Sexism: The Killer Elephant in the Room
Violence Targeting Females: Asking Better Questions and Assuming Responsibility
Posted May 17, 2010
No one wants to read this essay. I surely did not look forward to writing it, but I live and teach in Charlottesville, Virginia, a place called home for four years by Yeardley Love, a lacrosse player, stellar student, and the breath of grace in countless lives. Her life ended, literally, at the hands of a male lacrosse player. A deafening silence surrounds brutality aimed at girls and women. Though I did not know Yeardley Love, I will try to honor her and every female anywhere whose horrid fate she now shares.
Sexism is socially-constructed gender bias, creating a culture that objectifies females as mere collections of body parts. Sexism ensures a climate in which women are viewed as possessions, as property, as somehow inferior by definition, with the result that male domination of females is sanctioned. Degrading talk is cheap and ugly and usually goes unchecked: at parties, on street corners, in the workplace, in homes, online: ugly remarks give tacit approval to aggression. One group of individuals is targeted; the one trait they share is gender. Imagine tolerating and becoming accustomed to violence perpetrated against ANY other group as a group: any banker, any chef, any politician, any college student, or any athlete, all prey and fair game? Unbelievable? Yes, except when it comes to this one particular group: any female. Domestic violence shelters overflow. Moreover, the inconceivable number of unreported attacks hovers.
For some twenty years I have taught gender studies at a community college to female and male students of all ages and remarkably diverse backgrounds. What I have read and heard all-too-many times is gruesome testimony to lives shaken, sometimes ruined, perhaps ended by male violence. I always insist in any philosophy course, and emphasize it in gender studies constantly, that we make sure that we ask the right questions. What follows is my effort to ask productive questions, inspired by my students' courage, that can move us forward and let loose the elephant panting in the room.
A student writes: "Was I really drunkenly dancing around and celebrating women who work in the sex trade being beaten? REALLY? ‘Whoop that Trick'? I am feeling this outrage for a reason and I trust it." The question: What responsibility do the entertainment industry and its consumers bear when the portrayal of women in lyrics or video games becomes reality?
"My uncle would come very quietly and lure me or force me with hot, hissing threats to be quiet while he led me downstairs.... Why do children not tell? I was threatened and knew in my heart that this evil monster would do what he said: he would kill my mother.... After the abuse started I quit talking. I became very silent, strangled. Keeping the abuse secret I had to hold everything in. It was so bad that I began to forget that it ever happened, to save my sanity. So my life from childhood up until I became a mother and started to remember was led unconsciously. Then, I remembered the rape. I mourned for my childhood. I mourned for the innocent. Alone in the woods I howled with anger and grief.... It is a good struggle now. I am my own person. I make choices. I am finding my voice." The question is not about my student's youthful silence, a lovely woman whose happy children I spent time with today. The question: What about her uncle's humanity? Let's understand him. Bob Herbert reports in the New York Times in a 2006 article titled "Young, Cold and for Sale" on the booming sex trade in Atlanta where "the demand is increasing for younger and younger prostitutes." The question: Who are these men who fly in "for the day and fly back home that night"? What is a young girl's market value in 2010? Why does the pall of silence shroud child prostitution? Isn't child abuse a crime?
For the final project in his Woman and Philosophy course, a student showed me a montage of film clips from the 2008 presidential primaries. I suggested to the class that, regardless of your political persuasion, a look at the treatment of Sen. Hillary Clinton by the press was a lesson in systemic gender bias. "I didn't believe you so I checked it out," he said. We sat for an agitated fifteen minutes watching the media mock, deride, and dismiss Clinton without reference to her campaign issues. And it was across the board: conservative and liberal networks, local and national reporting, male and female professionals laughing and elbowing each other. The question: How did they keep their jobs? What if I treated my students with such arbitrary ridicule?
I have heard something akin to the following scenario from a number of former female students upon transferring to four-year colleges. "When my parents and I arrived for orientation, the female and male students were separated for their sessions. We learned all the places it was unsafe to go on campus, complete with a map. One stretch was called ‘rape alley.'" The question: What did the male students and their parents hear? It was suggested for their safety that women have a man walk with them at night. The question: From whom is the male protector saving them? Orientation classes: Insanity 101 and Ignorance 102.
I testified on behalf of a student who charged an ex-boyfriend with stalking. He was found guilty; the judge told him quite clearly that he should seek help. He chose instead to appeal the verdict. When we arrived for the hearing of the case in the higher court, my student's court-appointed lawyer bounced out to see her and announced that he had good news: The defense attorney said that his client agreed to plead guilty to assault if she would drop the stalking charge. So hooray there was no need for a trial! "But that's not what he did," his client replied, and much to her lawyer's surprise she decided to press on, albeit unnerved and unsure. This judge also upheld the guilty verdict, despite the prosecution's lack of preparation for trial. The question: What other crime would those sworn to uphold the Law treat in this dishonest way? How about trading a charge of shoplifting for a guilty plea for selling marijuana? OK?
An inordinately anxious, visibly shaking young woman sat through the first weeks of class, a class in which a male student boasted that "if I heard screams from a room with the door closed at a party I would keep walking. That's what brothers do." The question: How many people had witnessed similar comments, laughed with him, and encouraged his wicked mindset? He became red-faced and furious when challenged by me or by his outraged classmates. When the first assignment was due, he didn't show up and never reappeared. In hindsight, I realized that this was when the young woman lost her nervousness and began to participate and relax, though I thought nothing of it at the time. It was not until her final exam that I learned that he had raped her at a fraternity party two years earlier, having slipped a drug into what she thought was a soda. She had pressed charges but her family was not supportive and begged her to let it go because he was from a prominent family; eventually she ran out of money and gave up. The question: Would her family members have been silent if their car were stolen? Their house robbed? Their credit cards lost?
A few of my male colleagues, my friends, were insulting and condescending when I introduced women's studies courses at the College. "Can you earn credits in this class?" "Does it meet only on weekends?" My question: What makes you say this? Would you ask the same questions of the professor of African American Literature? "Is the only good man a dead man?" My question: Is it possible that you feel threatened, and if so, can you tell me why? Tragically, I could write a book on this topic.
These few stories come only from my experience and focus on this global issue specifically as it spirals in the U.S. It is the one completely unacceptable and inexcusable injustice that collectively and often individually we refuse to look squarely in its criminal black eye.
The questions: Do you agree that the cover of silence must be blown immediately? How can each of us combat sexism in our everyday lives? How loud can we shout? Will males join females in the fight for women's lives, in the fight for all our lives? Can we set the tired elephant free? After all, will survival of the fittest also be of the wisest?