Oregon, The Oregonian and a #YesAllWomen Lab Rat

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By Elleanor Chin of Portland, Oregon. Elleanor is a Board member of the Oregon chapter of the National Organization for Women. She is an attorney, writer, mother and gardener.

In the past ten days there has been a signficant public dialogue on misogyny, sexual violence and gender, spurred by the May 23 mass murder in Isla Vista California. A thread of that dialogue appeared in the Oregonian as well, encapsulating several of the main themes seen in social media and mainstream longform news. First the ingrained, normalized anxiety women have about physical safety, followed by several standard responses: empathy and recognition of the problem or defensive denial and criticism of the woman expressing the concern. Recognizing that people prone to that last stance are not coming from a place of logic, maybe it would help to look at some hard numbers and context.

The Twitter campaign #YesAllWomen developed in response to a social media thread arguing that “not all men” are violent and misogynistic, after Elliot Rodger's anti-woman “manifesto” became public. The YesAllWomen hashtag trended throughout Memorial Day weekend and included numerous women describing their experiences of sexual harassment, job discrimination, sexual assault. It also included numerous dismissive responses as well as actively hostile “trolling” directed towards women. Rape threats and sexualized bullying are a common part of women's online experience, particularly for women with online professional presences.

On May 31 the Oregonian published a letter to the editor from Portlander Lisa Frack saying, as have many women recently, “I don't park my car in a parking garage, go for a jog, sleep home alone, or walk anywhere alone without evaluating my safety from men — and holding tightly to my phone (sometimes pre-dialed to 911, in case). Always on my mind: Will a man hurt me when I'm on a run? Will a man hurt me when I return to my car?” and grieving that she will eventually have to impart this awareness to her daughter. Among the responses was one from a (safely anonymous) commentator “billstaf” who started out saying “You are pathological”, went on to add “Any sane person would know that this simply isn't true at all and the world is filled with kind and gentle men who wouldn't dream of causing harm to anyone,” and closing with an admonition to “stop watching so much Lifetime TV” and sympathizing with her “poor husband” for going through life with someone so “irrationally fearful”. Now I will disclose that Lisa is a friend and colleague of mine and I know her “poor husband” as well, but really this is an almost laboratory perfect example of defensive responses to #YesAllWomen and the underlying misogyny that women contend with in daily life. So beyond the “What a classy guy!” response to “billstaf”, what's going on here?

First of all, what does “any sane person” know? Are we women crazy? The notion that women are irrational, hysterical and imagining danger has the beauty of being classic and thus completely unoriginal.

In Oregon, a rape occurs every 7.7 hours, and other types of sex crime occur every 1.7 hours. Oregon has a fairly typical criminal code scheme breaking out different “levels” of sex offenses. “Rape” is sexual penetration accomplished by physical compulsion (or against a person unable to consent). Roughly 95% of those arrested for rape and other sex crimes in Oregon are men. Roughly 77% of arrests in Oregon for all “crimes against persons” are of men. Taking into account factors like under-reporting of rape and other sex offenses, crimes in which no arrest is made and adjusting for the fact that some violent crime is man-on-man, there's a fair degree of violent crime perpetrated against women by men. And there has been national data available for years that shows that a staggeringly high percentage of women and girls are victims of sex crimes and intimate partner violence.

Rape and other violence (whether reported, prosecuted or otherwise) also do not capture the full spectrum of intimidation and fear women manage as part of daily life: cat calls, sexually demeaning comments by strangers or business acquaintances, policing of our attire, reductionist gender-based insults or rape threats and being groped in public places.

It's simplified, but basically comedian Louis C.K. has a point: statistically, the biggest threat to women, in the aggregate, is men, in the aggregate.

If “any sane person” knows that violence is a real category of risk in life, what about all the “kind and gentle men” that “fill” billstaf's world? This is the essence of the #NotAllMen hashtag, the shadow twin of #YesAllWomen, trending at the same time. There are plenty of critiques of the questionable psychology of this, with just one good example here (written by a man):

Most men, whether they’re frat boys or fine-art curators, do not commit or condone violence against women. But...it’s unhelpful and weirdly defensive to repeatedly assure women that #NotAllMen are rapists or murderers. Women know that already. Most of them have men in their lives whom they love and trust. No one, as far as I know, has suggested that all men are equally to blame for the crimes of Elliot Rodger. The real question is whether all men did enough to stop him (we didn’t) and what we can do to stop other men from doing similar things in the future. It’s a little paranoid, and more than a little revealing, for men to respond as if our entire gender were attacked when large numbers of women summon the courage to tell us that they feel threatened by us.

The peculiar thought process aside, “the world is filled with kind and gentle men” is a completely atypical approach to dealing with crime or risk generally. The analogy for other crimes or risks would be “I am not a burglar. The world is full of not-burglars! Therefore everyone who installs a home security system is irrational.” Or “I and the men in my family are safe drivers, therefore no one needs to purchase car insurance. Moreover, your requirement that I and others purchase car insurance is evidence of your disordered thinking.”

Also, this is a bizarre view of causation. If billstaf is not a rapist, it simply means that I will not be raped by billstaf, not that I will never be raped by anyone. The likelihood of that happening has nothing to do with billstaf, but everything to do with overall risk and probability. If 9 out of 10 men is not a rapist that is #NotAllMen. It's “NotMostMen,” even. But if the remaining 1 in 10 man assaults, demeans or molests multiple women, it can add up to 1 in 5 women victimized pretty quickly.

All of us spend our lives managing the possibility of something bad happening. Men do it too, whether it is choosing to wear a bike helmet (or not), using robust passwords to avoid identify theft, or taking off their shoes every time they go through an airport because someone once tried to light an explosive shoe in an airplane lavatory. Reasonable minds can debate whether any risk mitigation strategy is efficient, but the proper response isn't “there is no risk”. The fact is, for women, the risks that we manage every day include exposure to acts committed mostly by men. To focus on the “not rapists” or the “not burglars” prioritizes the fear of being accused over the risk of being actually injured.

#YesAllWomen made the point that, regardless of the fact that not all men are rapists or harassers, all women have experienced some form of discrimination, exploitation, violence or restriction due to their gender. This ranges from the basic mindset towards personal safety, the pervasiveness of rape prevention directed at victims rather than perpetrators, being silenced in school and at work and being treated as presumptively available sexual forage by strangers in all public or private settings. It is rare to have a major public examination of women's experience of misogyny in daily life, in all its sordid detail. As painful and frustrating as the discussion may be, we should all engage in it, preferably in a respectful and factual manner.

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