The politics of misogyny

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Ithaca College student, Yana Mazurkevich, created a series of chilling photos to expose the reality of sexual assault and victim-blaming. The dramatizations, titled “It Happens,” were heavily circulated around the nation after Brock Turner‘s lenient sentence for raping an unconscious woman. Yana created the visceral photo series with the intention of them acting as a PSA to continue the conversation regarding sexual assault. In an article for The Washington Post, Lindsey Bever writes, “The 20-year-old Ithaca junior said her recent ‘in your face’ photo set, as she describes it, is intended to bookend one she released over the summer on the topic of victim-blaming. The new set, titled ‘It Happens,’ focuses on diversity — race, gender and sexual orientation — to show that sexual assault can happen with anyone, to anyone, at any time, Mazurkevich said.”

I recently made a video about my rape. Well, the initial rape, or rather, the rape I reported to police. To be completely honest, I’ve been sexually assaulted more than once. But I learned my lesson about reporting after the first instance. And before you nosedive into a tailspin of shock and pity, please let me tell you this is my burden to carry, not yours. It’s quite interesting, actually, how many people absentmindedly minimize what happened to me because they’re trying to comfort themselves with the mere knowledge of me sharing it with them. I’ve come to appreciate this peculiar phenomenon because I know it’s an inherent defense/coping mechanism of dealing with the sudden shock of bad news. Regardless, it’s curious to me that we’re such narcissistic creatures that we can turn someone else’s travesty into our own misfortune…without even realizing we’ve done so. Me confessing my rape to you isn’t about you, inasmuch as it isn’t really even about me, either. It’s so much bigger than that. My story isn’t unique. Men raping women isn’t unique. Without going into too much detail–the rape itself is not the focal point of this piece, it’s the subsidiary to ambivalent sexism in America–about the particulars of what happened 11 years ago, I’ll just say it was a defining time in my life, and will be as long as my lungs draw breath. As to be expected, I would think. I can’t imagine being raped and not have it be a pivotal moment in one’s life. I’ve never publicly talked about it–of course my close friends and family members know it happened, save for the grisly details–but I’ve never openly discussed it until recently. I’ve lived in shame for most of the last decade, but I could never understand why…until now. The shame goes way beyond rape trauma syndrome, or post-traumatic stress disorder, or any other label given to describe psychological trauma.

My shame didn’t sprout from within, it’s rooted in society.

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I didn’t speak throughout the video, instead I used index cards to tell my story. I touched on subjects like body-shaming, slut-shaming, victim-blaming, hyper-masculinity, misogyny, the injustice of our justice system, and the trivialization of sexual assault. In a written reflection of my piece–it was an assignment for class, such as this blog is–I briefly discussed that, in the eyes of America, by openly sharing my story I was A) lying and/or falsely accusing (because we, as a society, won’t allow ourselves to believe that the victim didn’t actually want it) and B) exploiting myself for some sort of misguided satisfaction. It wasn’t until yesterday, when I read an article published by Vox, that I emphatically understood America’s–and indeed my own–complacency toward sexism. I couldn’t believe implicitly shaming myself for getting raped was indeed an epiphany I experienced–because it seems so obvious–but that’s exactly what I’ve been doing for the last 1/3 of my life. Think about that…I’ve spent a third of my life believing I did something to cause my rape, or rather, I didn’t do enough to prevent it. The theory of the article, “Why Misogyny Won,” breaks down how America could elect an “alleged” sexual predator for president. It perfectly illustrates how misogyny has made an indiscriminate fool of just about everyone, even those of us who feel so philosophically informed.

How could the GOP presidential candidate say such things as, “Grab them by the pussy,” and then get elected president? How could we choose a man who’s been accused of sexual assault by 15+ different women as the next leader of the free world? How could Hillary Clinton’s bullshit email scandal eclipse hostile misogyny?

The easy, but not so obvious answer is: benevolent misogyny. Benevolent misogyny is the much more subtle and insidious sub-component to ambivalent sexism (with hostile misogyny making up the other half of the dichotomy). Most people are familiar with the latter, but the two perspectives combine to creative the “cognitively dissonant state of ambivalent sexism.” In Emily Crockett’s article, “Why Misogyny Won,” for Vox, she writes:

If you have some ‘hostile’ sexist attitudes, you might mistrust women’s motives and see gender relations as a zero-sum battle between male and female dominance. You might agree with statements like, ‘Many women get a kick out of teasing men by seeming sexually available and then refusing male advances,’ or ‘Most women interpret innocent remarks or acts as being sexist.’

If you have some ‘benevolent’ sexist attitudes, you might endorse positive — but still patronizing — stereotypes of women. You might agree with statements like, ‘Women should be cherished and protected by men,’ or ‘Women, compared to men, tend to have a superior moral sensibility.’

[…]

Trump expresses both hostile and benevolent attitudes toward women all the time. When he likes a woman, he praises her in a patronizing way (usually focusing on her physical beauty). When he doesn’t, he viciously insults her.

Benevolent sexism is the carrot, Glick [professor of psychology and social sciences at Lawrence University] explained, and hostile sexism is the stick. If you’re a ‘good’ woman who meets expected gender norms — who has warm feminine charms, who maintains strict beauty standards, whose ambitions are focused on home and hearth — you will be rewarded with affection, protection, and praise. But step outside those norms, and you risk being labeled as one of the ‘bad’ girls who are abused and scorned only because they deserve it.

It’s a tidy little cycle. Benevolent sexism is supposed to protect women from hostile sexism, and hostile sexism is supposed to keep women in line with the ideals of benevolent sexism.

But while benevolent sexism may put women on a pedestal, Glick said, it’s a very narrow pedestal that’s easy to fall off of. This is the whole reason that our age-old ‘Madonna versus whore’ dichotomy exists in the first place: If women can be separated into good girls and bad, and only bad girls get punished, it justifies male dominance and absolves men of blame for treating women unfairly.

In essence, Trump’s toxic masculinity wasn’t a red flag, it was part of his appeal. 

These ideas are pervasive and enforced, even by women themselves, and helps to explain why so many women hold sexist biases against other women. Just like men police each other to uphold the ideals of “masculinity,” women police each other with their own respective gender norms and punish any signs of anomaly. Men are viewed as providers and protectors, and with regard to that social order, women–who are inherently in need of male protection–who are viewed as “bad” or “deviant” are not deemed worthy of men’s protection. In holding men to standards of hyper-masculinity, we’re easily able to brush off boorish behavior with a “boys will be boys” attitude, and furthermore, perpetuate the idea that we can separate women into “good” and “bad” categories. “Good” women are revered, and “bad” women are ostracized. In Kate Manne’s piece, “The Logic of Misogyny,” for Boston Review, she extrapolates on what makes a woman “bad”:

Such hateful and hostile reactions are frequently directed either at women who challenge men’s power and authority, or at women who decline to serve men, flatter them, or hold their gaze admiringly. When women challenge male dominance, they are liable to be written off as greedy, grasping, and domineering. When they are perceived as insufficiently oriented to men’s interests, they are perceived as cold, selfish, and negligent.

Patriarchies thrive on “loving mothers, good wives, cool girlfriends, loyal secretaries.”

And to circle back to Emily Crockett (“Why Misogyny Won”):

Trump may not be a nice guy, the thinking goes, and we may not like some of the things he says. But that just comes with the territory if you want a strong male leader.

You hear this rationale a lot from women who still supported Trump after the ‘pussy’ tape leaked and more sexual assault allegations came out. They don’t like it, but they find ways to excuse it. ‘I do find the words offensive, but that’s locker room talk. That’s the boys club,’ Michelle Werntz, a Trump supporter, told CNN.

Some of these excuses minimize sexual assault, or even endorse it. ‘Groping is a healthy thing to do,’ Trump supporter Jane Biddick told the Cut. ‘When you’re heterosexual, you grope, okay? It’s a good thing.’

Comments like these are reminders of another dark truth research has revealed about benevolent sexism: its strong role in our culture’s tendency to blame victims of sexual assault. The higher a person scores on measures of benevolent sexism, the more likely that person is to blame women who are victims of acquaintance rape (as opposed to rape by a stranger), or victims who behaved in less than ‘ideal’ ways before a rape (like cheating on their husband, or passively rather than actively resisting their attacker).

Sexual assault is the ultimate expression of hostile sexism. But the protection racket of benevolent sexism gives women a lot of incentive to either forgive men for it, or blame women.

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All of this is how I came to believe I was a “bad” woman after being raped. I saw myself as a woman worthy of shame and scorn.

I am a vessel of modern day misogyny.

In a nation where the “American Dream”–as defined by Google: “the ideal that every US citizen should have an equal opportunity to achieve success and prosperity through hard work, determination, and initiative”; you and you alone are the gatekeeper of your destiny, fortunate or unfortunate–prevails, we don’t allow ourselves to believe bad things could happen to “good” people. Thus, because I was raped, I must be a “bad” person. In an article, “The Psychology of Victim-Blaming,” for The Atlantic, Kayleigh Roberts sheds light on the topic of victim-blaming:

While victim-blaming often brings to mind crimes like sexual assault and domestic violence, it occurs across the board, explains Barbara Gilin, a professor of social work at Widener University. Murders, burglaries, abductions—whatever the crime, many people tend to default to victim-blaming thoughts and behaviors as a defense mechanism in the face of bad news. Gilin notes that, while people tend to be able to accept natural disasters as unavoidable, many feel that they have a little more control over whether they become victims of crimes, that they can take precautions that will protect them. Therefore, some people have a harder time accepting that the victims of these crimes didn’t contribute to (and bear some responsibility for) their own victimization.

She goes on to say victim-blaming, in some ways, is a natural part of our psychological reaction to crime (although not universally, “some individuals’ experiences, background, and culture make them significantly less likely to victim-blame”). And victim-blaming is not always explicit: “Something as simple as hearing about a crime and thinking you would have been more careful had you been in the victim’s shoes is a mild form of victim-blaming.” While thoughts such as these may be more understated and implicit, it’s still victim-blaming. And the ethos of this psychological bias, dubbed the “Just-World Theory,” explores our deep-rooted need to believe that the world is a “just” place. The idea that people deserve what happens to them, good or bad. “Holding victims responsible for their misfortune is partially a way to avoid admitting that something just as unthinkable could happen to you—even if you do everything ‘right’,” writes Kayleigh Roberts. As a society, we tend to neglect the agency of the perpetrator, and instead focus on what the victim could have done differently. “At its core, victim blaming could stem from a combination of failure to empathize with victims and a fear reaction triggered by the human drive for self-preservation. That fear reaction, in particular, can be a difficult one for some people to control. Retraining this instinct is possible—it just isn’t easy.” Empathy training is one approach: try to avoid speculation and see the world from perspectives other than your own.

No matter what you (want to) believe, the world is not a just place.

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