It’s a breezy mid-May morning up in Northern Utah, and I’m standing at the edge of a wheat field enjoying bird calls and fresh air smelling of green growing wheat stalks. I’m waiting to meet up with a client for work to conduct their annual inspection. I’ve never met the main contact for this company, just corresponded by email before meeting here in what is basically the middle of the nowhere most of the way to the Idaho border.
I hear the rumble of an engine and turn toward the end of the road to see a truck coming to meet me. In it are two men. One introduces himself as my contact, and he introduces the other as his brother. I get in the truck and we begin a tour of the farm.
So much has been written about Mormon purity culture in Utah, and it’s almost difficult to know where to start unpacking and explaining what’s going on in this meeting. Most commonly we talk about the purity culture in Utah from the standpoint of keeping students ignorant of their own bodies and sexuality or just flat out slut shaming women. Those are important elements certainly, but what is at play here is both uniquely tied into Mormon sexual culture and very, very old.
Simply put, I represent the medieval demonic temptress who wants nothing more than to destroy men’s vulnerable souls. My very presence is read as sexually contaminating the morality and reputation of the man I’m here to meet for business. And that is why he brought protection: another man to chaperone and preserve religiously based moral authority and honor.
When I return to the office a female coworker asks me who the client brought with him. Because she knows. Because he did it to her last year, as have many of our other clients. Another customer I met with last week also made sure I wasn’t alone with him. They don’t bring along chaperones to meet with our male inspectors. It’s always about our presence being dangerous, so they’ll defend themselves in ways no one talks about or acknowledges.
A couple years ago, a male inspector was in training to do these kinds of inspections and needed to shadow someone experienced on an inspection. That inspector refused to carpool in a fleet vehicle with my female coworker for a commute that was over an hour long because “he is a bishop.” Her potential sexual availability him (despite being married and being universally professional) is taken as a given, one that has to be protected against because his reputation can’t survive it. There is no question of what seems obvious to people unfamiliar with the overwhelming influence of Mormonism on Utah question: that men and women can work together professionally without sex being implied.
His religious misogyny was given accommodation and two vehicles were allocated to send two employees from the main office to the site. His religious authority allowed him to refuse to work following the same rules as everyone else and let him implicitly state my coworker was a sexual threat to him. By allowing this, management reinforced that my coworker’s dignity and professionalism are beneath his comfort.
The truly exhausting and angering part of this from my point of view is that there actually is an issue of potential risk and safety at play when I meet with clients out in the field, and it is given no consideration or value whatsoever by these Very Concerned men. Mine. The gender safety gap is something inextricably tied into male privilege and rape culture, but it’s impossible for me not to factor the potential vulnerability of driving far into empty spaces without so much a nearby occupied house to meet with a man I have never met alone. My feelings or comparative vulnerability weren’t even considered at this appointment. The client decided not just to meet me on his land far away from anywhere with indeterminate cellular reception, but to meet me with another man I don’t know and didn’t know was coming. If he had considered it, would he have made the same decision to bring another male stranger?
I’m not actively afraid and don’t think I’m likely to be harmed, of course. But that initial hesitation is still here. It’s the same reason I make sure before I go out in the field I tell my spouse where I’m going to be, even if I say it halfway as a joke. The same reason I text to check in at lunchtime afterward. Just to be safe. Because in Utah, one of the crime rates that’s universally higher than the national average is sexual violence. I can’t forget that when I’m living my life here in Utah. It colors everything I do in subtle ways.
When I initially talked about this on Twitter, a man outside of Utah was confused why the chaperone the client brought along wasn’t a woman. Elizabeth Mitchell (@Pixelfish on Twitter) replied first, explaining that this would mean he would be alone with the female chaperone before and after meeting me. Which is true, although it’s also more than that as well; in a lot of ways, bringing another man along for when you’re going to be alone with a women is an extension of companionship on an LDS mission.
Adult men in the general congregation in Mormonism are considered to have religious authority purely due to their gender. Men who would be considered laymen in other religions are considered to have priesthood and that is also part of what’s happening here. Bringing along a male peer is bringing along someone with moral and religious authority who watches your behavior to help you behave righteously. If you brought a woman, you wouldn’t have that aura of upright & moral behavior to counter any sense of sexual tainting by working with a woman.
The most frustrating thing about this is I’m not even surprised anymore when this happens to me. This is my life as a woman in Utah. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to quietly accept sexist garbage as inevitable.
For the last several weeks, I’ve felt growing jealousy toward those friends and acquaintances who have had the opportunity to attend the second Women In Secularism conference. I felt that twinge of envy die back considerably watching the twitter and liveblogging reactions of surprise and disappointment when the conference kicked off with the remarks of Ron Lindsay, who is the president and CEO of the conference’s sponsoring organization, the Center for Inquiry. Now while I still wish I could have been present for those panels, in many ways I’m relieved I have not given (for my budget, considerable) funds to an organization whose highest leadership seems to fundamentally not understand the purpose of something that means so much to me.
I’d also like to extend my greatest sympathies and support to Melody Hensley, whose task in successfully managing this event has been made harder and harder by the management of her own organization. It is absolutely not her fault that this has become disastrously mismanaged, and my admiration for her dedicated work has only grown in the face of this “PR disaster” as she described it last night (can’t direct link to the comment, which is #40 on this latest doubling down by Lindsay). Ms. Hensley said,
Half of the Slymepit have shown up to support these series of blogs. These are not our supporters or donors. They are harassers and sexists.
I’m completely embarrassed. I feel betrayed that that my allies are upset and the people that wish me ill will are cheering this on. I wish we could go back in time and delete this PR disaster.
I agree. And while I’ve watched this in increasing frustration, the thought occurred to me that maybe Ron Lindsay never actually read far enough to understand what’s supposed to happen after someone with privilege shuts up long enough to listen to the experience of someone who has a better view of the social and legal deck stacking in society. In the hopes that he can learn to listen long enough for understanding, I’ll try to give him a concrete example of how this is supposed to work.
Privilege is one of those remarkably sneaky things where it’s inherently part of having privilege that it is hard to see how you are benefited and how a thousand little things create the microaggressions that wear others down every single day. It can be something as simple as not having choices created with you in mind because you are not considered the default.
A while back, Greta Christina wrote about something that drives her crazy. (Me too!) When organizers for events order merchandise, somehow it seldom seems to occur to them to order t-shirts in women’s styles for their female attendees.
Here’s where the shutting up and listening portion comes in: my spouse, after hearing about this concern, one he never would have known about had he not been receptive enough to listen and learn (the shutting up and listening part), realized he’s seen this done on a particularly egregious scale in his own professional life.
Spouse’s office has to do with programs that feed children, and so disproportionately deals with women rather than men. Far more women than men attend their conferences and training sessions. Yet every single time they’ve ordered shirts for these, events, they’ve ordered
unisex men’s t-shirts. How is it that for years, it had never occurred to anyone to order women’s style shirts for these events when they vastly comprise those they work with?
Simply put, shutting up long enough to be receptive to a criticism of Greta Christina’s, spouse has learned something he can be aware of and implement that will make one less message these women will receive in their day that men are the default and nothing can be done about it. It makes their lives slightly better and costs my spouse nothing but a moment of consideration during the planning stages of events. This isn’t about silencing. It’s about caring enough to learn how to be a better person.
Now I realize that Lindsay does not believe his opening remarks were primarily about how he fears privilege is used to silence critics. He may certainly not have intended his speech to launch Women in Secularism to tell attendees, speakers and panelists to say that asking others to check their privilege is a silencing tactic, but that is what he did.
I’ve read his prepared remarks. They open by discussing religious traditions of deliberately disempowering and silencing women, move on to telling this audience he does not welcome them because there’s too much work to do, then express concern over what kind of feminist foundation is being built in the secular movement before they get directly into criticism of the critically important concept of privilege. Your remarks are about how uncomfortable you are with how many of us use privilege as a key tool to educate and change behavior. There is a clear line of reasoning (that you yourself cite!) that links the opening statements of religious silencing tradition with the straw-stuffed explanation of privilege checking in your remarks.
Mr. Lindsay, I ask you to take this opportunity to stop, listen, reflect and learn. Stop and consider that the criticism of your remarks came from your own hosted panelists as well as attendees at at the conference while the loudest applause you are getting is coming from the very people who want to tear down the work of Women In Secularism and the dedicated efforts of those in your own organization.
There is a cultural predisposition that when a rape is reported in the news or discussed in any public forum, inevitably, someone (sometimes multiple someones) will decide to demonstrate the Just-World fallacy and want to discuss the actions, behaviors and appearance of the victim. And while ostensibly claiming to only blame the rapist for raping someone, all choices made by the victim are evaluated for how “risky” they were. These people will often say that they’re not saying the victim was responsible, per se, but that maybe we should make sure that women know what social rules and mores they should follow to prevent the absolute rarest of rapes, the stranger rape. (As if women weren’t already deluged with these sorts of rules and guidelines; believe me, women already fear rape even if they don’t logically examine whether their fears are rational.)
Sickeningly, not even 11 year old girls are immune. And after yet another example on Skepchick of how this sort of discussion can be derailed into “rapes are going to happen, so shouldn’t women be more careful” I wanted to make clear how vehemently I disagree with this shit. Rape “prevention” advice is not only not helpful (because it doesn’t protect women from the most common type of assault), but it supports the idea that there are circumstances where rapes are more likely, more normal and implicitly, more acceptable.
I want people to stand up and say that rape is never normal and never the victim’s fault.
The ease with which individuals attempt to ascribe some burden of responsibility to the victim of a rape makes me absolutely crazy. I would like to shed some light on why you cannot ascribe any degree of responsibility to rape victims without ending up encouraging the climate wherein rapes are excused.
The arguments of “prevention” always center on seeming like reasonable rather than extreme precautions to avoid an unpleasant result (i.e. rape). However, what these pieces of advice actually do is severely limit the choices, freedoms and dignity of women by tightening the confines within which we are allowed to operate. They create a framework of fear that we should live our lives in to avoid the unlikely event of a stranger rape.
It comes down to risk/benefit, how we all live our lives. Is there a risk in taking medication to cure illness? Is it worth commuting on the freeway to a better job even though driving is risky? Is it worth the incredibly small risk of stranger rape to pursue joys, individuality and life experiences as you choose? Or is it worth living in a cage of fear when you are far more likely to be hurt by those you know and love?
It is not.
To claim that rules governing behavior (just because you have the misfortune to be born into a less privileged group) to prevent the evil, free actions of another is the rankest kind of sexist crap. Women are not entitled to less of life’s fullness because of assholes.
Moreover, when you try to make these “prevention strategies” public, you signal to rapists and would-be rapists that those women who do not follow these rules are more vulnerable, more “reckless” and that these victims bear some burden for what you can do to them. That you will have more sympathy for their attackers because of the “temptation” to rape they experience.
When you promote these “rape prevention” tools, you are supporting the system rapists rely on to excuse their crimes. You are not being pragmatic.
So the next time someone starts to tell you about how women just need to take precautions, don’t let it slide. Help break down the attitudes that allow this sort of rationalization and rape apologetics by speaking out.
I apologize to my LGBT friends, because this post is going to be terribly heteronormative, dealing with cis men and cis women because that is how the exercise was framed. Now, the fact that the premise excludes all these groups by definition is itself worth talking about, but is much more than I can get into with this post.
There is an ongoing kerfuffle over a panel at the American Athiests’ conference and the fairly tone-deaf responses that have followed after accusations of sexism. There are several contentions involved here and I would like to deal with just one of them (I have a life). I have not yet seen a video of the talk itself, which I believe has not yet been made available, but even when this “Million Dollar Challenge” was framed by those who have used it, it seems fairly flawed. And certainly I can’t come up with a good reason for including it in a serious discussion, as it provides almost no useful information.
The “million dollar challenge” has been described as follows*:
To the men: I will bet a million dollars (if I win you pay me a million if you win I pay you), that by midnight tonight you cannot find a woman [Author’s note: the men in the audience were purportedly told to look around the room to identify a such a woman in the audience, which adds another level of potential discomfort to an already needless exercise] to have consensual sex with you… but these are the rules… she must be someone you have never before met, no drugs, alcohol, money, promises of love, anything can be exchanged – all you can do is ask her if she would willingly go and have sex with you. That’s it. One question…
Then ask if any of the men think they could really win that bet? No takers
Then I offer the same bet to the women in the room… and ask do you think you could take the bet and win…
Most of the women agree that they could.
Today at lunch I had three separate moments where sex-based assumptions came into play. It’s always interesting to me that when I encounter situations like these, none of the actions are intended maliciously or even consciously. They come from a deeper internalized sense of gender-based heteronormative stereotypes that are in many ways harder to combat or challenge than overt sexism.
The first is one that is at least in part a regional expectation: children. I don’t have any, despite approaching my 28th birthday and being married for over three years. We aren’t ready or willing to have kids yet, and that isn’t likely to change in the immediate future.
The server taking our order today thought I looked like someone she’d seen dropping off grandchildren at school. Which isn’t to say that she assumed I had children solely because of my age, but that she thought she recognized me. The phrasing of her question was interesting, however, in that she didn’t preface the question in this way, but instead asked if my daughter attended a specific grade school. Not, “You look like someone I see dropping off my grandkids at school” but assuming that since I’m old enough to have kids, it is normal to assume I do. I told her we didn’t have any children, but that I have sometimes been told I resemble someone strongly (which is not uncommon for most people, I think).
But the assumption that I have kids or will soon have kids seems to pop up much more often now and frankly it bugs the hell out of me. Perhaps because I had the sort of parents that I believe made deliberate attempts to keep me from assumptions and use reason as much as possible, but I never remember assuming anyone had kids simply because they looked old enough (and specifically old enough for Utah). Some coworkers at Thrack’s office have either asked if I was pregnant or simply assumed and had to be corrected. (Let me tell you, that just does fucking wonders for my self-image and feelings about my weight, although I don’t know if their question is related to the weight I’ve put on in the last few years or not.)
With the demographics of my city and state, I am not surprised, precisely, by presumptions about my uterine productivity. Just comparing the age pyramids from the 2000 census of Salt Lake County and the national average is…suggestive:
The second issue is related both to my weight and to my sex. Diet fucking soda. I hate it; the only thing I can taste in it is aspartame. Thrack and I ordered exactly the same beverage with our lunch, a lime coke. Can you guess which of us got the wrong thing? If you guessed me, you get a cookie. Despite each of us clearly ordering a lime coke, mine was a diet lime coke and his was just what he ordered. I know from a marketing and consumer standpoint, women are a huge marketshare for the product, which is fine, if that’s what you order. Now, maybe the server assumed because I ordered soup and salad that I would be watching my weight (it just sounded good at the time), but you never, ever assume something like this. The fact that we both ordered the same beverage, but my choice was simply assumed by default to mean the more feminine, weight-conscious version is nothing short of maddening. It sounds like a trifling complaint, but it reflects a deeper assumption about my sex and autonomy. This was not an isolated occurence; tt’s actually happened to me at this same restaurant before with just as little malicious intent.
The last little jolt was as we were leaving, and someone (again) thought they recognized me. The man involved thought I was someone he knew, and wanted to know my surname. When that didn’t jog his memory, he wanted to know what my last name was before I was married, assuming that if I was married, I would have changed my name. Now, this is a debated feminist issue that carries with it all sorts of complications. I have my reasons for deciding to change mine when we married, but not one of them was because it’s what you’re supposed to do. I sometimes wish more women would make the decision either way without taking to account the expectation that they are supposed to. It sometimes drives me crazy that after all the strives and greater visibility women have achieved for equality, the social and familial conflict of “keeping your name” is still the fodder for media. How is this still a controversial decision or frankly, anyone’s fucking business but the two individuals getting married?
It’s a greater issue than simply bad service or holdovers of coverture, however, when people make gender-based assumptions, comments or judgements. Because is reflects a whole set of biases and prejudices that hurt both the individual’s wishes being second-guessed or undervalued as well as the one holding those ideas. Inequity hurts everyone, and this has been self-evident to me for as long as I have had the capacity to recognize its existence. My mother once asked me why I cared so much about LGBT rights, since I am not myself a part of that range of minorities; while I struggled to put it into words at the time, I find I can’t make myself not care about injustice. My whole worldview spins around a core belief in the base value of human dignity and respect. By not recognizing internalized biases that devalue individuals based on (real or perceived) group identity, we are all demeaned.
Oh and one last point, as always, internalized inferiority is real. You don’t get to be exempt from sexism “because you’re a woman.” There, I think I’ve done enough griping for oh, probably a month or so.