Sunday, August 12, 2007

YouTube Feminism

This is an important discussion (hat-tip):

They point out that hateful, sex-obsessed trolls may intimidate women (and others) out of participating in the online public sphere -- which effectively amounts to cultural disenfranchisement. This is a really serious issue, so it's good to see it highlighted.

I found one section a bit jarring, though. The Resident claims that the trolls sound like guys who won't "get laid", and Emergency Cheese adds that they might need to try "a different tactic" -- all of which just seems to reinforce the lamentable assumption that the measure of a man is how many women he can trick into sleeping with him. Maybe they were just being pragmatic, and tapping in to the trolls' existing sex-obsession may be one way to get them to behave less hatefully. But still, as long as we're talking about disturbing cultural trends, I think the sex-obsession itself is another problem.

12 comments:

  1. I can easily guess how YouTubers might object to this.

    1- she's asking for it by looking pretty, wearing makeup, and wearing X clothing item.
    2- if you can't deal with the comments, don't post videos on YouTube.
    3- freedom of speech.
    4- Everyone knows feminists worship Hitler and have ties with the KKK.

    I find the same 4 or 5 claims constantly recycled in anti-feminist rhetoric. (Number 4 is actually quite popular, to my amusement.) But anyway.

    These people are well-meaning, but would make for lousy feminists, if you ask me.

    "The bottom line is: guys, if you want to score with the ladies, the sexist comments, amazingly enough, just aren't going to be doing it for you"

    "the more you make it a male-dominated world, the fewer chicks are out there for everybody"

    So why is it you should respect women? So you can 'score' with them later? And yea the "can't get laid" comment was painful in this context. "I would like not to be treated like a sex toy, and by the way, I also recognize that a man's ability to 'score' women is what defines him." Strange? And it seems to me that this kind of thinking harms men as well as women. But you already pointed this out, sort of, and I'm overanalyzing it.

    This type of harassment has been going on since the chat room era in the 90s, and YouTube is only the latest medium for it. It happens in the blogosphere too, and in other corners of the internet, I'm sure.

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  2. I am not sure where the feminism comes in here? Is that Richard's word or was it used somewhere by the video participants? Their discussion strikes me as incredibly unfeminist.

    I response to Isa's YouTuber objections:
    #3 seems to me to cancel out #2. Free speech only works if we maintain forums for everyone who wants to to participate. It doesn't mean let the loudest be heard. That is why harassment isn't necessarily covered under free speech.
    Would any intelligent adult really argue #1 or #4?

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  3. Yeah, the appeal to free speech in this context seems entirely misguided, for the same sorts of reasons as discussed here. #2 was addressed really well in the video, I think, when The Resident points out that it's all very well for those with thick skins, but such a trait should hardly be a prerequisite for participating in the public sphere.

    #1 is often made in bad faith (say by those who would also insult women who don't put such effort into their appearance), but it's potentially the most interesting objection. If we grant the premise that any unwelcome behaviour can easily be avoided (by dressing down), then it's arguably not such a significant problem. The Resident herself acknowledges the tradeoff here: she gets a lot more attention thanks to her femininity. The way she presents herself is a choice she made, so one may ask: "she enjoys the benefits, what's she complaining about?"

    I don't think this objection can be dismissed a priori, or on purely formal grounds. If the complainant conducted her interviews in a bikini, for example, then (in our cultural context) this could reasonably be interpreted as an invitation to consider her in a sexualized light. So it really depends on the details of the case. I guess the people who make this kind of argument are thinking that the choice to play up one's good looks is just another (if more moderate) version of this. It's a conscious choice on the woman's part to make her sex salient.

    It's not immediately obvious to me why this is such a stupid claim for an objector to make. One possibility is that it comes too close to making salience the default for women, which is unfair. No-one should have to make a special effort just to be treated normally; that should be the default. It should only be unusual behaviours (e.g. wearing a bikini for an interview) which are interpreted as raising sexual salience. But in our culture, it is considered "normal" for women to put effort into their appearance. So this shouldn't be interpreted as specially highlighting their sexuality.

    I'm not so sure about this response, though. Arguably, in our culture it is simply considered "normal" (and encouraged) for women to make their sexuality salient. According to the above, this situation should be impossible. So I think that reveals the error: salience is not necessarily abnormal.

    On fairness grounds, salience ought to be easily avoidable for women who don't welcome such attention. But it need not be normally avoidable, if the cultural "norms" include women putting special effort into their appearance -- as our present norms do.

    None of which is to excuse trollish behaviour, of course. It's filthy. But if some forms of self-presentation are reasonably interpretable as raising sexual salience, then one who chooses to send these signals (perhaps liking the concomitant benefits) will have less grounds for complaint afterwards.

    Counterarguments?

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  4. I guess in retrospect I shouldn't have been so quickly dismissive of #1 and possibly wouldn't have been except I interpreted Isa as not endorsing this opinion. But here is my question - does #1 imply that an attractive woman who highlights her sexuality is literally asking for sexual attention or that she deserves unwanted sexual attention including harassment?

    If the former is meant, than it is a problem of communication. What warrants an appropriate response to a woman's sexual salience as a kind of cultural symbol? That seems to me to be what you (Richard) are getting at, and in that case maybe the responses from Emergency Cheese and the Resident are actually more appropriate than they first seemed, because they are addressing the communication breakdown. They are in a sense acknowledging that women may be trying to signal their sexual salience through their appearance, but that these trolls have misinterpreted the message and/or violated the rules of the interaction in some way.

    But if it is the latter, which is how I understand "asking for it", then the trolls' responses are treated as due punishment and is used as a justification for what the those inflicting the pain recognize as hurtful behavior. This sounds a lot like an abusive parent who screams at the crying child to quit making them hit them, and I would similarly have trouble believing that even the person saying it believes that it is true. I think this would require us viewing men as governed by out of control libidos in a way that seems anti-male as well as anti-feminist.

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  5. "I interpreted Isa as not endorsing this opinion. "

    That's right, I wasn't endorsing it. I'm actually surprised they generated discussion.

    #1 is an old classic.

    "If we grant the premise that any unwelcome behaviour can easily be avoided (by dressing down), then it's arguably not such a significant problem."

    First, I do not grant that premise. At least not on the internet. I've seen videos on YouTube where girls are harassed for being ugly. In blogs, the women who get harassed often don't even show their pictures, and they still receive explicitly sexual threats of rape and sexual abuse, *especially* feminists. I grant this: that there are women who encourage sexual attention (and thereby, sexual harassment) by the way they act and dress. Now, remember, claim 1 is that acting and dressing sexually asks for (warrants) sexual harassment. No. What it asks for (warrants) is sexual attention, comments such as "you're so beautiful and hot :|" This is only sexual harassment if it is not solicited, but if it is solicited, it does not seem to me to be harassment. But I hardly doubt girls who dress scantily complain of such comments. What no choice of clothing justifies is "bitches should keep their mouths shut" and the kind of abusive language that makes them use fake names (as EmergencyCheese points out) and in the case of bloggers, remove comments and close accounts.

    Another problem I have with such ideas is that it places the burden on the woman to avoid sexual harassment. As you said: "No-one should have to make a special effort just to be treated normally" and I think I'm quoting you out of context. One situation that bothers me personally is this: what happens in the summer, when it's 80 degrees outside, do you recommend wearing long pants and a jacket so men can retain their right to ogle at will?

    So, if revealing clothing invites sexual attention, then sexual attention may, depending on the circumstance, be justified. But the line between attention and harassment is not exactly all that thin.

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  6. Chatterbox - correct me where I am wrong here. Whatever one's reasons for believing #1, wouldn't it follow that if they're right, then "she deserves unwanted sexual attention including harassment?" Maybe I misunderstand you. If someone says "it's her fault for dressing that way" how could they then consistently hold that that she does not deserve it?

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  7. "If someone says "it's her fault for dressing that way" how could they then consistently hold that that she does not deserve it?"

    The same way that someone could hold that American foreign policy is partly responsible for 9/11 -- or that someone who waves money around while walking alone in a dark alley shouldn't be surprised when they get mugged -- without holding that the attacks were justified. Engaging in risky behaviour doesn't mean that one deserves to lose out. But it perhaps means that when the predictable harms befall them, they shouldn't expect too much sympathy. They bear some causal (if not moral) responsibility.

    The world's a rough place, full of problems. This leads to a certain degree of apathy. We have enough to worry about without people adding to this through unnecessarily risky behaviour. So there's a difference between "Quit complaining - you should've been more careful," and "I'm glad it happened, you deserved no less." I think in general the "she asked for it" response is better interpreted along the former lines.

    (Though I do worry that this sort of apathetic response treats abusiveness as a "given", and so denies agency to the abuser. Strictly speaking, it should be recognized that moral responsibility for their actions ultimately lies with them.)

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  8. OK, I can see the difference. You can hold someone accountable for something without believing that they deserved it (in at least one sense of the word "deserve".) Maybe I will ask the next person who pulls the "she asked for it" response whether they think she deserved it. Might be interesting to test this empirically.

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  9. Isa - "One situation that bothers me personally is this: what happens in the summer, when it's 80 degrees outside, do you recommend wearing long pants and a jacket so men can retain their right to ogle at will?"

    No, I absolutely agree with you there, as per the quote you identified (the context is fine by me).

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  10. Oops, didn't see your latest comment. Yeah, I'd be interested to hear what you find!

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  11. Isa - I would think the difference would be between, as you put it, sexual attention and harassment. If she is "asking" for it in the first sense sexual attention would be warranted, but not necessarily harassment. As you said, the line is thin, but then I guess you could understand the discussion between Emergency Cheese and The Resident as attempting to define that line. If she is "asking" for it in the sense that she deserves it, then the person using that justification would recognize that what they are doing is harassment.

    That is what I meant, anyway.

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  12. "Engaging in risky behaviour doesn't mean that one deserves to lose out. But it perhaps means that when the predictable harms befall them, they shouldn't expect too much sympathy."

    Except you do have to recognize that there is pressure to engage in such a risk.

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