Back to basics: questions from the search terms, vol. 2

This edition of “questions from the search terms” covers some 101-ish topics!

“why is victim blaming wrong”?

Ok, I totally remember a time when I didn’t really understand the problems with victim-blaming. Some of the underlying theory is not inherently obvious, and it is often talked about as if it is, so I’m going to try to make it all explicit here.

The main reason that victim-blaming is wrong is that it involves placing responsibility on Person A for the fact that Person B decided, of their own accord, and for their own purposes, to do something bad to Person A. This actually means removing some of the blame from the person who did the bad thing, and suggesting they are not fully responsible for their actions, which is problematic. Very often victim-blaming takes the form of suggesting that Person A wanted whatever terrible thing to happen, that they “asked for it” and brought in on themself, and that’s just not how things work.

But, the counter-argument goes, people need to take precautions to protect themselves from bad people. We encourage people to have strong internet passwords and to never share them, and that’s generally considered ok. People keep their houses and cars locked so they won’t be robbed, and these kinds of recommendations don’t get the same reactions from feminists as suggestions that women should dress more modestly, or that they should never go anywhere alone ever.

There’s… a lot going on here. I can’t unpack it all, but there are specific reasons why victim-blaming in cases of abuse or sexual assault can be particularly damaging, and counter-productive. There are multiple reasons for this, including these:

  • A lot of the advice on “how to avoid rape” is just plain wrong, in some sense. It mostly only applies to cases of stranger rape, which is a pretty small subset of actual rapes. Most abuse, both sexual and otherwise, is perpetrated by people close to and trusted by the victims.
  • Victim-blaming in cases of abuse/sexual assault teaches abusers and rapists what circumstances will allow them to get away with their abuse (because it lets them know what circumstances will cause others to blame their victims instead of them).
  • Reinforcing the idea that an abuse or sexual assault survivor is responsible for the abuse they experienced only adds to the self-blame that they are almost inevitably already inflicting on themselves. We already know all of your bad advice; we already know all of the reasons why it was our fault, and trust me, we’ve been even more creative about it and found reasons you probably never even thought of. We don’t need your “help” here.

There is so much more to say about this, but I will leave it here for now.

“why is it bad to say ‘not all men'”?

A couple of things, here.

Firstly, a lot of the time, people feel the need to jump to the defense of men as a group, and declare that “not all men” do whatever thing, in conversations that are explicitly about the behaviours of some men. And usually, the people in these conversations know that not all men are terrible, that not all men are rapists, that not all men do whatever thing is being complained about. And the conversation isn’t about all men. It’s about the things that some men do, it’s about how hard it is to be affected by those things, it’s very often about the real lived experiences and hardships of women (yes, all women) and/or people who aren’t men and/or people who aren’t cis men. And by stepping in and making it about whether “all men” do the thing misses the point of the conversation entirely. Don’t do that.

Secondly, it is very important to note that to some extent, regardless of whether all men do x thing, all men need to be a part of these conversations. All men benefit from male privilege in various ways. And this is not a fault, or a flaw, or something to be guilty about. But it is something to be aware of, and it is something you have a certain amount of responsibility to use for the good of those who do not have that privilege. So yes, all men.

“can i omit parts of consent”?

I… um, I don’t know exactly what this question is supposed to mean, but it is very concerning. I’m going to try to address a couple of different interpretations here.

I suspect that the “parts of consent” here refers to something like the “enthusiasm” required by the standard of “enthusiastic consent”. Enthusiasm is a great ideal in many situations, but requiring enthusiastic consent in order for a sexual interaction to be considered truly consensual ignores the actual lived experiences of many people, particularly asexual people and sex workers, both groups for whom sexual interactions may very well be genuinely consented to, without there necessarily being any enthusiasm about the interaction itself. So, yes, there are some situations in which true enthusiasm is not strictly necessary, though it’s a vital touchstone to aim for, in developing any sort of ongoing sexual relationship.

Really, I think the concept people are aiming for in pushing enthusiastic consent, is “non-coerced” consent. This may not always be easy to identify, because often the coercion that causes people to “consent” to sex they don’t want is cultural rather than something that comes directly from their partner. Asexual people are pressured into giving sex a try, or are repeatedly told that if they want to be loved, they’re going to have to have sex. And women generally receive similar sorts of messages about obligations to have sex. Being aware of these things, and explicitly reassuring your partner that they are under no obligation to do anything they don’t want to do, will make it easier of you to make sure your partner is comfortable, and to actually figure out what they want. It is better for everyone, in the long run.

I am struggling to fully nail down all that I want to say here, really, but this post from the Asexual Agenda has a great, nuanced exploration of some alternate models of consent. It is very worth reading.

Alternatively, though, the “parts of consent” in question here might be indirectly referring to the idea that consent needs to be acquired for some things, but not others. All I will say is this: the standard of non-coercion should apply to all interactions you have with all people at all times (yes, sometimes coercive force is necessary in self-defense, or defense of others, but these sorts of situations are definitely not what we’re talking about here).

Trans women, women-only spaces, and …special needs?

sisters cistersThis post is part 3 in a series examining the various justifications that are given for the (utterly unjustifiable) exclusion of trans women from women-only spaces. The four rationales being examined are as follows:

Today, it’s:

We aren’t equipped to fulfill trans women’s needs!

The above is actually the most sanitized and faux-friendly version of this argument. Some women’s shelters defend trans exclusionary policies on the grounds that their services have been designed with cis women in mind, and they simply don’t know how to help trans women. The less friendly corollary to this is often that the shelters don’t want to divert their efforts or water down their services by actively working on being able to meet trans women’s needs.

First off, I am unconvinced that the needs of trans women escaping abusive situations will be all that different from the needs of cis women in the same situation. The promise of a safe place to stay, and help with putting one’s life back together seems adequate, and with the exception of potentially unique medical needs, cis and trans women are able to benefit equally from housing, job, and childcare services, among many other services, without any needs for special accommodation.

But secondly, I want to address this idea that taking special care to accommodate trans women might somehow take away from the resources available to cis women. Much like the previous argument, this claim is only valid if we accept the unstated premise that cis women’s needs are more important than trans women’s. If, for instance, someone said that they were going to exclude poor women from their shelter, because the unique needs caused by their poverty were too difficult to accommodate (and certainly, poor women facing abusive situations may have more complex needs and have more difficulty extricating themselves from a situation in which they are wholly dependent on their abuser for their welfare), it would be patently obvious that this is a ridiculous, discriminatory, and just plain awful thing to do.

So why do we allow the same treatment to be applied to trans women (who are in fact at extremely elevated risks of violence, abuse, poverty, and many other risk factors that we would normally consider as making someone a higher priority target for these kinds of services). Rather than being excluded, trans women should be a priority group targeted by women’s shelters offering community support.

When you get right down to it, the suggestion that trans women might somehow be too in need of help to be included in women’s shelters is yet another form of victim-blaming (we’d help them if they’d just stop needing so much help!) I mean, really. Can we please stop this shit?

Trans women, women-only spaces, and victim-blaming

sisters cistersI recently read an anthology on the subject of the intersections between trans politics and feminism. I’m not going to name it here, because it was terrible, and full of a whole lot of transmisogynist apologia, some of which I want to talk about here.

Transmisogyny frequently raises it’s ugly head around the idea of women’s-only spaces, and ultimately, the question of who gets to determine what qualifies a person as a “woman” for the purposes of these spaces. I’ve written before about the ways in which I sometimes navigate my own inclusion/exclusion in this kind of space, as person who was assigned female at birth, but who is not a woman. I have come to understand that my perspective on these spaces is highly privileged, as in most cases, I am the one voluntarily including or excluding myself based on my own assessment of a space’s safety for me.

What I want to talk about is the explicit and active exclusion of trans women from many important women’s services, such as shelters for abuse survivors, and other places where women form communities and support each other. This post will be the first in a series examining the various justifications that are given for this exclusion. The rationales I have identified are as follows (the first point will be addressed in this post):

Trans woman are socialized as male, and therefore possess male privilege

This idea gets floated a lot in trans-exclusionary feminist thinking. It sounds kind of meaningful, I guess. And the argument usually goes that it is important for cis women to have spaces in which they can discuss the experience of being raised within the restrictive social roles allowed to people who are assigned female at birth, and that trans women do not share this experience.

Ok, first of all, it’s not like cis women have trouble finding other cis women to talk about this stuff with. And if someone wants to organize a workshop for cis women to talk their experiences being raised as girls, I feel pretty ok about that I guess. It’s the blanket exclusion from trans women from entire events such as the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, or from vital and life-saving services and support like women’s shelters that I feel are utterly unjustifiable.

Here’s the thing: when people talk about trans women’s male socializations, they usually don’t actually stop to think about what that experience may have been like for those women. In fact, what we are talking about in many cases are people who were forced to try to conform with and pretend to be a member of a gender to which they felt little or no belonging. The fact that trans women were tricked or forced for part of their lives to live and act as males is a form of violence and abuse that they experienced, and should not be framed as a privilege. To tell a trans woman that she is unworthy of help because of the fact that her parents insisted on calling her a boy (an experience that is very traumatic for many trans people) is nothing more than victim-blaming.

I also want to call into question the idea that there is some unique experience to be had among women in being raised as female. Not all parents teach their children the same gender roles; there is a great deal of cultural variation, and moreover some parents do their damnedest to raise their children in a gender neutral manner. Your mileage, in other words, may very well vary.

Ok, you may say. But all people who are raised as girls within a given culture receive the same media messaging. And girls are inundated with messages from birth communicating that their worth lies in their attractiveness to men, and that there is only one correct way to be attractive, etc etc etc. But, here’s my thing: Trans women have been exposed to that same media their entire lives, y’know?

And I’m really not willing to buy any argument that would suggest that being assigned male at birth made them immune to those messages. Rather, I would argue that a young trans girl, being forcibly raised as male by her parents (whether they are well-meaning or not isn’t relevant to this discussion), might be more vulnerable to the media messaging about womanhood, due to a lack of explicit female role models, or a lack of their parents attempts to intervene and mediate the negative impacts of those messages the way they might have if they had known their child was a girl. The media might be their only source of information about how to be a woman.

So, no, I don’t accept the argument that there is something special or unique to cis women’s experience, and the exclusion of trans women on the grounds that they were raised as male is nothing more than a case of further victimizing someone because they were abused as children. It’s disgusting, and it needs to stop.

Victim-blaming, and why it’s wrong

It was recently brought to my attention that there are people who (possibly deliberately?) misunderstand why victim-blaming is wrong, in a really interesting way. I mean, we’re all pretty familiar with apologists of all kinds who simply insist that the victim *is* partially responsible for the things that other people, of their own free will, decided to do to them. But I’m not talking about them. I’m talking about people who accept that victim-blaming is wrong, but in a very strange and simplistic way: they think that victim-blaming is wrong because blaming, in and of itself, is wrong.

I’m going to illustrate this misunderstanding with the example that alerted me to the fact that this might be a real thing that people think. The fantastic Libby Anne over at Love, Joy, Feminism frequently writes on the subject of homeschooling, particularly as practiced by fundamentalist Christians. A few weeks back, she wrote about a friend of hers who had admitted that, due to her homeschooling (and particularly due to the fact that the state in which she was raised had no standards in place for assessing homeschool situations) she had never learned any science. The friend didn’t think that her mother had been deliberately neglectful, but rather that the lack of accountability did ultimately allow her to get away with a certain amount of laziness.

Now, it’s what happened next that I found fascinating: a commenter on the post accused Libby Anne and her friend of “parent-blaming,” suggesting that if her friend had had any interest in science, she would have picked up the textbook herself. Libby Anne rightfully and thoroughly took this commenter to task, as it is absolutely ridiculous to expect children as young as six to take responsibility for the breadth of their education. More importantly, she made it clear that ensuring as good an education as is reasonably achievable is an absolute responsibility of a child’s parent(s). The commenter was in fact engaging in victim-blaming by trying to put the responsibility for learning science onto children themselves, and blaming them for their failure to become engaged in the topic independently.

There’s a couple of things that are going on here that I’ve been wanting to unpack a little further, however. It’s pretty clear to me that the commenter’s use of the phrase “parent-blaming” is a deliberate call-out to the concept of victim-blaming, with the implicit suggestion that it is wrong for the same reasons that victim-blaming is. But, to be perfectly frank, I don’t think that anyone truly believes that parents aren’t responsible for their children’s access to education in some form or another. I honestly think that what their true (largely emotional?) objection was based in was emotion. They were having an emotional reaction to the idea that a parent might fail to adequately homeschool their child. They didn’t like the idea that they could be at fault for not providing a comprehensive education to their child.

And, to be fair, homeschooling is an incredibly gigantic undertaking – to do a job that is normally fulfilled by dozens of teachers over more than a decade is immense. And the possibility of failure must be palpable. So I can sympathize with pushing back against the idea of being responsible for such a huge undertaking, and to feel like blaming parents for their failures in this area is wrong. It certainly *feels* wrong; no one likes to be blamed for things, right? That’s why victim-blaming is wrong, right?

And, well, obviously no. This is not the case. The reason that victim-blaming is wrong isn’t the plain fact that it involves laying blame; the reason it’s wrong is that it involves misplacing blame. I’m actually very pro-blaming, when blame is laid where it belongs. Rapist-blaming is a really, really good idea, for instance. Blaming the people who did the thing that was wrong is always a good idea.

And the fact is that the choice to homeschool is most definitely a choice in this context; everywhere in Canada and the US, public schooling is available. And, while school supplies do cost money, the barriers to sending one’s kid to public school are significantly lower than committing to homeschooling, which prevents one parent from working almost at all.

Thus, as the person who chose to homeschool the child, the homeschool parent is doubly responsible for the quality of their child’s education – we may not be able to control the quality of schools in the area that we can afford to live, but we certainly can assess, and to some extent control, our own ability to educate our children.

So, yeah. Victim-blaming is wrong. But blaming in general? Not so much. And blaming the person(s) who made a choice (or a series of choices) that damaged another person’s life? That shit is always correct.