Musings on the judgements teachers make about their female students (and a sneaky Taylor Swift reference)

I am a teacher. Which to me seems a faintly ridiculous statement to make because it conjures up someone with far greater knowledge and teacherly-attitude than I could ever hope to have. The other day a student asked how to spell liquorice, and I couldn’t remember. Would that happen to a Real Teacher? (My investigations suggest you can spell it two ways).

That caveat aside I am, for all intents and purposes, a teacher. Just like the ones that you used to have, who would say things like “students if you’re not quiet now we can do this at lunchtime” (sometimes I say this!). One of the discoveries of being on the other side of the staffroom door is that teachers are, despite teacherly-attitude to the contrary, exactly like everyone else. This means that we don’t really want to stay in at lunchtime in order to instill some discipline in our uncaring students. Sadly it also means that teachers are beset with the usual prejudices. Just as within the rest of the world in our schools young women are repeatedly judged by their looks.

This week I was waiting for a student to join one of my classes. Every time I talked to another staff member about her they said some variety of the following “You’ll love her, she works so hard. Also she is very pretty.” Sometimes the fact that she was pretty came first! This made me feel increasingly uncomfortable. Her prettiness is clearly unimportant in her academic abilities but still it was remarked upon. It seemed the other teachers were unable to stop themselves from mentioning it.

In the above example the other teachers seemed to be suggesting that this student was worthy of greater attention from her teachers because of how she looked. Attention is a keyword when talking about beautyism in the classroom because a whole lot of teaching is based on getting and keeping the attention of your students. Furthermore, being the idealistic teacher that I am, I believe students who get more of my attention are more likely to succeed at school.

It is wrong that we grant greater attention to female students who are good looking. However, pretty girls who distract male students attention in class are also quickly judged unworthy of teacher attention. As with everywhere, it is desirable to be “pretty” but only if you’re pretty in certain ways.

Attention seeking behaviours of boys are deemed cheeky. Boys who act the class clown are maybe reprimanded and sometimes punished with detention, but invariably teachers will make an ongoing effort to get them engaged in class work. If you are a pretty girl who distracts the attention of the male students in your class, in my experience you are not so lucky. Teachers in the staffroom will talk about the length of your skirt and the colour of your makeup, they will even explicitly call you out for being a slut. And guess what? They won’t help you catch up in class.

Disclaimer, disclaimer: Of course, the plural of anecdote is not data. These are just my (limited) experiences of teaching and talking to other teachers. In fact, on the macro level the data is against me, everything I have seen in the last twenty years of education research suggests that girls out-perform boys in almost all subject areas. Furthermore, maybe I am putting too much stock in the importance of having the attention of a teacher. There are also issues around class that intersect with gender in this area (there is at least another blogpost in that, probably a book).

However, my experience has been that school systems often work to reinforce and perpetuate the societal norm that women and girls should be judged on their looks, and that there success is dependent upon them. It is so easy to fall into the trap of reinforcing this. Difficult teenage girls are fairly terrifying. Plus, they can totally remind you of when you were in high school when you were the one with the sneakers and she is clearly the kind of girl that had the high heels and the shorts skirts. So, one promise I’m going to make as a young teacher is not to reinforce this idea, not to support the pretty girl just because she is pretty and not to stop helping the difficult girl. If anything we should all be working not to confirm the ridiculous distinctions made by Taylor Swift songs, surely?

Nudity and the heterosexual male gaze in Game of Thrones

Note: Contains spoilers for all aired episodes of the TV series but none for the books.

 

Perhaps unsurprisingly for a show that contained as much nudity as Game of Thrones (something not unusual for a show produced by HBO and something which also featured heavily in the books), a great deal of discussion has addressed the use of “sexposition” on the show. Though in many ways I feel this goes unsaid, I’m going to say it anyway: nudity, whether male or female, is not inherently exploitative. It can be used in order to make significant character or thematic points, a process which Game of Thrones uses very effectively in many cases.

For instance, in the case of the character Daenerys in the episode “Winter is Coming”, nudity is used to indicate vulnerability and her own lack of agency—she has nothing that protects from the world and, perhaps more importantly, it is used to show that those who you would expect to protect her (first her brother and then husband) are in fact the people she has the most to fear from. Her discovering her sexual agency—in taking charge of her sex life with her husband—is used to indicate her increasing overall agency in her own life. At the very end of the first season, in the episode “Fire and Blood”, Daenerys’ nudity is meant to indicate emancipation and rebirth. There is certainly nothing exploitative about any of that nor do any of the scenes seem to me to pander to the heterosexual male gaze.

Ros, a sex worker who worked in both Winterfell and Kings Landing, is a wonderful character, liberated and funny and comfortable in both her own skin and in her profession. (In case it isn’t clear: no, there isn’t anything inherently exploitative in sex work.)* In a scene between her and Theon in the episode “The Wolf and the Lion”, they have had sex and are discussing Theon’s position in the household. She is funny and confident and deals with Theon’s ridiculousness very effectively. This is certainly a case of “sexposition” and it works fine. The camera does not pan over Ros’ body or linger on her nakedness in any obvious way and her sexuality is her own.

There are many other instances in which nudity is used in a way that is neither exploitative nor offensive, such as in the scene in “Cripples, Bastards and Broken Things” between Viserys and Doreth in which they are in a bath, relating information while having sex. The scene ends jarringly, knocking the viewer (and Doreth) out of the sexy way the scene had gone those far and nailing home the difference between the situation of Doreth (a slave) and Ros (who isn’t a slave). The scene also emphasizes how horrific a person Viserys is, as later in the episode he drags Doreth violently into a scene by her hair.

The instances in which the heterosexual male gaze is used strongly—unavoidably—is in the two lesbian scenes in the series. One is between Daenerys and Doreth, who is teaching Daenerys about the best ways to have sex. The scene is heavily charged with sexual tension, as one would expect such scene to be. However, the scene does not appear to be between two women with same-sex attraction. These are not queer women or, at the very least, they do not appear to be to this queer woman. They are straight women, one teaching and the other learning, not how to please another woman but how to please a man.

This scene is relatively mild, especially in comparison with the lesbian scene that follows in  the episode “You Win or You Die”. This scene has a very strong connection with lesbian porn aimed at straight men. Like the scene between Daenerys and Doreth, these are not queer women. No doubt this time, these are straight women (when the other woman in the scene is going down on Ros, and Ros is moaning, it is implied that she is faking it for her imagined audience) who are performing for a literal male audience, in this case Petyr/Littlefinger. There are many problems with this scene and I’m going to start with the least egregious: Aidan Gillan, who plays Littlefinger, isn’t great in this scene. I wouldn’t go as far as saying he’s terrible but he can’t carry what is basically a monologue.

This, however, is hardly the worst thing about the scene.  As mentioned above, it has a very strong connection with lesbian porn aimed at straight men. Unlike in the previous “sexposition” scenes, one of the participants—Littlefinger—remains fully clothed. He instructs the women in what they’re doing and, in an aggravating show of heterosexism, declares Ros should this time “be the man”. The majority of the scene is designed to mimic sex between a cisgendered man and a cisgendered woman. In the other scenes described the camera lingers on faces and eyes and you certainly don’t get the types of shots you get in the scene with Littlefinger, which occasionally lingers on bodies without heads and the camera panning down the woman’s bodies.

Game of Thrones actually manages to be quite progressive in general in terms of how it deals with nudity—female nudity in particular—and the use of the male gaze. However, in the way it deals with nominally lesbian scenes and sexuality is extremely problematic. I would love more queer ladies on my television. Funnily enough though, I actually want them to be queer, not there for the enjoyment of men who happen to like girl-on-girl.

 


* Though as she is the only sex worker mentioned in relation to Winterfell it could lead one to believe that it is a town with only the one person employed in sex work or, as a friend of mine assumed while watching, that “Ros” was just the standard name given out by sex workers in Winterfell.

 

Disclaimer: The treatment of queer sexuality is not the only problem Game of Thrones has, merely the one I wanted to discuss right now. In particular, the treatment of race and people of colour in the narrative is extremely problematic, and I hope future posts can deal with this. 

Magic: The Blathering (Or, the high ground is dead and we killed it)

The nerdy corners of the internet have been all atwitter this week with the news that somewhere on earth, a woman harshly prejudged a man for being nerdy. I refer of course to Alyssa Bereznak’s Gizmodo article where she tells the sordid tale of how she went on two dates with a man named Jon Finkel without being adequately forewarned that he was a nerd. A big nerd. A nerd to the tune of being a previous Magic: The Gathering World Champion. Oh, the horror. THE HORROR.

Now I don’t play Magic and did not know who Finkel was until this week. But thanks to Wikipedia, I now know that he is also a professional poker player and the managing partner at Landscape Capital Management. Also, he seems like an absolutely stand-up guy from the article! That’s right, the article in which Bereznak attempted to mock and deride him actually makes him sound like a total catch to me. But don’t let those details which make Finkel seem like a well-rounded and interesting person distract you from the point. It’s all about the Magic.

“Maybe I’m shallow for not being able to see past Jon’s world title,” she writes in mock apologia, but that’s not the real problem with this article. Bereznak doesn’t have to like nerds, okay, that is fine. If Magic is a dealbreaker for her or for you, so be it, you are entitled to your feelings and choices. But why assume that your preferences are of any relevance to the rest of us? Why did Bereznak feel the need to write this snarky, stupid article, piling scorn on nerds for being nerdy, referring to nerds who date normal people as “infiltrating” their lives, and demanding that nerds put their terrible nerd-related character flaws on their profiles? Either this woman is an epic, top-of-the-line troll or she is just astoundingly judgmental. Who seriously looks at the world and says “you know, what this place needs is more judgement, scorn and mockery of anyone who deviates slightly from established social norms”?

However, none of this justifies the unexamined sexism that has characterised the response of many in the nerd community. Sadly, the reaction of some of our fellow nerds has been to completely lose their shit and immediately jettison whatever shred of decency they had concerning women in general. Many an angry commenter has called Bereznak a “wench”, a “bitch”, a “cunt” and so on. Then Elly Hart on Kotaku tried to take down Bereznak’s prejudice and ended up exposing her own prejudice.

First, Hart suggests that Bereznak, as a woman, should not get drunk because “Any guy will tell you that there’s nothing more unattractive than a drunk girl falling all over the place and having no idea how stupid she looks”. This is sexist because it suggests that men’s opinions about how women conduct themselves are the relevant metric by which women should decide how to behave. Hart is suggesting that Bereznak’s behaviour is worthy of criticism not because it is harmful to others or anything like that, but because men will disapprove of it. In this framework it is implied that it is very important for women to ensure men approve of them. Obviously this is sexist crap.

Hart then suggests that becauase Bereznak admitted to getting drunk, it makes her less “credible”. I KID YOU NOT. That’s right, kids, getting drunk at any point in your life means you’re not a reliable source of information ever again. Not only is this ridiculous but it veers dangerously close to accusations that women who were drunk at any point in an evening have no credibility and therefore what they say doesn’t matter and therefore nobody has to take them seriously and I think you all know where this argument goes. Nowhere good.

Hart also suggests that Bereznak, in judging and mocking Finkel, is a “predator”. To use this term in this context is to implicitly refer to sexual predation: and if it wasn’t clear, the accusation is preceded by a reference Bereznak made to online dating sites being like “date-rapey” bars (which is itself a pretty disgusting comment from Bereznak). But rather than excoriating Bereznak for making light of date rape, Hart claims that it is ironic that Bereznak would ever say that, because she claims Bereznak is “the predator” in this case. Hart is comparing Bereznak’s mean, judgemental article to sexual predation. The comparison is extremely harmful. Nobody who is not a sexual predator or rapist should ever be compared to a sexual predator or rapist, because rape and sexual assault are uniquely horrific events. Do not trivialise sexual predation by suggesting it is in the same ballpark as writing nasty blog posts.

Finally, Hart claims Bereznak is bringing all women down. “It’s no wonder men always complain about women playing mind games. You managed to reinforce a stereotype that some of us have worked so hard to disassociate ourselves with.” Again, Hart doesn’t seem to realise that her own argument is sexist. First, she is giving men a free pass to invoke this sexist trope by saying it’s totally understandable to hold this stereotype! Second, by using the trope against Bereznak she shows that she is fine with it being applied to any women who aren’t herself: she is invoking and reinforcing the trope by placing Bereznak’s behaviour in that context! She is making one individual woman’s behaviour into a reflection on women as a group. In case it is not clear: making any harmful behaviour perpetrated by a member of a group into a reflection of the worth of that group as a whole is a tool of oppression. It means that members of systematically oppressed groups (like women) are held to an impossibly high standard where their behaviour must be perfect or they risk “compounding the stereotype” or “letting the gender/race/sexual-orientation down”.

Members of socially privileged groups are almost never treated in this way. It is rare that the reaction in society to a man being judgemental and mocking of nerds is  “That guy is a bad reflection on all men!” or “He’s bringing all men down”. It is rare that the reaction to seeing a white person committing a crime is to say “‘that white person is a bad reflection on white people!” No, this happens to marginalised groups only, because their presence in social spaces is a constant audition. To make women responsible for eliminating sexist stereotypes is to punish them for being the subjects of sexist stereotypes. Bereznak is surely guilty of being judgemental, but to then claim that her crimes are all the greater because of pre-existing sexist stereotypes is to punish Bereznak for being a woman. Doing that makes you sexist.

My fellow nerds, this behaviour is simply not acceptable. You don’t get a free pass to be sexist, not ever. Not even if a woman is really mean to you and the people you love for really stupid reasons. Not even if you yourself are a woman or are oppressed for who you are. You simply cannot expect to hold the moral high ground if you invoke sexist tropes to attack someone  –  regardless of your own gender or situation.

The nerd community has responded with a prejudice that goes WAY BEYOND the prejudice displayed in the original article, because systematic oppression of women is much more serious than the social prejudice against nerds. When our community responds to our critics with sexist vitriol, we show everyone exactly what’s underneath the veneer of nerdy counter-culture: the same old shit you get in mainstream culture. We nerds might think our community more enlightened and progressive than mainstream culture, but that makes us as deluded as George Lucas when he thinks it’s a good idea to tinker with Star Wars.

The high ground is dead, and we killed it.

Burqas and Bikinis: Introducing the Concepts Macroproblematic and Microproblematic

I want to introduce two concepts in this post that I think are missing from the social justice conversation.  My labeling for them is a little tongue in cheek, but my suggestion that we adopt these concepts in the discourse is serious. First, let me define the somewhat clunky term “microproblematic”. If an action or attitude is “microproblematic”, it means that it is problematic for any individual to hold or to do regardless of the cultural context that this individual finds themselves in. For example, even if our culture were a paragon of gender equality and diversity in every single way, it would still be problematic for an individual heterosexual man to say that “No doesn’t always mean no” because it’s rapey. Pressuring anyone for sex, no matter how subtly you (mistakenly) think you are doing it, is microproblematic. Another example: even if our culture celebrated and respected all body sizes and shapes, it would still be problematic for an individual to suggest that another individual change their body shape or size. Most of the basic issues that any 101-level activist would call out are microproblematic (whether or not broader society thinks so).

By contrast, an attitude or action is “macroproblematic” if it is not problematic for an individual to choose to hold or to do, but on a broad, sociocultural level it is problematic or at least symptomatic of wider problems, especially if it is an enforced social norm.This second definition, the idea of something being problematic in the aggregate only, is I think the key concept missing from our discourse around social justice. Let me give you the examples that lead me to this concept: the conversation around the burqa, and the conversation around the bikini/skimpy clothing worn by women.

First, consider an individual woman’s choice to wear a burqa (of course this applies to the niqab, the hijab etc but I am using the burqa because I think it receives more scrutiny). Clearly, there is absolutely nothing microproblematic about this choice – it is a perfectly valid choice, whether it is based on religious, cultural or purely personal reasons. There is no coherent case against any individual woman’s free choice to wear one. It is her right to choose how she dresses, and frankly, the “security risk” argument is such total crap that I’m not even addressing it (come back when you want to ban masquerade balls for similar “security concerns”). No woman’s individual choice to don a burqa should ever, ever be up for debate or scrutiny from anyone.

However, I think there is something macroproblematic about a sociocultural situation that demands women be totally covered up, but does not demand the same from men. Any norm that considers women’s clothing to be associated with moral rectitude is inherently misogynistic and masks an attempt to control women by dictating how they may present themselves. Also, some of the justifications for the burqa as a social norm reflect a fundamental lack of respect for both men and women, often reinforcing rape culture, painting men as base creatures with no self control, and calling on women to do everything they can to avoid exciting men and thus causing their own rapes. Clearly, to the extent that it remains a moralised sociocultural norm that applies only to women, the burqa is highly macroproblematic. However, it is not at all microproblematic, and nobody has the right to interrogate or judge any woman who chooses to wear it.

Interestingly, the exact same situation arises when women appear in the public sphere wearing very revealing, highly “sexy” clothing and presenting themselves in an overtly sexual manner. It should be perfectly obvious that there is absolutely nothing wrong with any individual woman choosing to do this. It is every woman’s right to dress in the way she chooses, and if she wants to go out with her breasts or thighs or any other “socially-coded sexual” part of her body uncovered, that is a valid choice. It certainly does not reflect any personal issues or “deep seated insecurities” or any other armchair psychologist bullshit. Some women feel comfortable dressing up really sexily in public, and there is nothing microproblematic about this choice. No woman’s individual choice to wear a bikini or sexy lingerie out in public at any time of day in any location should ever, ever be up for debate or scrutiny from anyone.

Yet again, on a sociocultural level, it clearly is problematic that women are consistently presented in all forms of media in an overtly heterosexy way, wearing very revealing clothing and posed in such a manner as to bring pleasure to heterosexual men. Men are almost never presented posing sexily to gratify heterosexual women (and when they are, panic and confusion ensue!). Consider this: there is no male equivalent of lingerie in mainstream culture. Furthermore, merely in observing the dearth of so-called “unattractive” or “unsexy” women in media, women are implicitly taught that their primary value is their capacity to provide a pleasing image and/or sexual gratification to heterosexual men whether they like it or not. They are of course also slutshamed if they provide sexual gratification to men and/or like it! (In misogynistic societies, women can never win.) The depiction of women as being heteromale lust objects before they are people is a symptom of deep misogyny in our culture. It is one reason why many American girls self-report that they would rather win ANTM than a Nobel Prize and nobody even asked American boys that question. It is highly macroproblematic. However, sexy women are not at all microproblematic, and nobody has the right to interrogate or judge any woman who chooses to present sexily.

I think the fact that we don’t have terms for these two separate things is at the root of many confusing arguments – especially between second and third wave feminists, many of whom fail to grasp the difference. Many second wave feminists, noting that the dominant sociocultural representation of women in heterosexy poses and outfits for heteromale viewing is macroproblematic, then claim that NO WOMEN ANYWHERE should ever choose to behave or dress in this way, because even if it makes her happy, SHE’S A DELUDED TOOL OF THE PATRIARCHY. Meanwhile third wave feminists, noting that there is absolutely nothing microproblematic about women wearing sexy clothes and presenting in an overtly sexual manner, go on to claim that there is NO MACROPROBLEM AT ALL, EMBRACE IT LADIES, WHAT IS WRONG WITH BEING PRIMARILY CONSIDERED A LUST OBJECT?

If we employ these concepts, it can be coherently argued that women presenting overtly sexually is not microproblematic in any way, but the broader social norms that treat women as sex objects for heteromale consumption is indeed macroproblematic. A lack of clarity around what it means for something to be “problematic” and the extent to which people’s personal decisions should be scrutinised causes real harm, especially to people who find themselves personally bearing the brunt of someone else’s genuine complaint about broader culture. We must attack macroproblematic practices on a sociocultural level without hurting individuals who may, intentionally or unintentionally, conform to these ideas and practices. When we seek to destroy the kyriarchy, we have to be careful we don’t create collateral damage. I think these concepts can help us achieve that.

A Duty to Justice

I am currently completing a post-Law-degree course that will let me become a qualified lawyer in Australia. All of our instructors have been practicing in their fields of expertise for many years, so frankly, I shouldn’t have been surprised when some of those barristers and advocates supported slut-shaming and victim-blaming as ways of conducting rape and sexual assault cases. And then justified that attitude as a duty to their defendant client.

In Australia, about 1 in 5 women experience sexual assault and violence. Of those one in five, only 1 in 3 of those assaults are reported to police. Of those assaults reported, only 1 in 3 proceed to trial based on the likelihood of prosecution and wishes of the victim (PDF link).

Criminal proceedings are notoriously bad when treating victim giving witness testimony. Not only must they relive the crime in a courtroom under the scrutiny of lawyers, judges and jurors, but they are often asked highly invasive questions during cross-examination. (I should note here that now a lot of cross-examination is filmed privately on video and played to the court as evidence instead of live testimony.) Of course, any witness testimony will inevitably be difficult for a victim, and witness testimonies will always be necessary to satisfy the criminal burden of proof in an adversarial, common law jurisdiction. But there is never a justification for using arguments or questions grounded in victim-blaming as part of a defence. There is never an excuse to quiz the witness on what they were wearing, how many people they’ve slept with in the past and whether they were inebriated. There is never an excuse to reinforce rape culture.

The argument I most commonly run against is: that, in absence of evidence beyond conflicting testimonies, lawyers need to use whatever favourable “evidence” they can find, because they have a duty to do their best to win the case for their client.

Call me old fashioned or just a fresh-faced graduate from law school, but I thought lawyers were supposed to be officers of the court first.

Jurors aren’t rational and objective beings beamed down from the planet Vulcan to sit in judgement on our legal cases. Living in a rape culture, it should surprise no one that jurors will often hold prejudiced, misogynistic and anti-victim views. Using arguments and reasoning that appeal solely to a person’s prejudice only reinforces that prejudice and in cases of sexual assault and rape, only reinforces rape culture.

People trot out the evidence argument as if it is an unsavoury yet necessary practical component of sexual violence prosecutions. But anti-victim arguments aren’t “evidence” of anything, and they definitely aren’t evidence of consent. Whether a victim was wearing sexy lingerie has no bearing on their consent, just like a person’s skin colour and ethnicity has no bearing on whether they’d commit a theft. Suggesting victims who don’t initially report assaults are liars reinforces misinformation about “correct” victim behaviours and completely ignores statistical realities – that contextually, a reluctance to officially report sexual crimes is probably evidence that the victim was being truthful. Relying on misogyny and rape culture to acquit a defendant is a lazy and dishonest way of conducting a case, and no different from relying on racism or classism or any other prejudice. Such overt prejudices are impossible to find in the courtroom nowadays, yet victim-blaming sadly remains rampant and acceptable.

Yes, rape and sexual assault are difficult areas of law because consent is often one person’s word against the other. However, judges and juries often make findings of fact on little or no evidence beyond witness testimonies, and often rely on how credible they found a witness to determine those facts. While jurors may still be influenced by internalised prejudice to determine issues of credibility, at least this isn’t something they’ve explicitly turned their mind to. Credibility may still place unreasonable expectations on victim behaviour, but at least some of those expectations can be prepared for and managed after the crime.

An adversarial legal system does require the defence to act as a check on the prosecution. The defence ensures there is procedural fairness, and that the prosecution has proved their case on the evidence. The burden of proof in criminal cases is much higher than in civil cases – the prosecution must prove the defendant is guilty beyond reasonable doubt. That’s a high enough burden without the defence needing to rely on victim-blaming to make the prosecution work that bit harder for our taxpayer money.

Nor are lawyers required to do everything possible to win a case. In fact many things are explicitly forbidden because they conflict with a lawyer’s duty to the court. For example, lawyers cannot knowingly allow someone to present false evidence or delay proceedings as a tactic. Lawyers should cease acting for clients who insist on presenting false evidence. From there, even if it isn’t explicitly stated in the Professional Conduct rules, I’d say that it’s necessary to imply a “Don’t reinforce the prejudices of the jurors” in the interests of justice.

DID YOU KNOW?

Under the Evidence Act 2008 (Vic), evidence that relies on stereotypes is considered improper. Evidence about tendency (ie. they’ve had sex with X before so they would have X with again in this instance!) is generally only allowed in very limited circumstances.

Of course the law is not always applied perfectly (stereotypes to a judge is likely to be more limited than someone from a social justice framework) and these laws only apply to the state of Victoria in Australia. There are plenty of places around the world where slut-shaming is a valid and legal defence.

Fauxgress Watch: “Gentlemen Prefer Curves”

If we want to end cultural pressure on women to make their bodies conform to an ideal, we need to reject – not embrace – the idea that “men prefer curvy women” or “men like women to have some curves”. I know it’s tempting for those of us whose natural body shape puts us outside the sociocultural beauty ideal to try to latch onto this idea to regain some confidence. I also understand wanting to propagate a message that subverts dominant beauty standards, and because it attempts to do that, this message is not as harmful as a message that says the opposite. Nevertheless, a cursory analysis of this message reveals that it is not really progress. It does not promote genuine freedom from misogyny and beautyism.

First, by invoking male approval to validate a certain female body type, this message reinforces the idea that men’s approval of women’s bodies is the most relevant and important yardstick by which the quality our bodies should be measured. In this framework, women are seen to be valuable largely (or indeed only) to the extent that they are enjoyed by men. This idea is implicitly invoked whenever men’s approval is deemed the most suitable basis on which women are invited to build their self esteem. Obviously, this idea is deeply misogynistic and seriously heterosexist. It’s also damaging on a psychological level for individual women to base their self worth on the extent to which they please men.

Secondly, this message reinforces the idea there is a need to rank women’s bodies at all. It implies that some kind of hierarchy should exist. People who propagate this message want the current regime inverted to favour women with “some curves” rather than very thin women. This not only ignores but actively undermines the superior goal of destroying the whole concept of a beauty hierarchy. Instead of criticising the whole disgusting concept of ranking people based on the extent to which their bodies conform to the conventional ideal, the message actually reinforces it as a worthwhile exercise.

Thirdly, this message subtextually supports the idea that there is one nebulous, homogeneous entity of “men” who all like the same thing. Although this is what women’s magazines, men’s magazines and many human beings seem to believe, this is bullshit. This erases not only men who do like skinny women, but also men who like other men, men who prefer very fat women rather than women with merely “some” curves, men who prefer genderqueer or intersex partners, asexual men, demisexual men, men who don’t care about any physical attributes of their partners, and so on. Also, the message that all people, or even most people, have highly similar sexual preferences and desires is damaging in another way: it is part of what makes the existence of a cultural beauty standard so poisonous, because it allows our culture to invoke a monolith of attraction/disgust for certain bodies.

It is perfectly fine – important, in fact – for us to make media celebrating the fact that some people are really into women whose bodies are larger than the current sociocultural beauty ideal. Given the state of mainstream culture, it is fast becoming absolutely crucial we make media acknowledging that human sexuality is diverse, and that being outside the boundaries of conventional attractiveness does not mean nobody finds you hot, sexy, gorgeous, or beautiful. That would be real progress. This isn’t.

Some Things Are Not Meant to Be Understood By the Gender Essentialists

Oh XOJane, advise me on how to be selfish and how to stop feeling like I have to please others!

A wise woman I know once told me that there are two types of women: those who dress for men, and those who dress for other women.

How you dress and present to the world is definitely not a personal, creative expression of yourself. It’s a lot healthier to dress to win the approval and acceptance of your peers. In fact, women should feel like their appearance is being constantly scrutinised and judged by everyone and then dress accordingly. But the difficulty is that men and women don’t like the same things! You can’t please both genders at once! Because men and women are so different.

I actually think I do both depending on the day, but I will admit that there are two very different kinds of outfits. The below, which I imagineered up while working from home this morning, was never meant to be understood by the penised of the species.

Penises have magical powers that will dictate your sense of style and aesthetics, didn’tchaknow? Penises also have magical powers that will dictate your gender identity! (Hint: this is sarcasm, your gender identity is completely independent of your genitalia.)

 To test my theory, I emailed my boyfriend a picture of this concoction,

A sample size of ONE is highly scientific PROOF. PROOF I TELL YOU.

Then my (male) therapist said he thought it was very “creative,” which may have been code for “time to catatonically make some rainbow lanyards down at the mental hospey.”

Further proof of how men and women are Different (TM) because even your therapist hates it! (That’s a sample size of TWO for those of you still playing.) Whenever I describe something as “creative” I definitely mean it to have negative and ableist connotations. I definitely wouldn’t say what I actually meant.

But maybe some commenters will have picked up the errors in her post? The gender essentialism, the trans erasure, the dressing-for-validation…

You could amend those categories slightly.

Wait, a commenter with some sense? A lone voice of reason?

I think the two camps are actually MEN, and THOSE WHO LIKE PENIS (which includes us males of the homosexual persuasion, who also understand that sometimes a hairdo is just begging for the addition of an oversized butterfly, feather, or some such fabricated flora or fauna to make it complete).

Oh, my mistake, it’s just someone making broad generalisations and stereotypes about sexual orientations.

Carry on then, XOJane.

White Privilege in the Dojang

I have been practicing the Korean martial art of taekwondo for eight years now. Often, I am the only white person in the dojang (training hall). I am ashamed to say that I only recently noticed the way in which my white privilege enters the space, and I think it’s worth talking about. I have heard quite a few white people claim that their privilege ends when they become the minority in any location. This is complete bullshit, and so to arm anyone who wishes to argue against this crap, I want to set down the ways in which my white privilege operates when I am the only white person in the room.

Firstly, it seems to me that because I am white, I am considered to hold an amount of authority disproportionate to my actual expertise. I am a black belt, but only a first Dan, which is a much lower ranking than the third and fourth Dans who run the class. Yet when I voice an opinion about an activity or training exercise, my views are taken very seriously. Because white people are so overwhelmingly represented in positions of competence and power, both in western media and in global media, my whiteness provides me with extra authority in the eyes of my Korean instructors and classmates. Authority that I have not earned and do not deserve. Now that I realise that, I try not to interject simply to voice my preferences. I try to stay silent when we are discussing training activities, unless I feel that there is a substantive, important point I can make that others have overlooked.

Secondly, when everyone else is speaking Korean, I feel subconsciously entitled to ask what is being said. I only understand very simple Korean terms and phrases that relate to taekwondo. Most of the other students are either first or second generation immigrants, and some of our instructors are Korean nationals visiting Australia on student visas to learn English. They all speak Korean fluently. Naturally, they mainly speak Korean to one another. When they do, it simply does not occur to me not to ask what they are saying, because I can’t understand and I want to know.

This is a form of white entitlement. A lone non-white non-English speaker would be unlikely to feel so entitled to ask what a large group of white English-speakers were talking about. POC receive subtle messages that they ought to speak english well enough to understand. White people are socialised to believe that communication is the burden of POC. Because of this, I subconsciously feel I am entitled to understand everything around me and that if I do not then I am entitled to ask POC to explain it to me. That is fucked up. Now that I realise this, I do not ask what is being said unless it seems that something really dramatic or scandalous has occurred, or that it might have something to do with me.

Thirdly, the Korean students use their english names with me and sometimes even with each other. I am never expected to master the correct pronounciation of their birth names, and in some cases I am never even told their birth names. On some level, I think they feel that they should change the name they answer to in order to save me and other white people the possible embarrassment and discomfort of trying and failing to pronounce their Korean names.

I wish to call them by the names they view as their “real” names, but I also don’t want to make them uncomfortable or push them into doing anything they don’t want to do. When I do ask for someone’s Korean name, often their reaction is confusion: why do I want to use their Korean name when they have a perfectly good English name they have already provided me with? I think this is about the dominance of white English speakers, which makes white the default and means everyone else feels they need to fit around us. But at the same time, I really don’t know whether it’s more or less entitled for me to keep asking to learn and use their Korean names! If I make them uncomfortable just so I can feel less guilty, how am I helping the situation at all?

I struggle with this still. I don’t want to make the conversation around race all about white people. I wrote this post to try to illustrate to other white people that our race privilege follows us everywhere. Even if you are the only white person in a room full of POC making fun of white people, you still have race privilege. That privilege infects your mind and makes you think you’re entitled to ask for stuff that no non-white person would dream of asking from you. If you’re white, it is your responsibility to analyse your behaviour and cut that shit out. Unless you’re vigilant, you’re probably stepping on toes every day without even knowing it – and yeah, maybe you didn’t mean to or you didn’t think about it, but as a white person it is your responsibility to think about it and change how you behave. If you don’t, you’re perpetuating the cycle.

The Lament of the Atheist Feminist

I am an atheist and a skeptic who has never been to an organised event related to these communities. In fact, most of my female friends are atheists and yet none of us has ever been to these events. I can’t speak for them, but for my part, it is partially because as a woman my encounters with these communities online have been really mixed.

These movements are unfortunately overpopulated with men who are obsessed with androcentrism and a blunt, blinkered perversion of inductive reasoning that they employ without questioning their premises. I have felt emotionally unsafe in comments sections on rationalist/skeptic blogs, usually when the issue of “getting a girl” gets raised: because the answer is usually that if men’s precious right to hit on ladies is ever impeded in any way by anything at all (for example, common courtesy or human decency) it is an outrage and a grave injustice. How else will they ever “get” girls?

Women’s objections to this way of thinking have been largely ignored in the community until very recently. Atheists and skeptics were forced to confront the situation when, in a youtube video, prominent feminist skeptic Rebecca Watson expressed her concerns about some men at atheist events lacking a firm grasp of the boundaries of appropriate flirtation or how to treat women in general.

Her argument was simple: a man who approaches a woman in an elevator at 4 in the morning and asks her back to his hotel room, after she has clearly stated that she is tired and wants to go to bed, is being creepy, pushy and generally demonstrating a suspiciously cavalier attitude towards the stated wishes of the woman.

It should be beyond obvious that such behaviour is likely to make a woman feel unsafe. First, because it reinforces that these men think their desire to hit on us is more important than any of our desires. That’s pretty skeevy, guys. Moreover, for many women it is actually seriously scary, because it’s not that uncommon for men – even men who seem very nice – to go further with that cavalier attitude and actually commit sexual assault. Rebecca clearly said she did not fear being raped, but in her situation, I think I would have been subconsciously worried.

In case it’s hard for men to remember this, let me remind you: in Australia, 1 in 5 women experiences sexual assault at some time. In America, 1 in 6 women is the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime – most of them completed. Many women are pretty fucking aware that being alone in an elevator with a guy hitting on us at 4 am can go really very badly for us, and colour me unsympathetic to you if you are lucky enough to be oblivious to that.

The community’s response to Rebecca’s video is pretty predictable: the men who don’t get it are whinging about being victims of prejudiced women, while the rest of us are respectfully discussing how the community can make the situation better. My homeboy and hero PZ Myers has our back on this. Awesome atheist women like Jen McCreight at Blaghag are on it too, and Rebecca’s follow-up post is great.  But what I did not expect was for Richard Dawkins to throw in with the people claiming that their right to hit on women in elevators after said women have expressed their desire to go to bed alone is absolutely sacrosanct.

I really respect Richard Dawkins. I love his writing about evolution, genetics, and zoology. I love The Blind Watchmaker, The View from Mount Improbable, and The God Delusion. He is a great thinker, a great writer and a person who has done a lot for atheism around the world. I admire his academic career immensely, and I wish to emulate his commitment to educating the public. I am a huge fan. It absolutely guts me to see him casually dismiss Rebecca’s concerns, and by proxy the concerns of all women in these situations. It shows a complete lack of empathy and an unwillingness to step outside of his male social role and imagine what it might be like to be a woman. To have men feel they have a right to hit on him whenever they want to, regardless of how he feels about it. To have a substantial chance of being raped in his lifetime.

Dawkins says that he doesn’t understand how Rebecca could be so hurt by mere words. Do we really need to explain that words mean things, words cause harm, words can be used to threaten, intimidate and abuse people? Do we really have to explain this to an adult human being? Yes, obviously it’s worse to both verbally and physically assault someone, but that doesn’t make it okay to use words to make them uncomfortable.

The other issue Dawkins raised is the fact that western women have it much better than women  in the Middle East, so we shouldn’t focus on the plight of western women at all. It is definitely true that women as a class face must greater oppression in those nations, but that doesn’t mean that Western women are not allowed to be concerned about issues in our own lives. In fact, surely the plight of women in the Sudan is much more important than say, I don’t know, the academic field of zoology for example. Therefore nobody should ever spend time doing zoological research because that detracts from our focus on women being raped in the Sudan. So unless you’re quitting your job to go help out in the Sudan, don’t come at me with this. You’re allowed to surf the internet in your spare time, I’m allowed to talk about the ways in which I feel unsafe in public because of how men treat me in my spare time.

Overall, It’s very hard for women to come into atheist and skeptical spaces when we know this attitude prevails. The men inside the movement have to take some responsibility for their own behaviour and start working to change this, or not only will there not be more women in the community anytime soon, but there may very well be fewer of them. That’s bad for everyone. Surely even the most self-involved atheists must be aware that the movement for a more secular society needs all the support it can get. Of course, you should care about how women feel because women are human beings. But if that’s not enough for you, how about this: start paying attention to how women feel, or we are all going to lose.

Obligatory Awkward Introduction

If there were a Venn diagram with Social Justice Activism, Ethical Capitalism and Science & Rationality, the central overlap would contain The Social Justice League. We are a group of geeky, sex-positive and fat-positive feminists who hate the kyriarchy and like the sound of our own voices. This blog is a place for us to put our thoughts on issues related to our own marginalisation, our own privilege, and our thoughts on how social justice interacts with science, skepticism, geekdom and popular culture.

Although we are of different races, sexual orientations, body sizes, and degrees of mental and physical health, we do share some common traits that could lead to common biases. We are all cisgendered women. We have all either completed or are currently completing tertiary education at a large Australian university. We are all at this time broadly part of the “middle class”.

Although we consider our ignorance our own responsibility, we are likely to occasionally fuck it up, and we would love to be called out if we are displaying privilege or ignorance. We promise that if you call us out on some unexamined privilege, we will take it seriously and treat you with respect.  We are actively seeking to get informed about our privilege and our unexamined prejudices.

You can assume that we agree on the fundamentals, but we’re also individuals who will sometimes have differing opinions or perspectives on a topic. Therefore, each author’s view is wholly their own. We approve of member posts as a group, but approval is rooted in constructive discussion; it does not mean we all necessarily hold that same view.

We really hope other people will want to discuss the issues we raise. We have some suggestions for how to make that run smoothly for everyone:

First, we don’t use the word “crazy” in our posts, and we ask that you avoid using it in our comments, because crazy is an ableist word. We also don’t use the words “retarded“, “gay” or “lame” to mean bad, and we ask that you avoid using them in the comments too.

Second, we will delete comments containing sentiments that harm a marginalised community without providing a constructive or original contribution to the discussion. Free speech is something you demand from your government, not from us.