Jean Kazez has a post up about differentiating between the various people who are opposing anti-harassment policies. She tries to make a distinction between real (dare I say, “legitimate”?) misogynists and those with other objections to the policies.
The respectable skeptic may be on board with all substantive feminist goals, but they lean very liberal on sexual issues and libertarian-ish on rules and codes. They may also have distinctive positions on purely empirical matters, like how often harassing incidents occur, and what the impact is of discussing them at blogs. Their views on what will advance the status of women may also be distinctive. It strikes me as inflammatory and distorted to accuse these people of misogyny, or even of being anti-feminists. Even if some of these people dress their views in provocative clothing, underneath it all they do not have troubling attitudes toward women.
There are a number of moving parts in this paragraph. There’s the implication that those of us who championed anti-harassment policies are not very liberal on sexual issues (see Jean’s comment below for clarification on the kind of “liberal” we’re talking about here). There’s the idea that we haven’t addressed the frequency of harassment in general or within our movement, or the effects of talking about sexual harassment currently or in general, or otherwise backed up our own “distinctive positions” with rather a lot of data and explanation.
That’s not really what I want to talk about, though. I want to address this idea that “underneath it all they do not have troubling attitudes toward women.”
Ophelia has been working her way around the issue for a couple of days now, and one of her posts helped to clarify this issue for me. In it, she mentioned one of these “libertarian-ish” fellows.
I’ve had arguments about this. I had some with James Onen of Freethought Kampala, and (as I think I’ve mentioned) it was kind of a friendship-ender (which I considered unfortunate). He’s adamantly libertarian about when and where it’s ok to ask a woman for sex. I tried to suggest a sufficiently absurd example, but he was consistent – yes, he would simply go up to a woman at a supermarket and ask her to come home with him.
Ok here’s the thing about that: that describes life in places like that neighborhood in Brussels in Sofie Peeters’s short film. It describes my experience in Paris at age 17. It describes life in Cairo. It describes places where women (young desirable women) can’t go out in public without being pestered by men demanding sex. It’s hellish. Absolutely hellish. I pointed that out to James, and he was content with it.
That feels sexist to me. It feels like men saying “what I want is more important than what women might want.”
That is part of it. Though, given that this is one of those things people couldn’t believe was said, plus his hanging out in the slime pit and his heavily elided versions of Elevatorgate, one might argue that Onen really is in the misogynist camp rather than just a dissenting libertarian-ish. For me, it was the reactions to these kinds of statements among the mere dissenters that made the problem obvious.
Modified slightly from a comment at Ophelia’s:
The proof comes when women start going after what they want.
He wants the freedom to hit on me at any time and any place? Fine. Liberty in action. Maybe a little crass, but….
I want the freedom to call him a disgustingly selfish piece of shit? I want the freedom to determine whether I want to deal with him based on whom he treats well and whom he doesn’t? I want the freedom to use tools under my personal control to keep him from interfering in my projects? I want the freedom to gather with people who share my values rather than his?
That’s when I’m abusing my power. That’s when I’m “Talibanesque” or “femistazi” or “Orwellian”.
That’s when the proof comes. This is sexist because it is applied differently to my freedoms and his freedoms. It is sexist because his behavior as a man is individual and free, no matter how many people he gangs up with, and my behavior as a woman is collective and political.
That right there? That’s a troubling attitude toward women.
There is also a weird little trend in this “mere dissent” group to pretend that the costs of the status quo don’t exist. There is a habit of looking at any proposed change and discussing only its costs, not the problems it solves. That isn’t because those of us agitating for change don’t talk about the costs of our participation under the old plan. It isn’t because we don’t acknowledge that change requires…well, change. It isn’t because we act as though we are creating a utopia.
The possibilities are getting pretty narrow. The reason this problematic behavior happens could still simply be a basic tendency toward conservatism, I suppose, despite the liberal self-image of the people we’re talking about here. They might not be working against women or feminists specifically, just against agents of change who happen to be women and feminists. Even that, however, is quite troubling. Even that favors men over women, and when we point this out and nothing changes, that is troubling.
Is it inflammatory to call this behavior misogyny? Hard to say. I’m not even sure what the difference between inflammation (worth speaking out about) and provocation (an apparently acceptable eccentricity) might be.
I wouldn’t have thought that proposing anti-harassment policies would be particularly inflammatory, but here we are. Here we are quite successfully, in fact, having achieved positive change in the midst of the conflagration. I can say I’m not as worried about being inflammatory as I might have been before discovering that I can’t prevent fires by any means except shutting up entirely. That won’t be happening.
I don’t, however, think that calling the pattern of behavior I’ve described here “misogyny” is a distortion. At least, it’s no more a distortion than applying any other label is. Underneath it all, there are some troubling attitudes toward women, even if we have to dig a bit to get there.