Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Male privilege alert: Men's inviolable right to violate women's bodies

Today Gawker has a post about the alleged sexual assault of a Google employee at a tech conference by a Twitter engineer.  Gawker's headline reads "Googler accuses Twitter engineer of sexual assault on her blog."  Right there, we're off to a bad start.  Because her blog post is not, really, at all about "accusing" someone of sexual assault, but rather stating the simple fact that she was assaulted (he put his hand down her pants after she turned down his advances), naming the person who did it, and saying rather eloquently that it's part of a broader problem of guys excusing their bad behavior based on the setting:
It’s not the first time something like this has happened to me, at all. It’s not the first time it’s happened to me at a tech conference. But it is the first time I’ve spoken out about it in this way, because I’m tired of the sense that some idiot can ruin my day and never have to answer for it. I’m tired of the fear. I’m tired of people who think I should wear something different. I’m tired of people who think I should avoid having a beer in case my vigilance lapses for a moment. I’m tired of people who say that guys can’t read me right and I have to read them, and avoid giving the wrong impression.
...It is not my job to avoid getting assaulted. It is everyone else’s job to avoid assaulting me. Dozens of guys succeeded at that job, across the week. In the pub, in the stairwell, on the MARTA, in my bedroom.
One guy failed, and it’s his fault.
The commenters make the bad start even worse, by (typically) questioning her behavior (which, in a move that makes me want to give her a medal, she bravely documented), attire, and decision to name her assaulter.  The author of the Gawker article feels compelled to pull out the "Innocent until proven guilty" refrain, and laments that the victim in the case couldn't vent her trauma without naming the perp.  But why should she?  "Innocent until proven guilty" doesn't really apply to the victim in the case since, to her, there's already pretty clear-cut evidence that the person at hand is guilty.  Remember, this happened to her.  It's the legal system that's meant to reserve judgment.  Moreover, if you think it was "tasteless" of her to name the guy, or some other BS the commenters are spewing, ask yourself whether you would not do the very same thing if a crime were committed against you: If your house was broken into by a neighbor, and you wanted to blog about it, wouldn't one of your purposes surely be to warn others that this neighbor isn't to be trusted?  This is not a case of kiss and tell--it's a case of a victim, simply and without malice, documenting her assault.

As one commenter on the Gawker piece astutely put it, the author's discomfort with the naming of the alleged perpetrator had more to do with his desire to spin this story into a general trend article than with any actual identifiable issue with her behavior.  Whether news agencies should name alleged perpetrators of sexual assault based on victims' statements is an open question.  Whether victims themselves should do so (if they choose to) through any medium available to them is NOT a question.

But why are men so uncomfortable with the idea of a fellow man being called out for sexual assault?  This hullabaloo reminds me of a startling conversation I had with some friends and colleagues in Zambia.  We were discussing a friend of a friend who had grabbed a woman's breast at a party, and had a bad reputation as a result.  As with the above case, what was being discussed wasn't rape, but it was an assault on a woman's body--unwanted sexual contact.  One by one, the men in the group defended the breast-grabbing-man, insisting the incident "shouldn't follow him around" and us chicks should "let it go."  We made it very clear to them that what we were discussing wasn't some guy going too far during a makeout session and getting gently pushed away, but rather the outright, uninvited violation of a woman who made it clear she wanted no part of it.  Still, they persisted in their defense.  At one point, a singular guy stood apart from the pack and said, "I think it makes sense for him to have bad rap for the time he's here, sure."  Hearing this glimmer of sanity, we clarified, "So you don't think it's unreasonable for someone who walks up to a woman at a party and grabs her breast to be known as the 'boob-grabber' for his remaining three months in Zambia?"  The response: "Three months?!  Oh, no, I thought he was here for like a weekend.  Three months is way too long to still be punished for something like that!"

These were men who, on the surface, seemed like decent, upstanding guys.  They were aidworkers in Zambia, for goodness sake.  And yet every single one of them insisted that it was unreasonable that a man should be in any way dogged by his choice to violate a woman's body.  Both this assault, which had a humorous edge to it (the woman was not traumatized, only appalled), and the one suffered by the google writer linked to above are unlikely to ever be prosecuted.  Their perpetrators have little to fear from their actions other than a bad reputation.  And yet the gods of maleness want to insist that that price is unreasonable?  The idea that women shouldn't be allowed to use their social networks, online or otherwise, to spread the word about creeps who will likely never suffer legal consequences for their actions is absurd beyond belief, and could only be dreamed up by the collective knee-jerk brain of male privilege.  These men aren't upset over the rights of one guy named in a blog post to be "innocent until proven guilty."  They're upset because this victim speaking out about her assault threatens their inalienable, god-given right to violate women's bodies without reproach.  Welcome to the jungle, ladies.


  1. A lot of people commenting now think Noirin did the right thing by saying exactly what happened---and wow, I can't imagine doing anything else. The best we can do is keep saying how totally unacceptable it is for men to behave badly.

    I don't even understand how anyone could pretend he didn't know the difference between physical affection and sexual assault. Unless Noirin is just lying, I just totally can't imagine the man was thinking anything except: "I can get away with this." Which, with the legal protections and societal support women have now, is bullshit.

  2. Well, the thing is, if she had followed her critics' advice, he COULD HAVE gotten away with it. Everyone was basically saying the proper way for a woman to behave when she is assaulted is to quietly tell the police and then wait while they do nothing! Men DO think they can get away with grabbing women's breasts and crotches, and that's why so many of them get so offended when we suggest these same men should, short of being prosecuted, be publicly shamed.

  3. I still have to think it might have been the group of guys you were hanging out with who thought it was okay. Obviously the guy who assaulted her was way out of line, and there are no excuses, and it's her right to say what she wants. I think part of the problem at this conference, however, was a big breakdown in professionalism. I think any HR person would tell you that a high alcohol, party situation in a conference center is rife with risks for inappropriate behavior by all participants.

    Even in a challenging atmosphere, the author of the blog points out that all but one man managed to treat her with respect. I'm just not sure I'm seeing an endemic problem through this case study.

  4. Sorry Mongoose, I have to call victim blaming here, or at least "atmosphere blaming." The breakdown in professionalism was when he tried to kiss her in the first place. After she rebuffed him, shoving his hand down her pants was assault, pure and simple. I DO think there's a broader problem with conference culture (not just at tech conferences, where there are lots of young people) revolving around late nights drinking, and frequently hooking up, but that can be addressed separately from the problem of men everywhere feeling that unwanted groping or grabbing of a woman sexually is not that big of a deal. Two different sets of men on two different occasions defended the "boob grabber," each astonishing us more than the next. It made me feel profoundly unsafe. Like, not that one of these men would do something to me, but that I lived in a society where if I was hurt by an action such as the one we were discussing, no one would understand. No man is an island, they say, but women, nursing their pain from assault, apparently are.

  5. Good distinction between the attempted kiss versus the assault, I hadn't thought of it that way. I think it is disturbing that these men you met, and those who have been commenting online (always a gruesome bunch) are so dismissive and unsympathetic. I think this is probably due to a patriarchal mindset, and their privilege. And that does sound really alienating. I still think that we can't draw inferences to the whole population of men based on this particular sample, and would like to to think (maybe incorrectly), that many of the men I know would respond differently.

  6. Public shaming is important. It shouldn't have any impact on any legal prosecution, but it may very well have more real-world consequences than even a sexual assault conviction. These guys deserve to have the whole world know what total losers they are, that they have to grab unwilling women in public because obviously, it's the only way these losers can get attention. And there must be a good reason why this is so. Yes, they deserve all the shame we can rain down on them.

  7. From the title on, I can't fathom your obscene illogic and hatred. I hope to gods this article is a joke.
    Nothing you say is anything close to neutral or reasonable. You of course just knee-jerked that I am wrong; case in point.

  8. I think that there is a distinction between defending the man's actions and disagreeing with the woman's actions. Personally, I don't think that it's the wisest approach because he'd probably just deny it and call her crazy. He'd point to the fact that she didn't call the police. I also feel that there is a right way and a wring way to go about things. The right way would have been to file the charge. To adapt an old saying, the police not investigation is on them. Not filing the charge is on you.

    As a guy who has been the victim of numerous incidences of unwanted touching, I can't defend his actions at all, but I will state that it does go both ways. I've had female coworkers brush thing off the front of my shirt or pants with their hand. Rest their hand on my thigh when talking to me. Rub my back or shoulders. I even had one sit on my lap. I'm sure women would categorize this as playful or helpful activities, but oddly enough I've never had this done by a guy. Guys have told me that I had things on my shirt or pants before so I could brush it off.

    There were times when it was more clearly sexual, but I still feel that those previous incidences were sexual assaults. When I was weightlifting and younger, my friends and I were having a discussion about technique and routines. We were showing off our progress and this girl comes up and helps herself to a feel. Is that assault or is it OK because it was just the arm. None of us were talking to her nor did we invite her to comment or participate. Another time I was practicing my martial art in the park. When I took a breather, I had two girls come up and start tracing the muscles along each arm. One of them commented that I must have a lot of lower body strength.

    Did I feel sexually assaulted? Yes I did. How did I handle it? I backed away to told them no or stop. Granted a woman may be less willing to press a martial artist when he says no, but she seems to have gotten away. I know what I thought those women deserved. I'd be in jail if I did that. I'm not going to say that her actions were unwarranted, but they were unwise.


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