Cressida Heyes Phd

28.11.14 Erin L: Thoughts on gender and sexual violence

Guest post by student Erin L.

It was via my Facebook newsfeed that I found out that one man had come forward, accusing Jian Ghomeshi of sexual assault. For those who aren’t familiar with the story, Jim Hounslow, one of Ghomeshi’s former classmates at York University, claims that the two were waiting for an elevator one evening in the earlier 1990s when, without warning, Ghomeshi grabbed Hounslow’s genitals. Hounslow recalls twisting Ghomeshi’s arm behind his back and shoving him against the elevator doors.

The friend who had posted the article condemned Ghomeshi. But—he and another male commenter both agreed—they were not quite as concerned about Hounslow’s story as they were about the growing number of women who had come forward. Maybe this is how the media felt as well: since his disclosure on November 5th, Hounslow has received remarkably little media mention or public outcry. While #ibelievelucy (referring to Lucy Decoutere) and Reva Seth’s story were—and still are—widely shared on social media, Hounslow’s allegations lacked the same following.

Because Hounslow’s story surfaced once the preliminary media buzz had begun to subside, one explanation is that the public was simply no longer as interested in the latest addition to the ever-extending list of allegations against Ghomeshi. But the fact that my friends who posted the article couldn’t really articulate what was less disturbing about Ghomeshi’s alleged male assault made me suspicious there might be something else going on.

Offering a glimpse into public perceptions of male sexual assault and even ‘masculinity,’ the comment sections on Hounslow’s story were particularly revealing. There seemed to be a noticeably different public reaction to Hounslow’s disclosure. There was not, for example, anyone praising Hounslow for the courage to come forward, a response I had noticed to some of the female survivors’ stories[1]. Some comments questioned his credibility (e.g. “The story from Jim Hounslow doesn’t ring true… it just doesn’t fit the pattern”), while others were skeptical of his motives (e.g. suggesting he was looking for a few minutes of fame, or that he must want to get back at Ghomeshi as a former rival).

I began thinking of R.W. Connell’s theory of ‘hegemonic masculinity.’ Connell suggests that male-dominated societies involve an idealized form of masculinity, which is defined in relation to women and other (‘lesser’) masculinities. If masculinities are constantly being communicated, manipulated and reinforced in the public sphere, how is this reflected in comment sections—arguably, a new virtual public space? What do these discussions say about understandings of gender and sexual assault, and about hegemonic masculinity?

Responding to Hounslow’s allegations, one comment reads: “[a] certain type of guy would look up to jerks like Ghomeshi – usually guys who are insecure or who lack confidence in themselves. A self-respecting man would steer clear of somebody like Ghomeshi” (emphasis added). This is typical victim blaming rhetoric, implying that it was due to a flaw in Hounslow’s character that he fell prey to this kind of predatory behavior. The result is that it reaffirms one type of masculinity (i.e. confident, self-respecting) over another (i.e. insecure). Another comment suggests that Ghomeshi ‘turned’ to assaulting women after his encounter with Hounslow (recall: Hounslow reacted by physically shoving Ghomeshi) because he figured they would be easier targets than men: “[o]ne wonders whether that evening in the 90’s was when JG concluded that it would be safer to pick on women.” By suggesting that women are natural victims of assault, hegemonic masculinity again prevails, reaffirming the strong man/weak woman binary and simultaneously silencing the voices (and discrediting the ‘masculinities’) of male survivors of sexual violence.

A final response to the Hounslow story? Several commenters concluded that Ghomeshi must be assaulting people because he is a closeted, repressed, and self-loathing homosexual. This too makes sense. For, as Connell indicates, heterosexuality is central to hegemonic masculinity. Suggesting that Ghomeshi is a sexual predator because of his aberrant sexuality conceals the fact that sexual assault is an extremely pervasive societal issue, and that heterosexual men are definitely part of the problem.

Treating male and female sexual assault differently is not uncommon, however, and is an idea reinforced in popular culture. In the video for Maroon 5’s new song “Animals,” lead singer Adam Levine is a creepy butcher, obsessively pursuing his former female partner. Rightfully so, the video was immediately condemned for glorifying stalking and predatory behavior. But how do the politics change when the gender roles are reversed?

A Bitch Radio podcast responds by drawing attention to the problematic gender politics in Sugarland’s 2010 music video “Stuck Like Glue”. Singer Jennifer Nettles waits outside a former love interest’s house, proceeds to kidnap him, tie him up, and then pour alcohol down his throat. The podcast’s guests explain how, through the upbeat nature of the song, the video emphasizes the apparent ‘absurdity’ of males being targets of sexual violence, reducing the significance of women stalking men to mere comic relief.

It was quite striking, though, how many parallels there were between the videos. Both artists literally follow their ‘love interest’, while the latter does not seem interested or comfortable with the prospect. Both Nettles and Levine obsess over photographs of the people that they are stalking. And both situations appear to be former relationships gone wrong. But while “Animals” received almost immediate backlash, I was unable to find criticism of “Stuck Like Glue” apart from the above podcast.

The reality is that all of these discourses matter. Male sexual assault is often dismissed as unimportant and is severely underreported—in fact, male survivors of assault are less likely to report than the already abysmally low reporting rates on female assault.

Reducing the stigma and challenging the culture of sexual violence will not be an easy process.

The ideal of hegemonic masculinity—heterosexual, physically strong, and emotionally detached—trivializes male sexual assault. It works to silence survivors’ voices by suggesting that it is not a serious matter (because men are not ‘victims’), and that sexual assault is individual rather than societal. It also reinscribes relations of power between men and women, where women are ‘natural victims’ of assault because they are seen as the weaker sex.

We need to treat all survivors with respect regardless of gender, and start challenging the stereotypes about masculinities and femininities buried in our daily conversations about sexual violence. Becoming aware of the powerful and cunning logic of hegemonic masculinity is a good place to start.

Connell, R. W. 1987. “Sexual Character.” In Gender and Power: Society, the Person and Sexual Politics. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 167-190.

[1] I am not suggesting here that the women who accused Ghomeshi of assaulting them received unanimously positive feedback—they received their fair share of questioning and criticism. But I was still struck by the utter absence of any kind of positive community forming behind Hounslow and how this was overwhelmingly treated as a ‘minor incident’.

28.11.14 Caitlin B.: Gendered double standards?

The headlines read: equality has been achieved. There were simultaneously six female premiers governing over 85% of Canada’s population. The headlines argued: the rise of women in Canadian politics is unmistakable and unstoppable. One would hope this would mean gender is playing a reduced role in politics. Unfortunately that is simply not the case. Not only are only 25% of elected officials in Canada female, a closer examination of Alison Redford resigning as Premier of Alberta was covered by the media demonstrates that her downfall was influenced by her gender as well as treated by the media in a gendered way, holding her to a very visible double standard.

“Mediation” is the process by which the media turn an event or issue into a news story, and an eye-catching one at that (Linda Trimble 3). This mediation can become gendered, as seen in the Redford case. The language that described the turmoil within caucus during the days before her resignation is the language of violence and warfare. For example, a Global News video described her leadership as “under siege” with caucus in “turmoil”. Linda Trimble has made the case that using warfare-themed metaphors promotes a masculine view of political power (Trimble 5). Warfare is associated primarily with men and when this masculine imagery is used, it makes women appear to be political outsiders, unfit and unworthy of power (Trimble 5).

When MLA Len Webber resigned from caucus in protest, the media coverage reported that he had called her a “bully” and “not a nice lady”. It is clear that if the premier had been a man, no one would have called him not a nice gentleman. This juvenile name-calling appears to be only appropriate when applied to female leaders. No one has the expectation that a male leader should be nice. Gender is clearly at play where Redford is expected to comply with gender stereotypes and be weak, nice, submissive feminine leader. The fact that she was called a bully demonstrates that when a woman utilizes a more masculine style of leadership, she is struck down for breaking gender roles. A gendered double standard seems inescapable for women.

This gender double standard also emerges when we compare Ralph Klein and Redford. Redford was accused by Webber of throwing “temper tantrums”. When Klein was in power, he was known for his temper. While he was challenged him over it by opposition parties, his own party did not punish him for it. It was never seen as a detriment to his leadership. However, when Redford was accused of the same tactics, she was determined to be an unfit leader.

The double standard continued with the scandal over flights. Redford was accused of misusing government funds when she charged the government $45,000 for her flight to Nelson Mandela’s funeral. She was also accused of misusing government aircraft by falsifying flight manifests so she could fly alone. However when Klein misused government aircraft, he was not forced to resign.  One could argue that his abuses were even worse. Between 2003 and 2004, Klein abused government aircraft at a cost of over $250,000 as the government planes flew empty 235 times (Lakritz). At one point, he used the aircraft for a side trip to Nova Scotia to golf (Lakritz). Klein was quoted as saying that he preferred the government aircraft because he could smoke on board (Lakritz). His view on flying alone was, ““I’m not going to stop using it and I’m not going to subject myself to two or three hours out of my day to get a commercial aircraft at the international airport. So whether there’s just me or whether it’s full, I am still going to use it”.

Redford was also accused of using the government planes to attend party events, as for example when she combined attending a hospital opening with a fundraising event in Grande Prairie (Lakritz). However, this was a common practice for Klein and when the practice was brought up he stated, “If it so happens that some party business is mixed with ministerial business, so be it. What is the big deal?” (Lakritz). When challenged about these alleged abuses, Klein simply stated, “There is no abuse going on. The abuse is in the minds of the people who think there might be abuse. Abuse is something that is very subjective” (Lakritz). His party never called for Klein to resign. His statements make it clear that his behavior was not seen to either be an abuse or if considered one, not one serious enough to merit any action. While he did receive some criticism from opposition parties, the media and portions of the public, he never repaid any of these expenses and his leadership was never questioned by his party. It is clear that the Progressive Conservative party held Redford and Klein to completely different standards.

This is further seen when she was decried for taking her daughter on the plane, but external criticism was never enough to make the PC party do something when Rod Love, who was not Klein’s chief of staff at the time, rode on government planes at public expense, even when he rode as the only passenger (Lakritz). Having her daughter accompany her can be seen as part of what it takes to be a woman and mother in a leadership role. Women in politics often face criticism that they do not spend enough time with their family. But in this case, Redford was criticised for attempting to balance family and career. Flying alone was no problem for Klein’s friends, but it became a problem when a woman did it.

While we cannot excuse Redford from her abuse of government aircraft, we, the viewing public, must reminder ourselves to look for the gender politics in play underneath the surface. Politics has not become a place of gender equality, but rather a place where sexism is just harder to see.

Works Cited:
Lakritz, Naomi. “Double standard takes wing for Redford and Klein.” Calgary Herald 13 March 2014. Web. 17 Nov. 2014
Trimble, Linda. 2014. “Melodrama and Gendered Mediation: Television Coverage of Women’s Leadership ‘Coups’ in Australia and New Zealand.” Feminist Media Studies 14:4, 663-678.

22.5.2014 Sleep at Durham

A couple of weeks ago I was fortunate to be able to give a talk on sexual assault and unconsciousness at Durham University, in a visit cosponsored by the Centre for Medical Humanities. Caitríona Ni Dhuill and Angela Woods also organized a workshop on “Sleep, Activity, Agency” that included presentations from me, Felicity Callard and Jenny Laws. It was a wonderful couple of days, and the workshop has been helpfully summarized and reviewed by Patrick Levy, here. (Double thanks to Patrick for also doing some of the work of linking to the eclectic texts referenced in the discussion period!)

13.2.2014: Guest post by Madeline Smith

Since I was in a car accident six months ago, I’m unwillingly hyperaware of the way I extend and control my body. Tools like cars, according to Drew Leder’s analysis of embodied experience, allow us to “redesign” our extended bodies to interact with the world. A car, understood as a tool that acts as an…

13.2.2014: Student guest blogposts

I am currently teaching an undergraduate seminar called “The Politics of the Body,” which focuses on the political potential of phenomenological approaches to embodiment. We’ve read a bit of Merleau-Pontian phenomenology, a bit of Foucault to contrast, and discussed the (not at all phenomenological) idea that our bodies are our property. Now we are moving…

27.1.14: Good slow and bad slow?

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19.7.2013 Thinking about pain

A great interview with Lisa Folkmarson Käll on her new edited book, Dimensions of Pain.

Summer 2012

My blog has been on hiatus for a while. Mea culpa. For now, the APA Newsletter on Feminism and Philosophy has just produced a special issue on sexual harassment in the academy, which I think contains many useful reflections.

3.1.12: Singular Beauty

Photographer Cara Phillips graciously provided Meredith Jones and me with the striking cover image for our 2009 edited volume, Cosmetic Surgery: A Feminist Primer: Her book of photographs, Singular Beauty: Inside the World of Cosmetic Surgery is a series of beautiful and dramatic images of the inside of US urban cosmetic surgery offices. As Cara says…

22.12.11: Clune-Taylor on the DSD/intersex debate

Here’s another redirect, this time to a blogpost by PhD student Catherine Clune-Taylor: Disorders of Sex Development: De-Queering the ‘I’ in LGBTQI2-S