Monthly Archives: February 2015

There’s no such thing as male privilege

I am frequently drawn into the horror that is notalwaysright.com, and it can easily pass an enjoyable hour while I catch up with the latest examples of humanity done wrong. The site has several siblings, which I don’t generally read. Last week, however, I was pointed at this example from notalwayslearning.com. It touched so many of my personal buttons that I thought I would share it with you.

One reason I am concerned by it is that it is taking place in a school not a hundred miles from my house. I am a school governor as well, so I have something of a vested interest in this account.

So… what happened, it seemed, is that a large 15-year-old boy had twanged the bra-strap of one of his classmates several times. She had asked him to stop, but he carried on. She asked the (male) teacher to intervene and his sage advice was to ignore it. When the boy carried on pinging, to the extent that her bra came undone, she took matters into her own hands and had punched him.

The school called the mother, complained to her that it was difficult to get hold of her because the school’s business is more important than anything else, of course. The mother, being an A&E nurse had other concerns on her mind, but got to the school when she could. After attempting to shame her for keeping everyone waiting, the head then got upset with her because her daughter had punched a boy in school.

Full marks to the mother, because she immediately turned the tables on the school and saw what had happened in a rather different light than the one the school was shining on it.

The light the school was shining on it was male privilege.

This account provides one of the clearest examples of male privilege I have seen of late, of how people exercise it and how others collaborate with it.

To begin with, the boy exercised male privilege in demonstrating his entitlement to the girl’s body. He saw it as his right as a young man to reach out and touch a young woman. It was a very specific touch, too, nothing random. A bra strap is very much a person’s intimate, personal space, and undoing someone’s bra strap is serious invasion of that space, leaving the victim feeling half-dressed and completely unable to do anything about it until they can get to a private space with a door.

She asked him to stop, not completely unreasonable under the circumstances. He exercised further privilege when he decided that he didn’t have to listen to her, that his desire to access her body overrode her own bodily autonomy. As the mother pointed out, he was a good foot taller than she was, and carried twice the body mass. She didn’t pose much of a physical threat to him and he simply decided that his right to her outweighed her own.

Faced with an increasingly unpleasant situation, she turned to the nearest authority figure, the teacher. In this case, his role is completely clear. He has a moral and legal duty to protect the children in his class from harassment and, simply, to ensure a good standard of behaviour. She had every right to expect him to intervene to defend her. Instead, he fell back on the old stalwart of “just ignore it”. This can be interpreted in several ways, none of them particularly flattering to the teacher:

  1. The teacher didn’t believe that the behaviour was happening at all
  2. The teacher didn’t believe that the behaviour was harmful
  3. The teacher didn’t believe that the behaviour was wrong
  4. The teacher didn’t want to get involved in what could quickly become problematic for him and simply wanted a quiet life

For each interpretation, the teacher invokes privilege.

In 1, he assumes that the girl is lying simply to get attention or to get the boy into trouble. He doesn’t want to discipline a fellow male in front of the tribe (classroom) if he can avoid it, so he prefers to, in his own words, “just ignore it.”

In 2, the suffering caused by the bad behaviour is happening to a girl, someone outside his (male) privilege group, and he simply doesn’t stop to consider the situation from her point of view. The fact that she had explicitly brought it to his attention should be something of a giveaway to him that the behaviour is causing her distress, but he has never worn a bra, has never had breasts and simply cannot bring himself to consider that the boy’s behaviour was anything beyond simple childhood naughtiness. After all, boys will be boys.

3 is yet more sinister than 2, in my opinion. If he accepts that the behaviour is harmful but chooses not to intervene, he is tacitly approving of the boy’s behaviour. He is now colluding with the boy’s expression of privilege. He has set up a tribe and is sending a clear message that behaviour that intimidates non-members is perfectly OK by him. It’s OK, boys, it’s open season on bra straps, so get pinging.

4 doesn’t invoke privilege directly, but in choosing apathy as a policy, the teacher denies the authority given to him by society, the school and the law. He puts himself outside of the dominant tribe and sends a message as clearly as he does in 3. It’s still open season on bra straps, he can’t beat the indolence, so the boys can behave as they please.

Back to the narrative: she feels increasingly frustrated that her personal boundaries have been transgressed, has asked for help from the person legally bound to assist her but has been refused. The boy pings her bra strap so hard that it comes undone. She feels that she has exhausted every possible reasonable course of action so is driven to one that breaks social rules. She punches the guy to make it completely clear to him that invading her space, touching her intimately and undressing her in public has consequences.

The teacher whirls into action now, of course. Blood has been spilt.

There is a gathering of the teaching hierarchy: teacher, year head and headteacher. The girl is marched to the office. She is in big trouble. She punched a boy.

In a stunning display of male privilege, the male headteacher doesn’t see that the boy’s behaviour played much of a part in the incident (see 1-4 above). What he sees is that she hit someone, and that hitting someone is unacceptable. The (woman) head-of-year doesn’t speak up at any point. Her lack of action colludes with the display of male privilege going on. She may feel intimidated by all the men around, or she may not consider bra-pinging to be a problem (see 1-4 above). Either way, she also has a legal and moral duty to point out that the boy’s behaviour was wrong.

The boy’s mother is strangely silent on the issue. It is not known if she understands the situation from the girl’s perspective or not. Personally, I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt, but she clearly does not see that she can speak out.

It takes the girl’s mother, descending on the meeting like divine vengeance to peel back the scales from everyone’s eyes. Once the mother re-frames the situation, everyone is able to see rather more clearly what happened. She challenges privilege and demands that everyone in the room sees the boy’s actions for what they were. Intimate touch without consent is sexual assault and she is willing to take this point as far as is necessary to drive that home to the school.

In the contest between don’t make waves and treating each other like people, it seems that not making waves is winning, but the tide may yet be turning. It won’t turn unless we make it, but we can do this together.


UPDATE: 2015-02-27

Looks like Snopes picked this up, and are casting doubt on the veracity of the claims at notalwayslearning.com. True or not, the story still provides a good example of what male privilege looks like and how it is quite easy to miss it when it is being used. The lesson remains clear: the use of privilege like this needs to be seen for what it is and it must not be allowed to cloud justice.

Fifty ways to leave your abusive lover

It was Valentine’s Day this week, and Capitalism’s many priests and prophets have been telling us how to best show our love to our significant other. Usually with something red. And if you don’t have and/or don’t want a significant other? Well, go away. This is a day for you to hide under a duvet and feel miserable. Or buy some different things instead. After all, the Temple of Money doesn’t really care who you are or what your Facebook relationship status shows, as long as you are spending your money.

But I digress.

This is the week in which E. L. James’ lucrative masterwork (cough) hits the big screens and we queue up in our droves to give up our hard-earned cash in exchange for two hours of on-screen abuse of power and sexual dominance.

Coincidentally, this week, I have listened to the first three chapters of Fifty Shades on Audible. I’m afraid that the combination of the sheer awfulness of the writing is not helped in any way by the slightly sarcastic tone of the reader and I was almost distracted from the temperature of Ana’s cheeks (she blushes at least once on every page, which gets old fast). Alas not.

I have read several articles about Fifty Shades this week, and none of them are particularly positive about the relationship depicted in the story. Here’s one that sums it up rather nicely. He does not treat her like a person, and she would do well to run far and run fast, preferably with a court order (restraining order for the USians amongst us) insisting that he keeps his distance.

An author I can recommend, for those interested in decent writing and decent storytelling, is Claire Thompson. She writes from experience of the BSDM scene and covers many different types of relationship, with examples of BDSM done wrong (BDSM should never be abusive) and contrasts with BDSM done right (it should always be by mutual agreement for the mutual pleasure of all parties, with pre-arranged safe-words which are always respected by the Dom). Tracy In Chains is her autobiographical tale of her discovery of the scene; Sarah’s Awakening is a smoking hot tale of how a Dom takes on a somewhat-naïve sub and agrees to train her in the ways of the scene in what turns out to be a life-changing relationship for both of them. It’s hotter than Fifty Shades and doesn’t feature the abuse of power.

Some of the responses I have heard from within the Catholic Church have been a bit limp and predictable (when did we become so limp and predictable?), but they’re along the same lines: that Christian Grey is not a man to be in relationship with. This may come as a surprise to some, but Christianity isn’t truly as hateful as all that.

But, but, but it’s all there in Ephesians 5:22! Except it isn’t. Katie van Schaijik makes an entirely rational argument over at The Personalist Project, with which I agree. In his life, Jesus modelled relationship to women in a way that was entirely radical for the time, treating them as equals, verbally sparring with them, and even being put in his place a couple of times.

At the root it is equality. If we are to treat each other as people, we must take steps to level the playing field before entering an agreement with someone, rather than stacking the deck as Christian Grey does from the very beginning of the story. Less 50 shades of grey and more half a dozen shades of darkness.

Please don’t do that

Trigger warning: discussion of rape.

Two acquaintances, Alex and Jessie are talking, late at night. Beer has been consumed. Alex decides that Jessie hasn’t had enough sex and sets about fixing that. A jumps on top of J, effectively pinning J down, and gets to work undoing trousers (pants) and pants (underwear). J is clearly not comfortable with this attention and tries to disengage A, but is unable: as I said, drink had been consumed. J starts to tell A “No. No. No.” and “Get off me!”. A pulls a large dildo out of a bag, taunts J with it for a moment before jamming it up J’s rear passage.

The year is 2010 and this is played out on the big screen in Get Him to the Greek (rated 15 by the BBFC). The scene is actually played for laughs (admittedly, Russell Brand being in on the venture probably doesn’t help), and the audience go home at the end in the knowledge that the overweight and ugly bloke, Jessie, probably deserved what he got from the woman, Alex.

Because he was drunk? Because he was overweight? Because he was too scared of the woman?

In the USA, that would be rape. In the UK, because the thing that was doing the penetrating wasn’t a penis, that would be sexual assault.

Oh, but it was a woman doing it to a man, so it’s funny.

Sorry, film makers. It is not funny. It was a sexual encounter that was explicitly without consent and you want us to laugh at it? Reverse the roles, and it’s suddenly a lot less funny.

Eight years earlier, in 40 Days and 40 Nights saw much the same thing happen: the protagonist has tied himself to the bed, anticipating his girlfriend’s arrival at midnight, but the antagonist creeps in early, while he is half-sleeping/half-dreaming and does the nasty with him. She just wanders off into the sunset, and the girlfriend feels shocked and betrayed that he allowed that to happen. He ends up apologising to her and trying to make up for his crime.

Sorry, film-makers. His crime is that he was raped. I remember feeling, at the time, that he was being punished for being the victim. I had never heard the term “victim blaming” at the time, but that is exactly what it was.

Man-gets-raped-by-a-woman does seem to be something of a theme in popular culture. This article, which I read last week, forms the basis for my post today. In the article, the anonymous author cites the two films I have already mentioned, but also Forrest GumpWedding CrashersOld School, and even How I Met Your Mother.

On the plus side, you would never get away with releasing a film with man-on-woman rape under a 15 certificate these days. That is a good thing. We are no longer willing to accept such depiction as entertainment, and we’d certainly be very uncomfortable to see it being played for laughs.

On the minus side, woman-on-man rape is being played for laughs, at least as recently as 2010 and I have no reason to suspect that it got less popular in the years since Get Him to the Greek was released.

Let’s analyse for a moment. in Peter McGraw’s TEDx talk on humour, he posits that the thing that makes a situation funny is a benign violation of society’s normal rules. You need both things for humour: watching someone fall off a cliff is a violation of the normal rules. It’s the little puff of dust, the faint thump and the “beep beep” of Roadrunner that make it benign. Wile E Coyote isn’t really hurt: he will get up and try once more. He’s fine, so the violation is benign and we are permitted to laugh at it.

Woman-on-man rape being played for laughs screws with our heads in two different ways.

I’ll start with benign. When a man is raped, that’s like Coyote hitting the floor of the ravine. We all know he’s fine really. No harm, no foul. Just man-up and get over it. We know you enjoyed it really. I mean, all men want all the sex they can possibly get: it’s not possible for a man not to want sex. You’re lucky to be getting the attention. You should be grateful.

There’s so much wrong with that attitude that I don’t know where to begin. Non-consensual sex is rape. Rape is not benign. No matter who is doing it to whom.

I am finding that the second word, violation, is even scarier than benign here. Woman-on-man rape is a violation of what is perceived to be normal. The whole subtext is that women being raped is normal and when this man gets raped, that is a violation of the norm.

On what planet is rape normal?

Well, looking at the news, it seems that it is normal on our planet. Robot Hugs has an excellent piece on it.

The very concept that there might be a normal kind of rape makes me sad. It also contains the sub-subtext that there is some kind of competition out there and that each group of rape victims is in competition for attention. This is illustratd in the Cracked article I began with, where the author devotes an entire half-page to an empassioned plea for an intersectional approach to this. Rape happens. Rape is horrible. The fact that rape happens to men does not, in any way, diminish the experience of women victims of rape. The converse is also true. It is not a competition.

All rape is wrong.

A society which treats rape as funny is not treating male victims as people. A society that suggests that it is normal for women to be raped is not treating female victims as people either. It’s just the sort of society that turns a blind eye and a deaf ear when non-binary-gendered people are even more likely to be raped than either of the two aforementioned categories.

We have some way to go yet.

La la, I can’t hear you: why “no incidents” does not imply “safety”

It’s FOSDEM time, where 5000 geeks, mostly white men, from across Europe and the wider world gather together in Brussels to talk about Free and Open Source software. Sounds awesome, and most people who go have a great time geeking out and generally rubbing shoulders with the giants of the Free Software world.

It’s not quite so awesome for some, however. There is a stereotype of what a geek is and how that geek behaves. The stereotype suggests that the geek is a young, white man who lives with his parents and relates to the world only through his computer, leaving him with poor social skills: poor social skills that mean that he was targetted by bullies when he was at school, and never learnt how to communicate with women (our stereotypical geek is straight, of course, although will probably have experienced homophobic bullying).

Our stereotypical geek has never learnt that women are people.

Of course, society doesn’t help very much, as society tends to depict women as objects put in the world simply to please men. Geeks see adverts and glossy magazines as much as the next person and are just as vulnerable to their messaging as everyone else, maybe moreso due to the stereotypical lack of contact with these others.

So, back to FOSDEM. Stereotypes fail to describe people. They are shallow and othering in themselves. Within these limitations, however, they can be useful analytical tools to apply to large enough data sets.

And the data set is “attendees at geek events.” FOSDEM is, without a doubt, a geek event (there are many others). A geek event attended overwhelmingly by white men. So what happens to women in these spaces? Well, last week, we had a look at how the shape-people felt uncomfortable when everyone around them different from them. It is no different in gatherings of actual humans, and for good reason (in some spaces).

Women at male-dominated geek events get assaulted.

And stalked.

And subjected to unwanted attention.

In a crowded space, you can be minding your own business, wondering what talk to attend next, or simply biding time between events and browsing the stalls when there is a hand on your bottom that you didn’t put there. Or, maybe, the same person keeps following you around, staring at you (but never approaching to speak).

In recent years, the organisers of many geek events have realised that this actually does happen, and that they do not want their event to be one at which someone is made to feel uncomfortable by the unwanted attention of others (or worse), so codes of conduct have started to appear.

It seems that the FOSDEM organisers have heard about this, too, as they have a code of conduct for their event, which begins

Social conduct policy

The FOSDEM organisers were surprised to hear that harassment is a common problem at Open Source conferences around the world. While we have no evidence of anti-social behaviour ever having been a problem at FOSDEM…

It is this wording that caused programmer, geek, speaker and blogger Sarah Mei to post this piece about why she was glad that she wasn’t able to attend FOSDEM this year.

You see, beginning your social conduct policy with a big wedge of denial that there is even a problem and a statement that you’re only writing such a policy because everyone else has a problem and you think you’d get bad press if you don’t have a policy yourself means that the policy you end up with is worthless. It is, basically, saying we’ve heard that people are saying that some bad stuff happens other conferences, but we don’t think it happens here. Now, if you happen to be attending this particular event and something bad happens to you, has this policy given you the confidence to approach the organisers to report it, or does it tell you we really don’t think that what you say happened to you is really as bad as you think it is.

As a bonus for the organisers, wording a policy in such a way as to minimise the chance that anyone will report anything allows you to run a conference that has no reported incidents of harassment over the two days. And if nobody reported any harassment, there wasn’t any, right?

Sarah Mei is underlining a point that I have heard from many sources, that zero reports is not the same as zero occurrences.

She is also pointing out the hugely significant fact that, when a problem does not exist for a group of people, they are less likely to see it as existing for anyone else. If the large group of white men in any given environment are not subject to sexual harassment, they are unlikely to classify any complaints from women as valid. “He’s just like that,” “boys will be boys” and “calm down: it’s not that bad” are all likely to be offered in order to diminish the seriousness of the claim. We know that we are decent people, we would rather not tarnish the good name of this gathering by admitting that what you experienced might be actually bad.

It’s not just geek gatherings, of course. The school my children attend submits a report to the county education department every term that says “there have been no reported prejudice-related incidents”. Whilst I’m sure that this allows the administration to pat themselves on the back, I am not convinced that this means that there have been no incidents, not least because my children have told me that there have been.

There is light breaking, slowly, over the landscape, however. The Nine Worlds Convention has an excellent anti-harassment policy, placed prominently on their site and backed up by training for the on-the-floor staff and a promise that the first person you contact will be the person who deals with your complaint, so it doesn’t vanish into a maze of delegation. Their policy is based on the model provided by the Ada Initiative, and there is a boat-load of good resources on their website too.

To conclude, we are all people, and we need to respect each other. Part of that respect is acknowledging that sometimes, people will tell us things that we find uncomfortable hearing about things that have happened to them. Step one is believing them.