What Women Really Think

Oct. 15 2014 10:33 AM

Is It Impossible to Write a Decent Sexiest Woman Alive Profile?

Has anyone ever written a not horrible Sexiest Woman Alive piece? Chris Jones’ icky profile of Penelope Cruz, Esquire’s Sexiest Woman Alive for 2014, is the latest icky entry in the icky genre. Jones uses rapt, creepy, overheated language to say practically nothing about his subject, except that she is “impossibly beautiful,” “has no physical flaws,” “looks like a thousand different women,” and “can be whatever we want her to be.” (So, nothing.)

Jones’ particular contribution to the grease canon elaborately compares a pure white bull being publicly, erotically, stabbed to death by matadors (“There was a growing intimacy between the matador and the bull in those moments. They had become familiars in each other’s heat”) to what the author/reader would like to do to Cruz, except that she does it to him first (“She picks her splattered white napkin off her lap and rises from the chair. All that remains on her plate is a bone and a puddle of blood”). The whole thing is pretentious, overwritten, and too satisfied with itself for landing its “feminist” reversal—that Cruz is the powerful swordsman, not the fetishized animal. Whatever, Esquire: What’s clear is that your writer had next to no time with the profile subject and is filling in the gaps with a labored allegory that yanks our voyeuristic levers while pulling Cruz closer to myth and far away from anything recognizably human.

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Oct. 15 2014 8:52 AM

Male Allies Are Important, Except When They’re the Worst

Male allies are having a moment. In the space of the past month, Emma Watson stood in front of the United Nations and urged men to join the feminist movement under the banner #HeForShe. President Obama responded personally to the NFL’s handling of domestic abuse, saying that as “the father of two daughters,” he knows that “hitting a woman is not something a real man does.” Aziz Ansari sat on David Letterman’s couch, came out as a feminist, and said that anyone who contests the idea that Beyoncé "should be making 23 percent less than Jay-Z" ought to join him. And the Grace Hopper Celebration brought top executives from Facebook, Google, and Microsoft to the stage for the “Male Allies Plenary Panel,” where they were to talk about how high-powered male allies can advocate for women in tech.

Too bad the GHC male allies panel spent less time discussing how men can advocate for women than it did instructing women to advocate for themselves by “speaking up.” (They did, against the tone-deaf panelists.) Ansari’s feminist identification was just “a watered-down version of something so many women have been arguing” for ages, as BuzzFeed’s Katie Heaney noted. (In the tradition of “mansplainers everywhere,” she wrote, he cribbed his definition of feminism from the dictionary.) “As the father of daughters,” Obama apparently needed to create a female human with his very own sperm in order to understand that it’s not OK to beat them. (How far can this dubious claim to feminist identity extend—“as the son of a mother,” “as the boyfriend of a girlfriend,” “as the man who approaches women on the subway”?) And #HeForShe has finally encouraged members of One Direction to hold signs with hashtags on them and post soulful photos of their feminist solidarity to Twitter.

Allies are important, except when they’re the worst. That is my takeaway from this current moment in man-feminist relations, but the idea is not new. In 2012, North Carolina State University sociologist Kris Macomber interviewed dozens of men and women who advocate against gendered forms of violence, and found seemingly endless contradictions embedded in the process of incorporating men into feminist movements. The central conflict is simple: Because men are “members of the dominant group, they have access to social and institutional power that women lack,” Macomber writes, and that makes them valuable to feminism—but it also makes them representatives of a culture feminists are working to change.

Oct. 14 2014 5:14 PM

Next Up for Feminist Activists on Campus: Dating Violence

With all the success feminist activists have had drawing attention to the problem of sexual assault on campus, the next big move appears to be doing the same for the problem of dating violence. As reported by Feministing, student activists have been documenting universities they believe are failing to adequately report incidents of intimate partner violence among their student population. A new provision of the Clery Act, which was added during the 2013 reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, requires universities to publicly disclose the number of incidents of domestic violence and stalking on campus every year, but the activists found at least 20 schools that haven't done so. (Some are already responding to the campaign and trying to fix the situation.)

Perhaps more troubling is that the statistics at some schools that do report are clearly all wrong. Dana Bolger of Know Your IX explains at Feministing:

Oct. 14 2014 1:16 PM

Apple and Facebook Will Now Pay for Employees to Freeze Their Eggs

Apple and Facebook are competing neck and neck in the latest stage of the Silicon Valley “perks arm race”: Employees at both companies will now be able to freeze their eggs under their employee health plans regardless of their reasons for doing so. The companies will cover up $20,000 in costs, typically enough to pay for two rounds of egg harvesting. NBC’s Danielle Friedman reports that egg freezing advocates have also seen “large law, consulting, and finance firms” allocate funds to cover the procedure, albeit quietly. That’s good for female employees of these companies, who will now benefit from a fuller range of reproductive choices: Apple and Facebook also cover costs related to fertility treatments and adoption; Facebook awards $4,000 of “baby cash” to new parents; and California employers are required to cover abortions under state law.

The move is also good for Apple and Facebook, which are competing to hire and retain women in tech:

Will the perk pay off for companies? The benefit will likely encourage women to stay with their employer longer, cutting down on recruiting and hiring costs. And practically speaking, when women freeze their eggs early, firms may save on pregnancy costs in the long run, said [Lynn Westphal, a Stanford University Medical Center associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology]. A woman could avoid paying to use a donor egg down the road, for example, or undergoing more intensive fertility treatments when she’s ready to have a baby.

At the Atlantic, Megan Garber pegs the development as a cultural tipping point toward making egg freezing accessible to more than just "very wealthy" American women. But I’m not sure that expanding the accessibility of egg freezing from "hotel heiress" wealthy to "Facebook employee" rich is much to celebrate.

Oct. 14 2014 1:03 PM

Subsidized Day Care and Paid Parental Leave Can Be Kind of Complicated

The state of American child care is pretty abysmal. Day care is not well-regulated, the quality is often poor, and it’s expensive: In 35 states and Washington, D.C., it costs more than a year’s in-state college tuition. We are the only wealthy nation that does not guarantee paid vacation or sick days, so when a snow day or a fever keeps a child out of school, it can mean a career setback for many parents. And for working parents with low-wage jobs, things are even worse.

We point to other countries—often ones in Europe—as models of how to do child care right. But is it really so much easier to be a working parent in Paris than it is in Peoria? We asked working moms and dads from all over the world to tell us their child care experiences. Here is the seventh in our occasional series, from a father near Mechelen, Belgium, which is about 30 minutes from both Antwerp and Brussels.

Name: Peter Mertens*

Country: Belgium

Age: 36

Occupation: Business IT developer

Partner's occupation: Engineering

Children: Three kids, ages 2,  9, and 10.

Hi, Peter. What are your work hours?

My workweek is usually 39 hours, but currently I'm taking parental leave, so I work four days a week (32 hours). My working hours are flexible: I can start anywhere from 7 a.m. until 9:30 a.m. and can finish work anywhere between 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. On Fridays we can stop work at 3 p.m. My partner works at the same multinational and has the same working hours. We are allowed to work from home two days a week, but I currently only do that once a week since I'm already on a part-time schedule and contact with the office remains important and beneficial.

Who takes care of your children while you work?

Oct. 13 2014 5:47 PM

Comic Book World Is Becoming Friendlier to Women. Video Game World, Take Note.  

With #GamerGate churning out one sexist outrage after another, it's easy to lose hope that women will ever be fully accepted in geeky entertainment circles. But not all circles are alike. The comics industry, for instance, is beginning to demonstrate that just because a pastime is male-dominated doesn't mean it has to stay that way, and that efforts to be more inclusive to women can work. 

This past weekend's New York Comic Con demonstrated this real shift, with major panels exploring "an explosion of enthusiasm and visibility for women in comics," as the description for Vulture's panel on female fandom reads. The women on that panel—Captain Marvel writer Kelly Sue DeConnick, Red Sonja writer Gail Simone, and Sana Amanat, editor of Captain Marvel and Ms. Marvel—talked in depth about diversity, equality, and creating comic book characters that women and people of color could relate to in the way that white men have come to expect for themselves.

Oct. 13 2014 2:29 PM

Tennessee Sentenced a Woman to Six Extra Years in Jail Simply Because She Was Pregnant  

Does being pregnant when you commit a crime make you guiltier than someone who is not pregnant? Vice reports that a group of reproductive rights organizations, led by the National Advocates for Pregnant Women (NAPW), wrote to the Department of Justice recently to protest the sentence of Lacey Weld of Dandridge, Tennessee. Weld was picked up in an undercover sting at a methamphetamine manufacturing plant. As Kristen Gwynne of Vice writes, "despite her cooperation in the case and testimony against co-defendants, Weld (who pleaded guilty) was sentenced to more than 12 years in prison and five years of supervised release for her involvement in meth manufacturing." Because of "enhanced sentencing" guidelines, six of those years were tacked on simply because Weld was pregnant at the time. 

As the NAPW's letter states, giving people extra-long sentences because of their pregnancy status constitutes "separate and unequal treatment of pregnant women." The justification offered by the judge in Weld's case is that Weld is extra-guilty because she put her "unborn" child at a "a substantial risk of harm." But Weld was not convicted of smoking meth. "According to the press release, the DOJ justifies the enhanced penalty in part because Ms. Weld apparently used methamphetamine while pregnant," writes NAPW in its letter. "Drug use (rather than possession), however, is not a crime under either Tennessee or federal law—and as the press release admits, Ms. Weld was convicted of manufacturing, not possession of, methamphetamine." Tennessee law allows enhanced sentencing if the victim is especially vulnerable, but Weld was not convicted of victimizing her son. Those six extra years were for a crime that isn't a crime in Tennessee at all.

Oct. 10 2014 2:08 PM

Victims of Online Crimes Are Finally Getting Justice—as Long as They’re Rich and Famous

In January, I published a story in Pacific Standard about my experience receiving rape and death threats online, and the failure of police and tech companies to respond appropriately to threats, stalking, and harassment of women on the Internet. One irony of writing the piece is that I have now become a person who law enforcement officials and social media employees are very eager to help out. At a panel about digital exploitation this summer, an FBI agent gave me his personal contact information, in case my stalker resurfaced; a press contact at Twitter encouraged me to forward him the abuse reports I file on the network to ensure that the site’s moderators field them appropriately. Problem solved for me—and nobody else.

We are no longer in an era where threats lodged over the Internet are routinely laughed off as meaningless gestures that ought to be ignored by victims, law enforcement, and society at large. But a class system has emerged, one in which it's often the richest, most famous, or otherwise well-connected victims who stand to benefit from this recent societal attitude adjustment.

Tech writer Kathy Sierra is perhaps the most well-known, non-Hollywood victim of sexist online bullying, harassment, and defamation, but as she wrote in Wired this month, “You’re probably more likely to win the lottery than to get any law enforcement agency in the United States to take action when you are harassed online, no matter how viciously and explicitly. … Unless you’re a huge important celebrity. But the rules are always different for them.” Ordinary people have “a really difficult time getting law enforcement’s attention” in cases of online stalking, threats, and revenge porn, says Danielle Citron, University of Maryland law professor and the author of Hate Crimes in Cyberspace. “Police misunderstand the law and the technology,” she says. But now, if you’re powerful enough, you can make them understand: After photographs of Jennifer Lawrence and other celebrities were hacked and published online this summer, the FBI quickly announced that it was “addressing” the “unlawful release of material involving high profile individuals.”

The we'll-help-if-you're-famous rule holds both for the law enforcement agencies that investigate these threats and the tech companies that host them. As Catherine Buni and Soraya Chemaly detail in The Atlantic this month, it often takes a famous name, a boatload of press coverage, and/or a multi-million dollar lawsuit to encourage tech companies to remove abusive material from their platforms, even when that material clearly violates their internal policies. Here are just a few examples of the double standard in action:

On Facebook: In 2012, as Buni and Chemaly report, Facebook users posting in the group “Men are better than women” took an image of Icelandic woman Thorlaug Agustsdottir, doctored her face to make her appear “bloodied and bruised,” and posted comments beneath it promoting domestic abuse and rape. Facebook initially told Agustsdottir that the images did not “violate Facebook’s Community Standards on hate speech”—which ostensibly includes attacks on a person’s gender—and instead constituted “Controversial Humor.” Only after Agustdottir took her story to the press did Facebook remove the image; only after Wired criticized Facebook’s policies did Facebook publicly apologize for screwing up.

On Google: After dozens of female celebrities’ private photos were published on the Internet, a Google rep claimed that it “removed tens of thousands of pictures within hours of the requests being made”; the disclosure came after an attorney representing Lawrence and others threatened to sue Google for $100 million for failing to act quickly enough. “The Internet is used for many good things, “ the Google rep said. “Stealing people’s private photos is not one of them.” Meanwhile, as Buni and Chemaly note, revenge porn victim and advocate Holly Jacobs is still awaiting similar treatment from Google after seeing her photos surface online for years. As she tweeted earlier this month:

On Twitter: After Robin Williams’ daughter Zelda was hounded by Twitter harassers publishing gruesome photos of a dead man who resembled her father this summer, Twitter worked quickly to remove the photographs from its platform and suspend the responsible users. The incident later inspired a rare public comment from Twitter, which pledged to improve its policies around harassment and abuse.

When it comes to lower-profile victims, it takes a village to catch Twitter’s eye. When book blogger Ed Champion bombarded the novelist Porochista Khakpour with sexist threats last month, Khakpour credited a feminist “radical army” for assembling to pressure Twitter to swiftly suspend Champion’s account. “The whole thing was very mysterious,” Khakpour told me. On the night the harassment unfolded, Khakpour was, understandably, not immediately capable of filing a report to Twitter on the basis of its policy outlawing targeted abuse and harassment on the network. (And no matter how quickly they’re filed, Twitter often takes days to respond to these complaints.) When friends and supporters filed reports on Khakpour’s behalf, they were told that, per Twitter policy, only Khakpour herself was authorized to report the victimization. Then, a user Khakpour does not know personally heard about her story, and mined her contacts until she reached a Twitter employee directly to report the harassment. “Voila,” Khakpour says: Champion’s account was suspended and the offending tweets were removed. (I reached out to Twitter for comment and will update if I hear back.)

The outsized attention afforded to high-profile cases has its benefits. Buni and Chemaly report that since Agustsdottir’s situation made headlines—and after a sustained campaign by feminist activists, including Chemaly herself, put pressure on advertisers to compel Facebook to change its practices—Facebook has since worked openly with activists, including Danielle Citron, to help steer action inside the network. “Controversial Humor” is no longer floated as an excuse for hate speech. And celebrity victims have been instrumental in spurring policy change, as when the 1989 stalking and murder of actress Rebecca Schaeffer helped inspire anti-stalking laws in California that have since spread across the country. This month, Lawrence dipped her toe into advocating for better laws to criminalize the non-consensual publication of sexual images, and Citron is hopeful that the participation of celebrities like her could be instrumental in both crafting law and encouraging better enforcement of online crimes for everyone.

“We’ll never have perfect enforcement," Citron told me. "Gwyneth Paltrow will always have her stalker [dealt with] easier than a regular woman will.” But every high-profile case can help online platforms and law enforcement agencies to better understand the issue, and hopefully take it more seriously. The special treatment afforded the famous and well-connected cases should, at least, banish the persistent claim that women should not make a fuss about the abuse they receive online: It's now clear that only when victims make news do they stand to get justice.

Oct. 10 2014 1:50 PM

A “Surplus” of Men in Society Does Not Lead to More Violence

The idea that men are inherently violent beasts who need women to exercise a civilizing influence over them is a persistent assumption in modern society, one often raised for the purposes of guilt-tripping women for living independently or even just delaying marriage. "Single men have never been civilization's most responsible actors," Manhattan Institute fellow Kay Hymowitz argued recently, suggesting that men need "family responsibilities"—to be needed by women—in order to "grow up." In a particularly alarming example, Brad Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, argued that marriage "seems to cause men to behave better" and therefore is the best protection women have against male violence.* And it isn't just conservatives who believe it. In 2012, Nicholas Kristof signed off on Steven Pinker's argument that "young men are civilized by women and marriage." 

This notion of women's civilizing influence on men has sparked some major alarm over the future of countries like India or China, where sex selection during pregnancy has led to excess numbers of men, putting marriage and the supposedly stabilizing effects of the female gender out of reach for many. Scottish historian Niall Ferguson dimly warned in 2011 that "there will be a chronic shortage of potential spouses" in these countries, and that these men, untamed by women, will create an "overdose on testosterone" leading to "macho militarism and even imperialism." He concluded: "Lock up your daughters."

There are plenty of reasons to oppose the cultural preference for boys over girls, but the fear of men's lack of access to the soothing effects of femininity isn't one of them. Researchers Ryan Schacht, Kristin Rauch, and Monique Borgerhoff Mulder, in a paper published at the New Scientist, looked at 20 studies examining the relationship of violence and sex ratios and found "that violence was equally likely to be associated with extra women as with extra men." Nine studies showed more violence in societies where men outnumbered women, and nine showed the opposite. Two studies were not conclusive.

That's not to say that gender and sexuality have nothing to do with violence. After all, men commit much more violence than women, against both men and women, in pretty much every corner of the world, a fact that all but the most stalwart Reddit misogynists accept. But, the researchers write, "the expectation of a straightforward relationship between violence and the sex ratio is overly simplistic." In some cases, an increased number of men disincentivizes violent behavior because men have to straighten up and act right in order to attract a mate. Or, as the researchers put it, "when faced with a deficit of women, men can engage in much more positive social behaviour to attract and keep a partner." But in other cases, excess numbers of men lead to more intimate partner violence, possibly because men become more controlling over their wives if they perceive that the women have other options. 

Excessive numbers of women, meanwhile, was generally correlated with more sexual assault and male-on-male violence. Researchers theorized that it's possible, in some circumstances, that far from exerting a civilizing influence on men, excess numbers of women might actually make men more likely to jostle for dominance over each other and over women. 

"Many factors complicate the relationship between sex ratios and violence, including unique cultural and historical influences," the researchers conclude. It would be nice if the problem of male violence were easy to solve by tinkering with gender ratios or instructing women to make themselves available as wives. But the reality is much more complex, and requires us to grapple with social constructions about what it means to "be a man," economic opportunities, and political issues like war and incarceration.

*Correction, Oct. 13, 2014: Due to an editing error, this post misidentified Brad Wilcox as an education professor at BYU; he is the director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia.  

Oct. 9 2014 12:52 PM

New Anti-Choice Tactic: Pretend to Be Pro-Choice

Anti-abortion centers known as "crisis pregnancy centers" work by trying to lure in unsuspecting women who are seeking abortions and then using guilt and stalling tactics to keep them from getting the abortions they want. The centers often do this by posing as if they offer actual abortion services. But these deceptive tactics are increasingly hard to maintain. Earlier this year, NARAL convinced Google to stop letting the centers falsely advertise themselves as abortion clinics to women who are searching for abortion services. Undercover reporting has revealed just how the centers lie. Some cities have tried to pass laws requiring crisis pregnancy centers to disclose up front that they do not provide abortion, and the subsequent court battles have drawn more media attention to the true mission of crisis pregnancy centers. 

For one crisis pregnancy center in the Bay Area, the response to all this pressure has been to try even harder to conceal its ideological agenda by claiming to offer an alternative to what they call "the Two-Box system of pro-choice and pro-life." The group is called Third Box and it claims to be an apolitical space that merely wants "to offer the woman struggling with her choice the time, space and support to find her own voice."

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