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So let’s recap our first lesson in “not totally sucking as a person”, which it seems like some folk missed.

Making friendly contact with strangers, and engaging pleasantly with people you don’t know, is an important skill to develop. You might use it to make new friends, or maybe it’ll simply help you get along smoothly with some of the many people you’ll briefly encounter in the world, even if no lasting relationships are formed. It’s good that so many of you want to work on this and get some real-world practice.

But let’s look at an example of how this can go wrong.

Let’s say that you offer an unsolicited compliment to a woman you don’t know. You’re putting a random act of kindness out into the world, with a hope of brightening a stranger’s day with some positive words to boost her esteem. But, even though you’re just being nice, this woman doesn’t seem grateful. She ignores you, turns coldly away, shuns your offering, refuses to even acknowledge how nice you were being to her.

Now, if your response to this involves lecturing, berating, chastising, shaming, criticising, blaming, or bringing any negativity to bear on this woman at all for being unappreciative and unfriendly, then… Well, what can we say about your behaviour in that case? Any guesses, class?

It’s not very nice of you? Well, that’s partly right, but you can go further. In fact, if you act like this, you were never being nice to her in the first place.

You might think you were being nice. In all likelihood that’s the story you’ve told yourself about what happened and your motivations. But you’re lying to yourself.

If you did something nice for a stranger, but then stopped being nice and indignantly complained about how unjustly you were being treated the second you didn’t get what you wanted out of the interaction, then you weren’t actually doing something nice. You were being an asshole from the start.

Because what you’ve done there, you see, is decided that your feelings are the only thing that really matters, and that you’re owed something by this woman whose path has only crossed with yours at all because you’ve actively and uninvitedly injected yourself into her life. You’ve demanded that your benevolent intent be recognised as the only admissible truth, and that a complete stranger reward you with precisely the kind of interaction you deem appropriate, at a time of your choosing. What this stranger might want from life, and how she might be feeling, hasn’t come into your calculations at all – which is mutually exclusive with actually being nice to someone.

“But where’s the harm in just offering a sincere compliment intended to brighten someone’s day?” I can hear one or two of the slower learners among you still asking. “Maybe some cat-callers shout abuse and other things women might not want to hear, but I don’t deserve to get lumped in with them when I’m saying something flattering and non-threatening and just trying to be nice.”

Well first of all, this person didn’t ask for your opinion, they didn’t invite you to get involved, they don’t owe you shit, you don’t deserve shit, so get the fuck over yourself.

But you know what, you raise a good point there. Some people do shout abusive, threatening, hateful things at strangers – most commonly women – and some even escalate this abuse to physical assaults and violence. And while it’s a good sign that you can at least recognise these as being bad things to do, you’re not actually as completely different from those violent assholes as you might like to think.

One thing that many of those abusive, threatening, rapey assholes have in common is that, before they turned so abusive that it’s obvious even to you how unacceptable their behaviour is, they started off by offering some unsolicited but positive assessments of some aspect of this woman’s appearance or character, which were intended to be interpreted as a compliment.

And guess what? This is something that you and those abusive assholes have in common too!

Yes, yes; I’m sure you know that you’re not going to take things any further, that you’d never try and grope a woman or call her a slut for shunning your advances, no matter how rude she is when you were just trying to be nice. But she doesn’t know that.

That thing you’re doing, where you offer her a “compliment” to be “nice”? You look exactly like a lot of guys who turned out to be abusive violent assholes when you do that. You may not be an abusive violent asshole yourself, but that doesn’t get you a whole lot of credit in this situation. Especially when, as discussed earlier, you’re not really being nice.

Offering unsolicited opinions on a woman’s appearance or character, then complaining about her conduct and the unfairness with which you’ve been treated, is what those abusive assholes do. If you don’t want to be unfairly compared to that sort of person, don’t act exactly like them.

And here’s some proactive advice on how you can achieve that: try directing more criticism toward men who shout abuse, or send rape and death threats online, than you do toward women who’ve received more threats and abuse than you could know (because – quick reminder – you don’t actually know a fucking thing about them) and who sometimes aren’t too keen to make friendly conversation with a stranger as a result.

I’m sure you all think you obviously do that anyway – but is it really reflected in the way you talk about it? You might find, in practice, that the behaviour you spend the most time policing is that of women who don’t give men what they feel entitled to, while the abusive assholes tend to get a brief “yes obviously BUT” before returning to the main story of what women are doing wrong.

If that’s the case, then you don’t need to look any further. Your journey is at an end. The shithead was you all along.

And there’s the bell. Class dismissed. Do try not to make complete tits of yourselves, or I’ll drag you back in here for a remedial session.

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Boobsession

(This may turn out to be something of a Roman railway.)

In performing a superficial pretense of research for this piece, I began asking Google what I imagine to be a common question. I got as far as typing why are men o, at which point it suggested that I might be wondering why men are obsessed with one of three things: breasts, football, and virginity. Right first time.

(By the way, the top Yahoo! Answer to the question is: “i’m more a leg and bum man… :D”. So… now you know.)

But this isn’t going to be a post about evolutionary psychology, or even about boobs and why they’re awesome. It’s about suggesting a different approach to fixing all of sexism. (Okay, just one teeny tiny bit of it.)

The point is, many women are clearly baffled by the attention that their front-upper-butts receive from a significant number of men. The appeal isn’t obvious to them, and that’s fine. I’ve tried and failed to get into things that girls seem to enjoy, like Project Runway or Star Wars. It’s not going to help anyone trying to explain what’s so awesome about them, it’s just a perfectly natural difference in tastes.

But the fact that men are mighty keen on boobs doesn’t, on its own, bother anyone. The problem comes when we act mighty keen on boobs.

Actually no, even that’s not a real source of any trouble. It really only becomes a problem – as, I guess, with any other obsession – when our passion spills over into our everyday, non-boob-related lives to the extent that everyone else is more than acutely aware of exactly how boobicentric our minds are.

The problem is when we really like boobs, and we act like we really like boobs, and we act like we don’t care how irrelevant you thought boobs were to this conversation before we mentioned our fondness for them, and we seem either unaware or unconcerned with the fact that things other than boobs might be high up on other people’s lists of priorities.

It’s just not practical to expect men to “get over” boobs anytime soon. They’re not going anywhere (unless I’ve been very wrong about God’s benevolent non-existence and actually he’s been setting us all up for a fall), and it’d be insincere to pretend they’re not awesome. If I meet you, and you have boobs, I will probably notice them. I may automatically evaluate them. That may sound unfair and judgmental, and it probably is, but I can’t switch it off. And part of me doesn’t want to, because hey, boobs.

The things I actually have control over – whether I’m notably staring at them, whether I’m needlessly making them relevant to a conversation, whether I’m acting in a needlessly boobaholic way – all that I’ve got a handle on. Those are goals we can realistically meet, and we should. But we’re not going to magically evict boobs from our brainspaces anytime boob soon.

(If I was less tired and had figured out where I was going with this sooner, I might have found some clever way to tie it into, like, Boobquake, or elevatorgate, or something with some relevance. But no, none of that. Boobs are their own reward.)

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PETA-flops

Not cool, you guys. You’re making me say things in defence of PETA. I hate when I have to do that.

I mean, it’s never happened before, because they’re horrible, but it’s happening now and I hate it.

If you don’t know, they’re People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, and they recently released this 30-second ad:

 

 

And the majority of people on what I tend to think of as “my side” leapt on them for, primarily, “glamorising domestic violence“.

Only I don’t think that’s what they’re doing.

The joke seems to be a fairly straight-forward one: This girl’s boyfriend went vegan, and suddenly found that he had so much extra energy and potency that their sex became vigorous enough to damage the wall and cause an unfortunate, accidental neck injury.

Yes, the woman has suffered physical damage, but it doesn’t even obliquely reference domestic abuse, let alone glamorise it.

When we see the boyfriend, he’s repairing the wall and shame-facedly asking how his partner’s feeling. In response, she throws at him a bag of fruit and veg which she’s just been out to buy, implying that she’s not exactly displeased with these new developments. Perhaps next time they’ll position themselves more carefully, make sure any nearby hard surfaces are adequately cushioned, and continue to enjoy their kinky sex responsibly and safely.

Which is nothing to do with actual domestic abuse. This ad isn’t portraying or describing anything reprehensible, let alone condoning it. Getting physical with someone is only unacceptable in ways they haven’t fully consented to – there’s a danger of this being used as a bullshit rationalisation, admittedly, by someone trying to justify actions that are still fundamentally abusive, but that’s not what’s going on here.

The only real link to domestic abuse is that the tone of the ad is deliberately similar to some public service announcements that show women in abusive situations, which offer help and advice. The criticism then is that, by making this ad about a woman who enjoyed getting beaten up a bit, they’re demeaning the plight of women described by the PSAs it parodies, and people will take actual domestic abuse less seriously as a result.

Maybe there’s something there. But I’m not sure lodging complaints about this ad is the answer. If people are prone to such failures of imagination that they’re going to neglect domestic abuse sufferers on the basis of kinky people speaking out and consensual violent sex becoming more mainstream, I don’t see that being neatly fixed by telling those people to shush and stop pretending that anyone enjoys getting beaten up.

Which isn’t to stay that actual domestic abuse doesn’t need our attention too, but this reaction seems misguided. I actually think some feminists are missing the point of this ad the same way some Chris Brown fans did about Rihanna. Now that was a depressing story. It doesn’t matter how much you think you’d enjoy being punched in the face; what he did to Rihanna was not okay. Contrariwise, we don’t need to stop condemning all forms of abusive relationships if we want to let this fictional vegan couple just have their fun.

More to the point, is there any evidence that a vegan diet actually does improve your energy levels like this? That might be more objectionable than anything else about this.

Also, PETA are terrible.

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A lot of criticism is being heaped on an organisation called Susan G. Komen for the Cure lately. They’re a breast cancer charity, and they’re kind of a big deal. They’ve also made a couple of decisions that haven’t gone down too well with a number of former supporters.

For one, they arranged a tie-in with KFC. Yes, that KFC. The one whose health implications are known for being potentially problematic, at best.

This isn’t a new arrangement – in fact, it’s so far in the past these days that their site bucketsforthecure.com has been allowed to expire – but some commentators at the time suspected that it was representative of how the Komen organisation’s priorities were starting to shift. It was great for their bottom line and their brand awareness, as people ate fried chicken from an unusually pink container and were warmed by the thought of a small part of their meal’s cost going to do something good about breast cancer. But suddenly the overall impact they’re having on women’s health isn’t so obviously at the positive end of the scale.

And, just this week, they’ve withdrawn their funding from Planned Parenthood, where they’d previously supported programs to screen for breast cancer. Planned Parenthood provide a number of health services, including some relating to termination of pregnancies, and the people who don’t approve of this sort of thing often pressure other organisations into making exactly the sort of move that Komen just have.

It looks rather like Komen don’t want to be seen as being either for or against something controversial such as abortion; they want to woo pro-life support, but don’t want to alienate those who recognise the importance of all the work Planned Parenthood do and don’t think that support for breast cancer screening programs – basically the epitome of what Komen is for – should be dependent on such things.

Komen have said that their decision was made because of a congressional investigation, which it doesn’t sound like anyone’s really taking seriously. If that’s the case, I would suggest a similar moratorium on any further contributions to Komen themselves, at least until the investigation is concluded and we can get some idea what their true feelings really are.

Update: In between writing all that and hitting “Publish”, Komen have apologised for their recent decision and backtracked. Wait… or maybe they haven’t. And donations being directly sent to Planned Parenthood themselves from the general public have shot up, so that’s all to the good. But it’s still a bit of a mess.

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Bravo, Jessica Ahlquist. If you’ve been slacking off following her story as much as I have, go read JT’s summary of events so far, and this follow-up. Oh, and these examples of religious intolerance from Christians abusing their privilege, including many actively calling for this 16-year-old girl’s murder. Stay classy.

– It sounds like this has a long way to go before we can tell whether it’ll pan out, but this potential cure for chronic pain could be a huge deal.

– You know, if shiny and rather homogeneous tits are your thing, then Zoo magazine might be for you, but it’s not the place to find “real” girls. The term “real” is perhaps unfortunate, since skinny people aren’t exactly fictional, but if you want a better representation of humanity’s natural beauty, put down the lads’ mags and visit the Adipositivity Project (NSFW) or something.

– If girls wanting to join in means that you can’t enjoy your video games any more, you’re doing it wrong.

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Right, I’m finally not too lazy to write about this interesting new collaborative blog I’ve been enjoying.

The phrase “What about teh menz?” has an odd place in gender-related and feminist discussions. It refers to the way that, in the middle of a feminist conversation about something presumed to be a feminist matter, the plight of men will sometimes be injected into the discussion, often unwelcomely.

When women are talking about rape, for instance, it’s possibly for a man to unhelpfully steamroller in and complain that everyone’s ignoring how men can be raped too, you know. If someone new to the debate starts acting as if this omission is the gravest injustice of the whole topic, as I’ve seen happen, this can be frustrating for women trying to discuss a serious matter without being told that they’re the insensitive ones.

When Giles Coren tried to discuss the ways society can be unfair on men, the mocking cries of “What about teh menz?!” were flying thick and fast, as people of both genders characterised his views as a needy whine with no relevance to the important sexual discrimination going on in the world (i.e. that against women).

The thing is, though. There are male victims of rape and sexual assault out there. And there are gender-biased assumptions that do men no favours. There is some serious injustice against men which deserves to be addressed.

But it seems to have been historically extremely difficult to support one side of the debate without, inadvertently or deliberately, disparaging the other. There has been a tendency for men to bring up male victimhood in a way that shuts down or hijacks women’s conversations: sometimes “What about teh menz?” really can be an unwelcome whine.

At the same time, the stereotypical idea that men’s rights don’t need to be defended is one that a lot of feminists seem happy to propagate, and there’s a great deal of unfair antipathy to the very idea that there might be biases against men which should be fought.

But there’s no reason these two schools of thought should be antithetical. If we can avoid being outright dismissive of either, we might be able to actually make some worthwhile progress toward proper gender equality.

Which is why it’s good to see a blog asking: No, Seriously, What About Teh Menz?

Anyone who’s been paying attention will be familiar with my rambling cogitations about feminism, and whether it’s worth pursuing, or worth adapting, or just too nebulous and variable to really mean anything. I’d all but abandoned use of the word, as being too laden with baggage, but the FAQs on this blog offered an interesting clarification. Here’s a snippet:

Where feminism seeks to improve gender equality with a focus on issues affecting women, masculism seeks to improve gender equality with a focus on issues affecting men. Taken together, these two (complementary!) movements form “gender egalitarianism.”

There are ways in which women are unjustly worse off than men in our society; this deserves to be addressed by anyone who values fairness. There are ways in which men are unjustly worse off than women in our society; ditto. Highlighting the importance of one cause doesn’t need to downplay that of the other. And whether the specific thing you’re talking about seems more like a feminist or masculist issue, you should probably be thinking about it in the context of making things better for everyone.

If I’m going to be a feminist, I’m damn sure going to be a masculist too.

Actually, maybe being a humanist will cover both bases just fine.

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Right. I wasn’t going to talk about this, but I’ve unexpectedly had an opinion, so what the hell.

Brief summary of what’s been going on, in case your Twitterstream and RSS feed haven’t been exploding over this in the same way that mine have. Skip the next four paragraphs if you know what I’m talking about and it’s already given you a headache.

Rebecca Watson. Cool lady, Skepchick, atheist activist. She’s at a conference a while ago, giving a talk on religion and feminism and stuff, mingling with other critical thinkers. Hangs out in the bar afterward, decides she’s done and announces her plans to go to bed at around 4am. Is followed into the lift by some guy, who invites her to his hotel room for coffee.

Rebecca makes a video, describing this encounter and why it made her really uncomfortable and was not an okay thing to do, and offers this advice to any men in a similar situation: “Don’t do that.”

You know how YouTube comment threads can get. Some people went a little over-the-top in castigating this guy as a sick sleazy creep deserving of nothing short of contempt and disgust. Others went a little crazy in slamming Rebecca for speaking out about something that made her uncomfortable, and for daring to criticise a man for what they – from their expert witness position of not being there and not really knowing a thing about what happened – deemed totally innocuous and nothing to get worked up about.

PZ Myers offers some advice, regarding just when it is and isn’t okay to make sexualised comments at a stranger in a confined space in the middle of the night. Hemant, in the friendly manner that earned his blog its name, calls for calm. Richard Dawkins weighs in on a comments thread, and Jen McCreight picks him apart. PZ has another go at explaining things with a calm civility that many wouldn’t expect from him.

And here we are. You’re up to speed.

Now.

To get to my Opinion wot I has had, we need to take a bit of a detour. I’ll try not to ramble.

Who remembers Dr Laura? She’s been a talk-show host and self-help guru type in America, and was the inspiration for the character at whom a famous Jed Bartlet rant was directed. She’s kind of a dick.

Last year, she was fielding a call on her phone-in radio show, from a black lady wanting some advice on dealing with her white husband’s friends, who would sometimes casually use racial slurs that she found offensive. Dr Laura questioned whether the n-word was really something to be offended by, and said it herself eleven times over the course of the conversation.

She repeatedly said arguably the most objectionable word in the language, in a rather confrontational manner, to a black woman who’d come to her for help, after the woman expressed some surprise that Dr Laura would say it at all in such a blasé fashion. Dr Laura was widely criticised for being insensitive, and apologised the next day, but completely undermined this later by saying some bullshit about her First Amendment rights.

Here’s where I think much of the problem lies:

One thing I suspect Dr Laura knows, with considerable certainty, is that she’s not a racist.

Racists are other people. Racists hate black people, or at the very least think less of them just because of the colour of their skin. That’s a horrible way to treat people. Dr Laura would never act like that. She doesn’t have a problem with black people just because they’re black.

So when this black woman comes along, and starts implying that Dr Laura is racist – as if it’s somehow offensive when she, Dr Laura the non-racist, utters a perfectly harmless word that she hears black people using all the time – well, that’s just rude. This black woman needs to calm down and get some perspective and stop making these horrible accusations.

Because Dr Laura knows that she’s not a racist.

And, goes my thesis, one thing that a lot of men know is that they’re not sexist.

A number of people have been indignant and quite angry that Rebecca found the behaviour of Elevator Guy (as he’s come to be known) at all creepy. One thing that I think motivates this is that he wasn’t doing anything that far off what many of them might find themselves doing: approaching someone they find interesting and attractive with an invitation to further discourse. They’ve tried to chat up women before, maybe under similar-ish circumstances, and they’re not all chauvinist pigs.

So how dare this woman come along and start implying that we men, because of perfectly innocent behaviour like this, are all sexist? She’s obviously making a fuss about nothing. Sexists are other people who hate women and only think of them as objects. We’re not like that.

The problem being, of course, that people are quite capable of getting things wrong, offending others, revealing hidden prejudices, and otherwise failing to be perfectly politically correct and socially acceptable, even without being some horrible sexist racist monster, and without meaning any harm at all.

What Dr Laura didn’t appreciate was that racism is a much bigger deal for some people than it is for her, and that even if her intentions weren’t actively to disparage any person or any race, there’s a wider culture of racial tension and abuse out there, and she can’t claim to be apart from all that simply by knowing, as I suspect she does, that she’s just better than all those horrible racists out there. (And also that her bruised ego at being accused of racial insensitivity isn’t the most important part of the conversation.)

Similarly: what some of Rebecca’s critics might not appreciate is that gender politics is complicated and difficult, and even “nice guys” can misjudge things, or make faulty assumptions, or just get it wrong, and should really consider accepting the mild rebuke when it’s offered, rather than passionately insisting that they didn’t do anything wrong, because they’re not sexist. (And their offense at having their “nice guy” status called into question isn’t the most important part of this conversation either. Rebecca didn’t even call anyone sexist. Nobody’s been written off as a horrible monster because of what they did. Just learn from this.)

And I think I’m done.

I like having opinions. I should try it more often. Feel free to tell me why this one’s a load of bollocks, though.

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