May 24, 2011

Sexism Always Wins, but It Still Loses

Jen McCreight won't be talking about Boobquake at conferences anymore.

I've already said no to groups who wanted me to talk about it, and suggested another topic. I think we can learn interesting things from what happened, but I'm just sick of how people see it as a green light for sexual harassment. I can only tolerate so much.

In an otherwise decent post about the effects of pervasive sexism, Josh Rosenau asks:

Which raises the question: did sexism win, or was boobquake doomed precisely because it was meant to take advantage of society's sexism?

Now, let me think about this for a--NO!

Or maybe I shouldn't be quite so hasty. At least one commenter disagrees with me, saying, "Nobody could have predicted that! Except, of course, for everyone who did, and got shouted down as killjoys," and, "You can't solve a problem using the same thinking which created it."

So, given that argument would my answer be any diff--NO!

To make a short story longer, let's start with the second part of the statement. Boobquake was meant to take advantage of society's sexism? It used the same thinking which created it? Boobquake was meant to be a joke, a joke that took one cleric's claims that "immodest" dress led inevitably to earthquakes via a chain of men's uncontrollable lust and God's anger over adultery and broke it apart to make the individual pieces easier to examine and ridicule.

Jen never meant or expected the idea to take off, much less "take advantage of society's sexism." Once it did, she did an admirable job of steering the inevitable publicity back toward the original intent of mocking the ideas that women are responsible for inciting men's unholy lust and that such lust leads to earthquakes. She educated at least a few people on the use of statistics to illustrate these claims. She used the opportunity to allow Iranian women's rights activists--the people actually affected by the cleric's claims--to be heard in the West.

That some subsequent events were also shaped in part by the pervasive sexism of our society is unsurprising, but is has nothing to do with Jen's intent, and I shouldn't have to spell that out in response to a post on that very topic. Nor is it Jen's responsibility to deal with the predictability of these events. That particular gem of criticism is just a form of the "she should have known" argument. It might be valid if there actually existed a choice between doing nothing, and thus avoiding sexism, and engaging in activism, during which some women are subjected to sexism. That women aren't offered that particular choice is, again, not something I should have to point out when the occasion is a post about pervasive sexism. Does anyone, for example, really still think Jen would be exempt from unwanted comments and jokes on her appearance if she hadn't thought up Boobquake?


Now for the question of whether sexism won. Yes, it won. Sexism always wins. It has the advantage of numbers and entrenched power.

However, sexism also lost, and it keeps on losing.

The Iranian cleric in question changed his stance in response to Boobquake. It isn't much better than it was before, but he changed it in response to questions from those within his country and his religion. His authority was undermined enough that he had to react.

A large number of the women who participated explicitly rejected the conflations of sex and sin, sex and shame, their clothing and "uncontrollable" male lust. It may not stick, but they've done it at least once. That makes them less vulnerable to the coercive messages that surround sex in our society. If Boobquake was a failure in this respect, then so are the Slutwalks that have been spreading across the globe in recent months.

Jen's profile was raised significantly by Boobquake. That did two important things. First, it added one more good, flexible female speaker to the list of people event organizers draw from. The groups who invite her to speak about Boobquake aren't turning her down when she wants to talk about something else. Instead, they're hearing a different talk, frequently the one on "God's Lady Problem." Not exactly a win for sexism.

Secondly, and perhaps even more importantly, Jen has been identified as a resource for other women in both the skeptic and atheist movements who experience sexism. She's used her blog to promote the complaints of others. She's modeled behavior for objecting to sexist treatment in a very public way. She's used her tenacity to keep the pressure on until she gets an official response on the topic. She's rallied other prominent atheists and skeptics to amplify her message. She has added substantially to the number of effective voices on the topic. She's done it with the platform that was built, in part, with Boobquake. And now, she's seing results.

Sexism found a way to pull a small victory out of Boobquake. The house took its cut. But it only wins if people insist that we've lost if we don't get everything we want right now.


Becca said...

In the absence of the extreme boost in social bonding provided by being a member of a religious group, the human need to connect to others will assert itself. If you don't put any intention into your community formation, the odds are good the need to connect will assert itself in the most socially entrenched possible ways.

Basically, if you ignore the 'ingroup' benefits that religion provides, you will only replace them with other ingroups- race, gender, political affiliation...

When a commenter pointed out there was a 'frat boy culture' they were more right than they realized. Fraternities are social bonding groups for the sake of social bonding groups. The reason they fall to sexism is that sexism is so entrenched that it comes most easily.

Josh Rosenau is right, you can't just refute things and expect to convince people. But it's more than that, you have to replace entrenched social values with something else. You can't just avoid being sexist, you have to replace the whole kyriarchical values system with a system that positively values people of all kinds, and accepts them as they are, not as you wish they were. And you can't just assume some positive social grouping will emerge organically all on its own. You have to work- hard- to create intentional community. Particularly if you want the community to do anything differently than the way most of our communities do.

Stephanie Zvan said...

Who "just" refuted anything?

Deepak Shetty said...

you have to replace entrenched social values with something else.
Why? Racism was entrenched - what did we replace it with? (given that it has gone down).

A good number of people like Eller may not realize when they are being sexist (I know this holds for me too). And having somethings explained or pointed out to us helps us realize when we are being sexist - because we don't want to be sexist. I don't need any to replace my sexism with anything other than not being sexist.

And for those who are sexist and revel in being so I don't see how you could replace it with anything . All we could do is make it more and more socially unacceptable to express such views.

D. C. said...

Take your victories where you can -- this isn't a bad novel where The Forces of Truth and Justice stomp everything in their way.

* Strauss-Kahn. Lots of good discussion coming out of that affair, with lots of schadenfreude for the plight of those who are objecting to his not being treated in accord with his privilege.

* Close to home, a particularly piggish individual got summarily canned for hostile work environment -- and the complaints started with a dude who didn't even know that "nobody should have to put up with this shit" was supposed to be a controversial statement.

The two are connected: Someday there will be a generation of French citizens who take it for granted that privilege stops where the law starts, and someday (let it be soon and in my day!) be a generation of American citizens who take it for granted that "nobody should have to put up with this shit."

And someday, Jen++ will be able to point out the absurdity of some paleolithic nonsense without her audience totally missing the point to dwell on their own gender-related obsessions.