21 April, 2010

Are you feminist in public?

People clearly aren't afraid to be sexist in public. Sexist attitudes are so prevalent today that men and women have deeply misogynistic conversations in public, seemingly without having a clue that there's anything remotely offensive about what they're saying.

Example - at work today a couple of blokes were flicking though the Metro at lunchtime and started passing comment on the appearance of some female celebrity or other. It started off harmlessly - if depressingly - enough; all "Cor, look at her" and "She's a bit of alright" and the suchlike. Then in moved onto "But she can only get away with it because she's young", "Yeah, just wait until everything starts going south, hahaha". Charming. Still, not quite as bad as "Anyway, someone's probably going to rape her, dressed like that".

So, from objectification to ageism to rape apology in one idle lunchtime chit chat. The worst thing is, I don't think these men were genuinely misogynists - such views are so widespread that people do make these throwaway comments without even thinking about them. Sexism has become part of our lexicon.

The reason why, so far as I can tell, is simple frequency of use. People are sexist in public because other people are sexist in public, until it becomes an acceptable way of passing the time. One way to combat this, and to halt the dissemination of sexist views is to start being more feminist in public. I'm probably guilty of not being "out" as a feminist with everyone, when it comes to colleagues and acquaintances. I don't hide my views and I'm not afraid to call people out on their sexism where necessary, but I don't use feminist language with the thoughtless ease that people seem to spew misogyny. I don't make idle gossip about sexual discrimination and the objectification of women by the media. Because people aren't used to hearing such views, the last time I aired them in public with a group of strangers I was accused of being deliberately contrary.

But if these views were repeated loudly enough, often enough, surely they could become just as commonly accepted as the current trend for casual misogyny? If we're all feminist in public, with friends, with colleagues, with strangers on the bus and we treat this as though it's completely normal, maybe, just maybe, one day it will be.


  1. I don't know if 'rape apology' is quite what it is. They weren't saying "...and who could blame him" or anything like that. What's nasty about it, apart from the flippancy, is the assumed inevitability.

    Can't help but wonder where that comes from. It doesn't sound like an attempt to exonerate rapists, or even empathise with them. So I wonder how it got into their, and a lot of people's, heads that skimpy clothes -> Rape: end of.

    Any ideas?

  2. I'm trying to be more feminist in my language - like being more gender neutral in my choice of language - but it is hard to fight against nature/years of training to overcome my shyness about confronting others about their language. Especially when you say "feminist" and people make the face like you've just insulted their mother or shat yourself.

    Alex - rape apology includes the assumption of inevitability that wearing skimpy clothes leads to being raped; think of it as rape excusing, perhaps.

  3. Mornington: Maybe we need a better word for it then. I'm not denying it feeds on a lot of the same myths - that women bring it upon themselves, that men can't control their urges when confronted with bare legs, that asking for it sort of counts as consent, that sort of thing - but the men in the anecdote don't seem to be making excuses. They just seem to be following through the narrative, using rape as an off-colour punchline more than anything. I just find it quite an odd, and telling, way for the whole thing to manifest itself, and "rape apologist" doesn't really cover that properly.

  4. I don't make any secret of the fact I'm a feminist but the subject doesn't really come up that often. I used to work with an all male group - I was the only female - and they didn't make sexist remarks at all - or at least not in my hearing.

  5. I'm pleased to be leaving my job soon as I dared say I was a feminist there and was looked at in abject horror (mainly by women!!)... Since then I've been baited by various people trying to get a reaction. A colleague sitting near me also says she's a feminist and without her I'd have gone mad over the past year, frankly. She's leaving too!!

  6. i try to be open about feminism as much as possible. talk about it at work, at the pub, with my family...i'm lucky that my friends have similar beliefs i guess, but it is a big change for me to be open about it. it's the only way now tho - i can't stop! as marilyn french says 'i don't know how to think without feminism'!

  7. I'm openly feminist at every single opportunity I get. I didn't used to be even though I would say I've been one for as long as I've been able to think for myself. I think I am lucky though that I work in an academic environment that although is male-dominated, is mostly feminist friendly. I guess because I'm doing a PhD in political philosophy and feminism, feminism is constantly on my mind. Also since I started reading blogs which scrutinise the press and dogmatic beliefs (like this one) I've become more angry with sexism, so I now know that there is absolutely nothing to be ashamed of in being a feminist. Anyone who pulls a funny face at me will simply lose, or fail to gain, my respect. But I know it is not easy to be that public about your beliefs when you are surrounded by the kind of people described in this article. When I was working in a call centre I was definitely a bit quieter about it than I am now!

  8. Alex - if not rape apology than clear victim blaming them. Whatever way you look it, they were saying if she was raped it would be her fault. Except it was more of a when than an if, which brings it round to apology in my mind, because it's like saying rape is inevitable so long as women are going to go out wearing whatever it was that he deemed provocative.

  9. Well, I dunno if it was exactly what he was saying as it was obviously more a joke than a serious prediction. You're sort of right with the victim-blaming comparison, but the causality seems to be upside-down. It's not like he was confronted with a crime and looked for reasons to blame the victim. He was confronted with reasons to blame the victim and very quickly thought up the crime.

    So I don't think victim-blaming covers it any more than apology. It's not any better, if anything it's a bit more worrying. I'd even say it seems less like apologetics or victim-blaming than a partial cause of both. I'm still not entirely sure what to make of it, but I know you've stumbled on something really intriguing and if we really want to crack open rape culture and see what makes it tick, it'd be a shame to gloss over this major aspect of it by lumping it in with other things.

  10. I can only say that for me it smacked of blaming/apology. I've heard the exact same thing so many times before. I appreciate it was a statement made in jest, but that casual use of sexism was the point of the post....

  11. It smacked of them, yeah, and it's icky in the same sort of way, but I can't help feeling there's something else going on there. But yeah, sorry, I've gone a bit off-topic. I just get a bit over-excited over people saying stupid and insensitive shit.

    Back on topic, to be honest, being male, feminism and a massive interest in gender theory aren't something I'd generally admit to. I won't hold back opinions if they lean that way, but there's always that irrational nervousness that, being a male feminist won't get you taken seriously by either group. Even commenting on feminist blog, I'm slightly unsure about speaking as a feminist.

  12. Honestly, I do my very best to be openly feminist in situations where it won't significantly damage me or remove what modicum of power I have by fitting in. It's certainly not ideal, but I do try to gently point out when people -- even powerful people -- are offending me, or any human being within earshot. But I also need to not alienate myself so much that I'm seen as a troublemaker and not "management material."

  13. I work in a very run-of-the-mill corporate environment that is not friendly towards any transgressive behaviour, be it feminism, enviromentalis, left wing views, counter cultural hobbies etc. Not openly hostile, but not friendly; conformity is the watchword.

    I'm openly and outspokenly feminist in all of my social and professional interactions at work, up to an including recently using the words "the gender binary" in a training session. =) I don't make an effort to do this or anything, I'm just so steeped in feminist thinking that evrything that comes out of my mouth is feminist, like someone who's an avid football fan talking in sporting methaphors all the time.

    Most of the time when I come out with this stuff I get looked at like I've suddenly sprouted and extra head. Polite horror and embarrassement (on my behalf) is normal, as is ribbing, teasing, trying to get a rise ut of me etc. Of course some people are thoughtful and intelligent and engage in a constrcutive way with what I say, but by and large I think being openly feminist has a subtle overall detrimental effect on my career. It makes me appear unprofessional, irrational, confrontational, aggresive, shrill, and all that other wonderful misogynist silencing stuff.

    Still, I'm not going to make a big effort to change, because that would be inauthentic and dishonest of me, but also because I do harbour the hope that somewhere sometimes I make a little bit of a positive impact on people listening, and make them question the status quo around them...

  14. I love the smell of mansplaining in the morning.

    'Someone's probably going to rape her, dressed like that' is textbook victim-blaming AND rape apologism - the former is pretty much a subset of the latter in any case.

    Both involve concentrating on the victim's behaviour rather than the rapist's actions. As soon as you imply in any way that the victim's dress or actions were to blame for *the rapist's decision to rape her', you are into the territory of victim-blaming and rape apology. And, incidentally, displaying your privileged ignorance of the reality of rape.

    And suggesting that it can't be either because it was only a joke about a potential rape is nonsense. You only have to think about rape jokes in general - are they not contributing to rape culture simply because they don't refer to a specific incident?

    Plenty of real rapists have escaped justice because of just the sort of attitude displayed by V's colleagues. And there ain't no mansplainin' THAT away.

  15. Steady on Mishka, I wasn't suggesting that because it wasn't rape apologism or victim-blaming it was ok, in fact I actually said it was sort of worse. Nor was I saying that because it was a joke or hypothetical that it wasn't reprehensible. I just said I thought it was slightly different to rape apology. Don't assume that because I have a boy's name and don't do my moral condemnation in precisely the same terms as you do, that I'm somehow making excuses for my fellow cock-bearers.

    Trying to jam every weird, irrational or downright fucking nasty nuance of rape culture into one or two neat categories, and dismissing any attempt to add a couple more as 'mansplaining' isn't going to help anyone understand or fight it. Surely this casual assumption that rape is an inevitable consequence of sluttiness is prevalent enough, not to mention telling, that we should be examining it in its own right? Surely the fact that these two couldn't fancy a half-naked woman in a photo for two minutes without starting to wish punishment on her is quite interesting? Just stating the obvious - that it's sexist and offensive and exhibits a really, really nasty attitude to an appalling crime - would be letting a really interesting incident go to waste.

  16. "Surely the fact that these two couldn't fancy a half-naked woman in a photo for two minutes without starting to wish punishment on her is quite interesting?"

    That is interesting Alex, I hadn't thought of it that way. Maybe it's something to do with our beauty/celebrity culture? We're taught to worship these two things above anything else, failure to achieve either (or possibly for men, to have a girlfriend who conforms to this ideal) is seen as failure all round and this is their way of venting their frustration? Like women who read Heat magazine and laugh at pictures of celebrities with cellulite because it makes them feel better about the fact that they don't conform to the beauty ideal themselves.

    That's just an off-the-top-of-my-head theory by the way, feel free to deconstruct.

    And Mishka, I'm not sure how fully I agree with Alex some of the time, or on this point, but I don't think he's in any way condoning or agreeing with what these two blokes were saying. Like I said, it sounds like classic apology/blame to me, but I don't think Alex was being offensive in exploring other theories.

    Alex - maybe we could call it "general being a sexist prickism"...?

  17. "That's just an off-the-top-of-my-head theory by the way, feel free to deconstruct."
    I don't think there's really much to add to that.

    "I'm not sure how fully I agree with Alex some of the time, or on this point, but I don't think he's in any way condoning or agreeing with what these two blokes were saying."
    I wasn't. I can see why you'd assume that, knowing the type of angry, angry men who often frequent feminist blogs. Those twats are yet another reason why male feminism can be slightly difficult to admit to.

    "Alex - maybe we could call it "general being a sexist prickism"...?"
    How about just "sexism"? Basically includes prickism too. But I was going to go with something more specific, like "rape narrative" or something. There's probably a few of these floating around as well, like the whole "crying rape" myth.

  18. Alex, I never assumed you agreed with them....

  19. I think the "crying rape" myth is a bit different; it reflects the belief that women are not sexual beings and don't really enjoy sex for its own sake. This means that men need to "trick" them our of it or bully them into it in some way. It's a facet of rape culture, but one that is grounded in the view that *all* sex is basically rape, because women can't ever consent to sex, since they don't like it. (The distinction between rape and "rape-rape" is also based in this view: it's only when violence is involved that you get "real" rape, because rape is just a nasty word for sex. It's only the GBH aspect that gives the woman legitimate grounds for grievance)

    In that frame, a woman going through all the trauma and hassle of reporting a rape makes sense, because it's obviously how all women feel after sex all the time.

    I'm very interested in what you said about wishing punishment on a woman (person) one desires. I'm gonna be teasing out strands of that for weeks to come now, so thanks for setting the ole wheels in motion!

  20. And I never assumed you did. But like I said, I can see why you might do. Just look at Cath Elliot's blog and you almost wonder if some of these blokes don't have google alerts for 'feminism' and 'rape', and sit, coiled, at their computers, ready to set the all hairy lesbians straight.

  21. Oh, we have a couple of those here. I'm surprised I haven't seen them already actually, although they have more of a problem with us condemning child rape, worryingly. Apparently some of those 12-year-olds are really gagging for it *shudder*

  22. I wholeheartedly concur with this article. I used to work on - not really a lads' mag, but a videogames magazine aimed at the downmarket end of the 15-30 men's bracket. My colleagues were a genuinely lovely bunch but the day I challenged their use of the word 'manhole' (I suggested 'access duct' was a perfectly good, gender-neutral alternative) was interesting to say the least. I didn't win them over, but I like to think I made them think (they still mention it, so at least it's stuck in their consciousness!). It is vital that we challenge assumptions, and although we may not 'win' immediately, without that challenge we will never win at all.


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