Welcome to our discussion of The Gender Knot by Allan Johnson. This is the second post in the discussion series. We will be discussing Chapter 1 “Where Are We?” You can find all posts connected to this discussion here.
As noted before, there is an updated edition of the book now available. In the first post, I was working with the 1997 edition. I now have the new edition and this post is based on that edition. The first chapter is available online here. If you haven’t had a chance to read the chapter, maybe you’d like to go now and read the pages covering “Women and Patriarchy” and “Deep Structure and the Way Out”, page 13 to the end.
Just as in the first post, let’s start with one important concept. If you take away nothing else from today’s post, please at least spend some time chewing on this bit (based on arguments of sociologist David Wellman) which is actually to be found in a footnote on page 15 (emphasis mine):
The words sexism and sexist are commonly used to describe a personal prejudice or the person who holds it…however, that approach is too narrow to be of use because male privilege requires far more than this to continue…I use the term to indicate anything that has the effect of promoting male privilege, regardless of the intentions of the people involved. By judging actions, policies, and institutional arrangements solely in terms of their consequences, [this] conceptualization allows us to focus on the full range of forces that perpetuate male privilege, and saves us from the trap of personalizing what is essentially a social and systematic phenomenon.
We’re going to take this concept along with Johnson’s metaphor of patriarchy as a tree and use both to look at a particularly illustrative and timely (in the blogospheric sense) case study. Yes, I am speaking of tit-ogling. Come along with me, d00ds, for we have much to talk about.
First, let’s talk about the patriarchy tree. The whole point is that patriarchy is a larger system within which we all operate. In this tree, you and I and everyone else are leaves. As Johnson says, we both draw our life from and give life to the patriarchy tree. The tree’s roots are the core principles of patriarchy: control, male dominance, male identification, and male centeredness.
Its trunk is the major institutional patterns of social life as shaped by the roots – family, economy, politics, religion, education, music, and the arts. The branches – first the larger, then the progressively smaller – are the actual communities, organizations, groups, and other systems in which we live our lives, from cities and towns to corporations, parishes, marriages, and families.
The whole system of science is definitely a major branch of the tree, and the lab groups we learn and work within are a smaller branch, akin to families. There is really no way to opt out of participating in patriarchy, though we do have some choice about the manner in which we will do so. If you are reading this, I assume you have already made the choice that you do not want to be an active oppressor, as far as you can avoid doing so. Will you, as a d00d, be a silent witness to the oppression of women and unquestioningly accept male privilege? Or will you choose to use some of that privilege to speak out on women’s behalf, knowing you’ll be taken more seriously that a woman would on the same subject?
Johnson tells us that if we are going to make any serious headway, we have to be willing to spend time looking at the deep structures, at the trunk and roots of patriarchy. Psychology has made us aware of deep structures within us – we all commonly speak of the subconscious, of the id and ego. We have a psychological language in everyday conversation for making sense of deep structures within ourselves. In the same way, Johnson says, we need a language for making sense of societies and our relationship to them. And we will find that the two are profoundly related.
“Tree? I don’t see any tree! I insist that I don’t see any tree” There’s no turning back once you really begin to think about patriarchy in a deep and sustained way. You can’t unlearn what you’ve come to know. You can’t ever look at the world again in the same unbothered manner you were used to employing. It’s so much more comfortable just to not know, and to resist hearing or paying attention to anything that threatens to make you know. This is in part why the denial and backlash against feminism is so fierce – we cannot afford to be made aware. The consequences of knowledge are too painful and costly and troublesome, so best just to ridicule and abuse the knowledge-bearers.
But other things get in the way as well. Issues of class, race, sexual orientation, and disability get in the way of our seeing women as oppressed. I’m a relatively well-off straight white person. I’ve got my health issues, sure, but I’ve got health insurance. How are you supposed to understand me as oppressed vis-a-vis a disabled black man without health insurance, or a gay white man from an Appalachian coal town? Here’s what Johnson tells us:
Identifying “female” as an oppressed status under patriarchy doesn’t mean that every woman suffers its consequences to an equal degree, just as living in a racist society doesn’t mean that every person of color suffers equally or that every white person shares equally in the benefits of white privilege. Living in patriarchy does mean, however, that every woman must come to grips with an inferior gender position and that whatever she achieves will be in spite of that position. With the exception of child care and other domestic work and a few paid occupations related to it, women in almost every field of endeavor must labor under the presumption that they are inferior to men, that they are interlopers from the margins of society who must justify their participation. Men may have such experiences because of their race or other subordinate standing, but rarely if ever because they’re men.
Johnson notes that men do suffer under patriarchy, but not because they are oppressed as men. Women’s subordination stems from the cultural definition of woman as an inferior status. One argument frequently made is that men suffer, are looked upon as disposable, in wartime, as soldiers (in the U.S. Army). But in this case it is not their status as men that is used to exploit them. Rather, race and class are the more salient issues in who ends up serving and getting killed. And the endless monuments and memorial services celebrate (generic) patriarchal manhood, with nary a mention of race or class. Johnson maintains that the rituals of remembrance serve to sanctify war and the patriarchal institutions that promote it. We don’t ridicule leaders whose mistakes and egos resulted in the deaths of thousands; they are somehow transformed into heroic tragic masculine figures. Meanwhile, nary a word is spared for the “estimated nine out of ten wartime casualties [that] are civilians…a huge proportion of children and women…there are no great national monuments to them. War, after all, is a man’s thing.”
Finally, when you come right down to it, it is just to painful to admit that there is a real basis for conflict between men and women. The rich and the poor don’t generally live in the same neighborhood, and despite all our efforts, our neighborhoods are still segregated to a large extent by race and ethnicity. But men and women live and love and work with each other daily, intimately. As Johnson points out, we need each other, if only as parents and children. Do we really want to think about our father’s role, unintentional or not, in our mother’s oppression, or how our mother may have been complicit in that oppression?
But I’m a good person! The good person/bad person dichotomy is one last thing that gets in our way of seeing the patriarchal tree and our participation in it. We tend to think, we want to think, that only bad people participate in and benefit from a society or system that produces such rotten consequences. But it’s not so, and thinking in terms of personality types is not helpful. It isn’t about us, personally, about our personal motivations, desires, and intentions. Johnson’s example of sweatshops is illustrative here. Nobody is “for” sweatshops. Yet how can you choose to totally opt out of the capitalist society you live in? Your closet no doubt contains items that were produced in sweatshops that exploited workers (mostly women and children). You didn’t do this on purpose, but it involves you in “the social production of injustice and unnecessary suffering”. Similarly, a d00d does not have to feel hateful towards women to be involved in the system of patriarchy that produces gender inequity and oppression. This is the crap we’ve been handed. Now we have to figure out what to do with it.
Case study: Tit-ogling
A summary of our case: Dr. Isis received a letter from a grad student whose classmate has been regularly subjected to tit-ogling by a professor she must work with. As a consequence, she has taken to baggy sweatshirt wearing. Isis responds in part:
That’s what it all comes down to when women are treated this way — creating a power dichotomy in which the male player attempts to reinforce the notion that the woman is submissive to him. Using a woman’s sexuality is the easiest way to do that. Professor Breast Man has already done this to your friend, causing her to alter the way she acts and dresses in an attempt to regain some of the power she feels she has lost in his objectification of her.
Predictably, a set of outraged responses ensue, which settle around several main points, all of which are concerned with why Professor Breast Man is ogling tits, with the implicit assumption that a plausible reason exempts him from censure:
- He can’t help himself – nature makes him do it. So you can’t be mad about it.
- He didn’t mean anything by it. So you can’t be mad about it.
- Maybe he could help himself, but he just has poor self-control. So you can’t be mad about it.
- There is nothing wrong with this, it’s just an expression of sexual attraction. So you can’t be mad about it.
- He may not even know he’s doing it! So you can’t be mad about it.
The grad student and Professor Breast Man are two leaves on the patriarchal tree, in a lab that is a smaller twig on the branch of a university attached to the trunk which, you recall, is shaped by the roots of family, economy, politics, religion, education, music, and the arts. Though I suppose it might be subsumed under education, let’s add Science explicitly to those roots.
Let’s take the first. Nature made him do it? If nature is making anyone ogle body parts, wouldn’t we expect it to be the women doing the ogling? After all, they are supposed to be the choosy sex, while the men are out there indiscriminately spreading their seed around, or so the Just So evolutionary psychology stories go. One would think that the choosy lasses would be constantly sizing up their potential mates for their sperm-worthiness. And yet, chronic cock-staring is not epidemic in our workplaces. But even if nature were making PBM do it, nature also gives us other strong urges that we learn, more or less, to control. That is why you do not see PBM urinating in a corner of the laboratory. Or so I hope.
As for the other reasons, what we need to do at this point is ask: why does PBM have so little self-control? Why is he unaware that he is staring at tits? Why does he feel it is okay to express his sexuality in this manner in the workplace, with a subordinate? Even if he personally doesn’t mean anything about it – that is, he’s just idly passing the time by looking at tits – does his tit-ogling have some larger meaning regardless of his intentions?
Maybe we can begin to approach answers to those questions by flipping them around. Why do (most) women display so much self-control – that is, they never ogle men’s crotches? Why would most women be acutely aware if they were staring at a man’s crotch? Why would most women feel it would be inappropriate to express their sexuality in the workplace by staring at the crotch of a male subordinate? Why do most women rarely, if ever, pass the time by idly, unthinkingly, staring at men’s crotches?
Bonus points: I encourage you to contemplate the heterosexist worldview embedded in whole notion of tit-ogling and its many justifications.
Before the grad student and PBM arrived as leaves on that particular lab branch, they had a whole host of life experiences on the patriarchal tree which led them to separate sets of behavior. For the grad student, the nourishment provided by the roots and the environment of the various twigs and branches encouraged her to develop as a person who does not, consciously or unconsciously, ogle the sex parts of men. She has learned, without even thinking about it, to view such behavior as alien to her, not part of her repertoire. PBM, on the other hand, received nourishment of a sort and in an environment that encouraged a very different sort of development: to think of ogling sex parts as just something that men do, anytime, anywhere, even at work. He likely learned to think of this as a way of demonstrating his masculinity. He learned this behavior in a world that teaches him, constantly, that women exist primarily for men’s pleasure and that they like being ogled.
In short, tit-ogling is just one signifier among many in a patriarchal society that says: men, you are in charge, and women are here for you to enjoy as you see fit. Now, an individual man, when he is ogling tits, may not feel particular powerful or in charge. He may not feel he is ogling tits to oppress women or even that particular woman. He may not even be consciously aware that he is ogling tits. But make no mistake, he is ogling tits because he grew up bathed in a sea of permissiveness with respect to women’s bodies, nourished by a patriarchy that said to him “you have the perfect right to look at any woman’s tits any time you want to!” For good measure, the patriarchy whispered in his ear, “if she doesn’t know you’re staring at her tits, it’s just fine.” That is, if she doesn’t know you are looking at her like she’s nothing but a sex object there to pleasure you, why then, it’s perfectly okay to go ahead and look at her like she’s just a sex object there to pleasure you.
PBM’s lab-twig is on the branch of a university. That university no doubt has a policy against sexual harassment, but what does this really mean? What do university leaders really do, in an active way, to promote an equitable environment and to educate those in positions of authority about their responsibilities to set and maintain that environment? What do they do to hold such people accountable for misbehavior? How easy do they make it for the powerless to step forward and speak out when they are put in oppressive situations? What do PBM’s colleagues do about his tit-ogling? Do they speak up? Do they even notice? That tit-ogling can go on, unnoticed, unremarked, unsanctioned, by colleagues or university administrators in 2009 – let alone the rest of the appalling behavior described in the post and thread over at Isis’s place – is evidence of the strength and institutional structure of patriarchy.
Yes, there are more women doing science now than there were thirty years ago. The patriarchal tree knows how to sway a little with the wind. But don’t kid yourself – the tree is still there, the roots still deep, the trunk still solid. And every time you let yourself get mired in a discussion of whether Professor Breast Man had good or bad intentions, or no intentions at all, when he was ogling his grad student’s tits, you are completely and totally missing the entire tree in your focus on the leaves.