Author Archives: Caroline Heldman

Pennsylvania Public Service Announcement Blames Rape Victims

Re-posted to add to the discussion about sexual assault in the aftermath of the Steubenville rape trial, the Senate hearing on rape and harassment in the military, and the controversy at Occidental College. Cross-posted in Portuguese at Conhecimento Prudente.

Rape reporting, prosecution, and conviction rates across the country are appallingly low, but it’s easier to get away with sexual assault in some places compared to others.  Pennsylvania is one of those places. In Pennsylvania, expert testimony isn’t allowed in the courtroom.  Instead, jurors frequently rely on abundant, harmful rape myths.

We shouldn’t be that surprised, then, that earlier this week the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board (PLCB) aired an ad plainly promoting the idea that women are to blame for being raped.

The ad shows a young woman sprawled on what appears to be a bathroom floor, underwear down at her ankles, with the caption, “She didn’t want to do it, but she couldn’t say no.”  The victim blaming here couldn’t be any clearer, right down to the illogical language suggesting that the victim both had agency (she is to blame) and lacked agency (because she couldn’t say “no”).

Crafted by the Neiman Group, this ad was part of a larger $600,00 campaign — two years in the making — to raise awareness of the ill effects of drinking.  Several different themes were proposed, but this was the “winner.”  Another ad in the same campaign holds a rape victim’s friend responsible for her rape.

The PLCB pulled the ad campaign in response to hundreds of messages from concerned citizens, some of whom claimed they were traumatized by the image/message.  However, a statement from the PLCB shows that those in charge still don’t comprehend the problem:

“We feel very strong, and still do, that when we entered the initial discussion about doing a campaign like this it was important to bring the most difficult conversations about over-consumption of alcohol to the forefront and all of the dangers associated with it—date rape being one of these things.”

The PLCB is right that alcohol and “date” rape (a term that trivializes rape) go hand in hand, but not because women are responsible for the criminal actions of the approximate 6% of men who perpetrate this crime.  Instead, perpetrators exploit cultural narratives — like the idea that intoxication = miscommunication and that “date rape” isn’t “real” rape — to repeatedly commit this crime.  In a recent study of college students, 4% of men were found to be serial rapists; they committed an average of 5.8 rapes each.

In short, sexual assault is committed by (often serial) perpetrators.  Yet ad campaigns like this will continue to ensure that sexual assault will continue to be the only crime in which society treats the victim like a perpetrator.

Caroline Heldman is a professor of politics at Occidental College. You can follow her at her blog and on Twitter and Facebook.

Policing Powerful Women: Hillary Clinton and the NY Post

Last month the New York Post ran with this unflattering cover photo of Hillary Clinton responding strongly to congressional questioning and the tagline “No Wonder Bill’s Afraid.”

The not-so-subtle sexist messages include:

  • Even if you’re secretary of state in the most powerful country in the world, it’s not alright to get angry if you’re a woman;
  • when a powerful woman raises her voice to make a point, she is out of control — “exploding with rage”;
  • and when a man is married to a powerful woman, even a man who used to lead the free world, he is automatically cowed by her.

Despite rapid gains in women’s political and corporate leadership since the 1970s, powerful women are still held to the damaging double-bind of appearing “properly” masculine in order to appear
leaderly and “properly” feminine so as to not violate social expectations.

Caroline Heldman is a professor of politics at Occidental College. You can follow her at her blog and on Twitter and Facebook.

Rape and Other “Gifts from God”

Cross-posted at Caroline Heldman’s Blog.

During a debate this past Tuesday, Indiana Republican senate nominee, Richard Mourdock, made the case against the rape exception for abortions: “I’ve struggled with it myself for a long time, but I came to realize that life is that gift from God, and even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.”

So according to Mourdock, God intends for rape to happen, and the outcome of rape is a gift from God.

What puzzles me is how Mourdock’s rape enthusiast comments fit with Missouri Republican senate candidate Todd Akin’s recent comments that “legitimate rape” (read“forcible rape”) rarely leads to pregnancy because, ”If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”

Mourdock and Akin’s beliefs, when considered together, produce a bizarre philosophy. I would like to know: Why would God create female bodies that reject God’s “gifts”? And if women don’t get pregnant from “forcible rape,” does that mean that God doesn’t intend ”forcible rapes”? Put another way, does God only intend certain types of rape, you know, the ones that come with “the gift”?

One-in-five Americans agree with Mourdock and Akin’s abortion stance. Razib Khan’sanalysis of the General Social Survey shows that 20% of Americans think abortion should be illegal in cases of rape. Republicans with lower levels of education who identify as extremely conservative and believe the Bible is the word of God are more likely than other Americans to hold this belief.

For Mourdock, Akin, and more than 50 million other Americans, God truly does work in mysterious ways.

Caroline Heldman is a professor of politics at Occidental College. You can follow her at her blog and on Twitter and Facebook.

The Science of Lady Parts and the GOP

Cross-posted at Caroline Heldman’s Blog.

Last Thursday, Republican Representative and Tea Party favorite, Joe Walsh (R-Ill), told reporters that when it comes to abortion, “there’s no such exception as life of the mother” because of “advances in science and technology.” This astounding claim was news to the medical community.

Walsh joins the ranks of some other prominent Republican men who don’t understand basic lady parts science: Representative Todd Akin (R-MO), who claimed that pregnancy from “legitimate rape” is “really rare” because “the female body has ways to shut the whole thing down,” and conservative comedian Rush Limbaugh, who doesn’t understand the basics of birth control pills. (He thinks you take a pill every time you have sex!)

These remarks would be humorous if it weren’t for the fact that these men are part of a broader effort by the extreme wing of the Republican Party to take aim at women’s reproductive health.

At the state level, Republican lawmakers enacted a record number of anti-abortion measures in 2011, four times as many as the previous year. A study from the Guttmacher Institute shows that legislators in 45 state capitals introduced 944 provisions to limit women’s reproductive health and rights in the first three months of 2012. These states are proposing/passing abortion ultrasound requirements, gestational limits, health insurance exemptions for contraception coverage, and stringent limitations on medical abortions.

In the past two years, 19 states have introduced bills modeled on a Nebraska law that bans abortion 20 weeks after fertilization. The Oklahoma State Senate redefined “person” as starting at conception, while the Mississippi House approved a bill requiring women who want an abortion to undergo an examination to determine if there is a fetal heartbeat. Texas and Virginia require women to undergo an ultrasound prior to receiving an abortion, and many other states have similar proposals underway. Texas recently cut reproductive services for 130,000 poor women.  As this chart from NARAL indicates, twice as many states passed anti-choice laws in 2011 than in 2010.

 

At the federal level, in 2010, the newly elected House Republican majority was quick to propose major cuts to reproductive health services. They made several attempts to eliminate funding for Planned Parenthood, the largest family planning provider in the U.S. that has been around for a century. They also tried to gut Title X, a program that funds family planning and preventive breast and cervical cancer screenings. Both proposals were stopped by Senate Democrats. Ironically, on the same day that House Republicans tried to eliminate Title X funding, Representative Dan Burton (R-IN) proposed contraceptive funding for wild horses (something that we desperately need, actually).

Congressional Republicans also proposed an amendment to the health care bill that allows federally funded hospitals to turn away women in need of an abortion to save their lives. This is by far the most brazen attack on the “mother’s health” exception to restrictions on abortions. In May of 2012, Republicans proposed a veto on sex-selective abortions that failed to pass the House, despite broad Republican support for the bill. And in early 2012, Republicans in Congress held hearings on whether the new health care law should include contraception coverage. These hearings included virtually no female experts, so House Democrats held more inclusive hearings that (gasp) included women. Limbaugh assailed one hearing participant, Georgetown student Sandra Fluke, calling her a “slut” and a “prostitute.”

Prominent conservatives, including Republican Party leadership, have roundly dismissed the assertion that the party is engaged in a War on Women, but the recent flurry of legislation curbing reproductive freedoms tells a different story. Given baffling comments from the likes of Walsh, Akin, and Limbaugh, the generals in this War on Women obviously need to include lady parts science as part of basic training.

 ——————
Caroline Heldman is a professor of sociology at Occidental College.  You can follow her at her blog and on Twitter and Facebook.

Mitt Romney and the 47% Meme

Cross-posted at Caroline Heldman’s Blog.

On Monday, Mother Jones released a video recorded in May of presidential candidate Mitt Romney speaking at a $50,000-a-plate fundraiser in the Boca Raton home of “private equity party boy” and “sexy party” host, Marc Leder. A hidden camera caught controversial remarks about IsraelIran, and a joke about being more electable if his parents had been born in Mexico, but the topic of this post is Romney’s use of the 47% Meme.

The 47% Meme is the idea that half of Americans take from rather than contribute to tax coffers. It sometimes surfaces in the form of the “takers vs. makers” frame. I have encountered this “argument” for years on Fox News, so it is surprising to see it gaining national attention now. Romney did a superb job articulating the 47% Meme in response to a question of how he might win in November:

There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them.

Many myths start with a kernel of truth. The 47% Meme is loosely based on the statistic that 47% of Americans pay no income tax (down to 46% in 2011). This meme is wildly dishonest since people pay a host of other federal, state, and local taxes. It’s about as honest as saying a person doesn’t eat vegetables because she only eats carrots, celery, bell peppers, cucumbers, and cabbage, but not broccoli.

So who is paying taxes, and what taxes are they paying?

 

Federal Income Tax

The Tax Policy Center finds that two main groups comprise the 46% who do not pay federal income tax: (1) The poor whose subsistence-level income is not taxable, and (2) those who receive tax expenditures. This chart shows that the lion’s share of tax expenditures goes to senior citizens, children, and the working poor, with the notable exception of 7,000 millionaires who paid no income tax in 2011.

 

Other Federal Taxes

But enough about income tax since this narrow focus only serves to further the misleading 47% Meme. The chart below shows a more accurate picture of who pays federal taxes. If we don’t count retirees, only 8% of Americans pay no income or payroll taxes.

Americans also pay federal excise tax on gas, liquor, cigarettes, airline tickets, and a long list of other products, so virtually every American pays federal taxes in some form. And contrary to the 47% Meme, poor and middle-class Americans actually pay a greater percentage of their income in federal payroll and excise taxes than wealthier Americans.

State and Local Taxes

When it comes to state and local taxes, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy finds that the poor pay more in state and local taxes in every state except Vermont. As the chart below indicates, state and local taxes are regressive, meaning that those who can least afford to pay, pay more.

Romney has apologized for the inelegance of his statements, but stands by their substance, despite ample data debunking the dependency (above) and entitlement bases for the 47% Meme. I don’t believe that Romney believes that half of the people in the U.S. are pathetically entitled “victims.” He is a smart person, and this is a ludicrous line of reasoning. But what does it say about our bitterly partisan nation that heaping unmitigated scorn on the poor brings in big bucks from the base?

Sexual Objectification (Part 4): Daily Rituals to Start

This is the fourth part in a series about how girls and women can navigate a culture that treats them like sex objects. See also, parts One, Two, and Three. Cross-posted at Caroline Heldman’s Blog.

This post details some daily rituals that help interrupt damaging beauty culture scripts.

1) Start enjoying your body as a physical instrument.

Girls are raised to view their bodies as an thing-to-be-looked-at that they have to constantly work on and perfect for the adoration of others, while boys are raised to think of their bodies as tools to use to master their surroundings. We need to flip the script and enjoy our bodies as the physical marvels they are. We should be thinking of our bodies, as bodies! As a vehicle that moves us through the world; as a site of physical power; as the physical extension of our being in the world. We should be climbing things, leaping over things, pushing and pulling things, shaking things, dancing frantically, even if people are looking. Daily rituals of spontaneous physical activity and thanks for movement are the surest way to bring about a personal paradigm shift from viewing our bodies as objects to viewing our bodies as tools to enact our subjectivity.

Fun Related Activity: Parkour,”the physical discipline of training to overcome any obstacle within one’s path by adapting one’s movements to the environment,” is an activity that one can do anytime, anywhere. I especially enjoy jumping off bike racks between classes while I’m dressed in a suit.

2) Do at least one “embarrassing” action a day.

Another healthy daily ritual that reinforces the idea that we don’t exist to be pleasing to others is to purposefully do at least one action that violates “ladylike” social norms. Discuss your period in public. Eat sloppily in public, then lounge on your chair and pat your protruding belly. Swing your arms a little too much when you walk. Open doors for everyone. Offer to help men carry things. Skip a lot. Galloping also works. Get comfortable with making others uncomfortable.

3) Focus on personal development that isn’t related to beauty culture.

According to research, women spend over 45 minutes to an hour on body maintenance every day. That’s about 15 more minutes than men each day and about 275 hours a year.

But, since you’ve read Part 3 of this series and given up habitual body monitoring, body hatred, and meaningless beauty rituals, you’ll have more time to develop yourself in meaningful ways. This means more time for education, reading, working out to build muscle and agility, dancing, etc. You’ll become a much more interesting person on the inside if you spend less time worrying about the outside.  The study featured above showed that time spent grooming was inversely related to income for women.

4) Actively forgive yourself.

A lifetime of body hatred and self-objectification is difficult to let go of, and if you find yourself falling into old habits of playing self-hating tapes, seeking male attention, or beating yourself up for not being pleasing, forgive yourself. It’s impossible to fully transcend the beauty culture game since it’s so pervasive. It’s a constant struggle. When we fall into old traps, it’s important to recognize that, but quickly move on through self forgiveness. We need all the cognitive space we can get for the next beauty culture assault on our mental health.

Sexual Objectification (Part 3): Daily Rituals to Stop

This is the third part in a series about how girls and women can navigate a culture that treats them like sex objects. See also parts One and TwoCross-posted at Ms. and Caroline Heldman’s Blog.

This post outlines four damaging daily rituals of objectification culture we can immediately stop engaging in to improve our health.

1) Stop seeking male attention. 

Most women have been taught that heterosexual male attention is the Holy Grail and its hard to reject this system of validation, but we must. We give our power away when we engage in habitual body monitoring so we can be visually pleasing to others. The ways in which we seek attention for our bodies varies by sexuality, race, ethnicity, and ability, but the template is the “male gaze.”

Heterosexual male attention is actually pretty easy to give up when you think about it.

  • First, we seek it mostly from strangers we will never see again, so it doesn’t mean anything in the grand scheme of life. Who cares what the man in the car next to you thinks of your profile? You’ll probably never see him again.
  • Secondly, men in U.S. culture are raised to objectify women as a matter of course, so an approving gaze doesn’t mean you’re unique or special, it’s something he’s supposed to do.
  • Thirdly, male validation is fleeting and valueless; it certainly won’t pay your rent or get you a book deal.  In fact, being seen as sexy hurts at least as much as it helps women.
  • Lastly, men are terrible validators of physical appearance because so many are duped by make-up, hair coloring and styling, surgical alterations, girdles, etc. If I want an evaluation of how I look, a heterosexual male stranger is one of the least reliable sources on the subject.

Fun related activity: When a man cat calls you, respond with an extended laugh and declare, “I don’t exist for you!” Be prepared for a verbally violent reaction as you are challenging his power as the great validator. Your gazer likely won’t even know why he becomes angry since he’s just following the societal script that you’ve just interrupted.

2) Stop consuming damaging media.

Damaging media includes fashion, “beauty,” and celebrity magazines, and sexist television programs, movies, and music. Beauty magazines in particular give us very detailed instructions for how to hate ourselves, and most of us feel bad about our bodies immediately after reading. Similar effects are found with television and music video viewing. If we avoid this media, we undercut the $80 billion a year Beauty-Industrial Complex that peddles dissatisfaction to sell products we really don’t need.

Related fun activity: Print out sheets that say something subversive about beauty culture — e.g., “This magazine will make you hate your body” — and stealthily put them in front of beauty magazines at your local supermarket or corner store.

3) Stop Playing the Tapes.

Many girls and women play internal tapes on loop for most of our waking hours, constantly criticizing the way we look and chiding ourselves for not being properly pleasing in what we say and what we do. Like a smoker taking a drag first thing in the morning, many of us are addicted to this self-hatred, inspecting our bodies first thing as we hop out of bed to see what sleep has done to our waistline, and habitually monitoring our bodies throughout the day. These tapes cause my female students to speak up less in class. They cause some women to act stupidly in order to appear submissive and therefore less threatening. These tapes are the primary way we sustain our body hatred.

Stopping the body-hatred tapes is no easy task, but keep in mind that we would be utterly offended if someone else said the insulting things we say to ourselves. Furthermore, we are only alive for a short period of time, so it makes no sense to fill our internal time with negativity that only we can hear. What’s the point? These tapes aren’t constructive, and they don’t change anything in the physical world. They are just a mental drain.

Related fun activity: Make a point of not worrying about what you look like. Sit with your legs sprawled and the fat popping out wherever. Walk with a wide stride and some swagger. Public eating in a decidedly non-ladylike fashion is also great fun. Burp and fart without apology. Adjust your breasts when necessary. Unapologetically take up space.

4) Stop Competing with Other Women.

The rules of the society we were born into require us to compete with other women for our own self-esteem. The game is simple. The “prize” is male attention, which we perceive of as finite, so when other girls/women get attention, we lose. This game causes many of us to reflexively see other women as “natural” competitors, and we feel bad when we encounter women who garner more male attention, as though it takes away from our worth. We walk into parties and see where we fit in the “pretty girl pecking order.” We secretly feel happy when our female friends gain weight. We criticize other women’s hair, clothing, and other appearance choices. We flirt with other women’s boyfriends to get attention, even if we’re not romantically interested in them.

Related fun activity: When you see a woman who triggers competitiveness, practice active love instead. Smile at her. Go out of your way to talk to her. Do whatever you can to dispel the notion that female competition is the natural order. If you see a woman who appears to embrace the male attention game, instead of judging her, recognize the pressure that produces this and go out of your way to accept and love her.

Stay tuned for Sexual Objectification, Part 4: Daily Rituals to Start.

Caroline Heldman is a professor of politics at Occidental College. You can follow her at her blog and on Twitter and Facebook.

Sexual Objectification (Part 2): The Harm

This is the second part in a series about how girls and women can navigate a culture that treats them like sex objects (see also, part One)Cross-posted at Ms. and Caroline Heldman’s Blog.

The “sex wars”  of the 1980s pitted radical feminists, who claimed that female sexual objectification is dehumanizing, against feminists concerned about legal and social efforts to control and repress female sexuality.  Over a decade of research now shows that radical feminists were right to be highly concerned.

Getting back to the “sex wars” and how radical feminists were right, women who grow up in a culture with widespread sexual objectification tend to view themselves as objects of desire for others. This internalized sexual objectification has been linked to problems with mental health (e.g., clinical depression“habitual body monitoring”), eating disordersbody shameself-worth and life satisfactioncognitive functioningmotor functioningsexual dysfunctionaccess to leadership, and political efficacy.  Women of all ethnicities internalize objectification, as do men to a lesser extent.

Beyond the internal effects, sexually objectified women are dehumanized by others and seen as less competent and worthy of empathy by both men and women.  Furthermore, exposure to images of sexually objectified women causes male viewers to be more tolerant of sexual harassment and rape myths.  Add to this the countless hours that most girls/women spend primping and competing with one another to garner heterosexual male attention, and the erasure of middle-aged and elderly women who have little value in a society that places women’s primary value on their sexualized bodies.

Theorists have also contributed to understanding the harm of objectification culture by pointing out the difference between sexy and sexual.  If one thinks of the subject/object dichotomy that dominates thinking in Western culture, subjects act and objects are acted upon.  Subjects are sexual, while objects are sexy.

Pop culture sells women and girls a hurtful lie: that their value lies in how sexy they appear to others, and they learn at a very young age that their sexuality is for others.  At the same time, being sexual, is stigmatized in women but encouraged in men. We learn that men want and women want-to-be-wanted. The yard stick for women’s value (sexiness) automatically puts them in a subordinate societal position, regardless of how well they measure up.  Perfectly sexy women are perfectly subordinate.

The documentary Miss Representation has received considerable mainstream attention, one indicator that many are now recognizing the damaging effects of female sexual objectification.

YouTube Preview Image

To sum up, widespread sexual objectification in U.S. popular culture creates a toxic environment for girls and women.  The following posts in this series provide ideas for navigating new objectification culture in personally and politically meaningful ways.