Friday, September 28, 2007

On being a victim...

I've seen the poster mentioned here before, and I've thought it was kind of awesome. It's awesome because it's a call to action to prevent and stop harrassment that doesn't just tell women "stop wearing short skirts and drinking, or you deserve it."

Apparently, though, not everyone agrees.

The first comment reads: "Tee hee hee, violence is funny when the victim is a man!"

I'm almost loathe to get into a discussion about it, because it seems like it should be obvious to anyone with half a brain, but apparently it's not, so I guess maybe we should examine the situation being described by the poster?

Let's start by reading what the sign says. I don't think that feministing's translation is quite accurate. The English version of the sign reads:

Warning! Women defend themselves! If you leer at, catcall, or touch a woman, take into account that you might be loudly ridiculed, have a glass of beer poured over you, or be slapped in the face. Therefore, we strongly advise you to refrain from such harrassment!

Women, migrants, homeless people, transgender people, gays and lesbians are often victims of assaults. Don't look away, intervene!

So, what we're talking about are cases of harrassment. We're talking about a case where a woman is being sexually assaulted. I think that the sign makes it pretty obvious that it's not talking about cases where a guy asks for someone's number- it's aimed at guys who're threatening women and assaulting them, and then gives a warning of the sorts of responses that such actions could have- which could range from being publicly ridiculed up through physical retaliation.

So, how, exactly, are the men this poster describes victims? If you're assaulting someone, and they hit you back, you become the victim of the story?

I don't think so.

As is frequently the case in a thread like that, there are a number of "But... but... what about men?!" sorts of comments that came up. The first question raised was "Isn't this a double standard? Why is it okay for women to hit men but not for men to hit women?!"

A number of men seem to have read the poster as advocating violence against men, or as saying that it's okay for women to hit or assault men just for looking at them. I think that's an inappropriate and flawed reading of the poster.

First of all, the poster's main call to action was for people to intervene when they see someone being assaulted. It's not telling people that they should hit or pour beer on people, it's telling people to stop ignoring violence against women. The opening section isn't a call to action. It doesn't say "Women, pour drinks on men!" It's an attempt to subvert the typical warnings about sexual assault. Usually you read "Women, be careful! Don't wear short skirts! Don't show cleavage! Don't drink! Don't! Don't! Don't!" This poster subverts that and puts the warning wear it belongs- on the people doing the assaulting.

The idea is simple: if you're the sort of person who sexually assaults women, you should be the one getting a warning, not the women you're attacking. If you're the sort who gropes women, you should expect a response. Women shouldn't expect to get assaulted.

As another person pointed out, as well, there's a parallel structure involved: The various offenses are lined up in parallel with responses that are proportional in nature. If you're staring at a woman in a threatening fashion, it's completely appropriate for her to ridicule you over it. If you're being verbally threatening and harrassing someone, getting a drink thrown at you doesn't really seem out of proportion to me, and if you escalate it by touching, groping, or otherwise physically attacking someone, I think your victim is absolutely within her rights to hit you back.

The intentional mischaractorization by some readers is completely over the top. Take this choice response:

Sweet. The next time a woman stupidly stares at me, talks rubbish, or otherwise irritates me I get to dump a beer over her head and hit her in the face? Of course not.

Obviously, this get placed in the "women are children" category as women have tantrums, throw things, and hit people when they are irritated because they are actually little girls without self-control and are not expected to behave like reasonable adults. Brings to mind the wifey trowing pots and pans stereotype.

I've heard that you get out of a piece whatever you bring to it, and it's pretty clear that some of the people reading that poster are coming to it with a big chip on their shoulders. What other explanation could there be for reading a poster like that as a call for women to hit people because they're "irritated" and not as a call not to harrass women?

And then, halfway through, you get some of the really great stuff. I'm always fond of the "I'm going to take my toys and go home" argument, personally:

If you want men as allies you need to convince us that you're actually for the issues and are not just going to knee-jerk defend females accused of sexual harassment, domestic violence, or whatever.
David Gest? Ryan Haddon? It really doesn't matter whether these cases make up 33% or .033% of the total - if you want more "good guys" as allies, you need to do more to convince them/us that you're not going to be condoning the issues you're advocating when the alleged assailant is a woman. (Which is how I read this ad, grammatical attempts to explain it notwithstanding).

You know, domestic violence and assault are serious issues, and it's never okay to attack someone. That being said, it's intellectually dishonest to pretend that a poster warning that victims of assault might strike back is advocating or encouraging domestic violence- particularly when we're talking about a group who disproportionately suffers the effects of sexualized violence, while perpetrating a vast minority of said violence.

In other words: No, saying that women victims of assault might strike back is not the same as saying that it's okay for women to beat up men.

I find the argument that feminists have some obligation to make nice with men like this really annoying, and somewhat confusing. By the time this comment was posted, there had been dozens of attempts to explain and clarify interpretations of the poster. It must have been stated a dozen times, at least, that nobody was advocating for violence against men, or justifying domestic violence. What more was this person looking for? Personally, I'm not really interested in allies who are conditional in that way. If the only reason you care about sexual assault is because women are nice to you, and because they're very clear not to say things that might threaten you? Well, you're not really much of an ally then, are you?

You can't be too awfully interested in social justice if the conditions for your participation are "people never say things that make me uncomfortable and they're always very nice to me."


Cara said...

So, how, exactly, are the men this poster describes victims? If you're assaulting someone, and they hit you back, you become the victim of the story?

I don't think so.

Sigh. If only.

Brooklynite said...

One thing about this comment you quoted:

The next time a woman stupidly stares at me, talks rubbish, or otherwise irritates me I get to dump a beer over her head and hit her in the face?

Most of us, male or female, don't think of physically repelling a harasser as something we "get" to do. Most of us don't walk around looking for opportunities to hit people in the face with impunity.

The fact that this guy sees hitting people in the face as a pleasure that's being denied him on the basis of his gender tells us everything we need to know about him.

humbition said...

The comments at Feministe about the beer garden poster were closed when I read it. And now I have read about the West Village case when I had been avoiding it; and Jena too. Since I'm new commenting here I'll introduce myself as a man.

Frankly I thought the German poster reproduced at Feministing did not advocate anything stronger than the kind of slap in the face that women would give men in '40s Hollywood movies, a Bette Davis slap which would be more of a social embarrassment than anything else. I actually find it refreshing that the poster warns of direct actions that the women might take against their harassers, rather than the violation of a rule or law (which it no doubt is as well). In other words, you are not [merely] going against rules or principles you might think of as "politically correct," you are being offensive to this person, right here, in front of you and you have to take her into account because she might act against you. I am in principle in favor of this kind of agency. It is not claiming the rights pertaining to victims, the "victim consciousness" that we hear about so much, but instead it is refusing to be a victim in the first place. My mother used to say, your rights stop at my nose.

The tack the "what about the menz" commentators take on the Feministing site is such an odd one to me. It's not the conservative argument that I think would be more interesting to deal with. You'd think they would say, "hey, you know how legalistic you college-educated people sometimes get about how hitting is always assault and it's wrong; well, there are some cases and contexts where it's not so absolutely wrong in the situation, and we need to get back to common sense on this sort of thing." This would be a conservative invoking of custom and practice against highfalutin upper-middle-class rule-rigidity. A discussion on those grounds would be interesting.

But this bunch isn't going to try that tack at all. Instead they invoke for themselves this very legalistic absolutism of the letter of the law. I thought this sort of literalism is the kind of thing conservatives used to complain about. But we aren't dealing with conservatives, we're dealing with backlash. And we see it with the lesbians in the Village and in Jena too.

Hitting is hitting and bad is bad. You lectured us this way in school and so we'll throw it right back at you. And yes, particularly if we can enforce this against people with little power; and what did you say about provocation? sorry, not listening, Zero Tolerance, gotcha!

Butter doesn't melt in their backlash mouths, does it? There is no serious argument, no intellectual honesty, no. A Bette Davis slap against a beer garden harasser, a confrontation against a menacing New York harasser, youthful fights happening in the shadow of nooses and guns reminding us of the worst of the old era -- but no, kids, we'll get you if you don't play nice, it's the letter of the law for you. "Liberals" thought they could use the letter of the law to change us, but we too can use those tools, we've repaired the Master's house, it's looking stronger than ever. Such is the voice of backlash.

As for us, progressives, this is a wake up call. We have to look at social reality and sometimes the obsessive focus on the letter of the law obscures this. I am sorry that America has lost the ability to see the social dimension of things that happen. We have all got to learn to see the bigger picture.

humbition said...

You know, if my last comment was unclear -- I suspect it was -- then I would be happy to rewrite it to make my points more clearly.

I don't know that it's really a conservative value that sometimes people fight against bullies, even physically, and that this is an understandable human reaction and sometimes even right.

I don't know that it's necessarily a liberal thing to do to proclaim from a high horse that Fighting Is Always Wrong, Children.

Obviously today this latter message has been co-opted by a hypocritical strain of the Right.

Who only use it against people with not much power, of course.

But since the civil rights movement we progressives have tended to think that abstract laws and principles are on our side, and that appeals to community values, culture, and custom are conservative things.

Well, now the conservatives have taken command of the laws and principles, too. All your laws are belong to us, so to speak. And they are enforcing them hypocritically.

Forcing us progressives, none too soon, back onto looking at the human reality of people's lives rather than a rulebook.

SarahMC said...

It's so delightful when men demand to be treated like kings in exhange for basic human kindness.
"We can't get on board unless you do X, Y, and Z for us." Gee thanks.
Because defending women in the face of sexual assault, violence and harassment is only worthwile if men get something out of it.