably in the arena of gender roles within a romantic relationship, then we have a problem. You see, despite advertisers’ overwhelming efforts to convince women otherwise, being locked into the role of the pampered is markedly disempowering. It presupposes a fragility and helplessness on our part, and our happiness depends, not on our own actions, but on what is done to us. In short, we are once again the object, not the subject, and heterosexual relationships are sold to us as ‘Man and his cherished possession’. The word ‘humour’ in the definition is also telling of the power imbalance inherent in the act. All throughout history, women have been expected to obey and follow their husbands’ desires, and men encouraged to ‘humour’ their wives’ supposedly unreasonable but adorable whims.

Sadly, whenever women rebel against the perception that they need to be treated like precious gems or delicate glass, and proclaim themselves to be independent of men, that too is treated as a caprice, declared by a woman who doesn’t quite know her own mind. The sentiment is neatly summed up in this comic I found bobbing around Facebook:

pamper

By Tatsuya Ishida

Haha, get it? Women don’t really want to be strong and independent, we just say we do! We do want a man to just take care of us, but we won’t admit it! Hahaha! Haha!

Ugh.

Two points need to be made, I think.

Firstly, yes, many straight women today do seem to desire being looked after and ‘spoilt’ by their man. And many women do enjoy the feeling of being kept and provided for, even in a submissive capacity. But does that mean that women have a natural and biological desire for this? Or could all the messages she’s heard in her life, both subtle and explicit, telling her that a man shows his love by showering her with gifts, by giving her flowers, by being overly protective of her—in short, by treating her ‘like a porcelain doll’—have anything to do with it? I believe that it isn’t the pampering itself that women desire, but what it means. And what it means, we are told, is that he loves her.

Secondly, the sentiment portrayed by the comic above is often thrown in women’s (especially feminists’) faces. So you want to be independent? Great, I’ll slam the door in your face then! I’d help you with those heavy bags, but aren’t you a strong, independent woman? Not feeling well? Don’t expect my sympathy, I thought you were an independent woman!

It’s ridiculous that this even needs to be said, but when feminists object to women being placed on a pedestal and treated like we’re weak and ineffectual, it doesn’t mean that we want to be treated badly. We still expect you to be a decent human being. And being a feminist doesn’t mean we think women are, or should be, invincible. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t need help or care when we’re ill. It just means that we’re human, no more and no less than that.

So please, let’s all love and respect each other like fully-grown human beings, and stop the damaging narrative surrounding relationships between women and men.

Nature vs Nurture? – Why We Need to Stop Using Evolution as an Explanation for Gender Differences

When talking about gender issues, the word ‘naturally’ pops up quite a lot.

“Women don’t earn as much as men do because they are naturally less inclined to negotiate for their starting salary.”

“You see images of sexualised women everywhere, but not sexualised men, because men have a naturally stronger sex drive than women.”

“So many men commit acts of violence because men are naturally more aggressive than women.”

“So many women cut their careers short when they have children, because they naturally prefer caring for them instead of working, whereas men naturally prefer work to childcare.”

And once the word ‘naturally’ has reared its head, you can bet that the word ‘evolution’ will quickly follow, with the phrase ‘caveman days’ hot on its heels. Everyone present nods sagely; much beard-stroking ensues.

From clipartmojo.com

From clipartmojo.com

Sadly, proponents of the evolution-as-explanation-for-gender-differences idea seem to have fallen victim to something very similar to the fundamental attribution error, a term used in social psychology to describe humans’ tendency to attribute a person’s behaviour to their disposition, while completely ignoring any situational factors. Although this term refers specifically to individual personality, the same phenomenon seems to be at work when people choose to ascribe gendered behaviour to dispositional reasons, instead of acknowledging the possibility that there could be sociological factors at work.

Of course, there’s no denying that evolution explains almost everything about our physiology, and a good chunk of human behaviour. It is when evolution and biological determinism are used to explain everything, without reference to any period other than the present Western society and the vaguely-defined ‘caveman days’, that problems arise.

Here’s a small example of what I mean.

In 2007, through asking 208 volunteers to select their colour preferences, neuroscientists Hurlbert and Ling discovered that men had a preference for bluish/greenish colours, while women had a preference for pinkish/reddish colours. While the study did nothing to prove that this preference was biological, Ling made the leap quite easily, going from showing that grown men and women tended to prefer different colours, to stating, “This preference has an evolutionary advantage behind it.” Women, it was suggested, had to gather berries while men hunted, and so needed to spot ripe berries and fruits easily. This story was picked up eagerly by newspapers, with headlines like, “Study: Why Girls Like Pink“, and “Scientists Uncover Truth Behind ‘pink for a girl, blue for a boy“. As far as I can see, the study showed nothing about why girls like pink, but simply that they—well—did.

Yet all one has to do is go back 100 years in time (a mere nothing by evolutionary standards) to see that the pink/blue rule is fairly recent, and that the accepted social norms at the time were just the opposite. And since we’re doing some time-traveling, let’s have a look at life just one or two generations ago, and note the behaviour of women and men then, compared with women and men today. And then let’s take a tour around other countries too, in different continents. Maybe have a look at two people of the same ethnicity, who have been brought up on opposite ends of the globe.

I could go on, but I’m sure you get my point—that people’s behaviour isn’t immutable. Social norms play a huge part in determining how we act, what we value, how we feel, and even, apparently, what colour we prefer. Why do women today seem more ‘naturally’ inclined towards engaging in politics and sports than they were a hundred years ago? Why did they seem ‘naturally’ more subservient just 50 years ago? Was it evolution? I think not.

Evolution accounting for gender differences in behaviour is a neat theory to get behind; it satisfies our need for explanations, and gives us the reassurance that everything is as it should be. However, it quickly becomes a thinly-veiled excuse for gender inequality. When we hide behind evolution to justify the gender pay gap, the under representation of women in politics, or male violence against women, we are hiding from any responsibility for our part in sustaining this state of affairs, and we are refusing to acknowledge that change is possible.

So if anyone you know is insisting on sticking to evolutionary reasons for gender differences, tell them about the study of Baby X, where participants were shown to describe and behave towards Baby X in markedly different ways, depending on whether they thought Baby X was male or female. Ask them to watch kids’ TV and read their storybooks, and make a note of how many male and female characters there are, and how each gender is represented. Tell them to go into any children’s shop and read the words written on girls’ and boys’ clothes. Get them to ask both women and men around them what ambitions their families encouraged them to have as a child.

In short, tell them to open their eyes to the gendered pressures and influences that surround each of us, which start from the cradle and follow us throughout our lives, and that create the seemingly stark contrast between the average woman and man, before they decide that all gender differences are predetermined, and gender inequality unavoidable.

Why the Default Male is Not Just Annoying, But Also Harmful

Male or female?

Male or female?

‘He’, ‘him’, ‘his’. If you’re like me, you’ve probably noticed that male pronouns far outstrip female ones in everyday use. And if you’re like me, you probably find that really annoying. Everything, from toilet signs to cartoon characters, has the male gender as neutral and unmarked, while the female gender is marked out with ribbons, skirts, or sexy poses. See a puppy running around the neighbourhood, and people would most likely refer to it as a ‘he’. Random stick figure? Also a ‘he’. This is the reality that all of us have grown up with, and not only is it frustrating, it also has some nasty consequences for women.

The default male makes its presence felt very heavily in the media, from films, to TV shows, to games, to books. This means that, unless the plot makes it absolutely necessary for the character to be female, or the writer is making a specific point about gender, the go-to option is usually male. Think about it: have you ever heard a writer asked in an interview, “Was there a reason you chose a man as your protagonist?” Of course not. Everyone knows you don’t need a reason to have a man as your main character, that’s just what’s normal. And what this means is that the characters that are female are not only fewer in number, they also tend to fall into very narrow, gendered roles—mother, hero’s love interest, damsel in distress, or highly-sexualised heroine.

This is bad news for female actors, naturally, who will have fewer opportunities to gain roles, as well as fewer opportunities to display their acting ability. But it’s also bad news for women as a whole. The problem is, if women are only cast in roles where their gender is integral, if they are not portrayed as fully human but simply symbols of ‘the female sex’, and these are the characters that young girls and boys grow up with, what does that say to them about a woman’s status in society? As the Miss Representation campaign tirelessly points out, how can we expect girls to achieve their potential in life when the media fails to represent or inspire them?

And though the media is a huge offender, it is far from the only one. Even in the realms of academia, the default male is alive and well. As part of the Master’s course I’m currently pursuing, I’ve had the opportunity to read countless papers on psychology in the workplace, as academics continue to find ways to improve the employee experience and to help them reach their potential. The only problem is the samples used in their experiments, which are usually (you guessed it) predominantly male. Oh, you do occasionally get samples with say, 70% women, in which case the writers include a caveat about how the sample was mostly female and thus not entirely representative. But when the sample is 96% male? Nope, nothing wrong with that! Completely representative! What’s troubling is that these papers make up the research that continuously pushes the way our workplaces are organised, helping employees become more fulfilled, and more productive. And if the ’employees’ that we’re gaining a deeper understanding of are really just ‘male employees’, then we have a problem.

Perhaps of even more concern is the default male in the medical industry. In a paper by Verdonk et al in 2009, they write, “Medicine is said to be ‘male-biased’ because the largest body of knowledge on health and illness is about men and their health.” Indeed, because the male sex is allowed to represent everyone, research on the male body is assumed to be universally applicable, with women having ‘extra, womanly issues’ like childbirth, period pains and breast cancer, neatly cordoned off into an exclusive section called ‘women’s health’. When the Body Worlds exhibit first opened, an exhibition showcasing plastinates—preserved human bodies— posed in many different ways, many women were incensed at the fact that all the bodies, with the exception of the bodies used in the pregnancy section, were male. The message was clear: men are humans! They can be young or old, they can play sport, they can write, play chess, ride a bike…in short, lead full, complete lives. Women, on the other hand? They make babies.

The male-bias in medicine has serious consequences. Let’s take the heart attack as an example. Now almost everyone can tell you the symptoms of a heart attack. A squeezing, painful feeling in the chest is the surest sign, accompanied by pain in the left arm. Right? Well, as it turns out, that pain in the chest is a classic male heart attack sign, and female heart attacks often have very different symptoms, more comparable to indigestion than chest pain. According to Katherine Kam on WebMD, “many doctors still don’t recognize that women’s symptoms differ, [and] they may mistake them for arthritis, pulled muscles, indigestion, gastrointestinal problems, or even anxiety and hypochondria…many emergency room doctors still look mainly for chest pain.” In such cases, the male-bias can be fatal.

We are more than symbols of our sex. We are more than roles filled in relation to men. We demand full and equal participation and representation in human life, not a sweet little space marked out as ‘not male’.

“Are women human?” Dorothy Sayers asked ironically in 1938. 75 years later, that question is still as poignant as ever.

The Newtown School Shooting — Why We Mustn’t Ignore Gender

Photo by Richard Adams; published on guardian.co.uk

Photo by Richard Adams; published on guardian.co.uk

Yesterday, a young man entered an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, and opened fire on both staff and students, killing 20 children and 6 adults. It was later found that he had also killed his own mother, bringing his total victim count to 27.

Following the tragedy, news outlets and social media were ablaze with horror and misery, vigils were held for the victims and their families, and a nation mourned for the innocent lives so cruelly snatched away by a senseless act of brutality.

It is always heart-rending to hear about a school shooting. Yet, what I find even more upsetting is the fact that this is nothing new. We’ve seen it all before—in 2007 at Virginia Tech; in 2006 at Pennsylvania, in 2005 at Red Lake High School, Minnesota; in 1999 at Columbine High School—and so on. As President Obama tearfully said in a televised statement, America has “been through this too many times.” Each time it happens, we find ourselves shaking our heads in shock and bewilderment. Who is this guy? What is his personal history? What could have driven him to this? We obsess over the minutiae of the perpetrator’s psychology, treating it as an isolated, freak incident, while missing the larger pattern that is woven by each and every case. If we miss the pattern, then we cannot expect to find a solution. And without a solution, we are doomed to experience such tragedies over and over again.

The Newtown shooting has reignited an ongoing debate about gun control in America, which is a promising start. Although America has always felt strongly about the right to bear arms (in a Gallup poll conducted last year, 55% felt that the gun laws should either remain the same or become even more lenient), public opinion is shifting towards gun control, with many taking to Twitter or Facebook to voice their support for tighter restrictions.

From changingworld.com

From changingworld.com

While I very much agree with the call for tighter gun control, and hope that Obama’s reference to “meaningful action” is more than just rhetoric, I feel that a fixation on the idea of guns as the main problem loses sight of the root of the issue. After all, 27 people died yesterday not because an out-of-control gun went on a rampage, but because a man picked up a gun, aimed, and pulled the trigger, 27 times. There are two issues that need attention here—the ease of obtaining and carrying a gun, but also the murderers themselves.

And when we do examine the perpetrators, there is a glaring pattern that is frequently overlooked; that is, the gendered dimension of the attacks. In response to yesterday’s shooting, The Telegraph did a short recap of the ten worst school shootings in the US. Out of this list, 100% of the perpetrators were male. About two months ago, Mother Jones ran a report on mass shootings in America. According to the article, there have been 62 incidents in the last 30 years, and 61 out of the 62 perpetrators were male. And according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, it is men who commit over 90% of violent crimes in America, and start 100% of wars.

The problem is, whenever people (usually feminists) point this out, they are met with cries of “misandry” and “demonization of men.” People (usually men) are quick to point out all the acts of heroism done by men, drawing attention to the brave policeman who saved countless civilians, to the self-sacrificing husband who protected his wife and children, frequently followed by a command to the female gender to be grateful to men for protecting them from, well, other men.

But if we want the level of violence in society to decrease, we cannot afford to ignore the gendered aspect of crime. We need to take a close look at male culture, and ask ourselves what lessons we teach young boys about what it means to be a man. We need to question the link between masculinity and power, between masculinity and dominance, and ask ourselves why little boys grow up needing to achieve both these qualities, which frequently translates into being either a hero or a villain. Most of all, we need to address the crisis in male emotional health, and ask ourselves why crying, expressing love, fear, or hurt, are emotional outlets that are denied to most men and boys. When the only emotion that a man can legitimately express is anger, how can we be surprised that many men turn to violence in response to emotional issues?

I do not buy biological reasons for male violence, especially since tests concerning the difference between male and female brains have largely been inconclusive. (For more on this, look up Delusions of Gender by neurologist Cordelia Fine.) Most men are not violent criminals, and to simply accept men’s near-monopoly on violence as a reflection on male nature is unfair. We as a society, with our rigid gender roles and our glorification of (male) aggression and power, continue to churn out violent men, and perpetuate the dynamic we were born into. But I firmly believe that we can also change it.

How many more young men have to be imprisoned before we acknowledge a problem with the values they’ve been brought up with? How many more children have to die, and how many more families have to grieve?

I’m ready for a safer world. And I know you are too.