YVQ12 | How The Other Half Lives

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Writer Mitchell Salmon

Content Warning: This article explores topics of sexual harassment and sexual abuse.

Elrond was in trouble. He had a bunch of thugs breathing down his neck, wishing him violent ill-will. Luckily for Elrond, I—his faithful and benevolent Game Master—sent help in the form of veteran Shadowrunner Abby Road pulling up in a stolen car.

Tabletop Role Playing Games like Shadowrun are board games taken to the next level. They require players to act out stories as their characters, such as Elrond, with dice deciding the outcomes of decisions, and a Game Master acting as all the characters who aren’t players. As the Game Master, I immediately stepped into the combat boots and ripped tights of vampire-hunting, spell-slinging, computer-hacking, shotgun-wielding, Brit-punk-inspired Abby Road.

 “Come with me if you want to live,” I had Abby say, even giving her a moment to comment on the awesomeness of the reference.

Elrond winked in return. “I’d follow you anywhere, baby.”

Around the gaming table, we all chuckled. Alright, the player was playing an unpleasant character. Acting in character is a crucial part of tabletop RPGs. As such, as Abby, I treated the player to a stony silence, describing a contemptuous flick of my (Abby’s) multi-coloured, long-and-undercut hair. “Oh,” said Elrond’s player knowingly. “I bet she’s a lesbian.”

I had been a woman all of eighty seconds at that point, and had already experienced an unwelcome sexual advance and had my sexuality questioned on the basis of my appearance.

I don’t say any of this to take a shot at my mate playing Elrond—he was acting as a character he does not respect—but the attitudes displayed by his character are illustrative. Sexism is real. And it’s everywhere.

The Huffington Post created a video at the end of 2015 called 48 Things Women Hear In A Lifetime (That Men Just Don't).[1] In this video, a collection of diverse women, ranging in age from early childhood to seniors, recite comments that resonate as common—or at least not overtly odd or even uncomfortable—things to say to women. The tagline is, “Watch 80 years of subtle sexism in under two minutes.”

“Your dad will have to chase the boys away when you're older,” a young girl says. “You look so pretty,” says the next girl. “Oh, you like video games? The boys must love that,” says another.

The quotes continue and the women speaking age. Soon the comments begin to relate to sex, relationships, alcohol, food. The final comment is from an older woman saying, “You must have been beautiful when you were younger.”

The things that are striking are two-fold. So many of the comments levelled at these women—with themes repeating at every stage of life—are based on appearance, sexuality, and relationships. And the second point explains the first: most of the comments frame the woman in relation to a man or men.

We live in a society that is, unofficially and sometimes unnoticeably, patriarchal. A patriarchy is a “social organisation marked by the supremacy of the father in the clan or family, the legal dependence of wives and children, and the reckoning of descent and inheritance in the male line; broadly, control by men of a disproportionately large share of power.”[2]

In patriarchal systems, women only exist, have worth, have purpose, in relationship to men. These male-dominated attitudes are all through the statements in the Huffington Post’s video. They position women to be defined by their relationships with males, whether that is to their husband, boyfriend, father, potential partner, or friend. A young woman’s interest in video games should have exactly zero connection to even the concept of romantic relationship; she’s there to kick ass at Call of Duty, not impress a boy.

A useful tool in the toolbox of gender-based critical thinking is known as the ‘Male Gaze’. This conceptual device invites the user to consider how women are positioned in different settings for the benefit not of themselves but of men. Turn your attention to advertising, media, film, and fiction and view each of these through a critical lens that questions how women are positioned—in physicality, sexuality, appearance, and role—and you begin to see that the male gaze informs most of what we take for normal. Watch how female superheroes and action movie stars pose in posters compared to their male peers.[3]

When so much of what it commonly means to be a woman is attached in some way to the approval or dispensation of men, it is no surprise that this begins to feed into a system of privilege experienced by men. And this privilege begins to dramatically affect how many men interact with women.

Twitter user @ohmytasha tweeted, “#WhenIWas 13 my male math teacher told me I didn't need to learn geometry because I already had such good curves.”[4]

This tweet was part of the explosion of the hashtag #WhenIWas, which has been used by women (and some men) on Twitter to share their stories of sexual harassment, ranging from disgusting comments (above) to rape and ongoing sexual abuse. (PLEASE NOTE: Browsing the hashtag is not an easy read)

We live in a culture where a small minority of men think it is okay to force a woman into sexual activity without her consent. They are part of a larger minority that consciously believes that women owe them love or sex or attention or even just the simple pleasure of being attractive because that is what women do for men.

In 2014 a young man named Elliot Rodger killed six people and injured fourteen more in a mass shooting in California. After his death, videos of Rodger emerged in which he expressed frustration with the fact that no woman would date him, which contributed to his premeditated killing spree. In his opinion, it was somehow ‘unfair’ that he was a virgin at 22. Even more disturbingly, this sentiment garnered a certain amount of sympathy from minority elements of the YouTube comments section. [5]

There are men who assume that women exist to love them. There are men who believe that women serve no purpose but to be their lover, wife, mother of their children, or smoking hot trophy. In this twisted perception of what human relationships (romantic or not) are created by God to be, it is no surprise that rape happens.

What is even more horrifying is how often discussion about rape and rape culture turns into victim blaming. Victim blaming is the phenomenon of considering the victim of a transgression to be part of, or the sole cause of the crime.

Twitter user @mamzellBoo tweeted, “#WhenIWas 16, a guy grabbed and crushed my breast in the downtown. When I told it to my sis, she asked what kind of shirt I wore that day.”[6]

It is so common for victims of rape, sexual assault, or sexual harassment to be implicated in causing the crime. What possible bearing could this woman's shirt have on that unnamed man's decision to touch her breast without consent? Did that man construe that—hypothetically—a low cut top was somehow an invitation for physical contact?

All women are taught, explicitly and implicitly, that their sexual safety is in their own hands. They should make conscious choices to ensure they are not wearing provocative clothing or to avoid situations where rape or sexual assault is likely to happen, when in reality the blame for rape rests entirely with the rapist.

Rape, sexual assault, or sexual harassment is never the victim's fault, no matter what kind of clothes they might wear. To borrow from comedian John Oliver, “Here’s a fun game: insert any other crime into [comments that blame the victims of sexual crimes]. Listen guys, if you don't want to get burgled, don't live in a house.”[7] We live in a culture that is quicker to tell women not to get raped than to tell men not to rape.

When we teach women to wear or not wear particular clothes to avoid sexual violence or harassment—to not look like they are ‘asking for it’—or when we teach women to never put down their drink at a party because they don’t know who could put what in it, we are telling women that they live in a world where rape is inevitable and the only thing to do is to take steps to avoid it. And I refuse to be okay with that world.

Twitter user @jgrnl77 tweeted, “#WhenIWas in first grade my friends and I were told not to play on the jungle gym if wearing dresses, because boys might look up our skirts.”[8] Here she and her friends are instructed to change their behaviour and curtail their own enjoyment of the schoolyard play equipment due to the actions and attitudes of the boys. The victims are punished for the actions of the perpetrators.

Of course, an easy response to such a story is ‘boys will be boys’. But this is the cornerstone of the problem; what does that say about what a boy is? Have we developed a culture in our men where rape, sexual harassment, and peeking up the girls’ skirts is wearily expected?

When the Huffington Post released the video outlined above, a huge amount of the feedback was men (and some women) angrily pointing out that men, too, hear a lifetime's worth of coded and uncoded sexist comments—as a reflection of this outrage, at time of writing the first video has five thousand upvotes on YouTube, and six thousand downvotes. Huffington Post then produced a video entitled 48 Things Men Hear In A Lifetime (That Are Bad For Everyone).[9]

Because here's the thing: men experience sexism too. Every day, men are bombarded with messages that tell them that to qualify as men, they need to do certain things, act a certain way, fulfil certain roles. Sexism against men is real, and it's everywhere.

But sexism does not ‘go both ways’. Many men will talk about experiences of having their male-ness impact on people's perception of them. But this is not some kind of ‘reverse sexism’ whereby women enact revenge for their mistreatment over thousands of years. This is the exact same sexism that tells women that they are only valued for their aesthetic qualities.

Sexism comes from ascribing gendered norms to people. Women should be pretty. Women should wear make up. Women should avoid sex, or embrace sex (as in the Huffington Post’s first video, somehow they get both), or marry, or do the cooking, or have babies, or not earn more than their partner. And sexism ascribes gendered norms to men, too. Don't play with dolls, be tough, don't cry, earn enough to support your family, if you can't convince a women to sleep with you you're not really a man. What the Huffington Post identifies in the brackets of its second video's title is that sexism hurts all of us, but the damage it causes to the formation of young men can have lasting harm—in both attitudes and physical harm—not only for the young man himself but for every person, and in particular women, that he encounters in his life.

Sexism is fundamentally a male problem. Patriarchal attitudes, where men are dominant because of their male-ness and women secondary because of their female-ness, hurt everyone differently, but they start with the mistaken belief that men are more valuable than women. This is not an inherent truth, this is something my fellow men throughout history—my ancient and sometimes modern brothers—have constructed. Yet when God created humans, he created them equal: male and female, made in his image (Genesis 1:27). It is only after the Fall that a patriarchal hierarchy fractures the relationship between man and woman (Genesis 3:16)—this imbalance is a consequence of a broken, Fallen world, not the world God created, and of relationships fractured by sin. In the New Testament, in light of Jesus’ message, Paul describes a redemption that restores men and women to equality (Galatians 3:28).

And so I believe that sexism is fundamentally a male responsibility. Just like the problems that stem from it, such as rape culture, harassment online and in real life, and domestic violence—all of which affect both women and men in different spaces—men are the overwhelming majority of perpetrators. Gender inequality, by which women are devalued and men are overly valued, is a thing men over all of history have built. Fellow men, this is our problem.

We all inflict sexism on each other. We all contribute to these problems, faced by every man and every woman on the planet. But the beauty of that sad fact is that we are all in a position to make a change. Speaking directly to my fellow men, I implore you, as a man of God, to speak up when you could remain silent, to call out a sexist joke and to tell your friend that it's not funny, to use your privilege to lift others up even if it means being seen and heard a little bit less in the future. To my sisters the world over, I tell you that you are not alone. To all of us I say that this is not a male versus female story but an opportunity to be better together.

In the words of Sir Patrick Stewart, “People won't listen to you or take you seriously unless you're an old white man, and since I'm an old white man I'm going to use that to help the people who need it.” Sir Patrick’s life has been touched by personal experiences of gendered violence, and he is now a tireless campaigner for the support of vulnerable women and against the attitudes that contribute to violence in the home—attitudes rooted in gender inequality and sexism.[10]

Sir Patrick uses his male voice to speak with, and to share the stories of, people who don’t have a voice in patriarchal systems. Whether he realises it or not, he is carrying out James’ exhortation in James 1:27: “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”

This is an opportunity to join God in (re)creating a world with no vulnerabilities and no oppression, least of all because of someone’s gender. And the only way it will happen is if we are all on board together.

Originally published in YVQ12: MESSY.

Written by Mitchell Salmon. Mitchell is the current editor of YVQ and part of the Youth Vision Vic/Tas team. He is a writer and prolific consumer of popular media, and is fascinated by the ways in which the big stories of our world shape everything we do, which is why his two great passions are the Bible and superhero comic books. 








[7] — Language warning.



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