Sunday, November 12, 2017

Fearing for men’s feelings: Aggression, abuse, and embarrassment

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That men would ever show women their penis and/or masturbate in front of them as an act of power and sexual aggression is not something I remember having to discover.

I don’t recall getting to discover or learn this fact because I was five-years-old when a boy showed me his penis on the playground at daycare. I remember, even then, already, even with other kids around, even knowing nothing about gender and power, feeling embarrassed and uncomfortable. How did I know to feel this way?

Meanwhile, in this same era, I recall getting admonished by a daycare worker for saying the word penis.

Meanwhile, in this same era, I recall daycare workers passing off boys being inappropriate and invasive towards girls as “childhood curiosity.” Well, at the time I didn’t understand. Later, that’s how I learned they explained it.

That men and boys would do this to women and girls isn’t something we usually get to discover, in a shocking or alarming way, because this insidious dynamic simply becomes known, slowly and quietly, through daily actions, aggressions big and small, and immersion in a culture informed by patriarchy, victim-blaming, and veneration for men’s feelings.

No matter what happens, no matter what they do, you are not to sexually embarrass the man. At five-years-old, having barely learned anything about gender and sex and power, I knew to be embarrassed that a kid was running around showing his penis to other kids, notably girls, on the playground. Our culture had already taught me that. This indoctrination, of knowing to be afraid to embarrass men, doesn’t go away easily.

In response to the admitted revelations of Louis C.K.’s abusive behaviour, feminist writer Clementine Ford succinctly summed up the experience of women assessing and trying to prevent escalation in threatening situations in a series of tweets, and then in this article:

“Women are taught from such a young age to preserve men's egos, particularly when it comes to sex.

A lot is said about women going along with certain behaviours out of shock or fear. These are both true statements. Sometimes we can't believe that what's happening is happening (such as a man suddenly masturbating in front of us). Other times we are genuinely fearful for our safety and so plan our response according to what will prove less harmful to us (how do I stop this man suddenly masturbating in front of me from escalating his behaviour and physically harming me).
Women might unwillingly stay in rooms with men committing egregious or sordid acts of abuse for reasons related to their own shock or fear, but one reason we definitely stay in those rooms is to preserve the male ego. We have spent our whole lives learning not to embarrass men, and our education has been so effective that not even them repeatedly embarrassing us seems to be able to shake those lessons off.

C.K.’s admitted actions get to the horrifying reality of this issue: that men think they can get away with abuse and aggression while women have been socialized to
1) fear for their safety for good reason,
2) immediately assess threatening scenarios to attempt to calculate the safest (for their bodies, for their minds, for their careers) way out or way through the situation while,
3) working through disbelief, self-doubt, and ingrained fear of embarrassing the perpetrator.

Wondering why a woman wouldn’t leave, “walk away” or “fight back” shows a lack of understanding of how deeply ingrained socialization under patriarchy is, how often women are forced to do a million, split-second calculations in their minds to figure out the best way to endure an abusive or harassing situation, and how terrified we were taught to be of embarrassing men, let along exposing actual abuse and misconduct against a powerful person amidst the expected reaction of shaming, victim-blaming, and doubt.

Most women have a private list of instances in which they've assessed the situation and, whether consciously or not, made decisions based on being afraid to embarrass a man.

And while we’re considering the gravity of actions and grappling with whether or not something was “that bad,” it’s crucial that we not hierarchalize sexual misconduct and gender-based harassment. I know, in my own mind, there is an automatic process that occurs, in which I attempt to understand or assess the severity of something. It's part of how we process and understand what is happening.

But I’ve come to believe that there is a line that is crossed when a person takes advantage of power, privilege, and position to hurt, intimidate, or abuse women. Whether they cross it by “a little” or “a lot” doesn’t matter. Abuse of power is abuse of power. 

C.K. felt both physically safe as well as socially entitled to act in a sexually inappropriate manner towards women (and women colleagues). It doesn't matter if his abuse didn't have physical contact.

And while it’s disappointing to many people, especially men, who enjoyed and admired Louis C.K., to discover this icon definitely did these inappropriate and abusive actions towards women, and women colleagues he met through professional situations, I urge them to resist prioritizing their disappointment, their sense of loss over a male public figure, over considering the women who endured these experiences, and who endure experiences like this every day, for one second.

Your sense of loss is simply unimportant compared to the reinforcement of the fact that women have one more example of power abuse and sexual misconduct to add to the list.

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