Gender Knot Ch. 1 Follow Up: Intentionality

In light of the great discussion you all have been having on the second post on Chapter 1 of The Gender Knot, I thought it would be a good time to direct you to this most excellent Feminism 101 post at Shakesville, "Sexism Is A Matter Of Opinion". The whole thing is pure gold but I'd like to point out in particular this section on intentionality.

Whether something is sexist (be it a word, a consumable item, a practice, or anything else) is neither dependent on how it is intended nor how it is received, but on whether it serves to convey sexism, which itself is determined by its alignment with existent patterns. When 2+2 has equaled 4 since time began, anyone claiming 2+2 suddenly equals 5 would be regarded, quite rightly, with suspicion. It is vanishingly unusual for someone to say/do something that fits perfectly with an ancient pattern of sexism yet is somehow not an expression of sexism.

Let me quickly stipulate and clarify that one can unintentionally express sexism. That innocent intent, or ignorance of the history of how women have been marginalized, does not, however, in any way change the quality of what was being expressed. Something can still be expressed sexism even if the speaker's intent was not to oppress women. And particularly if it does fit neatly into a historical pattern, it necessarily conjures that pattern of sexism, intentionally or not.

So: Toss out the idea that intent determines sexism. And the idea that any of us, or any of the things we say or do, can exist in a void.

What we're then left with is the idea that if something fits into a historical pattern of sexism, unavoidably invokes such a pattern, and/or can be overtly quantified as marginalizing women, it is an expression of sexism.

All of these things can be objectively evaluated by anyone who learns the patterns of the patriarchy and the history of women's oppression.

That notion of conveying sexism, whether it was one's intention or not, is key here. When you are a leaf on the tree of patriarchy, you cannot pretend like your actions take place in isolation and without consequence for or connection to or meaning for any of the other leaves on the tree. You may not be thinking "oppress the bitchez!" when you are ogling tits, but most assuredly your actions fit into a system where tit-ogling is but one of many means whereby women are routinely oppressed. Your behavior conveys sexism to the ogled - and to those around you who observe your ogling - whether or not it was ever your intention.

Similarly, those of you who observe behaviors like tit-ogling, and who might be in a position to do or say something about it, but don't, are conveying sexism by your lack of words and action. That is, you are conveying your tacit approval of a system in which women may be treated in a disrespectful manner that underlines their subordinate position in the workplace and world at large.

Something to think about.

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So, to recap: A couple of women are having a conversation, and the topic turns to tit-ogling. "No one should be staring at my tits in the workplace," they all agree. "That makes me uncomfortable, creates a hostile work environment, and constitutes sexual harassment! How difficult is it to look…

Most readers here seem to have reached an agreement that tit-ogling is wrong, so I'll point out other common behaviors that may seem harmless but which also fertilize the patriarchy tree: standing silently by or laughing along when men tell "jokes" about how irrational, domineering, nagging, or gold-digging women are; how the IRS "raped" them this year; how so-and-so other man is a "bitch" or a "pussy";etc.

If you take part in these behaviors--even by silent assent--then yes, you are part of the problem. And no, your conscious intent does not matter.

A guy I'm seeing recently informed me last night that when we go out together lots of men look at my boobs.

This surprises me, because I had not noticed. And I do not care. Seriously, GET THE FUCK OVER IT. If I'm in public, I look at whatever bits of a person I like, and so should everyone else!

I consider myself a feminist. I don't know what to consider you. Crazy, perhaps?

Wait, Renee, what? not wanting to be ogled and treated like an object for public consumption is crazy? that's kind of a new one for me.

Thanks for linking to this, Zuska. That's one of my favorite 101 posts, and it is, I think, a point a lot of people don't understand if they haven't been exposed to these ideas. It can lead to a lot of misunderstandings about how people are using words, too.

Zuska, I just wanted to say that I'm really enjoying this series of posts. Reading the book and engaging in the discussions has really been enlightening to me. The book puts into words a lot of things that I had felt but hadn't been able to verbalize. I'm already through Chapter 6, and I just got the book in the mail on Friday.

I'm going to have to read the book and many of the posts and comments again, and take notes so that I can have the right words handy when I (inevitably) face another clueless d00d at my workplace and elsewhere.

Great series of posts, Zuska. I'm not a d00d; however, the discussion is so worthwhile and interesting that I ordered The Gender Knot so I can educate myself and join in. It should arrive within the next day or two (no local bookstore had a copy), and I'll try to catch up with the reading. The Shakesville posts are excellent too (thanks for discussing them), and on issues of class (related to gender as well), I recommend bell hooks' Where We Stand.

I'm kind of with Renee here; I'm a bisexual woman, and I look at both men and women's bodies in public. It seems to me that the key here is whether you can admire someone's ass and still treat them like a thinking, feeling person.

If you treat them like they are less than human because you like the look of their tits, then you have a problem. Otherwise, I don't see what's wrong with a bit of ogling.

By embertine (not verified) on 16 Jun 2009 #permalink

I concur with Rebecca and Barn Owl, I'm definitely getting the book. Just reading the blog posts has been enlightening. I knew I had been seeing (and feeling) a lot of anger, but it's really nice to be able to find a logical basis for arguments.

embertine, do you think there's a difference between blatant ogling (say, staring at a woman's chest instead of her face) and checking someone out in a subtle way? Because there are subtle ways that everyone does the latter, and really objectifying ways that the former happens all the time. I don't think Zuska is really talking about the fact that people mutually check each other out and are more or less polite and subtle about it.

If I am sitting at a table at my favorite sidewalk cafe in downtown Philly, observing the parade of humanity as it wanders on by, and a really gorgeous guy happens along, I'll notice him, and I'll take a look - maybe even a second look. Nothing wrong with that.

If, however, I am in a place of work, and that same guy comes into my office or lab, and I stare at his crotch the entire time he is trying to talk with me about whatever work it is we are supposed to be conducting together - there is definitely something wrong with that. If I am mentally undressing him in my mind and wondering what he'd look like naked and thinking what a hot stud he is instead of focusing on the fact that I am supposed to be mentoring and training him, there is something wrong with that.

For the love of god, people, this is not awfully complex. No one is saying that men and women can never look at each other, or that sex is bad, or that men are evil. We are talking about inappropriate behaviors, especially in a professional setting.

Embertine, I encourage you to go back and read that Feminism 101 post about INTENTIONALITY. You may be a really nice person and all for gender equity and not have any intention of subordinating anyone. And yet, if you engage in a behavior like tit-ogling in the workplace, sadly, you will be contributing to an atmosphere that denigrates women and marks them as sex objects. I believe it is just as problematic for women to stare at women's tits as for men to do so, albeit in a different manner. It is still making the statement that women's bodies are so distracting that we all just have to stop and stare; that women's bodies exist for us to ogle and enjoy; that women, in the end, are not anything more than their bodies.

Thanks to those of you who are letting me know that you find these Gender Knot posts valuable and helpful. I am enjoying doing them, and enjoying the conversations we are all having.

Well, call the ACLU. Apparently, based on the way some people have been persistently nutting up about the very simple "quit drooling on my tits at work, asshole" idea, The Freedom to Leer must be added to the Bill of Rights or it's ZOMG OPPRESSION!!!1!

LOL, it's amazing how many people here conflate "ogling" with "looking at all, ever". It's even more amazing how many are conflating "in a social situation" with "in the workplace".

Leaving your sexuality out of the workplace isn't hard. It takes a little practice and consistency, and then it becomes automatic.

As for the in-public thing, try actually reading the stuff on intentionality before rehearsing the "but women look at men" canard. If I look at a man as I walk down the sidewalk, it has almost no effect on him. If he looks at me with a gaze that lasts even half a second too long, I know that the probability is extremely high he will try some sort of intimidation/harassment tactic on me, and it's worth trying to forestall that by giving the bundle of pointy heavy metal death in my hand a good rattle to make sure he knows it's there and I'm not afraid to use it.

Two identical actions do not necessarily have anywhere near the same effect.

By Helen Huntingdon (not verified) on 17 Jun 2009 #permalink

Well, I may not be a nice person....

But I think I was actually agreeing with the point on intentionality (N.B. pretty sure that's not actually a word). Finding someone's body physically attractive is not bad. Treating them as a piece of meat, that their body is the only thing of interest about them, is.

One point I would make, Helen H, is that although I agree with you in many ways, I don't agree that the actions you described are different. A man who looks at you because he finds you attractive is not necessarily going to try to intimidate or sexually harass you. A woman who stares at a man is not necessarily just being friendly.

I only make the point because I don't believe that women are passive victims of male sexuality. We can be predators too, and I know many men who have felt uncomfortable being on the receiving end of such behaviour.

By embertine (not verified) on 17 Jun 2009 #permalink

Wow, check out the massive strawman from embertine.

I talk about probabilities, and she pretends it's about absolutes.

Gee, embertine, how often have I run into violence or attempted violence at the hands of a strange woman on the street / in the grocery store / at the gas station / etc.? Never. How often have I run into it from men in those places? I've lost count, but it's a routine feature in my life.

Not all violence is committed by men, but most of it is. Not all men are rapists, but almost all rapists are men. This is really basic stuff, so I have no idea why some are struggling with it.

By Helen Huntingdon (not verified) on 18 Jun 2009 #permalink

Helen: I think that some people's idea of feminism dictates that men and women are absolutely equal in every regard, which might translate to the idea that women harass and assault men with the same frequency as men do to women. If everything isn't equal all the time, feminism fails or something. I don't get it, either-- one look at the numbers and it should be obvious some manner of systemic oppression is at work. Something about the very individualistic Western culture prevents people from seeing this...

I have noticed a trend in some online feminist discussions towards "But that Issue Caused by Patriarchy doesn't affect ME!" Of course, we all exist within a patriarchal system, whether or not we choose to fight it. I do have to wonder why something has to affect a person DIRECTLY in order for them to support other women who *have* experienced harassment/assault...

Zuska: I would appreciate a less heteronormative take on things, if possible. Or maybe you'll be discussing LGBTQI issues in later posts? If so, disregard. :)

Samia, if I recall correctly, the deconstruction of heteronormative gender roles, particularly masculinity, comes later in the book, so I'm pretty sure we'll be getting into some of it.

I'm continually puzzled by the "but not all men are violent" response to "if anyone's going to commit violence against me, it's almost certainly going to be a male". People who use that response seem to be trying to say that never hurting some poor dude's feefees by misjudging him is somehow more important than my physical safety. It's irrational to treat attention from strange men and from strange women the same given how different the probabilities are that they might become violent.

By Helen Huntingdon (not verified) on 18 Jun 2009 #permalink

Thanks for the clarification, Helen. You raise an interesting point re: identifying with the group in power.

Speaking for myself, I've been taught to identify with males my entire life. According to my education, men apparently discovered, invented, created everything worth creating, and occupy most slots of the most respected career paths (including the one I am on). Most of the books I read growing up centered around the growth, development, and inner world of male characters (most of what we call great literature does too). Most people who make the news are men-- theirs are the lives worth following. There was even a discussion here on SB a while back about why women "don't do great things" (as great as men, I guess?) If I remember correctly, it was quite spirited.

So I'm not surprised to see so many people weighing a hypothetical individual man's tarnished reputation against real female oppression as a whole.

When I first pitched my idea of a confidential system of filing student complaints about objectionable faculty behavior in the office/classroom, the campus "student government association" switched the topic of discussion rather quickly. "But we don't want to get anyone fired!" (I hadn't even mentioned punishing faculty, interestingly) apparently trumps a person's right to a quality education free of offensive distraction. I think this is another instance of folks wanting to inflate the number of false complaints in order to keep respecting the people in power. Otherwise, things stop making sense...and that's just plain uncomfortable.