Author Archive

The Rape Apologism Fails of Emily Yoffe

I’ve previously covered a gender-essentialist Double X Fail for the blog, and unfortunately, they’ve done it again. As now infamously reported across the feminist blogosphere, Emily Yoffe thought it was a good idea to tell college-aged women to stop drinking alcohol in order to avoid rape. In her extremely paternalistic piece, Yoffe writes such gems as:

Young women are getting a distorted message that their right to match men drink for drink is a feminist issue. The real feminist message should be that when you lose the ability to be responsible for yourself, you drastically increase the chances that you will attract the kinds of people who, shall we say, don’t have your best interest at heart. That’s not blaming the victim; that’s trying to prevent more victims.

I’m so confused: Since when is it a feminist issue to match men drink for drink? Did I just not get the memo on that? Did Yoffe just try to (wo)mansplain victim-blaming, while simultaneously victim-blaming? Does Yoffe even know what feminism is? I just…I can’t do it today.

Almost immediately, feminist journalist Ann Friedman posted a parody to her blog (later published at The Cut), that switches the pronouns on Yoffe’s piece with often hilarious and insightful results, including the following sentence I find devastatingly true:

But the obsessive focus on blaming the victim has made it somehow unacceptable to warn young men that when they get wasted, they are putting young women in potential peril.

Although Friedman’s exercise is deceptively simple, it gets at something: when we discuss rape culture, far too often the onus is on women to change their behavior. Rape doesn’t occur because of Yoffe’s ignorant assumption that there’s a lack of knowledge about potential prevention methods. On the contrary, growing up socialized as female means being constantly aware that your body is not your own, that it is vulnerable to violation by any man at any time. We are drilled by a misogynistic society to expect a potential rapist to be an unknown assailant that jumps out of the bushes and so-called prevention methods are rattled off accordingly: to carry keys to use as potential weapons, to have a buddy system if we do have to walk home alone, to carry mace or pepper spray, to not wear short skirts or shirts that are too revealing. So, yeah, Emily, me and every other person socialized as female in this culture is probably aware of what we supposedly need to do to “prevent” rape.

What I love about Friedman’s parody is that it addresses the missing piece too often ignored in conventional discussions of rape culture: male perpetrators rape women, and they often use alcohol as an aid to do that, yet no prescription is ever made on men’s behavior. Outside of feminist circles, men are never told not to rape, and when they are (as in the case of Zerlina Maxwell’s badass appearance on Fox News), they can expect vicious death threats.

By omitting the crucial fact that drunk men play a role in coercing women, Yoffe’s article assumes “boys will be boys,” with insatiable sex drives they have no ability to control. Despite what the conventional narrative would have us believe, these men know what they’re doing – rape is about control and domination, and we should acknowledge that preying on inebriated women creates a clear power imbalance.

Most conversations had about rape in our culture, Yoffe’s piece included, render invisible the obvious role that male rapists play in rape, and in so doing, assumes the innocence of the white male perpetrator. And, I, for one, am sick of this unquestioned centering of the white male experience. But if the cultural conversation about rape in our culture is going to stay at the level of changing behavior, we may as well talk about men’s behavior. (But for self-care purposes, I also endorse Mychal Denzel Smith’s response to her follow-up.)

Manic Pixie Dream Girls, Erasure, Entitlement, and Me

Laurie Penny’s article for the New Statesman, “I Was a Manic Pixie Dream Girl,” and the ensuring conversations I had with friends about it, spoke to a specific type of erasure women all too commonly encounter: many of my female friends recall experiences similar to Penny’s, where former boyfriends expected them to expend emotional labor “fixing” them, while these men wouldn’t lift a finger trying to find out about the smart, dedicated, and driven women I knew they were underneath the surface.

 

You may be wondering why I even care about the Manic Pixie Dream Girl archetype, which, as black feminist writers have noted in the past, is almost exclusively a white archetype. What resonated with me was the critique’s concern with projection, and how that projection has real-life consequences for women.

Central to Penny’s argument is the assertion that the stories we tell matter, and inform the social roles we end up playing. Because girls only see themselves playing supporting roles, especially in film, they, in turn, conform to those roles in real life. By contrast, men’s autonomy and self-actualization has endless cultural representation, and is too often built on the backs of archetypes like the manic pixie dream girl (as well as people of color, I might add). Even though women constitute 52% of movie theatre audiences, lack of representation both behind and in front of the camera, as well as conservative ideas about what audiences want to see continue to translate to limited narratives for female characters.

For Penny, finding her identity as a political writer may have had the consequence of driving away men who were looking for her to fill the role of fictitious girl-muse, but Penny feels casting her own spells is worth the compromise. She writes: “What concerns me now is the creation of new narratives, the opening of space in the collective imagination for women who have not been permitted such space before, for women who don’t exist to please, to delight, to attract men, for women who have more on our minds.”

Finding positive models to articulate my identity has been a challenge I’ve faced my entire life. As a quiet, awkward black teenager, I didn’t see people like me on television or in movies. I had to build an oppositional narrative for myself on suburban Long Island, even as the story I crafted at the time was deeply self-hating. That story was built on accommodating white people’s comfort, making myself smaller in the process. Feminism provided a way out of the partially self-imposed cage of internalized racism, and gave me the means to reaffirm myself. From Rebecca Solnit’s definitive essay on mansplaining to the phenomenon of gaslighting, I learned how to center my experiences and articulate truths about interpersonal power dynamics that made me uncomfortable.

Structurally, culturally, and interpersonally, men take up a lot of space. For years, I never questioned their entitlement. Instead, I chose to defer to men, to accept their opinions as correct and legitimate in comparison to my own. (But afterward, I’d review the conversation in my head and find myself thinking, “Hey, wait a minute…”) Living in a world where my experiences weren’t seen as reliable for a matrix of reasons – my race, my gender, or my age – I eventually internalized the lesson that I was wrong, I was unreliable.

This combination of entitlement, projection (of who I am, and whose experiences get to be legitimate) and erasure gets to the heart of why I no longer find it safe to pursue interpersonal relationships with men. It’s too easy to fall back into the automatic habits of doubting my own experiences just so a man doesn’t feel uncomfortable, a courtesy that is never extended back to me (or any other woman, I’m sure.) These behavioral patterns are incredibly self-hating, and emotionally draining. Like Penny, I’m no longer interested in dumbing myself down or doubting myself to assure men of their superiority.

What I Learned At the Women’s eNews and WAM!NYC Workshop on Best Practices for Writing on Rape and Sexual Assault

I previously mentioned  my excitement about the workshop Women’s eNews and WAM!NYC held on best practices for covering sexual assault. I spoke to my awkwardness in writing about and describing the actual acts of force that take place during a reported sexual assault; my own skittishness in describing the act of rape underlines how difficult it is to write about sexual assault, particularly to audiences who don’t understand the power differentials at play in our society. This workshop revealed to me that my own challenges writing about sexual assault are deeply linked to the sexist assumption writers and reporters make daily: to write from an “unbiased” perspective, we are expected to write from a male perspective.

photo by <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/futurowoman/">Nancy Stockdale</a> on flickr

Claudia Garcias-Rojas, a reporter and activist who is currently working with the Chicago Task Force on Violence Against Young Girls and Women, shared her findings on how journalists contribute to a culture where rape is largely misunderstood, and ways in which journalists, together with activists, can do better. In describing the misleading language journalists commonly use to describe sexual assault, I realized much of the erroneous terminology, including “engaged in” and “sex” conflates rape with sex, implying a degree of consent where none exists. Garcias-Rojas recommended describing the act in explicit detail in order to jar the reader and really show them, clearly, that force was involved, something the term “sex” obscures.

In Western culture, we experience a daily paradox in news coverage: although crime is heavily reported, readers aren’t given a means to understand the context in which that crime occurs. In her presentation “Man Kills Wife, Shoots Self,” Rita Henley-Jensen, Editor-in-Chief of Women’s eNews, noted that crime is understood as an aberration, something we aren’t supposed to make sense of. This framing is only misleading but also deceptive. Common offenses committed by journalists in this genre (as it were) include pulling quotes from clueless neighbors who insist the husband was “just a regular guy,” and either completely omitting or burying quotes that would provide context into why men murder their estranged spouses with such frequency. Journalists must prioritize quotes and evidence-based research which places violent behavior in a context under which it can be better understood. If writers show crimes always have motives, we can begin to delineate structural patterns of misogyny that endanger women’s lives.

Perhaps the most important lesson I took away from this workshop was the importance of framing pieces in ways that illustrate how our society is defined by different but interrelated sets of violence: institutional violence and interpersonal violence. As Garcia-Rojas noted, most stories are written from the perspective of the perpetrator, and presumes their innocence. As writers and activists who are sensitive to the concerns of rape survivors, we must go the extra mile to establish a victim’s innocence and use terminology that makes it evident that rape is an act of violence and force.

Examples of bad stories covering rape and sexual assault abound, but examples of good stories are few and far in between. This is an endemic problem in journalism that is highly revealing of the class and gender biases of writers. It’s up to us to start implementing some of these practices in our own writing. In the future, I will challenge myself to be less shy in my own writings on assault and hold journalists accountable in their coverage of sexual assault.

See You There: WAM NYC and Women’s eNews Present “Reporting on Rape and Sexual Assault”

On Wednesday, I’m going to an event held jointly by Women’s eNews and Women, Action, and the Media’s NYC chapter on best practices for writing about and reporting on rape and sexual assault. (It’s at 6:30PM in Manhattan.)

The reasons I’m going are obvious. I really admire the work of both these amazing organizations that serve as resources for feminist writers and activists to stay connected and share advice, and as a writer for this blog, I feel like I have a long way to go to sharpen my own skills in writing about sexual assault. I find my writing tends to become overly euphemistic, mimicking cultural trends. Because these are topics our culture often avoids discussing at all, when I write about sexual assault, I become aware of how difficult it is to write about it well.

Claudia Garcias-Rojas, a reporter who is facilitating this workshop, wrote an excellent piece for PolicyMic about how to write about sexual assault well. Above all, she stresses the need to illustrate the ways that cultural violence against women and girls doesn’t occur in a vacuum; rather, it is systemic. I’m hoping to learn more from her on Wednesday.

If you’re in the NYC area, join me! Tickets are still available.

Are Women Passive? Yes, Because We’re Socially Encouraged to Be

One of the first things I learned as a feminist was to question any generality about gendered behavior (for example: men only like sports and sex). These attitudes usually serve as pretty good indicators that the behaviors in question are socially constructed. Enter the XX Factor’s currently running series on how women are inherently passive in their sexual relationships. Originally posted to the blog by Slate columnist Daniel Bergner, Bergner recently solicited entries from readers of XX Factor to reflect on whether or not they “experience their sexuality as relatively passive.” Appallingly enough, all the published respondents replied in the affirmative.  Neither Bergner nor the XX Factor editors thought to diversify the types of responses they published. Perhaps, as I suspect, they didn’t believe women can experience their sexuality as anything other than passive. If any respondents answered in the negative, there’s no way for us to know. It’s almost as if they set out with a predetermined conclusion, and only selected evidence that confirmed their biases.

If Bergner had bothered to read Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá’s 2010 takedown of evolutionary biology, Sex at Dawn while doing research for his book, What Do Women Want?, he might have reconsidered a lot of things – not only the responses he selected for publication, but he might have also been compelled to ask more provocative questions about how we frame women’s sexuality. (Indeed, this blog and the critique it offers against mainstream society’s treatment of women shows, women’s sexuality is always political, always public, and always under question.) Ryan and Jethá’s research illustrates a disturbing tendency within evolutionary biology that Bergner and the XX Factor perpetuate throughout this column: evolutionary biology has a tendency to view our current social behaviors as conclusive and inevitable, and use trends in the animal kingdom to substantiate their confirmation biases. Because the social meanings of terms like “marriage,” “adultery,” and “monogamy” are always in flux, Ryan and Jethá argue they are not useful matrixes for drawing comparisons between animal and human behavior. Over the course of their text, Ryan and Jethá prove that the entire study of evolutionary biology is an exercise in intellectual laziness.

While the XX Factor would have us glibly shrug off culture as a force that informs our response to performing sexuality, the prescriptions and proscriptions of our society have never not been a point of mediation for me.  Growing up in a predominantly white suburb, I felt the burden of representation as one of the few black girls in my grade, and as the only black girl in many of in my classes in high school and college. On television, I saw black actors limited to the same controlling images of hypersexuality and loudness that were coded as disreputable. The anger and sadness I felt about my humanity being limited (and that I didn’t even feel safe expressing, lest I be dubbed an Angry Black Woman) had no outlet. Instead, I internalized a deeply self-hating attitude. I assumed it was my sole responsibility to prove that black people could be smart, quiet, and disinterested in sexuality.

Passivity and withdrawal served as coping mechanisms for me in a world that was hostile to my existence. To be a good girl meant to be silent, to acquiesce to the demands of adults while my anger and insecurity brewed under the surface, to have my voice retreat from the powerful roar of my childhood to the slow, halting speech of my early adolescence, where I would be asked to repeat myself so frequently that even now, I still perceive it as a microaggression, to have the stress of performing passivity accumulate in my raised shoulders, to never put my own needs and boundaries first. My silence was often pre-emptive: I tried to anticipate others’ needs in advance in my tiring quest not to ruffle feathers, not to exist as a black woman, in a black woman’s body, and cause discomfort to my white peers.

Feminism brought to me the radical idea that I could forge new ways of authentically living and defining my sexuality as a black woman without being self-essentializing. This thought-seed germinating inside of me is only a few years old, a tiny speck in comparison to the two-plus decades of my life I’ve been pushed to obey conventional rules that leave me wanting.  In my feminist vacuum on the Internet, it can be easy to assume that everyone knows about enthusiastic consent (after all, this terminology was introduced to the most recent edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves!). But feminism’s visions of what is possible for women exist in tension with the disquieting reality that recognizing women as nuanced sexual beings remains a fringe position. In a recent article for New York Magazine, feminist journalist Ann Friedman concludes after her research into female masturbation, “The notion that women enjoy sex has not yet achieved scientific or cultural acceptance. To social conservatives, it seems downright dangerous. What’s left to hold our society and nuclear family structure together if even women like sex more than they like babies?” Indeed, our current social battles are predicated on the assumption that women’s sexuality should be punished, and always framed by men as threat.

In this cultural climate, challenging the scripts of passivity is difficult work both personally and politically. I fall back into them so easily it can seem almost invisible. A positive experience I had last summer has been instructive to me in working to disrupt these scripts. This person (who I’ll call the Summer Boy) challenged my performance of passivity in our interactions together. My comfort with him was predicated on the fact that he lived his feminism with a consciousness of his privileges relative to mine. His feminism extended to our interpersonal interactions, too. In sharp contrast to most men I’ve interacted with, who are too eager to have someone to talk at for hours on end, the Summer Boy was genuinely interested in getting to know me. In sharing our histories in suburban towns, and reclaiming the histories we disavowed ourselves from, I came to like him.

During one of our dates, we were walking together, and I started to lean on him. This went on for a while before he asked me, “Why are you doing that?” This question jarred me out of my passivity and forced me to examine my behavior. I was relying too much on silence, on body language, to confer my own desires for me. Being honest about my feelings for him was frightening. It required me to acknowledge my sexuality in a very direct way and be active in a way that’s never been socially encouraged for me. It’s very likely I would have just kept making eyes at him, paralyzed by my own fear, if the Summer Boy didn’t give me a push in the right direction. In those moments, making the first move to hold his hand, to ask if it was okay to do that, to embrace him, felt brave, radical.

Women can be passive. But there’s much more to the story than that.

Resisting the Silencing of Discussions of Rape Culture: On Deric Lostutter, Steubenville, and Surveillance

Outrage sparked across the feminist and progressive Internet last week when it was revealed that 26-year-old Deric Lostutter, the Kentucky-based hacktivist that spearheaded KnightSec, the subgroup of Anonymous that made a brazen call for justice in the Steubenville case, was raided in April 2013 by the FBI in connection with the hacking of the Steubenville football team’s website, RollRedRoll.com. If convicted, he could face up to ten years in prison, a more extreme sentence than the measly one- and two-year sentences doled out to the Steubenville rapists. That rage also catalyzed into an Ultraviolet petition demanding that the Department of Justice drop their charges against Lostutter.

Deric Lostutter maintains he wasn’t directly connected with the hacking of the website. By then, the power of Anonymous had been unleashed. (One of the advantages of its decentralized nature is the ability to divide their energy across several initiatives.) However, Lostutter was largely responsible for bringing the case to national attention. Based on information he was forwarded by Michelle McKee, Lostutter created the now-infamous video issuing an ultimatum to the guilty members of the football team to step forward before January 1, 2013, threatening to publish their names, addresses, and social security numbers otherwise. The video, which collated documentation from that night, including tweets, Instagram photos, and videos, was picked up by the mainstream media, and its wide circulation sparked national outrage about the case and eventually led to the prosecution of the rapists. The video resonated with many because they clearly demonstrated the collusion of an entire town in protecting the football team’s reputation, no matter how abhorrent their actions. As Gawker writer Adrian Chen observed, “Shadowy hackers threatening the town from cyberspace was an almost too-perfect escalation.”

In an interview with Josh Harkinson, a reporter for Mother Jones, Lostutter states the FBI raid was a deliberate campaign by authority figures in Steubenville who “want to make an example of me, saying, ‘You don’t fucking come after us. Don’t question us.’” His pending prosecution brings up important questions for feminist activism, which increasingly uses the Internet as a tool of mobilization, archivization, and as an awareness-raising tool of how entrenched sexism remains in our culture. (For instance, projects like Mansplained, Hollaback! and the Everyday Sexism Project are great resources illustrating the pervasiveness of rape culture and the devaluation of female judgment and experiences.) Indeed, much of the power of online activism is in its collective nature – by a critical mass of feminists submitting their own stories, they coalesce into one powerful, telling narrative about our cultural priorities. This is a tension Chen articulates in his article as well:

The video wasn’t forensic evidence of a crime, but of the attitude that could allow something like the rape to happen over and over again. When people talk about how Anonymous “exposed” Steubenville, they can’t mean the facts of this case, which were utterly botched by KnightSec and its allies. What they mean is that Anonymous exposed how sexual assault is a bigger issue than bad people doing bad things. That it is enabled and even celebrated by a culture that tells young men it’s OK to laugh off a horrific rape as harmless late-night debauchery, to be Instagrammed and tweeted about, then expects the rest of us to feel bad for the perpetrators when they’re punished.

Being actively silenced is a phenomenon feminist activists on the Internet (as well as those who oppose rape culture, like Lostutter) are all too commonly faced with. Whether via graphic rape threats,  hacking personal accounts, or doxxing, which emboldens misogynists to escalate their attacks to phone calls and stalking, the cumulative effect is to force alternative perspectives offline and simultaneously limit the discourses on what is politically possible for marginalized groups. While white male voices speaking about Internet culture would have us believe their experiences on the Internet represent a universalized narrative where everyone’s voices are equally amplified, in actuality, those who critique the dominant culture’s mode of functioning are disproportionately targeted for harassment. In her article for New Statesman, feminist journalist Laurie Penny explicitly links viral rape to a state that actively squelches any attempts to point out its gross inequities. She writes, “This is how the surveillance state works, and it’s also how patriarchy works. The message is: don’t tell. Don’t ever tell. The people who have power, whether that’s the state or the boys on the football team, are allowed to know what you’re up to, constantly, intimately, and they can and will punish you for it, but if you turn the tables and show the world how power is abused, you can expect to be fucked with, and fast.”

Ultimately, the DoJ’s decision to prosecute Lostutter sends a chilling message to both Internet hacktivists and feminists who stood against the injustice wrought in Steubenville and beyond. It suggests that the “correct” cultural response to rape is apathy and inaction. Lostutter, for his part, is continuing to push back against the charges. As of this writing, the defense fund has collected ten percent of its goal of $500,000. Feminist writers and activists on the Internet also realize that the need to carve an alternative narrative where rape culture is always, unmistakably, an outrage, is too urgent and necessary to cease.

Lobbying for the Women’s Equality Act, Surviving Catholic School, and Why the Personal is Still Political

This past Tuesday, along with other Long Islanders, I boarded a charter bus with Planned Parenthood Hudson Peconic, and I urged my state representatives to support the Women’s Equality Act, which, coinciding with our lobby day, officially became a bill.

via occupy rapid city

This was my second time lobbying on behalf of this historic legislation, which New York governor Andrew Cuomo introduced in January. In a cultural climate where it seems feminists can’t even blink before another politician introduces a bill to restrict women’s reproductive rights – indeed, according to the Guttmacher Institute, 33 percent of new policies enacted in 2012 across 19 states restricted abortion access – New York state, often a pioneer for womens’ rights, is in a rare position to push forward comprehensive legislation that would correct current obstacles women face with combating sexual harassment in small workplaces, workplace discrimination based on marital status, human trafficking, pay equity, and reproductive rights. As Gina Weatherup noted on the PPHP blog, Politics, Power, Sex:

 What’s truly unique about this plan is seeing the idea of the intersectionality of oppression being put into practice.  So often in politics and the media we see coverage of pay equity, or coverage of sexism in the workplace, or coverage of abortion, or coverage of domestic violence – like each one is its own separate issue, unrelated to anything else.  Governor Cuomo’s package shows his understanding that “women’s issues” around pay, violence, housing and reproductive rights are all interconnected.  No one issue can be resolved without looking at the big picture.  He’s using his power as Governor to connect & break down the legal barriers that hold women back – to truly empower women – and that is unusual.

As feminist activism often has to be on the defensive, the progressive nature of this bill is a welcome change.

It was thrilling to be in Albany as a constituent using the power of my voice and my experiences to speak with local politicians. While I had the opportunity to meet with politicians who were supportive of this legislation, I found it was particularly critical to discuss personal experiences with politicians in more conservative districts. While I realize citizens have more direct leverage with local and state politics (which often serve as a bellwether for national policies), as a young person I’ve often found myself alienated from local politics on Long Island, where property taxes seemed to be residents’ singular concern. During my meeting at the office of the conservative Jack Martins, I was reminded of how political my upbringing was in an Irish-Catholic-dominated part of Long Island.

Growing up in an upper-middle-class, Roman Catholic nuclear family, I went to Catholic school most of my life and was indoctrinated in its unquestioning logics. In fact, I didn’t know that abortion could be framed as a health care issue until I was in college. I was simply never exposed to that position. We were only told that abortion was a mortal sin. Christianity’s grim dictate of the fate of mothers who aborted said it all: both the woman and the doctor were automatically excommunicated from the Church – no ifs, ands, or buts. This effectively created a division between “good women” who don’t have sex and “bad women” who had sex, or, according to the state,  waited until it was too late to seek abortion. (Of course, what is considered “too late” doesn’t take into account health problems that could complicate pregnancies past this point.) These binaries infantilize women and create hierarchies around which women “deserve” access to safe abortions, an assumption the women in our coalition felt deeply uncomfortable with.

Catholic schools frequently participate in actions that simultaneously incentivize alignment with antiabortion politics and grow the numbers of young people who identify as “pro-life.”  For instance, my elementary school held an essay contest where we had to argue for why all fetuses had the right to life. If we participated, we were eligible for cash prizes. And at my Catholic high school, students were invited to participate in the annual March for Life, an antiabortion rally that takes place in Washington, D.C. The feminist activist Michelle Kinsey Bruns noted that these trips are often a rare opportunity to travel outside of school, and correctly observes that Catholic school is an echo chamber that promotes a single, narrow narrative about abortion.  Catholic schools’ ability to use their students as a captive audience allows them to inflate their numbers.

As a black woman attempting to make sense of how others would perceive my own body, the safest decision throughout much of my adolescence was to disassociate from being a girl. Internalized misogyny became a means of survival for me in the dudebro-centered culture of suburbia. This often meant drawing pride from not being like the other girls, who either had boyfriends or worried about acquiring boyfriends. Even as I became more skeptical of the Catholic Church and its implicit lessons about gender, agency, and power, I flattened the experiences of my peers as I placed myself on a pedestal for my refusal to act on any feelings of sexual desire I felt. Respectability politics made acknowledging (let alone having honest conversations about) my own sexuality impossible. I felt incredible pressure to be a living example of how to perform blackness correctly. It was only later that I began to unlearn my ways of thinking and relating to myself and other women.

Another assumption in this meeting I felt uncomfortable with was the staffers’ insistence that women’s equality will “just happen” because we live in a historically liberal state. This belief both erases the labor of feminist activists in broaching mainstream consciousness on social issues and assumes the passage of time forward is the sole factor that mediates progress, an attitude that suspends our agency as social actors and flies in the face of evidence that those who wish to preserve the status quo actively block social progress. A common refrain I heard from older activists that day was that they never thought they’d still be fighting to maintain the same hard-won protections for women they had been instrumental in pushing forward in the sixties and seventies.

It’s critical that the Women’s Equality Act gets to the floor for a vote before this legislative session ends on June 20th. I know I’ll be lobbying again, this time on Long Island, to urge Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos to allow the bill to come to the floor for a vote, and to leverage social media to encourage my friends that live in New York to call their state senators and assemblypeople.

WAM’s #FBrape Campaign and Systemic Misogyny in Tech Culture

Last week, Women, Action, and the Media (WAM!), a national feminist media organization, along with the UK-based Everyday Sexism Project and the feminist writer Soraya Chemaly, who regularly reports on the intersection of technology and feminism, spearheaded its campaign to hold Facebook accountable for its widely-reported selectively gendered policies in removing offensive content. Feminist coverage of this topic has consistently shown that Facebook refuses to take down content that perpetuates rape culture and normalizes domestic abuse. Such groups, which proliferate on Facebook, are instead filed under “controversial humor.” By contrast, pages where women control the presentation of their bodies, including breastfeeding, or anatomical diagrams of the female reproductive system, were summarily taken down from the site. According to the WAM FAQ, Facebook’s current moderation policies hinder feminists’ abilities to use the social network as a site for activism and spurring feminist consciousness.

Unlike previous attempts to bring awareness to these policies, WAM’s campaign calls upon advertisers to hold Facebook accountable by pulling their ads until Facebook responds. Mobilizing young feminists using social media to appeal directly to advertisers is a technique successfully used by feminists in a 2012 campaign against Rush Limbaugh shortly after he called Sandra Fluke, a Georgetown law student, a slut for advocating for the passage of the contraceptive mandate. As of this writing, over 43,000 tweets and 4,000 e-mails have been sent out about the campaign since its announcement, and several companies have pulled their ads from Facebook until this issue is addressed, including WestHost and Nissan UK.  Feministing reported that six companies, including Dove and Audible.com, refused to pull their ads from the site. While these companies claim reporting sexist pages is a sufficient action to prompt change, the WAM! Twitter account has posted powerful tweets demonstrating how the reporting processes leaves women out in the cold. Responses like Dove’s are insufficient because they ignore the systemic ways gendered hate speech are endorsed by Facebook staff and tech culture.

Feminist activists and organizations involved in the campaign acknowledge that appealing to Facebook directly, due to its lack of anonymity, is dangerous because of the risk of harassment by trolls and Facebook moderators’ general apathy to this abuse, which mimics its indifference to women’s safety writ-large in online spaces. Indeed, Facebook’s ubiquity and clout as a social network likely plays a large role in their refusal to honor the experiences of feminists and rape survivors. Facebook’s behavior grimly confirms that we live in a world where women are always subject to sexual violence. The larger cultural message we receive from a patriarchal society, and from the brogramming culture that spawned Facebook in the first place, is that this is okay, this is the way things should be.

Indeed, these biases permeate tech culture. In a 2011 article for Forbes, “Siri is Sexist,” Amanda Marcotte, a Brooklyn-based feminist writer, notes Siri, the personal assistant introduced on the iPhone 4S, has an uncanny ability to quickly locate escort services. However, Siri’s abilities don’t similarly extend to quickly or reliably locating emergency contraception or abortion services. Marcotte observes,

The problem isn’t that anyone involved with this hates women. The problem is that they just don’t think about women very much. Siri’s programmers clearly imagined a straight male user as their ideal and neglected to remember the nearly half of iPhone users who are female. That the tech company that’s the standard-bearer for progressive, innovative, user-friendly technology can’t bother to care about the concerns of half the human race speaks to a sexism that’s so interwoven into the fabric of our society that it’s nearly invisible.

It should be inexcusable for programmers, developers, and moderators continue to ignore the ways social media is both leveraged by and uniquely informs women’s daily experiences of being in the world. We live in a culture that is actively hostile to our existence, one in which men upload rapes to Facebook without facing repercussions. In addition to being half the population, women are the overwhelming majority of social media users, granting the sites social legitimacy and capital despite the dictates and overrepresentation of men in tech culture. Sixty-four percent of Facebook users are women; if anything, our perspectives and daily experiences of sexualized violence should be given priority instead of being dusted aside as irrelevant and humorless. The fact that Facebook’s moderators choose to hide behind the blinders of their own privilege, where the presumptive “average Facebook user” is a white male who never has to worry, daily, about the specter of forced sexual aggression, is no longer acceptable. Their apathy is simply enabling injustice and abuse.

Anonymous, Steubenville, and Administering Great Justice Online

In a Mother Jones article published earlier this week, Josh Harkinson discusses Anonymous’ crucial role in making the horrifying cases of gang rape in both Steubenville, Ohio and Halifax, Canada crest on the national radar. The publicity Anonymous brought to the Steubenville case eventually led to the prosecution of two of the perpetrators in Steubenville. However, the women responsible for directing Anonymous to these brutal cases played an instrumental role in directing the online group’s resources to publicizing the cases and putting the perpetrators on blast, a refreshing change to tired narratives of victim-blaming and shaming.

Michelle McKee, an activist from Washington, and Alexandria Goddard, an Ohio-based reporter, were both frustrated that the now-infamous events in Steubenville, Ohio, weren’t receiving national coverage despite several attempts on McKee’s part to tip off reporters to the story. Goddard, a friend of McKee’s, used Twitter and her expertise studying teen’s social media usage to cobble together the sordid commentary by members of the football team of what occurred that evening, and eventually published her findings on her blog, Prinniefied. The collection of screenshots Goddard gathered from Twitter from students who were in attendance proved vital not only in implicating the rapists but also in displaying an overwhelming endorsement of rape culture.

Meanwhile, McKee reached out to Anonymous, aware of their previous campaigns against cyberbulling. Along with KnightSec, a subgroup of Anonymous, McKee was instrumental in starting the #RollRedRoll hashtag and subsequent campaign in order to bring attention to the case and Steubenville’s silence, which clearly prioritized the football players’ prestige and careers over the psychological damage the victim, who goes by the alias Jane Doe, suffered. Using a compilation of tweets from the perpetrators and those complicit in the group rape, and information from the high school web page, Anonymous created a video officially putting Steubenville on notice.

That so many of the perpetrators’ ribald tweets were linked to their real names, without any regard to future consequences, is telling about our cultural priorities. Rapists are free to tweet and share photos detailing their acts of aggression, with the calm assurance that they won’t be penalized in any way for their actions, no matter how disgusting; all the blame will be shifted to the victim. As Elizabeth Plank, a writer for the blog PolicyMic, points out in her article on the trend of viral rape, the documentation of rape on social media is a way to once again proudly violate the victim. She writes:

The fact that rapists want others to know that they have raped suggests that violating women is a rite passage, a legitimate method to climb the social ladder of masculinity or at least the bastardized toxic masculinity that they covet). Forcefully penetrating an unconscious girl is not a source of shame, but a badge of honor in the march of toxic masculinity, passed on through cultural narrative and weak “boys will be boys” punishments. Instead of guilt, the rapists feel pride. They get to rape their victims all over again, with ever share and every nasty comment, with every “LOL” and every “what a slut.”

The most prominent mainstream media narratives for rape and sexual assault only serve to reify the dictates of viral rape, demanding to know what the woman was wearing or drinking in an attempt to re-shame her. In CNN’s coverage of the Steubenville verdict, anchors Candy Crowley and Poppy Harlow were far too preoccupied with how the guilty ruling would ruin the rapists’ lives to be concerned for Jane Doe’s well-being. As of this writing, CNN still has not made any sort of apology regarding their rape apologism for the perpetrators.

As Harkinson correctly notes in his article, Anonymous is a surprising ally to the movement to combat rape culture and rape survivors, considering its genesis from 4chan. However, Anonymous’s work has resulted in legal repercussions for the rapists in Steubenville, and national attention to Rehtaeh Parsons’ suicide following her group rape and subsequent relentless bullying. Their decentralized nature, broad reach, and unfettered access to resources civilians might not be able to utilize makes Anonymous a force to be reckoned with. (Their ability to quickly compile all the relevant evidence regarding Parsons’ viral rape is nothing short of remarkable.)

Aided by the work and dedication of survivors and feminists, Anonymous is taking an important step towards declaring that women will not stand for the continued proliferation of rape culture in both its online and offline manifestations.  Using new technologies not only to break stories about the effects of the cycle of rape and unrelenting harassment by peers on survivors, but also to control the narratives created about these stories is an important tool that feminists online must continue to wield to send a clear message: rapists and rape culture will no longer be tolerated.

LinkedIn Needs to Be Safe for Women – And So Does The Internet

The increasing transparency of the late-2000s Internet promised a decline in the vitriol spewed by misogynistic commenters reveling in the shroud provided to them by anonymity. Sites like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn have done much to authenticate one’s “true” identity online, and thus make it harder for people to engage in destructive behavior with true anonymity. However, the new age of transparency has had the unintended consequence of  facilitating stalking and other behaviors targeting women.

While on both Facebook and Twitter, it is relatively easy to block a user, LinkedIn currently lacks any such utility – and it’s a problem that holds dangerous reverberations. A petition started by Anna Rihtar on Change.org is pushing for LinkedIn to allow users to block other users those who may be abusing the site’s functionality to more efficiently stalk women. In Rihtar’s case, her former employer proceeded to track her down using her updated job history and continued to send her intimidating messages. As of this writing, over 4,600 signatures have been collected on this petition.

It’s precisely because LinkedIn’s primary purpose is to detail one’s job history and qualifications that that history should be subject to more safeguarding than usual. Since its creation in 2003, LinkedIn has no doubt established itself as a crucial component of a job seeker’s online presence. Data from a user’s profile is increasingly used to autofill job applications, which is why it’s all the more terrifying an oversight that they have no mechanism in place to hide that information from stalkers.

These types of battles highlight a depressing tendency for social networking sites to reinforce rape culture by lacking perspective or acquiescing to apathy about how their regulations (or lack thereof) can uniquely affect women’s experiences in that space.

When women have created spaces to discuss rape culture candidly (either seriously or with humor), they have summarily been shut down. For instance, Nice Guys of OKCupid, a Tumblr highlighting manipulative men who are convinced women owe them sex, enjoyed great popularity in feminist spaces before it was shut down – citing terms of service violations. These blogs could be argued to be doing a public service by spotlighting rape culture for the general public, as well as establishing a sort of online “whistleblower” service. (More recently, Rapebook, a group on Facebook bringing awareness the gross discrepancies in the Facebook’s TOS that encourage rape culture, has been shut down amidst prolonged harassment of the group administrators.)

Women overwhelmingly populate social media. It’s clear that across the board, many of the websites that we use to navigate our web presences need better tools to hold abusive users accountable and need to take responsibility for making spaces safe for us. Online harassment and other threats made online must be taken seriously – the permeation of these threats into the offline realm has been extensively documented and even boiled down into a formula. Those responsible for drafting terms of service documentation must understand and take into constant account that the lived realities of women and otherwise vulnerable and underserved populations differ greatly from those of men.

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