A Reply to Dr. Isis

A warning: if you are a survivor of sexual assault you may just want to skip this post and the ensuing ugly comment thread it is sure to engender.

A week or so ago the redoubtable Dr. Isis wrote an open letter to me.

In part she wrote:

The pragmatic part of me wants to agree with you that there is no place for open ogling in the workplace. The other part of me fears that there may be a hint of truth in Greg's argument that we are inherently sexual beings...

I see no reason to fear the truth that we are inherently sexual beings. But the fact that we are sexual beings does not mean that women just have to put up with tit-ogling in the workplace because men are just incapable of controlling themselves. One can both be a sexual being AND exercise self-control. This point has been made before but apparently it bears repeating: tit-ogling in the workplace is not just, or only, about sex. It's about power, dominance, and control. This has little to do with us as sexual beings and everything to do with patriarchy.

Dr. Isis also commented on a blog post of mine:

However, I am surprised by the number of women who have posted comments on a blog I wrote on a similar issue confessing to have also used their hooters to their advantage to manipulate a male colleague.

But this isn't surprising. Sexuality is one of the few ways that patriarchy allows women to exert influence; it makes sense that some women will try to take advantage of it. If we are to be treated as sex objects, then it is to be expected that some of us will deploy our objectified bodies to obtain favors from powerful men. This, however, should not be confused with women, as a class, actually wielding real power over men, as a class.

In my response to Dr. Isis I also said this:

...that power is essentially illusory, because we don't really wield sexual power over men - men as a class wield sexual power over women as a class via the fear of sexual assault.

and that statement seems to be what freaked Dr. Isis out enough to make her write her open letter. And yet, Dr. Isis herself admits:

I would gander that I do not have a reader that has not, in some way, had their life or the life of someone close to them affected by rape.


We alter our behavior, we think twice about how we dress, we ask for escorts to walk us across campus at night. This is because we are taught to worry about the stranger in the bushes, which is part of the way rape/fear of rape operates to control the lives of women. The cultivated fear of the stranger in the bushes operates to narrow the possibility of women to move freely in society without sanction.

It seems to me that Dr. Isis and some of her commenters think that if one is personally not afraid of being raped by the department chair, or while walking to one's car at night, then there can't be any issue about pervasive fear of rape. But the sad truth is, we live in a rape culture. Jill at Feministe said, as quoted on the Feminism 101 blog

Statistically, a woman is most likely to be sexually assaulted in her own home. Women are victimized in private far more often; it's men who are more likely to be victimized in public. People here are taking issue with your statements because there's a broad rape narrative which tells women that leaving the house to socialize, to go to parties, to date men, whatever, opens them up to violence. That constant threat of rape is used as a tool of social control against all women.

In reality, men are 150 percent more likely to be victims of violent crimes than women. Men are more likely to be both victims and perpetrators of crimes. Men are more likely to be assaulted, injured or killed when alcohol is involved. Men are more likely to be victimized by a stranger (63 percent of violent victimizations), whereas women are more likely to be victimized by someone they know (62 percent of violent victimizations). Women are more likely to be victimized in their home or in the home of someone they know, whereas men are more likely to be victimized in public.

So the constant narrative of "why do women go here when they know they might be raped?" isn't innocent, even if you mean it that way. It adopts a greater framework that has always been used to keep women docile and domiciled. It's men who are more likely to experience violence at places like frat parties, but no one suggests that they simply stay home or don't socialize in a particular way, because everyone assumes that men are entitled to live in the public space as they see fit. Women don't have that kind of entitlement. That's why feminists get pissed off when people suggest that women shouldn't go certain places or do certain things because they might get themselves raped; it's both inaccurate and part of a larger misogynist message.

Emphasis added by me.

It is in this way that fear of rape operates to constrain the lives of women as a class. But as Jill said, women are more likely to be raped or sexually abused at home, by someone they know. Paradoxically, we are not only not taught to fear this intimate assault, we are taught to embrace it through popular culture narratives as disparate as Ayn Rand's objectivist blather and Disney's ubiquitous princess blandishments.

Not a few present-day feminists read The Fountainhead in their youth and once thought "ooh, Howard Roark, he's so dreamy!", then grew up to realize "hey! that Howard Roark dude is a rapist!" That's what living in a rape culture will do for you. It will make you think a romanticized presentation of rape is actually a romantic, even heroic, love tale. It will make you think that a passionate woman must never actually verbalize her sexual desires nor willingly engage in sex, but instead must passively wait for a manly man to overpower her disdain and resistance. THEN she can love him and have sex with him, because he's proven himself worthy. The manly man, of course, should ignore her disdain and physical resistance, because what she really wants is for him to TAKE her.

But you can't wait for the kid to get old enough for Ayn Rand to start the rape culture training. No, little boys and girls must be instructed about proper courting behavior from an early age.

Yes, you want her
Look at her, you know you do
Possible she wants you to
There is one way to ask her

It don't take a word
Not a single word
Go on and kiss the girl

It's a perfect package. Inculcate fear of the stranger, constrain women's behavior and mobility, deny the real threats women face in the home, and romanticize intimate coercion and rape so that women feel confused about what has happened to them, and at all times feel guilty and responsible.

Dr. Isis, you are a kick-ass blogger and no doubt, as you proclaim, a domestic and laboratory goddess. But you are a tad naive, and bit sloppy in your argument. Just because I subscribe to a grim view of reality doesn't mean I think that reality is unchangeable. For god's sake, I'm the one arguing that men are actually able to control themselves and ought to be expected to be able to keep themselves from ogling tits in the workplace.

And by the way, I'll look forward to hearing from you, someday, exactly how it is that women "exert dominance over men in reproduction", because as I look around me in society, I don't really see that working out so well for women right now. Or maybe I missed the part where society so reveres child-bearing and rearing that it does everything possible to provide for the well-being of expectant mothers and young children, and to make every accommodation possible to ensure that all women can truly choose whether or not they want to work and raise children or just do one or the other. You can take your time getting back to me on that one.

More like this

Zuska, I think this this is an important dialogue. Thank you for the reply. I'm going to take a bit of time to ponder your thoughts (and in the meantime write about shoes), but I hope to continue the discussion...

Best Regards,

A couple of years ago when a friend was ill, she asked me to take over her workshop on sexual harassment. She gave me her materials since I had never done the workshop before.

I decided I would go through the materials and activities while staring at the crotch of the most attractive man there. Boy howdee it soon became very clear that "turn about is NOT fair play". The whole place went rather nuts. I did apologize to the guy later privately and he was very nice and did understand why I had done it. He spoke about how embarrassed he was (and hey I did not say anything, touch anything or go into his personal space; I just stared).

The acceptable response to "open ogling" is apparently quite different based on whose (and what) body parts are being ogled and who is doing the ogling.

Thank you for posting this so eloquently! Well said.

I was just wondering if you could perhaps expound on this bit:
We alter our behavior, we think twice about how we dress, we ask for escorts to walk us across campus at night. This is because we are taught to worry about the stranger in the bushes, which is part of the way rape/fear of rape operates to control the lives of women. The cultivated fear of the stranger in the bushes operates to narrow the possibility of women to move freely in society without sanction.

See, I used to run those dormitory rape awareness workshops, you know, those mandatory once-a-month things that RAs who want free room and board have to do? And the most amazing thing to me was this: After we had had a string of rapes on campus, one of which was a statutory rape of a 15-year-old who had been visiting an older sibling for the weekend and carried out (and admitted to in court!) by the preznit of one of the vaunted fraternities, there were nevertheless women who scoffed at being handed safety whistles, who had eightygazillion excuses of Why It Won't Happen To Me. We'd point out that not only could it happen to anyone--specifically, college women, more or less on their own for the first time, were at more risk for various reasons (the main one being: living in close proximity to gangs of young men with shitty judgment). And there was nevertheless a lot of denial and victim-blaming.

And I think there is a lot of that WRT sexism in general; there's always that, "I won't get (sexism instantiation), I'm special, I'm gonna beat the statistics" sort of attitude in previous discussions. I would like to hear your thoughts on how denial affects women's perceptions of sexism, how women distance themselves from other women as a form of denial, thereby reinforcing and enabling sexism.

Zuska, this is very insightful and well-written. Here is my contribution against any "ugly comment thread" that is to come.

Two cents on the "I'm special" attitude which Lora mentions: I wonder if things like awareness workshops and special strategies, etc. contribute in some way to this attitude. After all, if we're supposed to defend ourselves against sexual assault by means of awareness, strategies, or whistles or what have you, then it seems that someone who was sexually assaulted just didn't use the proper assortment of strategies...? I'm not endorsing this viewpoint, just pointing it out as a possible subconscious effect. I know it's already said, but maybe a bigger deal needs to be made in these workshops of the fact that awareness et al. does not guarantee anything.

Great post Zuska!

Even as a man, I find this kind of argument mystifying. I work at a place where there's an unusually large number of women for a tech company. Of course I notice coworkers who are attractive women - just like I notice coworkers who are attractive men, or who are particularly well dressed, or who are particularly skinny, or....

But just because I notice something doesn't mean that I'm incapable of deciding whether or not to act on it. There's nothing that forces me to stare at the chest of a coworker who has an attractive figure. I'm perfectly able to look them in the face when I'm talking to them, and to not stare at them as we pass in the hallway.

The idea that men are somehow incapable of not staring at a woman's chest is, frankly, insulting to men! It's just ridiculous.

To clarify a point brought up by thoughtcounts:

The attitude I'm specifically thinking of was not so much the interventions inducing a sense of invulnerability, although that's an interesting example of empowerment/dis-empowerment, but rather a solipsistic sort of invulnerability: "She got (sexism) because she wore the wrong outfit, wasn't nice enough, wasn't assertive enough, was too assertive, was drunk, didn't have as many good friends, &c. &c." These women were deniers of sexism before getting any rape awareness info or taking self-defense courses--their point was, they didn't see the need for any self-defense or awareness because it wouldn't happen to them. That denial is what interests me, in a morbid sort of way.

Self-control can be a difficult subject. Different people have different abilities for self-control, just as they do in their less controllable traits. In the extreme example, telling an alcoholic that they just need to exercise self-control is not going to be enough. And while environment does have an influence in determining a person's activity, I don't see how a personal addiction has to be the result of Patriarchy.

But I agree that the "princess" culture promulgated by entertainment and such has always struck me as strange. "Boys are supposed to court the girls." Maybe it's because I had never been good with approaching girls, that I considered such assumption ridiculous.

Intersting post! You brought up some of those very key things, imho, like why women need to be afraid about going out at night whereas men are more likely to encounter violence.

Maybe this stems a little from the fact that men in general would have more possibilities to defend themselves than the average woman against an attack from a man? Or maybe this too is something we are taught in early age and then "believe and don't challenge".

Personally I am curious about what you say about the "date rape" when the woman doesn't want to have sex but doesn't voice it "because it's probably easier" and where/how this common behaviour can be counteract upon.

@Lora- for what it's worth, I remember mocking the rape whistles in my immature undergrad stage. Though it wasn't completely about "it can't happen to me" so much as "if it happens, a whistle will help?".

I think the "it can't happen to me" needn't always extend to rape denial. I personally don't live my life in fear of rape. I delibrately try to view fear as irrational and to be avoided (barring evidence that there really is something dangerous about a situation).

I was at a meeting where a future event was announced; it was to take place in the evening (5-8pm) in a nearby city. The announcer (a gentlemanly sort) made some sort of comment about "and no one needs to worry; we can provide escorts so you don't have to get back to your car alone".
It actually took me a while to figure out what he was talking about. I realized then what it means for most people to live in a culture of fear, and how it was probably enormously more common than I realized.

I'm not saying to women afraid of rape "you should feel differently". I am saying "it's possible to feel differently" and that I want to work on making it easier for everyone (any take back the night rallys coming up?)

Evil-doers can either have a 1/(large number) chance of ruining a segment of your life, or you can give the fear of violence dominion over all of your life. And that's not limited to women and rape (terrorism fear-mongering anyone?).
I think that saying "it's not going to happen to me", can actually be a very mature response...if you couple that with sensible behavior and utmost compassion for victims.

Hear, hear, Zuska. Well put.

I don't live my life in fear of rape. I don't worry about rape when I'm in an elevator with male colleagues, or when I'm walking home alone at night through sketchy neighborhoods (sometimes I worry about being mugged, but it's not enough to stop me - I just try not to carry anything valuable).

But all it takes is just one man calling out "hey, baby!" from his car when I'm walking home at night to absolutely scare the crap out of me. One relatively innocuous but definitely sexually aggressive move, and all of the fear I have been trained to feel - and that I have been carefully working to untrain myself from - will come rushing in, all at once. The adrenaline rush is much stronger than the one that comes when someone approaches me with "hey, I need a dollar". So even though I don't let fear run my life, and I do view most of it as irrational, I would still say that I'm afraid.

Men can invoke that fear with a very small remark because they're drawing on the power of rape culture. This is true even if they're just clumsy flirts - it's like men are always speaking into a microphone that amplifies any hint of sexual aggression. Rather than learning to filter out that added distortion, while still being bothered by the noise, I would rather take away the microphone.

Can someone explain to me how "Kiss the Girl" from The Little Mermaid has anything to do with rape? I'm extremely confused by this. To me it's an innocent scene in which two people who like each other are too nervous to do anything about it, and one of them can't talk. Sebastian, who is singing the song, knows that Ariel likes the prince, so he's encouraging him to kiss her, which will make her happy. There are definitely other examples of sexism in this movie, but I really don't see how this is sexist, and I certainly don't see how this is part of the rape culture you are describing. Please enlighten me.

I can not remember much from the Little Mermaid, but I do remember quite a bit from Harlequin romance novels. Go to you local bookstore and pick up any one of the many Harlequin books featuring a Cowboy / Indian / Pirate hero and innocent female heroine. All of them will have the scene of Hero forcibly kissing the heroine. Her resisting until she realizes the "great pleasure" she is about to have. If that is not romanticizing rape, I don't know what is.

@Becca: See, the thing I used to run into (sadly, horribly) is when women who were big-time deniers or simply, like you, did not feel they had any reason to be afraid, and then they were raped themselves--and were completely immobilized by it, unable to react in any way to protect themselves. Unable to go to the cops or a hospital, unable to get themselves counseling, just completely flailed and often ended up dropping out of school. One especially memorable young lady became psychotic and the school had to debate whether she should be involuntarily committed to a psych unit or simply expelled and made into her parents' problem.

And there's a couple of aspects that worry/interest me about this: One, that not feeling fear in the sense of planning for disasters can prevent women from defending themselves or developing adequate coping skills, and I think it is in the predators' (sexual bullies as well as criminals) interests to keep women as naive or oblivious as possible. I know Gavin de Becker's books are a little shrinky, but I do think they are interesting in this respect. Two, was discussing this elsewhere, but I think that one positive aspect of single sex schools is that they give people a safe haven from the sexist culture, thereby enabling people to see the absurdities of it, such that women in particular can recognize sexism more readily. And I think that women who are immersed in a sexist culture have a harder time seeing anything but the most obnoxious and overt sexism because of that immersion.

Although my instinct is to think "Oh I wouldn't react like that...", the truth is I don't actually know how I would react to being raped.

However, are you making the claim that women who are afraid of rape are less likely to be raped, that they cope better when it does happen?
I can see how someone afraid of rape would be less likely to go down dark alleys; or at least to be more aware of their surroundings. But in a sense, that isn't actually the rape to worry about. The rape that is vastly more likely is rape by someone you know... how can you be afraid of that kind of rape and still form close and trusting relationships? How good are we really at judging risks other people pose to us?

Rather tangentially; I don't have to look very hard to see sexism. As a personality quirk- I think of the world as a pretty safe place but also a completely unfair one. I don't fear rape very often, but I can still see sexism all the time.

Can someone explain to me how "Kiss the Girl" from The Little Mermaid has anything to do with rape? I'm extremely confused by this. To me it's an innocent scene in which two people who like each other are too nervous to do anything about it, and one of them can't talk. Sebastian, who is singing the song, knows that Ariel likes the prince, so he's encouraging him to kiss her, which will make her happy. There are definitely other examples of sexism in this movie, but I really don't see how this is sexist, and I certainly don't see how this is part of the rape culture you are describing. Please enlighten me.

Ok, first the disclaimer that this is one of the best songs (as a song) in the cheesy Disney soundtrack canon, such as it is. If you can bear to ignore the implications of the lyrics and the Jamaica-mon vocal performance. ahem. (If I've now ruined this for you, sorry, and a replacement.)

The trouble is that the d00d doesn't really know that the girl (age 14 was it?) likes him. He's groovin' on her, yes. But she's been rendered friggin' MUTE by the magickz. The sidekick, Sebastian may know that the girl is liking the d00d, sure. So why not sing to HER to kiss HIM!???? Because the d00dz is supposed to mack on teh girlz, not the other way around, you see. On the girl side, even if you like the guy, even if you are rendered mute you are supposed to sit there and wait to be violated kissed. Now think about the way this is set up from the male perspective- the way to find out if she "really likes you" is to go ahead and violate her person with a kiss. That's how you find out. Not through dialog, not through a mutual dance of increased closeness, no. She's sitting way over there on a tippy watercraft and you are supposed to lay 'em on to find out!

Now, you could argue that this is just the true-loves'-kiss mythology and that Ariel couldn't be the forward one or the magicz spellz would be fucked. But then ask yourself about the myth and what it really means.

dangit Z, turn on your strike tags! it blew my violated/kissed line....

By bikemonkey (not verified) on 26 Sep 2008 #permalink

Hey, Bikemonkey, great comment...d00d, I was not aware that I control the functionality (or not as the case may be) of the strike tags. Will look into that.

Thank you for the explaination, bikemonkey, I was also wondering.
I had a moment of "wait, wtf? But I love mermaid!"... and then I sat back and thought about how comfortable I find the bad romance novel view of courtship in many storylines. And then I died a little inside.

And, if it makes you feel any better, I mentally edited in the strikethrough lines for you even as I was reading it.

"The rape that is vastly more likely is rape by someone you know... how can you be afraid of that kind of rape and still form close and trusting relationships? How good are we really at judging risks other people pose to us?"

Exactly! Which is why I mentioned the de Becker books, he discusses this in great detail. That predators (whether family members, "friends," or simple con artists) make a concerted effort through various techniques to distract their prey from reality, that if we have faulty information then we can't make good decisions to protect ourselves, how to judge risk accurately. Like I said, they are rather shrinky but a good read. I read 'em on public transit, and it was definitely interesting (and scary) to see prime examples of weirdo predators bothering people using all those distraction techniques while reading about it at the same time.

OK, bikemonkey, I can see the sexism in the idea that the man has to make the first move while the woman/girl just sits and waits, but I'm still struggling to make the leap from kiss to rape. Seems, to me, like a case of finding what you're looking for rather than an actual connection.

Seems, to me, like a case of finding what you're looking for rather than an actual connection.

perhaps. or perhaps looking for a reason, post hoc, for why I get really skeeved out listening to this song now and again. I make next to zero claims on having feminist sensibilities. Certainly no academic ones. at best, I suppose, a dad-feminist like this guy, including possibly the "opinions and attitudes that committed feminists would find appalling".

and like I said in the comment above, this is a great song. .....as a song. all I can say is that sometimes when thinking about what the lyrics are actually saying...shudder.

A blog post over at Shakesville seems apt for this post and comment thread. Here's a snippet:

People often misread the statement "every man is a potential rapist" to mean "every man is a rapist," or "every man would rape if given the chance," or "every man wants to commit rape." That is not what the phrase means. What it means is that because of the way rape culture operates, women must identify every man as a potential rapist, knowing full well that most aren't. Because rapists don't hang signs around their neck proclaiming themselves as such, because rapists don't act like evil bastards all the time, because rapists indeed can comport themselves as friendly, helpful, even feminist, women must be on their guard until they believe that they have learned enough about a man that they can trust him. And even then, it's a leap of faith, as anyone who's experienced acquaintance rape can tell you.

Go read the whole post here. By the way, it's written by a d00d - an ally!

Hat tip to Pat at Fairer Science because a link she sent me for something else set me off on a trail that wound up at that post.

Nicely put Zuska. And lots of thoughtful comments!

I teach a lot about sex, and the worry I constantly have is that when I teach about physiological sex differences (say, the evolution of sperm and egg and internal fertilization and thus the different mating strategies males and females can employ) that my students will get reductive and, even though I explicitly say this is not the case, they will use the physiology of sex to explain/excuse violence, power and control over women. I am planning on devoting a whole lecture to the evolution of patriarchy, but I think it's worth thinking about the ways in which we permit these power structures to persist -- through a song, a less-than-thoughtful lecture, ogling, etc.