Posted in: Feminism
Published on Oct 09, 2018 by Phyllis Chesler
Sounding the alarm but not reducing the threat
Women from coast to coast and around the world are alleging sexual harassment and rape and emboldening other women to join them. It seems as if a “sisterhood” of heroic survivors is upon us.
But have women always been sympathetic when other women cry rape?
In early 21st century America, most prosecutors of rapists preferred not to have women on the jury because they chose not to identify with the woman alleging rape as a psychological way of reassuring themselves that nothing so horrendous could ever happen to them, or because they believed that “whatever went on was not rape.”
At that time, according to one study, American college women did not usually believe women who alleged sexual harassment or rape. Legal researcher Lynn Hecht Schafran found that both women and men believed that only “bad girls are raped” and that women “enjoy rape.” Ms. Schafran’s study confirmed that both female jurors and female judges “avoid acknowledging their own vulnerability by blaming the victims.”
What, if anything, has changed since then?
We now know that high-profile predators cornered, humiliated and violated female employees, and did so, undisturbed, until late in 2017.
No one knew; but everyone knew, including other women, including the victims themselves whose jobs or careers were on the line.
We are in the midst of a digitally empowered revolution in terms of the #MeToo moment. Using this hashtag, women have come forward in all the languages of Europe and North America, and in Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Persian, Russian, Urdu and Yoruba.
However, even as this consciousness-raising via hashtag is underway, girls and women continue to be routinely gang-raped in war zones by armed barbarians. The victims of the Janjaweed, Boko Haram, ISIS and the Taliban have and had no hashtag recourse, nor have 99 percent of those who’ve been trafficked into sex slavery by relatives, kidnappers or pimps.
The Second Wave feminists of my generation (1963-1978) may have sounded the alarm about sexual harassment, rape and sex slavery, but we failed to decrease these evils. Perhaps we underestimated the ways in which the historical “droit du seigneur,” (the right a Lord had to deflower all virgins just before their marriage), was continued by factory foremen, office bosses, agricultural supervisors, and Hollywood and Television big shots. All believed that exacting forced sex was a natural perk of the job.
Or, was our failure to abolish forced sex on the job also due, in part, to our having underestimated the role that women play as bystanders, opportunists, collaborators and hostile actors in the sexual terrorization of women?
This was a fact that few of us could admit at the time. We were trying hard to rescue womankind’s reputation from the onslaught of stereotypes and Big Lies long launched against us. Institutional feminism insisted that women were not crazy, or evil temptresses, nor were we intellectually deficient; women were more “relational,” more compassionate — in fact, morally superior to men.
This was a hopeful and rather desperate feminist line of defense.
In some ways our hope was well grounded — but not entirely. Like men, women also internalize patriarchal values. They must, in order to survive. Thus, mothers in incest families sacrifice the daughter who is being raped by her father rather than sacrifice the pedophile’s paycheck. Likewise, women cover for male bosses or political leaders who are known to molest other women on the job; it is their way of remaining employed or of even profiting from looking the other way.
In terms of the ruthless, heartless, sex trade, women also assist male pimps, in luring, tricking, transporting, training and policing other women. In the British Journal of Criminology, Rose Broad has argued that female pimps have themselves been trafficked and are only carrying out the desires of male pimps, either as an exit strategy from a lifetime on their backs or as a way of currying favor, avoiding punishment.
Thus, it has been argued that women are (only) carrying out the patriarchal agendas of men; if so, how are they different than men? To what extent are women morally, if not criminally, culpable? What do we do when an offender is a former victim? And if she is: Does this lessen the harm she’s done?
In the hotly contested and high profile 1980s case of battering victim Hedda Nussbaum, feminists were torn: Joel Steinberg, Hedda’s common law husband, had illegally obtained a female infant whom he had tortured for five years, then murdered, all on Hedda’s maternal watch. Some feminists viewed her as an adult criminal, capable of agency, while others viewed her as a victim who had been rendered incapable of agency.
From a psychological point of view, incest survivors blame the mothers who failed to protect them far more than they do the fathers who violated them. Girlfriends blame their best friends for stealing their husbands more than they blame their cheating spouses. Survivors of crimes, even war crimes, say they are haunted by those who heard their screams but turned their backs, refused to take any stand other than an opportunistic one.
In my view, one cannot remain a bystander without becoming complicit. As women, we must acknowledge, not deny, that we, too, have roles in the patriarchal class, race and gender drama, not only as victims, but also as opportunistic collaborators and bystanders.
Can we find ways to rescue the sexually abused child next door? Or our co-worker who is being harassed on the job? Short of going on strike (well, why not?), can we each find ways daily to resist, expose, shame and abolish the extraordinary epidemic of sexual violence against women?
• Phyllis Chesler is the author, most recently, of “A Politically Incorrect Feminist: Creating a Movement with Bitches, Lunatics, Dykes, Prodigies, Warriors, and Wonder Women” (St. Martin’s).
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