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Saturday, September 06, 2008

Heterophobia / Professing Feminism

"In America, through pressure of conformity, there is freedom of choice, but nothing to choose from." - Peter Ustinov

***

"Preface

Like many women in our society, I have experienced what is now labeled "sexual harassment"—on the street, in school, and at work. In Paris, a man once grabbed my breast as he walked by me... In a crowded subway in Rio de Janeiro, a man behind me masturbated while pressing up against me. In New York, a man whispered as he passed mc, "Boy, would I like to eat that!" Before graduate school, when I worked as a secretary, one of my bosses was constantly irritated with me because I refused to date him. I finally complained to his superior, who rebuked us both: my immediate boss for pestering me, and me for being flirtatious. In another job. a boss said to me, “You must be horrible in bed—you're so efficient!”...

These episodes were not pleasant, but neither were they devastating. Least of all were they typical of my interactions with other human beings. Unlike many present-day commentators on the subject, I would feel exceedingly foolish if I were to refer to myself as a "survivor," or even a “victim,” of sexual harassment. None of these experiences did me any real harm. But even if they had—and even if I grant that other women might react differently or have more disturbing experiences—I would have to weigh and measure the benefits of being spared this sort of behavior against the costs of preventing it. Certainly I cannot join forces with those activists who want to see all such events—even the pettiest street harassment that is not (yet) actionable in most places— become illegal.

There is, moreover, another side of the coin, which must also be acknowledged... when I was a student, I did indeed aggressively pursue professors who interested me. So did many of my female friends. I used to find excuses to go to their offices and lead the conversation to personal subjects. Sometimes my girlinends and I would follow a "favored" professor around in a car. Once I even trailed a man on foot for a block or two because his aftershave left an enticing fragrance in the air. (Was this “stalking”?)...

From these incidents I take a simple lesson: that the experience of sexual interest and sexual play (which can indeed be obnoxious at times) is an ordinary part of human life, manifest in different ways in different societies but predictably present in one way or another, as it must have been since the Garden of Eden. It seems to me that except for egregious offenses such as assault, bribery, or extortion (whether sexual or not)—for which legal remedies have existed for many years— the petty annoyance of occasional misplaced sexual attentions or sexist putdowns has to be tolerated. Why? Because the type of vigilance necessary to inhibit it would create a social climate so unpleasant, and ultimately so repressive, that the cure would be much worse than the disease.

Would we really want to live in a sanitized world in which each of us is fully protected from any offensive or otherwise unwanted word or gesture? In which every interaction must be scrutinized for possible sexual implications or slights based on gender? In which a kind of paranoia poisons the very idea of sexual expression between people in situations containing that supposedly fatal element, a "power imbalance"). I don’t think so... Yet from the very beginning, the subject of sexual harassment has been marked by definitions rooted in feminist assumptions about the relations between men and women, assumptions that are long overdue for questioning.

... Teachers who are most devoted to their classroom work, who are most ready to chat with students and to demystify the boundaries between teacher and student (as recommended by feminist pedagogy), are most often the ones who find themselves caught in the web of sexual harassment charges.

Consider the case of Michael Bullock, a popular forty-nine-year-old high school math instructor known for his devotion to teaching. A female student poked playfully at Bullock, in front of the class, commenting on his corpulence by saying that his chest was big. He replied that hers was small. This response led to his suspension from teaching. While waiting to hear whether he was to be reprimanded or transferred to an administrative job, Bullock killed himself. Now his students say, “He cared too much. That’s what got him.” In the emotional confusion that followed this event, a school spokeswoman defended the girl who had made the charge, expressing concern—and this is the most telling detail of the case—that the suicide would have the effect of discouraging other students from filing complaints...

In the supposedly more adult universe of higher education, rational people are devising their own measures for warding off trouble. I have spoken to many colleagues who now say that they will not close their doors after a student enters their office. They watch their words and wonder whether it is wise to discuss “sensitive” issues in class, however germane these may be to their subject. Up and down the academic ranks, people are acutely aware of the dangers of doing something, however innocuous, however inadvertent, that another person. espe. ciallv a subordinate, might possibly consider offensive or inappropriate. Lawsuis about matters that would have seemed ludicrous just a few years ago have now become commonplace. An offhand remark or misperceived gesture can threaten an entire career. A professor’s encouraging words or practical help can be retroactively interpreted as “grooming” for sexual demands at a later time. On the other hand, criticism of students’ classwork or disagreement with their ideas can be construed as contributing to an environment that impedes their full participation in academic life... These are not hypothetical situations. They are drawn from actual cases in recent years...

Introduction: Redefining the World

In late February 1998, I attended a conference on sexual harassment held at Yale University to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the publication of Catharine MacKinnon’s Sexual Harassment of Working Women. To me, what was most interesting about this event was what was not said at any of the sessions, by any of the participants...

At no time during those days did any of them acknowledge, much less address, a different prejudice that quite openly underlay the panel discussions of case after case of males harassing females. Not even a hint was given that the great success of sexual harassment law might be stimulating what I call “heterophobia,” meaning fear of, and antagonism toward, the Other—in the present context men in general—and toward heterosexuality in particular. Not a word was uttered about false, frivobus, or opportunistic accusations.

The MacKinnonite orthodoxy was in hill swing. Disagreements were minor and limited to opinions on what sort of approach would he most useflul in curtailing sexual harassment: Was prevention the key? Isn’t the conflict between equality and freedom overdrawn? What is “unwelcomeness”? Why not require men to prove that they knew their advances were welcome? Should personal liability be recognized, along with employer liability? Would this be a good way to address “street harassment”? Should sexual harassment liability be an insurable risk? Should certain words automatically be considered evidence of sexual harassment? Where do bisexuals fit in?...

At no time throughout these proceedings was any divergence of opinion expressed—much less discussed—about basic definitions and principles of the problem of harassment. The one notable exception was a paper by Professor Kingsley Browne, who argued that sexual harassment law restricts workplace speech and is a form of censorship aimed at reshaping conduct...

At the conference’s opening session, Andrea Dworkin, the radical feminist, her voice heavy with emotion, informed an audience of several hundred people that the “backlash” began when white middle-class men saw that sexual harassment law was going to affect them. This reaction, Dworkin thoughtfully suggested, showed us that “millions of men wanted to have a young woman at work to suck their cock.” Did anyone rise to contest such outrageous slander directed at all or most men? On the contrary...

Heterophobia

Something very strange happened toward the end of the twentieth century. Heterosexuality went from being the norm to being on the defensive. By calling this phenomenon “hecerophobia” I am not speaking abstractly. Rather, I am referring to a distinct current within feminism over the past thirty years, a current that has been “theorized” explicitly by feminist scholars and agitators alike as they attack men and heterosexuality. Such writings, as we shall see later in this chapter, bear all the hallmarks of what has been called a “manic” theory—that is, one that does not know its own limitations.’ Not wishing to be guilty of precisely the same offense, I readily affirm that the attitudes I criticize are not held by all women, not even, perhaps, by many women, though certainly they are found among many feminist women. In their everyday form, they occur as “male bashing.” As Karen DeCrow, former president of the National Organization for Women, has stated, “God knows, in the last twenty-five years, man as ‘the enemy’ has certainly emerged” within feminism...

[Sally Miller] Gearhart’s confident vision of the feminist future is pointedly countered by another contribution to the volume in which her essay appears. This is Rachel Bedard’s account of her experiences in all-female groups. Following a failed marriage and a feminist awakening, Bedard moved into a lesbian separatist house “with tremendous expectations of feminist support and nurturance. But within weeks [the women] were divided over everything from dinner hour to cats to who owned which soap in the bathroom.” When the household broke up before long, Bedard accompanied a woman friend to New Zealand. There she met a peaceful, caring, vegetarian man who grew his own food and tried to live in harmony with the planet. His example made her wonder whether such a way of life might not be more useful than lesbians marching and screaming obscenities. She became involved with him, all the while tormented by the thought that she was “betraying all women” by being “in complicity.”” Still, knowing now that women too have what she calls “human” problems, she “could begin to move back to the personal from the political,” which for her included marriage to a man. Predictably, she was ostracized for this by former friends. Tolerance has never been a notable characteristic of feminism—the “nurturing” quality of women notwithstanding. Bedard’s account of these experiences is entitled, appropriately, “Re-entering Complexity.”...

Ordinary men these days fear to challenge feminist perspectives. As psychotherapist Laurie Ingraham comments, “The ‘in thing’ is to totally support women no matter what.”’ Many men do this only passively, through failure to challenge feminist assertions and aspersions, like the men Ingraham describes at a professional meeting of therapists: They sat quietly while demeaning comments about men, made by the women running the event, were greeted with much laughter by the predominantly female audience, the kind of reaction I, too, observed at the Yale conference described in the introduction, above...

One might retort that there really is little cause for alarm. Heterophobes today are not generally in positions of authority. They do not occupy posts that let them enforce their ideas. In one sense, this is obviously true. No leading politicians have run on a platform of heterophobia. But consider the kinds of prominence actually achieved by feminist ideas. These ideas are now repeated and assented to by people who certainly do not regard themselves as feminist extremists, and who perhaps do not even realize where their rhetoric originates, so successful has it been in mainstreaming itself as reasonable and warranted protection of women.

Sexual harassment legislation and regulations, in school and in the workplace, are clear demonstrations of the real power feminist theorizing has acquired in daily life. The relations between men and women have indeed become “problematized,” so much so that any word, any gesture, may these days give offense to women. If in the old days women’s complaints against men’s abusive behavior were seldom taken seriously, today things have moved 180 degrees. Nor is this just a matter of a turnabout in social norms, or a change in office etiquette. As we have seen in part II, people have lost their jobs because of flimsy or entirely false allegations of sexual harassment. In many instances, men (and some women) are being deprived of due process. And there are feminists who quite explicitly and seriously consider that this is a justified course. In their view, due process is one of the patriarchy’s power tools, like freedom of speech.

Feminism has in fact been remarkably successful in creating a climate in which men’s words and gestures are suspect, and in which it is now women’s charges that are given prompt credibility, or at least the benefit of the doubt. Tell a man such as Leroy Young, who lost his university position because of a barely investigated charge of sexual harassment, that feminists do not possess power.

Heterophobia (despite its apparent relationship to the long tradition of sexual repression in America) should not be mistaken for a nostalgic return to Victorianism. On the contrary, its best fit is with the dismaying history of twentieth-century totalitarianisms. A tendency toward totalizing pronouncements and an absence of respect for the political process—the heart of which, after all, is compromise—are blatant among feminist extremists.

But at the moment, the dominant trend within feminism seems still remarkably resilient to any self-criticism. When in May 1996, I sent the Women’s Studies E-Mail List a message relating to my heterophobia project, inviting reactions, scores of hostile replies poured in. Women told me that my project was dangerous, ill conceived, and methodologically flawed; they seemed about evenly split between those who denied there was any heterophobia within feminism and those who said men deserved it. Quite a few objected to the term “heterophobia” itself (evidently unaware that the “radical feminist” Robin Morgan herself used the term, and at times deplored the tendency, in a 1982 book).’...

By contrast, most of the handful of supportive responses were sent to me privately, not to the entire list. These led to some fruitful exchanges. Some women observed that their heterosexual women’s studies professors seemed to be the most heterophobic of all. This is the phenomenon of “male bashing” familiar to many who have taken women’s studies courses but ardently denied by defenders of the faith, who insist it is merely an invention of those promoting the “backlash” against feminism."

--- Heterophobia: Sexual Harassment and the Future of Feminism / Daphne Patai


Another interesting read:

Professing Feminism: Education and Indoctrination in Women's Studies by Daphne Patai and Noretta Koertge

Table of Contents:

Part One: Cautionary Tales From The Strange World Of Women's Studies

1. Introduction to the World of Women’s Studies

2. Cautionary Tales from Women Who Walked Away
Students Who Stomp in Seminars. Political Purity and Hostile Colleagues ♥ "Women’s Studies Can Be Harmful" ♥ "The Chickens Come Home to Roost" ♥ "Who Owns Women’s Studies?" ♥ Scholarship in a Sea of Propaganda

3. Ideology and Identity: Playing the Oppression Sweepstakes
Unraveling the Web of Feminist Discontents ♥ IDPOL: Identity Politics and Ideological Policing ♥ The Amazon Laughed: "Tell Your Brothers" ♥ Sleeping with the Enemy ♥ Dismantling White Women's Studies ♥ Patriarchy and Pigs at the Trough ♥ The Price of Oppressive Privilege

4. Proselytizing and Policing in the Feminist Classroom
Surviving Women’s Studies: Students’ Perspectives ♥ Training the Cadres ♥ Fulmination and Ferment ♥ Propaganda and Resistance ♥ Confusion and Condemnation ♥ Feeling Good versus Becoming Competent ♥ Feminist Pedagogy: A Midterm Report

5. Semantic Sorcery: Rhetoric Overtakes Reality
Throwing Away the Master’s Tools: Playing TOTAL REJ ♥ WORDMAGIC and Other Language Games ♥ Phony Philology ♥ Metaphor Madness ♥ Linguistic Litmus Tests ♥ Accordion Concepts ♥ The Power of Naming

6. Biodenial and Other Subversive Stratagems
Socially Constructing the Birds and the Bees ♥ Is the Mind the Only Sex Organ? ♥ GENDERAGENDA: Cleansing the Curriculum of Phallic Phantasms ♥ How "Feminine" Tunes are "Brutally Quahsed" ♥ "Logic... Is Insane" ♥ Opposition to Exact Science

7. "Mirror, Mirror on the Wall": Feminist Self-Scrutiny
Assessing Women’s Studies ♥ "Women’s Ways of Knowing" ♥ The Mission of Women’s Studies ♥ Connected Knowing and the "Believing Game" ♥ Critical Thinking, Feminist Style ♥ "Quality Control": Big Sister Is Watching You

8. Cults, Communes, and Clicks
True Believers All ♥ Problems in the Promised Land ♥ Arrested Development ♥ "For Fear of Finding Something Worse"

9. From Dogma to Dialogue: The Importance of Liberal Values

Part Two: Women’s Studies In The New Millennium

10. Rhetoric and Reality in Women's Studies
Unmentionables ♥ Hierarchy is a "Guy" Thing ♥ Where's the Patriarchy? ♥ Dissenting Voices ♥ Recruiting Adherents

11. Policing the Academy
Feminist Pedagogy Redux ♥ "Antifeminist Intellectual Harassment" ♥ Why Not a Feminist Overhaul of Higher Education? ♥ Protecting Some Speech ♥ Going "Bolivarian" with a Feminist Twist ♥ New Sexual Orthodoxies

12. Feminists Take on Science: Tilting at the Evil Empire
Feminist Incursions into Science Pedagogy ♥ The Empire Fights Back: Gross, Levitt, and Sokal ♥ Three Exemplars of Post-Science Wars Writings: Schiebinger, Potter, and Fausto-Sterling ♥ The Chilly Climate within Women's Studies for Science Students ♥ Women's Studies vis-a-vis Science Studies?
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