What Women Really Think

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.

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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."

Oct. 8 2014 3:58 PM

Breast Cancer Awareness Finally Penetrates the Earth’s Crust

It’s infiltrated the gun range, the gridiron, and even space. Now, breast cancer awareness will travel deep into the Earth’s crust, thanks to oil company Baker Hughes, which has just painted 1,000 of its drill bits a Susan G. Komen shade of pink to honor Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

Drill bits, as Fuel Fix’s Rihannon Meyers notes, “spend most of their lives miles underground breaking up geologic formations in oil patches where a fraction of workers are women.” But Baker Hughes’ director of operations for U.S. land drill bits, Bill Debo, told Fuel Fix that “Our hope is from the water cooler to the rig site to the coffee shop to everywhere, someone gets this information to their spouses, their girlfriends, their daughters so we can create awareness and end this disease forever.”

We are aware. Pink has taken over our pepper spray, our Poo-Pouri, our pornography, our Shampure™ aroma hand cream, and the pistol grips on our rifles. Pink equals breast cancer. That much is clear. But what many companies hawking pinkwashed products still don’t seem to understand—or think we’re too dumb to notice—is that “raising awareness” about breast cancer does more to raise the company’s profile than actually fight the disease.

According to the Susan G. Komen Foundation, the greatest barriers to breast cancer screening among women are a lack of health insurance, a low income, and a lack of access to medical facilities and primary care doctors. A “lack of awareness of breast cancer risks and screening methods” ranks low on the list. Baker Hughes will also donate $100,000 to Komen as a part of its Doing Our Bit for the Cure campaign. That's either commendable or laughable, depending on your take on Komen's particular approach. But spare the message about the virtue of landmen telling their girlfriends all about this breast cancer thing—those pink bits will be just as effective for “raising awareness” when they're buried a mile under the ground.

Oct. 8 2014 11:41 AM

Sexual Harassment Runs Rampant in the Restaurant Industry

In what will come as no shock to any woman who has waited tables or tended bar, a new report on sexual harassment in the restaurant industry has found that 90 percent of female restaurant workers have experienced sexual harassment on the job. Worse, it comes at them from all corners: According to the report, commissioned by the restaurant worker advocacy organization Restaurant Opportunities Centers United and the social justice group Forward Together, two-thirds of women in the field reported being harassed by managers, 69 percent experienced sexual teasing or lewd comments from co-workers, and 78 percent reported harassment from customers. More than half of the women who reported sexual harassment said it occurred on at least a weekly basis.

Customers are a particular problem for female workers, especially ones who work for tips. After all, their job is to be accommodating and pleasing, and creepy men take full advantage of the situation: 43 percent of women reported being pressured for dates from customers, 35 percent reported that the harassment became physical with deliberate touching or pinching, and 17 percent said it escalated to kissing or groping.

Management is unlikely to help much, either, as the idea that female restaurant workers are there to sexually entertain male customers is deeply ingrained in restaurant culture. (Plus, managers and owners themselves were often participating in the harassment.) Nearly 9 out of 10 tipped workers in the industry have to wear uniforms to work, and workers report that the women's uniforms are more suggestive than the men's three-quarters of the time. Twenty percent of female workers reported being told to "look sexy" by their bosses, and 17 percent were expected to flirt with customers. "Yeah ... when you walk in and it’s like all male bartenders and all female cocktail servers," explained one Houston worker in the report, "and all the men are wearing comfortable shoes, slacks, and a button-up shirt, and all the girls are wearing like corsets ... and we had to wear pencil skirts [or] shorts, no pants. And we had to wear at least an inch heel shoes." 

Men experience sexual harassment in the industry, too, but that harassment is more likely to take the form of prodding questions about their sexual orientation instead of groping, come-ons, or demands that they dress “sexier.” And trans workers in particular were targeted with this type of harassment: They were three times as likely as cis workers to receive harassing comments about their sexuality or gender identity from managers; in a focus group conducted to learn more from their smaller sample, trans restaurant workers also reported inappropriate groping, touching, and even outright firing over their identities.

Whether the abuse comes from a boss or a customer, workers don't feel comfortable reporting it. Two-thirds of women said they feared the situation would worsen if they reported harassment from managers, and 70 percent feared the same if they reported customers. So 63 percent of women said they simply ignore it when customers harass them. Attention, men who pester their baristas for dates: If she smiles and looks away, it’s not a sign of shyness; she just has no other recourse for dealing with you.

According to the Department of Agriculture, 43 percent of food spending is now on restaurant food, up from 26 percent in 1970. Americans have become quite dependent on these folks to feed us, and they don't get paid very well to do so. The least we can do is work to make sure their workplace isn't a constant barrage of uncomfortable or even frightening encounters with opportunistic creeps. 

Oct. 7 2014 3:18 PM

Maybe Sexting Is How Teenagers Will Learn About Consent

Sexting has become a completely normal part of teenaged dating life. So says Dr. Jeff Temple, an associate professor and psychologist at the University of Texas Medical Branch, who is one of the authors of a new study about teen dating habits published in Pediatrics this month. But, as KJ Dell’Antonia at the New York Times reports, there is no reason for parents to panic over this news. "The researchers found no link between the act of sending a nude image and risky behavior," she writes, "but they did find that the odds of a teenager becoming sexually active within the next year were slightly higher among teenagers engaged in active sexting (as opposed to being the recipient of a sext) and that the sexting was more likely to come first—that it was, in many cases, a indicator that a teenager was on the verge of becoming sexually active."

Sexting is, in the end, just another form of flirting and flirting has always been something that can and does lead to sexual activity. So instead of panicking, Temple recommends that parents use the existence of sexting as "an opportunity to talk with that teen about sex prior to having it."

But what if we saw sexting as not just an opening for The Talk, but as a truly positive development.

Oct. 7 2014 1:28 PM

Jennifer Lawrence: “It Is Not a Scandal. It Is a Sex Crime.” Amen.

When hackers published private nude photographs of Jennifer Lawrence in August—and legions of so-called fans helped spread them around the Internet—Lawrence attempted to pen a statement in response. But “every single thing that I tried to write made me cry or get angry,” she tells Vanity Fair. “I was just so afraid. I didn’t know how this would affect my career.”

Now, Lawrence is speaking out in the magazine’s November issue—she appears on the cover under a line that reads, “It’s my body, and it should be my choice”—and she's openly acknowledging all the fear, anger, disgust, confusion, and even grim irony she experienced in the wake of the photos’ publication. In a preview of the interview published today, Lawrence responds to critics who scolded that she should have never taken the photographs at all: “I started to write an apology, but I don’t have anything to say I’m sorry for. I was in a loving, healthy, great relationship for four years.” She demolishes the presumption that a female sex symbol should have to laugh off the violation in order to preserve her cool, sexy image: “Just because I’m a public figure, just because I’m an actress, does not mean that I asked for this,” she says. “It does not mean that it comes with the territory. It’s my body, and it should be my choice, and the fact that it is not my choice is absolutely disgusting.” She challenges lawmakers and law enforcement officials to hold perpetrators accountable for revenge porn: “It is not a scandal. It is a sex crime,” she tells VF contributing editor Sam Kashner. “It is a sexual violation. It’s disgusting. The law needs to be changed, and we need to change.”

As for the people who looked at the pictures: Lawrence is not ashamed, but they should be. “Anybody who looked at those pictures, you’re perpetuating a sexual offense,” she said. “You should cower with shame.”

The result is more powerful than every “is she or isn't she?” feminist celebrity interview combined.

Oct. 7 2014 1:15 PM

Aziz Ansari Is Better Than Most Celebrities at Talking About Feminism

The latest celebrity to jump eagerly on the feminism train is a man, Aziz Ansari. The actor and comedian was on The Late Show with David Letterman Monday night, where he made an aggressive case for feminism. After giving his girlfriend, who is a chef, credit for his feminist awakening, Ansari asked the feminists in the audience to clap, and some folks did. "Now here's the thing. There's a lot of people who didn't clap," he said, getting into his bit. "But I don't believe you. Because if you look up feminist in the dictionary, it just means someone who believes men and women have equal rights. And I feel that everyone here believes men and women have equal rights."

It's a defense of feminism that has become popular with celebrities because, as my colleague Amanda Hess wrote, it's "sublime" in its "lack of substance." After all, even anti-feminists who attack women's rights tend to claim to believe that women and men are equal. It's once you get past dictionary definitions and start talking about issues like reproductive rights, equal pay, or whether or not you should treat your wife like she's your mommy, then you start to see that some of those people strongly disagree with what it actually means to treat women as equals. 

But, to Ansari's credit, he didn't stop at the bland declaration of a vague belief in equality. He gave a good example: "You're a feminist if you go to a Jay-Z and Beyoncé concert and you're not like, 'I feel like Beyoncé should get 23 percent less money than Jay-Z," he said. "'Also, I don't think Beyoncé should have the right to vote and why is Beyoncé singing and dancing? Shouldn't she make Jay a steak?'"

At least Ansari is arguing with actual people who live in the world/appear on Fox News, not just using a vague definition of feminism to promote his brand. Ansari's only real mistake was assuming that everyone in the audience was with him.