Thursday, May 17, 2007

What I'm reading

Uppity Women and Sexual Harrassment in the Physical Sciences
Catherine Price of writes about the recently-published research of Jennifer Berdahl on sexual harassment in the workplace. Going against the common wisdom, Berdahl concludes that it's not the most stereotypically feminine women who are most likely to be harassed.

She asserts that actually the opposite is true -- women who act like men are the ones who get the most harassment. She thinks that this is because most sexual harassment has little to do with sexual desire; instead, it's used to keep women in their place.

The idea that sexual harassment is about control and power is not that surprising. What's interesting about Berdahl's hypothesis is that it means that the women who act the most like men -- which Berdahl defines as showing stereotypical characteristics like assertiveness, independence and dominance -- are the most likely to be harassed. She calls this phenomenon "gender harassment" and defines it as "a form of hostile environmental harassment that appears to be motivated by hostility toward individuals who violate gender ideals rather than by desire for those who meet them."

The (new) page of consent
Noticing that the American justice system seems to regard women as existing in a perpetual state of compliance, I posed a little thought experiment on the subject of rape. What I said was this: consider if lack of consent were the default position. Imagine if all women were considered a priori by the courts to have said “no.” In fact, “consent” would not apply to women at all; we would exist as inviolable entities, human beings with full personal sovereignty, the way men do now. We could have as much heterosex as we want, but the instant we don’t want, the dude becomes, in the eyes of the law, a rapist. This shifts to onus onto the dude not to be a barbarian. He can avoid jail by not having sex at all, and significantly reduce his risk of jail by ceasing to rape, prod, cajole, shame, or nag

An Autopsy of Sexual Harrassment or its all in the details
After I had finished fuming and imaging revenge scenarios (okay, I haven’t actually finished doing either of those things yet), I started to pull apart the details of this little encounter. What made me think was a comment from my partner. When I described the first part of the conversation (coffee query), he asked if Student 1 had stood up to ask if I would partake of caffeinated beverages with him. Confused at my partner’s question, I said no. Student 1 had stayed where he was, on the grass, surrounded by his mates. Then the significance of such a small detail began to dawn on me. If a Person A wanted to ask Person B for a coffee, A could at least get off his backside to speak to B, and better still ask B away from all A’s mates, making the situation more comfortable, and refusal easier. My immediate reaction to Student 1’s question was one of anxiety, as I was afraid of being overly rude, and hurting his feelings in public. It didn’t occur to me that a) the public setting made it more difficult for me because of politeness, and b) that when a stranger asks you for a coffee you don’t owe it to him to spare his pride. So his feelings were at that point more important to me than my integrity in refusing; I could not just say ‘no’, and leave it at that. I did not consider that I didn’t need an excuse to say ‘no’.

Democracy is Hell
Iraq today is even worse for women: more repressive, more violent, more lawless. As if car bombs and suicide bombers weren't horrific enough, criminal gangs, religious militias and death squads kidnap, rape and kill with impunity, with special attention to women professionals, students and rights activists. According to the United Nations' most recent quarterly report on human rights in Iraq, domestic violence and "honor" killings are on the rise.