Friday, January 18, 2013

Dressing Up for Social Justice: Taking a Stand Against Sexual Violence

By Allyson Carr, Associate Director of the Centre for Philosophy, Religion and Social Ethics.

To open up the new semester and a new year on Ground Motive, I thought I would start by tackling a big issue that has been receiving a good deal of attention in the news lately and which also, from time to time, has been a topic in my own research. That topic is sexual violence. As an acknowledgement of the truth that this is a deeply traumatic and personal topic for many people, I am placing a warning here that although I have tried to choose news links very carefully, any of the links referred to below may include traumatic "triggers," since they contain the stories of woman who have been subjected to some of the most atrocious crimes one could imagine. These stories are important to know, however, so that we can address the underlying issues which often support such crimes.

I was already thinking about writing a post on this difficult topic when a friend of mine sent me a link to a picture of some men in India who were protesting against rape. Seeing the picture changed the tone of what I was going to write, but I will get to that in a moment. First, some background for those who may not be aware of details of the ongoing situation in India. The current wave of protests were ignited by the recent brutal gang rape of a 23 year old woman on a public bus, which resulted in her death from injuries sustained during the assault. Aside from the fact of its extreme brutality, it has touched such a public nerve because sexual violence is a widespread problem across many parts of India, with perpetrators getting off easy or with no consequences at all, and politicians or public figures making excuses that only strengthen such a culture. (Eating chowmein?! Really?!)

The picture I saw, which was posted on reddit (a social news website) and commented on by one of the men in the picture, was of a group of men who had donned skirts as a form of protest in support of women. (Just as an aside, I am referencing the image at the top left of the page and not necessarily the comments on that image, which occur on the same page. The comments reflect the democratic and at times chaotic nature of anonymous social commentary--some of which will be on topic and others of which will devolve into irrelevant or even offensive "jokes.") The signs these men had taped on their shirts made the point behind their choice of dress clear: one of the signs read “Men, teach your sons not to rape,” while another added “Men, don't skirt the issue: speak up, support women.”

First off, kudos to these men for understanding a fundamental truth about any form of social injustice—of which wide-spread rape is a stark example. That truth is that injustice concerns both those who bear the brunt of it and those who do not bear the immediate brunt. To put it another way, if there is a cultural or societal problem with sexual violence against women, it's not a "women's issue, but an issue for everyone in that culture or society. And it can only productively be dealt with by co-operation across cultural or societal membership: in this case, with women and men thinking, speaking, and acting together. 

Now, let's be honest: this is not just a problem in India. We could begin by talking about how rape has been used across many different cultures as a tool of war. We could continue by noting that sexual violence can be targeted at specific communities or cultural groups (speaking, for instance, about the significantly higher rates of violence perpetrated against First Nations women in Canada, and the apparent systematic refusal to treat it as a systematic problem.) But even in areas that are not currently at war, sexual violence has a long history of having been used as a tool of control. Our streets and homes in Canada are hardly free from this, and I could add my own stories from growing up in a small, impoverished city in Michigan, where sexual violence was part of the fabric of social relations. Of course I was told to protect myself by dressing conservatively and not going out by myself even during the day, and I was also told not to look men or young males in the eyes, (in case it might provoke them). But I learned as I grew that sexual violence had little to do with sex as such, and a great deal to do with how women are viewed, as well as with some men's feelings of social powerlessness to which they respond by taking their rage out on people they could treat as more powerless than themselves. Really, sexual violence had to do with control. 

This is precisely why sexual violence is a social issue, and an issue of social justice. The sexual violence we are seeing with increasing clarity today, I would argue, comes largely (though not entirely) from this dual root: on the one hand, a perception of women as a "resource" to be controlled, and on the other hand as a reprehensible manifestation of rage and frustration stemming from other issues of social injustice, such as racism, poverty, and hunger. Neither of these roots is any excuse for sexual violence, but both of those roots need to be addressed, systematically and individually, to end sexual violence against women. (I should say here that sexual violence can and does happen against men as well, and is equally inexcusable. I am focusing in this post on sexual violence against women because it is by far more widespread; but that is not in any way to denigrate the impact of the horrific sexual crimes some men or boys have also had perpetrated against them. All sexual violence must end.) Systematic injustice, both in the form of gender-based oppression and social oppression of other kinds, is a pressure-cooker for violence in general and sexual violence in particular.

Earlier I mentioned that I had already been considering writing a post on the topic of sexual violence, and that seeing the photo I have described here changed the tone of how I was going to write the post. That is because seeing images like this one give me hope. The decision these men pictured in skirts made to "dress up for social justice"--to put on clothes that are culturally seen as reserved for women, as a means of making a point about demanding social justice for women--was one way that they could take part in the co-operation across cultural and societal membership I mentioned above. This is a form of solidarity. It is a way of saying that this sexual violence is not just a "women's problem," but is everyone's problem. It is a way of taking a stand on a vital issue of social justice upon which healthy social cohesion depends. Finally, it is one way of joining in an already ongoing conversation, and advocating the idea that working together in solidarity can bring good change. So here's my question today: what can we say as part of that conversation? And what can we do to ensure that real, positive change happens both here in our own culture(s) and across this increasingly globalized world?


  1. Thanks for this reflect Allyson. The picture of the men in skirts inspires action that is constructive rather than raw anger.

  2. Thanks, Caleb. Raw anger was indeed my first response. And I think continued anger is an appropriate response. But if our goal is real change then I think the anger has to be the right kind of anger, (and there are many kinds of anger!) and I also think that along with the right kind of anger we need constructive action like this. We need solidarity in the many myriad forms it can take--whether that's "dressing up" or blogging or attending protests or volunteering at rape crisis centres, or just not letting a misogynist (or racist, or somehow otherwise socially unjust) comment go unchallenged.

  3. I really appreciated this post, Allyson. I felt every sentence cut right to the bone; your tone was perfectly appropriate to the subject matter and left me with a sense of hope and urgency--this is the stuff that matters. These are the results of an illness in societies that leave one sick to their stomach. I can't answer your questions very, although I am trying to think through them myself. One question I have of relevance is what can be done to change the way people perceive women, and moreover, WANT to perceive women. What I mean is, why do so many people not see the objectification of women as a bad thing and that which plays such a role in leading up to horrific moments such as rape. They--and especially including women themselves--blur the lines between the 'objectification' and the 'appreciation' of women's beauty. Is it too much for me to connect the two: objectification of women with violence? I think of course that the responsibility of an act of violence comes down to the agent him/herself, but certainly like you say this is a systemic issue and how women are perceived must change. And so women and men must both do something about this: women must demand respect in all areas of life and men must give them respect regardless, and vice versa.

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    2. Great post Allyson, and good comment Sarah. In regards to the objectification of women (which I agree is a problem) I offer a concern. One of the ways we could, as a society, attempt to reduce the objectification of women is to return to a repressed state, where sex and sexuality are taboo topics... complete with societal rules that nudity is dirty and sex is not part of the conversation. (I am not saying you personally are advocating this at all, just one possible 'answer' to the problem you lay out, that I fear will make sense to many people.)

      I my opinion, sexual repression is one of the things that feeds sexual violence. The sexual revolution of Western society over the past several decades has allowed two generations of women and men to begin integrating their sexuality into a healthy part of the characters. This work has been difficult and not without problems but I think it has improved the lives of men and women vastly in general. I also think sexual violence is more likely in a culture that only whispers about sex and does not talk about it -- it keeps us from having frank discussions with our sons and daughters about what healthy sexuality looks like, and shames victims into silence.

      Our goal should be to avoid seeing one another as sexual objects, but see one another as people whose sexuality is an integral but not wholly defining part of their personhood. We won't get there by making healthy discussion of sexuality a societal taboo or by eliminating sex and sexuality from our media altogether.

    3. Thanks, ---. I think you raise an important point when you talk about how to respond to the objectification of women (or people in general): do we respond by shutting down conversation and making things such as sexuality or nudity taboo, or do we open up conversation and have a robust and healthy debate on the images that are present in the media, etc? Of course, these two responses are opposite ends on a spectrum of possible responses, but they do lay out some of the ground.

      The goal you outline of avoiding seeing one another as sexual objects, and instead as "people whose sexuality is an integral but not wholly defining part of their personhood" is a good place to start, I think. It requires more individual work than passing legislation that forbids suggestive images in advertising (for example), but developing such a discerning attitude, one that looks at images and asks the question "does this image objectify or does it allow this person to be a person" could go a long way in improving intersubjective relations between and among people.

      As an example, I remember once watching a scene in a movie from a decade or so ago (unfortunately I can't remember much about the movie itself, nor its title) where a man, a pastor I believe, was speaking about the need to end a violent culture and turn again toward peace. But as one of the most important steps toward changing from a culture of violence to one of peace, he said "we have to learn to protect and respect one of our culture's greatest resources: our women." While I understood the character was calling for an end to particular forms of violence against women, I couldn't help but think that he was, at the same time, replicating a different kind of violence, one linked directly to the objectification that you and Sarah and Carolyn have all touched on. Women are not a "resource." Thinking about women as a resource has, historically, been a large part of the problem of violence against women. Control of resources is the reason for the majority of the wars and conflicts present today, and historically we have not given resources rights, though there is beginning to be some conversation on that topic, such as whether the earth itself has rights. Learning to see people as people would go a long way toward correcting that kind of "resource" mentality, its objectifying tendencies, and its frequent violent consequences. Is that, then, the ethics we should be fostering in our relations, our work, and our research?

    4. Hi Allyson. I am intrigued by the question you pose as an example of developing a discerning attitude: "does this image objectify or does it allow this person to be a person".

      I'd be hard pressed to come up with an example of an image that does NOT "objectify". La Vérité objectifies, for pity's sake. I can't help but feel that "objectification" is just a replacement word for "obscene", an attempt to make our censorial urges more rationally grounded, or at least seem to be so. If image-by-image censorhip had never been an option I suspect that our theorists would have had to come up with something else to describe the effects of images on our collective psyche.

    5. Hi Daryl. How the word "objectification" should get applied to images means different things to different people, of course, and an image that I feel objectifies women (or men, or any other way of being human for that matter) may not seem so to someone else. So you raise a good objection (if I can use the word when speaking of objectification) when you bring up the notion of censorship. And I am not typically an advocate for censorship, since censoring things often has the effect of making what is censored look more desirable, and I suspect coming up with universal criteria by which one could censor in a pluralist society may cause more problems than it solves. Perhaps I should revise my question, then, and add that we should strive for teaching ourselves and people in general to ask the question of themselves, and not (immediately) collectively: "what does this image say, and is it something I should learn from, or shall I pass it by?" Inculcating this kind of response considers the effects of images, (good, ill, and the entire complex spectrum in between) from a personal standpoint, which is where we all have to begin. Moreover, if we raise respectful discussions on these questions instead of just censoring the images, then we will inculcate a culture of learning and thinking about how we effect one another... which I think would be a step in the right direction.

      Btw, I think your other comments raise some good issues as well, and I'm hoping to respond them soon.

    6. Yeah, teaching critical media-absorption skills, starting in JK, would be where I'd like to see us go.

      It's not that the word "objectify" doesn't get at something but I think that something is best understood in reference to an entire class of images (texts, or whatever) rather than any individual work. For example, it's easy to see how fashion photography "objectifies" women by reducing them to mannequins, but no single picture can do that. It takes an entire cloud of information to have that kind of effect.

      It occurs to me that we are already taking the antidotes for these kinds of objectifying information clouds. Yes, we still have many portrayals of women in a single dimension of interest, chiefly visual sexual appeal, but we now also have women reading us the news, which if you are old enough to remember, almost never happened at one time. The cloud of information about women is not so singularly focussed on sex appeal anymore, as women are "breaking out" into visibility in more and more areas. Encouraging different kinds of visibility seems far more important to me than discouraging particular kinds.

  4. Thank you so much for this post, Allyson! It is a beautiful and insightful response to a difficult issue. I especially appreciate how you highlight both the systemic nature of the problem and the need for a response from all sectors of society.

    I liked Sarah's comments about the objectification of women in our culture, and I think that's a huge issue that needs to be addressed in our society. Why are we content to allow women to be treated as sex objects in movies, magazines, advertisements, etc.? Why do we think that somehow that is acceptable? It probably has something to do with economics...

    1. Hi Carolyn. To answer your dangling question, it has everything to do with the fact that men like it enough that there is money in it. What can be done about that?

  5. Hi Allyson, Caleb, Carolyn, Sarah and all.

    The part of the original article about the men who expressed solidarity by wearing skirts caught my attention. Their act would be easy to explain as a stunt, or as playful symbolism, but I think it in fact demonstrates solidarity much more strongly than that. By wearing skirts in their protest these men are crossing an identity line, and crossing that line is dangerous. Danger elevates it from symbolic expression of sympathy to unity through shared risk.

    In case it's not intuitively obvious to everyone, the danger I speak of derives from the definitive link between violence and dominance and male identity. Denying the importance of male identity thusly understood -- a denial easily accomplished by permitting oneself an element of female identity -- invites acts of dominance from other males, or at least loss of social status and the protection of the group.

    We often try to understand violence against women with ideas that have something to do with women. We say it is how a patriarchal society ranks women, or how sexualisation and objectification endorses treating women in ways that would not be acceptable otherwise. It is not fashionable to speak of it as a male problem even though we are clearly speaking of *male* violence. These men in their skirts have, I think, found a way to bring the issue of male violence into relief without simply promoting a harmful or at least futile critique of men.