Newsflash: Men aren’t wolves

One of the weird paradoxes of patriarchy is the idea that on the one hand, men are naturally the dominant group in society because they’re more rational, have bigger brains, control their emotions better, and make more sensible decisions and life choices; and on the other, women must dress “modestly”, act “respectably” and take all kinds of “preventative” measures against sexual harassment and violence because men are literally incapable of stopping themselves from being abusive to women.

It’s beautifully highlighted by this article about a man getting very defensive after the woman he and his mates had been harassing on a daily basis for a month reported them to the police. (For the love of your brains, do not read the comments.)

If you break down Ian Merrett’s excuses for his boorish behaviour, there’s the More Rational, Bigger Brains, Less Emotional excuses:

“We stopped doing it … it’s not worth getting into trouble over some silly little girl. I don’t know why she complained, she must be thinking things above her station.” Because that’s not demeaning at all!

“I have wolf-whistled so many girls … and never had a complaint before … But I’ve got a girlfriend so need to be careful what I say.” Because women are cuh-RAY-zee and fly totally off the handle when you brag to the media about how many women you’ve “snogged” after sexually harassing them.

And then there’s the Literally Incapable of Controlling Myself excuses.

“I didn’t even see her face” … but I wolf-whistled at her anyway, which means it couldn’t “possibly be sexual harassment” because when you’re objectifying a person based purely on their gender it’s, um, something else.

If Ms Smart walks past them again and is “lucky” “she will get wolf-whistled again” … even though they “stopped doing it” after the police told them about the complaint.

So to sum up the wisdom of Mr Merrett:

  • wolf-whistling is just a natural reflex triggered by the vague presence of a woman
  • but they can stop doing it as long as someone in uniform is telling them not to
  • except they won’t
  • but it’s a total compliment anyway to have someone’s subconscious brain-spasm react to your existence
  • and you shouldn’t feel objectified just because the vague shape of your body is sufficient to trigger pushy sexual vocalisations. That would be thinking above your station.

And they say it’s feminists who think men are animals …

Deborah Russell on Jane Austen, rape culture and John Key

Great feminist minds do think alike – back in January I posted a classic quote from Pride and Prejudice which shows just how entrenched the idea of “a woman says “no” when she means “yes” to lead men on” is in our culture.

The amazing Deborah Russell has used the same quote to highlight a slightly different issue: the way men don’t even bother assuming a woman is playing games; just refusing to hear the word “no” at all.

The connection to John Key’s sexual harassment of Amanda Bailey should be obvious – but head over to Deborah’s and read the whole thing. It can’t be said enough.

On John Key’s “fetish”

In the case of the Prime Minister and his habit of sexually harassing a young woman at her workplace, far too many people have instantly jumped on the “he has a ponytail fetish! LOL!” bandwagon (and even a few on the “I bet he’s a child abuser!” bandwagon).

This is simply inappropriate – and harmful. For a start, none of us know John Key well enough to say what floats his boat; for another, it’s a totally inaccurate definition of what a fetish is. Someone with a fetish is quite as capable as anyone else of understanding consent and the word “no”.

But the kicker for me is how this response casually erases the commonplace, everyday nature of sexual harassment.

When we see an unmistakable case of a man harassing a woman in her place of work, manipulating the power difference between them, it is far too easy to say “oh, he’s a deviant. He’s not normal. Normal people don’t do that.”

It’s a very common reaction. It leads to a huge number of rape myths – all rapists are scary scruffy thugs, not that nice young man, that doctor, that priest. It leads to the downplaying of violence when we refer to certain abusers and murderers as “pillars of the community”. It leads to the immediate cries of “Aspergers!” or “Insane!” when nice young white men from Good Families murder dozens of people.

We want to separate the world into group A: Those Terrible Freaks Who Abuse People and group B: Normal People Who Don’t Do Bad Things. We categorise some crimes as “not that big a deal” when the person doing it can be slotted into group B; we categorise people as group A when their offending is unquestionably over the line.

And so we end up making armchair diagnoses of John Key’s sexual predilections and even accusing him of horrific acts of sexual violence rather than owning the truth. Men sexually harass women all the time. Customers objectify wait staff all the time. Sexism is all around us. It is not the province of “freaks” and “deviants” and “those kinds of people”.

Perfectly ordinary men can be abusers. Perfectly chummy politicians can be harassers. Perfectly nice young men from good white families can commit terrible acts of violence. And plenty of women who have worked in hospitality can share identical stories of customers who thought it was hilarious to harass them.

I don’t know what turns John Key on. I don’t want to know. But the fact is that he has sexually harassed at least one woman in her workplace and showed absolutely zero genuine remorse for it. He’s still making excuses even as he “apologises”. And he’s not the first sexual harasser to do it. Not even the first senior New Zealand public servant to do it.

This is a story – at the moment – about one woman’s repeated experiences of harassment. A story which highlights our terrible attitudes around consent and power and gender and privilege.

Of course it’s much easier to make this about undermining John Key’s masculinity by implying he’s sexually dysfunctional. It’s far easier to slot him into group A and hurl accusations of even darker deeds than address the widespread, ever-present misogyny of our society.

But we should resist the impulse, and we can. Just like John Key should, and could, have kept his hands to himself instead of being a perfectly ordinary, abusive creep.

(It should go without saying but I will not publish any comments along the lines of “but he totally DOES have a fetish though!!!”)

Why #Ponytailgate is serious business

As broken by The Daily Blog today and corroborated by the Prime Minister’s office:

The Prime Minister has apologised to a waitress who accused him of repeatedly pulling her hair at an Auckland cafe.

The waitress made the claims  in an anonymous blog post. She is said to be by a waitress at a cafe frequented by John Key and his wife Bronagh near their Parnell mansion.

My thoughts, as I dashed them off to Twitter earlier:

(I was corrected: the manager is a woman.)

Sadly, I expect this will be like so many stories of its kind: a one- or two-day wonder in the media, breathless headlines about “what the waitress said about the PM”, and then we’ll all move on.

Some related reading on the general principles: