Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Men and Women in Public Space

The outrage du jour is tired, tedious, and old-fashioned, however dressed-up it might be in new language. The "Open Source Boob Project," for all its claim to hipness, once again figures women's bodies as property (a practice commonly known as sexual objectification). The point is not sex--it never is--but the terms on which women negotiate (or are allowed to negotiate) public space. It's the same issue that arose when the POTUS put his hands on the German Chancellor at a high-level public function. Do white men figure themselves as property? The thought never even crosses their minds.

There've been moments in my life when I've felt such rage at experience a constant stream of groping, leers, and insolent remarks that I've found it almost impossible to resist the urge to knee every one of the jerks in the groin. In my mid-twenties, the term "sexual harassment" and the theorization that accompanied it didn't yet exist. It was a constant feature of my life, though, and I had long understood that its point was humiliation of girls and women, to demonstrate to them that in public spaces and institutions they have no right or expectation to bodily privacy-- which white men, of course, do. (Needless to say, I had learned that this was also true in private spaces-- at home, where family members or their friends could infringe on that privacy with ease.)

For centuries, the attitude has been that a woman out in public without an appropriate male to protect her is fair game. Feminists' insistence that they don't want or need owner/protectors seems not to have made a dent in that attitude. And so, in my mid-twenties, finding myself sexually harassed by the professor I TA'd for, I had two choices. (These days I'd have three choices. But since we did not have the term "sexual harassment" back then, my university, not surprisingly, had no policies for dealing with it.) So I could go to either my advisor (the harassing professor's sworn enemy) or the chair of the department for help, or I could handle it myself. Both the chair and my advisor were men. I couldn't stand the thought of begging their protection and thus being treated as a piece of property the harasser was poaching on, and so I decided to handle it myself by replacing his public acts of aggression with my own.

In short, I humiliated him as he was lecturing and caused him to falter and then end his lecture prematurely. It was a risky ploy. For one thing, if he hadn't been so insecure, he could have called my bluff and made me look bad in front of our students. For another thing, he was on my doctoral exams committee. The result, however, was excellent. Though he expressed biterness at my undermining him before our students, the sexual harassment ceased--even the lascivious leers. When a few months later I took one of his courses, he made a practice of firing a dozen or more random questions at me during each class meeting. Although this arguably constituted a form of hazing, I much preferred it to sexual harassment and suspected that my taking it without complaint would make my prelims go easier. (It did.)

The lesson? Rage is the appropriate response to outrageous beahvior. I don't think any other experience of sexual harassment I've had so drove home the point to me that it's all about whether a man thinks a woman has the same place in public space as a man does. Sf conventions, like universities, are public spaces. Although here in the US feminists have forced the issue of allowing women entry into public space (and this was certainly one of the most significant achievements of second-wave feminism), we haven't yet managed to change the terms on which women are allowed to negotiate public space.

Links to a few of the many feminist posts on yesterday's outrage:

mystickeeper's I find it highly amusing that his username is ferret
Rachelmanjia's "A proposal to crush the button-enabled sexual harassment proposal"
Micole's post
Liz Henry's The Internets Work How They're Supposed To"
Misia's A Modest Proposal: the Open Source Swift Kick to the Balls Project"
Oursin's The ick just keeps on a-coming and Invizbel soshul contrakt
Vito_Excalibur This Is Not a Joke. This Is Not Satire. This Is Not a Test.


Josh said...

Lord. The guy took an individual woman's assertion of agency and derived a completely back-asswards lesson from it. Ick. That says to me that her "offer" was so threatening in the autonomy it implicitly claimed for her that he had to reframe it to serve patriarchal power.

Timmi Duchamp said...

What an awesome insight, Josh. Explains a lot.

oursin said...

I think the post of mine you meant to link to was this one:
though the other one is certainly pertinent

Nancy Jane Moore said...

Something glitched on the link to Liz Henry's post. Try clicking here. I think she summed up the whole incident very neatly, including the fact that the outrage racing around the Net did an excellent job of shutting this down.

Timmi Duchamp said...

Thanks, Nancy. I don't know why blogspot does that so often to my links. I've corrected it. And thanks, oursin, I've added your previous post (which I somehow missed).

I have to say, it will be really interesting if vito_excalibur & others do publicly confront icky behavior at conventions...