Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Line Between Discomfort and Harassment

There is currently a lot of debate in the atheist blogosphere, of which I've only been vaguely attentive to, on account of my following Greta Christina's (amazing) blog, about the alleged problem of sexual harassment at skeptics conferences and in the skeptical community at large (which may not be unique to the skeptical community - on the contrary, the skeptical community may be unique in confronting the issue rather than ignoring it). Though I'm an atheist, and am skeptical by nature, I don't really absorb myself in that community, simply because I'd rather spend my time thinking about sex. So normally I'd avoid addressing an issue like this one, not least of which for the reason that I'm not familiar enough with it to make any kind of informed or authoritative statements or suggestions. But in casually reading up on some of the discussions, which touch on topics of sexual harassment and the battle between liberty and safety in the public square, there was one thing nagging at me that I felt in a unique position to address, given my background.

Naturally, the discussion is deeply rooted in feminist issues, specifically involving sexual harassment and victimization and male privilege and the male sex drive as a predatory impulse. I don't enjoy criticizing feminism, because doing so makes you seem extremely insensitive to women's issues (which I am not), but on the other hand - and as a skeptic, this should be important - feminism, like religion, is not sacred, and is not above criticism. As an arguably transgender person, who inarguably dresses like a girl in public, and frequently feels uncomfortable on account of my fears that someone might see me as a man in a dress, get offended, and decide to hurt me, I understand what it's like to go out in public and not feel entirely safe. But where I do like to argue about the behavior and attitudes people have that contribute to a paranoid, unfriendly environment, I'm careful not to let my claim to "victimization" give me an unfair advantage at the cost of other people's fundamental rights and liberties.

So, for example, if a mechanic whistles at me, that may make me feel self-conscious, but I'd be a fool to describe it as "harassment". If, on the other hand, the mechanic walked up to me and grabbed my arm because I ignored him, that's assault, plain and simple. But just because one person's form of expression makes me feel uncomfortable, doesn't mean that I have the right to suppress it. I like the idea of there being 'safe spaces' where I don't have to feel on edge, but the fact of the matter is, it's a dangerous world out there, and the public is a space that's shared by many different people with many different perspectives.

But there's another issue to all of this, and that's one that touches on ingrained sex negativity (to add to all of the ingrained misogyny flying around), and is therefore of more interest to me personally. And because the focus of the debate is all on the misogyny, the sex negativity (which is, after all, an old tradition in certain strains of feminism) gets unfairly ignored.

I'm a fan of the peace and love attitude engendered by the hippie generation, and there's a quote I've always liked that's spoken in the Woodstock film documentary (I was unfortunately not born until well after the Woodstock event, and therefore could not attend). I don't remember it word for word, but to paraphrase, it was something like this: "if you're afraid to even walk out your door, what kind of a world is that to live in?" And I absolutely agree. I think we should foster and encourage attitudes that are more tolerant of diversity, while shaming and discouraging attitudes that promote judgmentalism and conformity (even if people are, ultimately, free to hold those antisocial beliefs).

But the problem I have, as pertains to this discussion on sexual harassment, is how sexual desire is conflated as a predatory and hurtful sort of thing. I'd argue that it's a result of all the inaccurate and distorted views on sexuality that we're taught from a young age within a very sexually dysfunctional culture that values things like virginity and sexual purity. But from a feminist perspective, there's all this talk about rape and harassment and how women can't feel comfortable because men are always perving on them. Is that not how sexuality works? Why is it bad to be "perved" on anyway?

The problem is that we're conflating different things, like discomfort with harassment, and sexual compliments with insults. If you listen to the feminists, you'd think that every expression of sexual desire was tantamount to "harassment". If you're a woman, and a man expresses their sexual desire for you (in an otherwise polite manner), is that harassment just because you didn't solicit the sexual attention? If somebody bothers you for the time, is that harassment of a nonsexual variety, and are there similar legal or civil recourses against it? Is it different because we spend so much time talking about how men are pigs and perverts and predators, and so every man who pays attention to you is a potential rapist, and must be treated as such? How does that view do any more to fight 'rape culture' than men slapping themselves on the back for their sexual exploits? If you presuppose a man to be a rapist, he's more likely to prove you right in the end, not least of all because it fosters a confrontational divide between the sexes.

One of the specific instances of 'harassment' at one of these conferences given was a man carrying a camera at the end of a monopod, and the suspicion that he was or might be using it to take photos up women's skirts. Now, when you walk out into public (and if this conference isn't considered public, then we can relocate the debate to the street corner the 'monopod guy' would likely be removed to instead), you have to accept the fact that a roaming photographer might snap your picture. And that isn't illegal. As a photographer, I've been exposed to so much discrimination against people who take pictures, so this bothers me more than the average non-photographer. If you absolutely don't want anyone seeing up your skirt (or managing to get a picture up your skirt), then don't wear skirts in public. Or, at the very least, wear shorts underneath.

I'm not saying that women who wear skirts deserve to be harassed. I'm saying that your false modesty is ridiculous. When I wear skirts in public, I'm concerned about people getting a peek at my underwear. But do you know why? It's not because someone might get a thrill out of it, and that that would be 'creepy', and oh my god I would feel 'violated'. I worry that someone might get a peek who is ultra-modest, and get offended or disgusted by it, and decide to fling insults or, worse yet, fists, at me for being a slut or what have you. That is clearly harassment, possibly even to the point of assault. But how is somebody liking to see my underwear, for sexual reasons, harassment? It's a freaking compliment!

Are we so scared about rape that we can't even foster non-rapacious sexual interest? How does that patch up our ailing sexual attitudes? If 'fighting rape culture' means fighting sex, then you've already lost. You're not going to beat sex, and the more you try, and the more women who try, the more frustrated men there are going to be, with the most antisocial and aggressive among them being willing to turn to rape to take by force what they can't get by more friendlier means.

This is in no way saying that all men are willing to become rapists if denied sex, nor that all women must spread their legs and do their part to quell the raging fire of collective male desire. But sex is ubiquitous. If you really don't like sex, you're absolutely welcome to shun it. But I know a lot of people probably like it, or have the capacity to like it, but are screwing themselves and each other over because they aren't willing to be honest about their desires. Seriously.

And the culture of slut-shaming only feeds into it. Who honestly gets hurt if somebody gets a peek up your skirt? If somebody gets a picture up your skirt? If somebody gets that picture and posts it online? If somebody posts that picture online so that countless other strangers can jack off to it? There's a good chance your identity is hidden anyway, but even if it isn't, where's the harm? A tarnished reputation? Only because we permit the cultural attitude that sluts deserve to be shamed! But they don't. And the only way to fight it is to stop doing it. Flash your panties in front of a voyeur and then be proud that people are responding to your sexual allure. Better yet, do it without panties! And if anyone tries to shame you, tell them to fuck off. Or better yet, politely inform them how what they're doing is destroying the fabric of a very naturally social, naturally sexual society.

I'm just sick of all the tacit assumptions we make everyday in our casual speech that presume the dysfunctional sexual mores that have us clinging desperately to purity, asking God above to cleanse us of our sins, instead of embracing the joy and pleasure of our sexuality.

And for those who are fond of attempting to discredit every argument for liberty by conflating it with anarchy (or every argument for freedom with total chaos, to put it in less political terms), I am not saying that issues of harassment do not exist, are not important, and should not be dealt with. I am only saying to consider what does and does not constitute harassment, and not to let our desires to remain totally safe and unmolested invade the public's rights to freedom of expression and association.

I see on both sides of this debate, people talking like the issue should be ridiculously simple, and the fact that we're even arguing about it as evidence that something is fundamentally wrong (and often that the opposition is fundamentally stupid). The truth is, it's not that straightforward, and involves some very subtle distinctions, as well as some very basic misunderstandings of human nature. So it doesn't surprise me at all that it's become such a huge debate, full of contention. The solution is not to oversimplify, which will only alienate, but to embrace a more nuanced approach to the topic. One that, skeptically, evaluates one's biases and gives weight to opposing standpoints, even when they seem, at first glance, to be utterly insensitive and irrational (the opposite may prove to be the case). Because I think the ideal solution will ultimately prove to be something of a middle ground between "men deserve to rape women" and "women deserve not to be viewed with sexual interest by men".

No comments:

Post a Comment