(Cross-posted from my other blog)


Upon my return to the UK this week I was brought up-to-date on the Don Imus “hos” affair as well as the continuing saga of harassed blogger Kathy Sierra. Before I get to this, I’ll tell you a brief story of something I witnessed while shopping in my local grocery store on Friday night. It brought back memories of working in a grocery store in high school, and reminded me of the attitudes towards women that I encountered in restaurant jobs and the service industry throughout university.

Four employees were stacking shelves in the cereal aisle. Two were women and two were men. The younger woman employee – in her early twenties – stood up and turned around to get more boxes. At this point her colleague, a man in his mid-forties, said loudly to her, “you’d better wipe your bottom, you have dust all over it.” She stopped, visibly stiffened, and replied, “maybe I don’t mind it that way.” And his eyes widened and said, “I’m just saying, is all.”

What happened next is interesting. As I continued down the aisle, the young woman brushed past me and headed to the back of the store. I saw her face as I was passing. She was visibly upset, but it seemed to me like she was trying very hard not to show it. I looked back at the aisle, and the older man was laughing about her reaction with the other two employees. Their attitude was “what is she making a big deal about?”

I’m not placing the full blame on the man here. He should know better than to comment on a colleague’s rear end – whether or not there’s dust there. And he should know better than to laugh about her when she leaves. But I’m not blaming him, because he probably doesn’t have a frickin’ clue about the power relations between men and women workers, and how easily one small comment can trigger feelings of vulnerability in women, and how some women dread those moments because there is danger in speaking out. This is easily a case where the comment could be seen as “no big deal.” Women understand this – they understand the danger involved in not being understood, not being taken seriously, and being accused of hysteria, exaggeration, or weakness. Like many women, I have both witnessed and personally experienced these moments – drawing attention to a woman’s body at work, laughing at a woman’s reaction to an unwanted comment, calling a woman “frigid” or “prissy” because she doesn’t smile at a joke that isn’t funny. And the resulting feelings of powerlessness and vulnerability, which once again remind you that you’re just a woman and we’ll never look at you as an equal and you’re less than us, bitch! There is always an underlying current of disrespect towards women that many of us want to forget. And just when you finally think you’re safe and respected, someone has to remind you that no, really, you’re not safe, and you’re not respected. Unfortunately this feeling can be triggered by one small, seemingly innocent comment like “you’d better wipe your bottom.”

I’ve been thinking about this brief moment in the grocery store for two days, and am finally able to put it into context, thanks to two fabulous bloggers, Twisty and Chris.

Twisty has a super new post at I Blame The Patriarchy on the reaction to well-known blogger Kathy Sierra’s decision to quit blogging after receiving death threats. Sierra chose to walk away for her own safety – only to be accused by fellow feminists of playing the victim card. Here’s a fairly lengthy excerpt, which is absolutely essential reading on revolution and the patriarchy:


If, by some Stone Age fantasy-world turn of good fortune, our society had not been permitted by the clumsy aliens of the planet Obsterperon to devolve into a patriarchy, Kathy Sierra wouldn’t have done anything wrong. The Rutgers basketball team wouldn’t have done anything wrong. They would have just been human beings, doing whatever the fuck they felt like doing.

But it is a patriarchy. And in a patriarchy, where women are the lowest caste, a public woman is always wrong. Which is why Sierra and the basketball players and lard knows how many others over the millennia have been victimized by a gazillion patriarchy-enthusiasts. These women attempted publicly, in a society in which they are devalued as dirty jokes, hysterics, babymommas, and receptacles, to behave as sovereign human beings. It is one of the first laws of patriarchy that insubordinate females should be jeered at and harassed, from the moment they dare, as members of the sex caste, to step into the gray subumbra of proto-celebrity, to the moment the last blurb is written by some feminist blogger who criticizes their behavior as victims-who-let-the-terrorist-manbags-win.

Do you get the implications? Even the feminists — we’re as poisoned by establishmentarianist dogma as anybody else — operate under the patriarchal paradigm. Thus, even some feminists think we ought to criticize Kathy Sierra for not taking her reaming like a man. We recognize that victimhood does not equal personhood, but beyond that we’re constrained by some dim twilight denial. We can’t believe, even though it is true, that victimhood the only available outcome, so we say insane things like, “don’t act like a victim, you idiot!”

Twisty is right: feminists do wrong when we criticize women for backing down. If backing down means finding a safe place and refusing to submit oneself to continuing violence and hostility, then why not? Why continue to engage with people so detached from reality and so lacking in kindness? Why make yourself a target of death threats? It is a woman’s right to run in the opposite direction. There is something seriously wrong with a society or an ideology that requires someone to continue to “take it like a man” and continue to subject themselves to nastiness and cruelty. Yes, we need to continue to fight against oppression and harassment. But Kathy Sierra had every right to do what she needed to do to be safe. The problem here is not that Kathy Sierra didn’t “take it like a man,” but that there are no protections in place for her from the anonymous bloggers. These people who threatened her with rape and posted her personal information on the internet, all because she was a woman and she exercised her right to speak publicly, should be prosecuted. It shouldn’t be up to her to withdraw from public life – it should be the public that finds a way to protect her.

Also, Chris at Pandagon has a post on “How Not to Be an Asshole: A Guide for Men,” in response to the loser male bloggers who seem to think they know all there is to know about violence against women. These are different bloggers from those who make death threats – they’re the ones who decry the harassment while arguing that women are a bunch exaggerating, illogical whiners who should take these threats “like a man” and get on with it. Chris’ point is that these men, who downplay women’s experiences of violence and ridicule their feelings of victimhood, should shut up and actually listen for a change.

Here are a few excerpts from Chris’ post:

I see there are some kind, helpful men who are taking pains to make sure emotion doesn’t run rampant in the discussion, that unfair accusations of misogyny or characterizations of harassment statistics get spread in an understandable emotional response to a few very upsetting instances of harassment by piglike men who fall far outside the norm. Surely, these men reason, we mustn’t let these nasty experiences color our judgment of the actual events involved. Surely it helps no one to make wild and baseless charges without looking, in uber-dispassionate detachment, at the actual statistics and methodology and margin of error of the studies that show women get harassed more than men.

If you doubt that the nature of abuse and harassment women suffer, online or off, differs from that men experience, then you don’t know what you’re talking about.

If no woman in your life has ever talked to you about how she lives her life with an undercurrent of fear of men, consider the possibility that it may be because she sees you as one of those men she cannot really trust.

In short, if you’re interested in quibbling with the data or suggesting alternate interpretations of what Kos really meant when he called Kathy Sierra a lying “crying blogger,” and your goal is not to be a flaming asshole, shut the fuck up.

And when you shut the fuck up, two magical things happen:

1) You’re no longer actively contributing to the very problem you’re discussing;
2) It’s easier to listen to what the women are actually saying.

So what does this have to do with the woman at the grocery store? It’s simple: when people refuse to understand why women feel vulnerable, when they refuse to acknowledge that there may be something to that feeling, when they assume they know how a woman should react (from the ultra-serious such as death threats to small comments that may seem harmless at the time) they are contributing to the problem.

I hereby nominate Twisty and Chris for the “World’s Best People of the Week” award. Go read their posts!