Sunday, October 12, 2014

Sexual Assault and Gendered Stereotypes

Lately, I’ve been coming across articles that address cases of gendered violence where the victims are men. The most recent piece I’ve read is “When Women Sexually Assault Men,” by Livia Gershon. The thing that strikes me most about the article is its emphasis that we often dismiss the idea that a man has been sexually assaulted because of the stereotypes that we subscribe to. Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that the same holds true for our dismissal of the idea that a woman has been sexually assaulted:
THE NOTION THAT SEXUAL assault of a man by a woman is impossible, and even laughable, rests on the same gendered assumptions that are also used to downplay assaults on women by men. Even after decades of feminist activism, many discussions of sexual violence still center on telling women to stay sober and be cautious around men. The ideas behind that advice—the image of men’s sexual desires as constant and all-consuming and of women as the gatekeepers to sex—also makes it impossible for many people to imagine men as victims. If men are always seeking sex, and frequently shot down by disinterested women, then they should be grateful—or at least not traumatized—by any kind of sexual attention from a woman. Taking sexual coercion against men seriously gives us even more reason to fight against those stereotypes.

These stereotypes have an impact on male victims of sexual assault and on their likeliness to report their experiences:
Men who experience sexual assault or other violence by intimate partners are less likely than women to report the incidents to the police. They frequently think no one will believe a woman sexually assaulted them, are embarrassed at not being able to fend off an attack by a woman, or harbor fears of being perceived as “gay” or not masculine for not wanting to have sex, Struckman-Johnson suggests.

For me, this particular article is valuable because it touches on something I’ve been thinking about: the idea that men and women are radically different, enshrined in the title of a popular book, “Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus.” I haven’t read the book, but I have noticed how quick people are to grab on to the idea that men and women are so dramatically different that we have to learn each other’s “languages” and ways of thinking in order to better understand each other.

Of course there are differences between men and women, based on biology and on the ways we have been socialized (and it follows that there are further variations based on culture, class, and other factors). But I think that, in our eagerness to emphasize these differences, we’ve been too quick to sweep our similarities under the carpet. By denying our similarities, we make it more difficult to recognize that other people have the capacity to feel disempowerment, pain, and shame, as we do. So we allow ourselves to diminish their experiences of discrimination and trauma, claiming that they can’t be as bad for “those people” as they are for us.

I’m also starting to think that the tendency to emphasize our stereotyped differences is a way to avoid seeing ourselves and others as individuals. If we can put everything down to the rationale that “men are this way” or “women are that way,”, then we don’t have to recognize that people are individuals who subscribe to philosophies/belief systems and have personalities and the right to choose what kinds of situations to get into. Ultimately, this makes it easy to avoid examining our own behavior and motivations and taking responsibility for them.

Quoted in the article by Livia Gershon, Struckman-Johnson puts it well. She points out that stereotypes about women’s and men’s sexuality make it possible for female perpetrators to rationalize their sexual aggression and minimize the traumatic experiences of their victims:

 “Because of the idea that men are sexually oriented and wanting it all the time, it kind of lets them off the hook,” she says. “They get to assume they’ve got a ready and willing partner here who would just love to have sex with them. That is not the case, that’s denying individuality, it’s denying personality, it’s denying people’s rights to choose their sexual situations.”

Monday, June 24, 2013

Violence and Accountability

Lately, there have been many media reports about rape incidents and the public’s responses to them. So discussions of victim-blaming, what it constitutes, and why it is wrong have been making a regular appearance in various electronic magazines and on discussion forums. The discussions that have made the most sense to me have been those that have emphasized that rape is an act of violence and domination.

As many have already pointed out, there is too much of a tendency to think of rape as a sexual act, and to therefore explain it away as a “normal” response to a victim who was “asking for it.” I have often heard the argument that, if we were talking about any other form of violence, or if the rape victim was male, people would not be so quick to resort to victim-blaming. I don’t agree with that, though. In fact, based on what I have seen and heard over the years, I think that more and more people are inclined to view vulnerability as something to be detested and dominance and power as ideals. It is very much evident, not just in the way they talk about rape victims, but also in the way they talk about other individuals or groups of people who have been subjected to violence, systemic or otherwise.

These are learned attitudes. They’re not just pulled out of the thin air. That’s why I absolutely agree with those who say that we have to educate youth and adults to regard rape as unacceptable and to hold rapists responsible for their actions. But I think the education has to be broader than that. It really should address our attitudes towards violence and victims of violence as a whole.

An article on RHRealityCheck discusses precisely this issue, referring, at some length, to the violent sexual assault of a 13-year-old boy, the use of euphemisms to disguise the violence that was done to him, and the subsequent scapegoating of the boy and his family by residents of their town. The boy’s story is told in greater detail here.

I find it very troubling that the town turned away from the boy when it seemed evident that the violence he was subjected to was part of a ‘tradition.’ This form of sexual violence is likely to have been done to other boys, and probably will be done to yet others – the town residents’ sons, brothers, cousins, nephews, grandsons. So why isn’t the first instinct of these people to protect the boy? Also, where on earth did the boy’s attackers learn how to rape a younger boy? This is not the behavior that anyone in their right mind expects of teenage boys. Were they themselves victims of similar attacks in the name of “hazing”? The article raises very troubling questions about the types of communities we’re living in and about our safety and the safety of those we love. It makes it pretty evident that violence and victim-blaming are problems that we need to address now.

This work is licensed to Rose Kahendi under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License. 

Friday, August 10, 2012

Turn the TV off

I’ve been thinking about the impact that the media has on our self-perception as women, minorities, etc, because it’s something that interests me. Much of what I’ve encountered is negative. For instance, the scarcity of positive black role models in the TV and print media leaves children feeling that there is not much for them to aspire to. As for black females, they take away from the media the idea that dark tones of skin and frizzy hair are to be detested, as are curvy figures.

This is heart-breaking, of course. But I also read something that got me wondering. It was an article about media consumption patterns among different racial and ethnic groups. According to the piece, black children spent significantly more time watching television programming than kids of any other ethnic group. That made me think about the roles we played as consumers, whether active or passive. And I did wonder whether there was something more we could be doing as individuals to make a difference in our children’s lives.

Are we all really as helpless as we make ourselves sound when we talk about the negative effects of the media on our kids? Do our kids have to be plugged in to Hollywood’s version of the world? What would it be like if we stopped being such avid consumers of empty, soulless programming and shallow magazine articles? What if we stopped feeding our children images of materialism, mediocrity and dysfunction?

I realize that many people turn to the TV and other forms of media to keep their kids occupied because they have limited options. Perhaps they’re working two or three jobs to put food on the table and can’t sit down to supervise their kids. Perhaps a sitter is beyond their budget. Perhaps having the kids go outside and play is not an option because the streets are unsafe. They likely recognize that plonking the kids in front of the TV is not the best option, but are trying to make do with what they have.

But is it really true that there are no options or alternatives? I would like to believe that people have some degree of agency, even in very difficult situations. Maybe they can’t reform the media, but they can certainly be more selective about their children’s consumption of it. Kids don’t have to watch or hear everything, even if it has been rated suitable for their age group. That applies to both TV and radio. Video games should also be included in this discussion. While some video games can be remarkably educational, others can be disturbingly realistic in their portrayal and glorification of violence and sexism.

Books are the most ideal form of information and entertainment that come to mind. When I was growing up, electronics and video games were out of reach. Our only consistent way to amuse ourselves, outside of playing or doing our chores, was to read. And that we did with gusto. All the kids I knew, whether poor, middle class, well-off, rural, or urban appreciated a good book. We made a habit of borrowing books from each other and buying second hand books. Brand new books would have been beyond our budgets, and functional libraries were like some rare species that you caught sight of once in a while.

That is why I wonder why it is easy for many Americans to identify books with elitism, and TV with the average guy’s experience. In my experience, books are actually cheaper to acquire in the first place, and to continue to use, while anything electrical or electronic is on the pricier side. Mind you, I’m not talking about heading to expensive bookstores or buying an e-reader. I’m talking about joining a local library, and getting access to thousands of books at no cost to yourself, or buying secondhand books. It amazes me that getting kids to appreciate books over cable TV, electronics, and video games can be a challenge in the American context. In an ideal world, books would be valued more highly, and literacy would have a higher priority than chest-thumping about being the greatest nation in the world.

It must be said, though, that even books have to be vetted. It’s not enough to grant one’s children access to books. One must also know what they are reading. Wherever possible, parents and guardians of impressionable kids have to play a more proactive role in determining what kinds of images they are being exposed to.
This work is licensed to Rose Kahendi under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.

Friday, August 3, 2012

On HIV/AIDS, religion, and public health

Over the years I have lost many to HIV/AIDS: family and friends. I can’t tell you how many, though. I stopped counting a while back. However, I can tell you that, because of the impact of HIV/AIDS on my life, I know what stigma is. I know what it is like to watch people sink into depression, lose hope and die because those who matter most to them have rejected them. 

HIV/AIDS as we have experienced it in the East African context has struck the family as a whole: men and women in their prime and young children have been the typical victims. Our AIDS story has had much to do with heterosexuality. So one can’t simply label HIV/ AIDS a “gay disease” as has tended to happen in the US. Our governments have had to address AIDS as a national crisis because it has stricken the mainstream.

In nations such as the US, where the tendency has been to associate the disease with sexual and ethnic minorities, I get the distinct sense that little mainstream urgency has been attached to the fight against AIDS. There are certainly men, women, and youth who have devoted their lives to fighting this apathy. But, unfortunately, there are also others who tend to view HIV/AIDS as a form of punishment for “breaking God’s laws” on sex and sexuality. Of course, this is not a uniquely American view. I have also encountered it among some people of faith in the East African context.

My interactions with those who have expressed these troubling views have led me to think about just how limited this particular religious approach to human problems is. I’m talking about a specific interpretation of the Christian teachings on sex and sexuality. The idea is that, if everybody limits themselves to following these teachings and only engages in sex within the context of heterosexual marriage then sexually transmitted infections (STIs) such as HIV/AIDS will cease to be a problem. In other words, the only way to curb the spread of HIV/AIDS is to be a “true” Christian.

That is all well and good, except that never in the history of humankind have all members of a given community adhered strictly to its religious teachings: A “true” Christian can get infected with HIV/AIDS even if he or she is firmly heterosexual, married, and faithful. For one, there is such a thing as a cheating spouse. Secondly, infection can be transmitted through rape. Yet another situation that facilitates the spread of infection is transfusion with infected blood and blood products. Yet another is the use of unsterilized medical equipment. The list goes on and on.

Those who persist in seeing HIV/AIDS as a form of divine punishment conveniently forget how closely interconnected we all are. As a result of these interconnections, HIV/AIDS does not discriminate. When you are exposed to the HIV virus, it does not ask whether you are “saved,” pray regularly, give alms to the poor, fast, or obey God’s law. If your defenses are weak, it penetrates them and infects your body whether you are rich or poor, young or old, “innocent” or not, devout or otherwise.

Keeping all of this in mind, how useful is it that a significant number of religious leaders have a simplistic approach to dealing with HIV/AIDS? How useful is it that they condemn it as a sinners’ disease, oppose the use of condoms under all circumstances, and oppose most forms of sex education? Simply put, their actions are not useful. In fact, to the extent that they influence public policy, they end up endangering everybody in the community.

Knowing this, I think that those of us living and working in communities stricken by HIV/AIDS should persist in emphasizing that it is treated by government and health organizations as a public health issue, not a moral issue. From a public health standpoint, we can speak about HIV/AIDS in its complexity. We can also talk about risks, prevention, and treatment. Importantly, we can make an effort to protect everybody.

What is the place of religion in all of this? Well, I honestly think people are entitled to believe whatever their religions teach them. However, I also think their beliefs should be directed towards governing their personal lives and setting moral standards for their religious communities. They should not be imposed on the broader national population as public health policy.

Further reading
"Education, honest dialogue key to halting spread of AIDS," by Chris Carlin and Debra Stanley, 1/17/07,
"HIV and AIDS stigma and discrimination," 
"Public health approach to combating HIV/AIDS,"
"HIV/AIDS stigma: an impediment to public health," by Ronald O. Valdiserri, MD, MPH, March 2002,

This work is licensed to Rose Kahendi under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Problem-solving: a skill we desperately need

I've had the good fortune to live and work with people who have devoted themselves to solving problems. They are really the unsung heroes of our communities. They are the ones who fix the things that are broken in our systems or carve out new paths to bypass the old, dysfunctional ones. These people work in a variety of fields. I'm not just talking about those who work in healthcare, law, social work, or pastoral care. I'm talking about people in almost any field out there. Heck, I could even be talking about you.

I've come to realize over time that people in general spend a lot of time and energy making much ado over nothing. We invest so much capital in symbolic battles against those whom we perceive as our enemies, and we do this in big ways and small ways. People who spend much of their free time gossiping about and undermining personal enemies do it. So do political parties and other large entities that thrive on creating controversy and provoking outrage. And these actions come at a cost. What they add up to, at the end of the day, are symbolic victories, but the real foundational problems remain in our communities.

You want some examples? Look at the state of contemporary American politics. More specifically, look at the kinds of legislation that American conservatives have been pushing for all over the nation in the past few years. I'm talking about those laws that focus on issues that conservatives consider to be key to the nation's moral fabric: abortion, contraception, gay marriage and civil unions.

If you happen to be conservative, you may consider these nationwide legislative victories to be a great accomplishment for your side. But there's one thing you should be worried about vis-à-vis this kind of legislation: It's the fact that the legislators making it happen are doing it as part of a cynical calculation. The idea is this: By achieving these symbolic legislative victories, they signal to the people who voted for them that they have done what they were put in office to do. They subsequently win the loyalty of their constituents, but they have absolutely no incentive to work on legislation that actually solves the biggest problems facing their communities (e.g. unemployment, the failing health care system, malnutrition).

Today, American communities battling poverty, health crises, and other long-term problems are not actually dealing with these problems. Not in terms of policy, anyway. The problems are not even on the agenda. And the not-so-funny thing is this: When problems are ignored, they do not vanish. In fact, they have this knack of growing bigger and bigger. An apt illustration of this is Mississippi, one of the poorest states in the U.S., where conservative legislative efforts have been focused on making the one abortion clinic in the state next to impossible to operate. In the meantime, the average Mississippian is struggling to make it from day to day, living in the margins.

If you're on the ground in these communities, the situation is very frightening. To use a Kenyanism, things are elephant (there's a huge catastrophe impending). You watch as the existing problems are compounded; perhaps you even know what is broken in the system and how to fix it. But you also know that any proposals you make for policy changes will come to nought. Only if your proposal stands to make somebody somewhere a fat load of cash will it see the light of day.

In Kenya, I see pretty much the same kind of inertia about solving problems. The symbolic battles fought in the media are often flimsily disguised battles about ethnic supremacy. Occasionally, they're about religious supremacy and morality. Many Kenyan politicians and religious leaders alike are highly vocal about these kinds of issues. They know that they are effective in rallying support, and 'consolidating the base.' And they are successful: For some reason, people gain tremendous satisfaction from boisterously supporting or opposing some cause or another, and don't seem to mind that their shouts and rallies do nothing to ease their lives. When all is said and done, the old problems persist in the community: poverty, chronic health issues, food insecurity, environmental degradation, and others.

The people I consider heroes in this anti-pragmatic climate are the ones who live in our communities, recognize our problems, and put in the hard work necessary to solve them in their own small way. If they have private capital, they use it to put their ideas into practice. If they don't, they reach out to others in the community with similar interests and they leverage their resources to craft solutions. When they face obstacles due to political obstructionism, corruption, etc, they don't give up. They simply look for a way to bypass them. Their main aim is to solve the identified problem, not to get fame for it, and not to profit materially from it. So they labor on quietly, achieving little victories and making a big difference in the lives of some.

Their victories do not lie in reaching large numbers of people. Even if only a few people's lives are improved, the problem-solvers' achievements remain meaningful. They form a template that the rest of us can borrow from. We can learn from them: We can learn about the techniques they used and adopt their attitiudes. Hopefully, by adopting their active approach to life, we can solve some of our larger problems.

These thoughts didn't come to me out of the blue. I've been pondering on them for a long time. Part of my motivation has to do with the work I have done as a volunteer, and my exposure to others who have volunteered in other contexts. Part of my inspiration actually comes from observing those religious and ideological communities that place a high premium on self-sufficiency (sometimes due to a history of persecution). Even in those cases where I disagree with their core teachings, I find that they have valuable attitudes and practices that have helped them to thrive. Some of the groups (broadly-defined) that come to mind include the American nucleus of the Church of Latter Day Saints and the survivalist movement in the United States.

One of my more recent inspirations was Dylan Ratigan, who until recently hosted a show that was part of MSNBC's daily line-up. It seemed to me that he placed a high premium on getting beyond partisan squabbles to discuss real problems and solutions. I don't know how successful a recipe that was for TV. Addressing real issues is hardly ever sensational enough to attract consistently high ratings. But I did take away from his show the urgency of pulling our heads out of the ground and getting to work. In the last installment of his show, he emphasized this philosophy and described his intention to continue working with those who were committed to developing solutions to the problems in their communities. He also wrote briefly about the same in one of his Huffington Post articles.

Another huge inspiration comes from Iran, via Mississippi: A description of a community health project that is intended to reach the rural poor. I've already linked to the relevant article above, but here it is again: These folks are working with very little institutional support, but their ideas are clearly solid. I can't help wishing that they could rally the support of local communities, especially churches, and mobilize the public to raise funds for their endeavors.

Working together to build the community is a learned skill. Some people are fortunate enough to be born in communities where this skill is taught. Others are born in communities where it is underemphasized. For those living in communities of the latter type, learning how to organize to solve practical problems is a godsend.

Reading about these kinds of communities makes me realize just how important effective community organizing is. We tend to think of community organizing as facilitating civic protest. But it can help communities achieve much more than that. Surely, it can help communities develop solutions to their healthcare problems. It can also help them educate families about healthy nutritional practices and sustainable living.

One of the fundamental lessons I have learnt from my experiences and from others is that one's capacity to be an effective problem solver is drastically diminished if he/ she is an outsider to the community. How can one propose practical long-term solutions when he/ she hasn't lived in a community and doesn't know in precise detail what kinds of complications govern the community members' lives? This seems obvious. It also explains why the best solutions for community problems are homegrown solutions. One can't simply translate solutions wholesale from another community. They have to be tried out locally and modified to suit local circumstances. And for them to gain any currency in the community, they have to be seen to work for locals.

This is why I'm increasingly inclined to support the idea of people everywhere being more proactive in crafting solutions for their unique local problems using whatever resources they have at their disposal. Governments may help in some ways, but they can't do everything. In some cases, they don't do anything, not even the bare minimum that we have come to expect from them. As I write these words, I'm thinking about the annual floods and droughts in certain parts of Kenya (for example), and wondering at the fact that, even when these catastrophic events happen predictably, we still get caught unprepared. What can we realistically do in local communities to be better prepared for these kinds of crises?

To answer these kinds of questions, we need to take a close look at the social infrastructure we have. We need to look at the ways in which our communities are structured, see what kinds of social nets we have for people in times of crisis, and determine how to strengthen them. If the social net is the extended family, what can we (as individuals and families) do? If it is a local religious community, then let's work with that: what can we do? I'm interested in seeing religious activists spending less time burning boxes of condoms at rallies and more time building structures to support teen mothers who choose to keep their children, or to help AIDS patients who are stigmatized by their communities.

I'm also interested in seeing so-called tribal organizations investing their energy in mentoring young unemployed men and women and giving them internship opportunities, not indoctrinating them to hate others. How about villages? There's so much we can do, especially those of us whose communities have lost their most productive men and women to diseases such as HIV/ AIDS, TB, cancer etc. There is much more we can do to support the struggling families among us. We come equipped with active minds and bodies, so let's not wait for help from on high.

In the spirit of practicing what I preach, I intend to continue blogging about this subject. It strikes me that problem-solving is undermined when one has little or no access to information. So I'm going to make it a point to share any information I come across that has the capacity to inspire and empower others. Feel free to communicate with us if you have any ideas that you'd like to share.

This work is licensed to Rose Kahendi under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

When "beauty" is a scam

Thanks to "Victoria's Secret Models, Runway Walking and Booty Paint," an article by Erika Nicole Kendall, I got the opportunity to discover a December 2009 article by Leah Chernikoff that touches on some of the behind-the-scenes goings-on in the fashion industry.

Apparently, "countless hours" go "into making the most beautiful women in the world look so ethereally sexy." Pay close attention to the words of Selita Ebanks in "Victoria's Secret Angels strut runway in $3 million bras, 100 pounds of glitter," the second article. Ebanks, one of the models in the Victoria Secret Angels show, shared an open fashion secret: "People don't realize that there are about 20 layers of makeup on my butt alone."

The article goes on to describe the labor intensive processes that go into making that perfect shot:

In addition to body makeup, which Ebanks estimates takes well over an hour to apply, the Angels prep in hair and makeup for three to five hours before hitting the runway, with an average of five people - hair stylists, makeup artists and manicurists, working on each of the 38 models.

That's three to five hours, people. With five professionals working on one woman's skin and hair. And please don't forget the chuckleworthy 20 layers of booty makeup. Does any ordinary woman honestly think she can reproduce those conditions during her morning makeup routine? Does anybody actually want to reproduce those conditions?

I cannot lie. The article in its entirety cracked me up. I just find the lengths to which the media and the fasion industry will go to preserve the illusion of perfect bodies ridiculous. When you really think about it, it is nutty. None of us would hesitate to label a woman neurotic if she applied 20 layers of makeup to her lower body before stepping out in her swimsuit. But, somehow, it is okay when the fashion industry does it. Maybe we have managed to convince ourselves that the fashion industry is doing it to achieve artistic ends. However, we should be honest with ourselves. This "art" is being created for a receptive audience: us.

So what is this madness? Why do we allow the media to sell us such unrealistic images of female beauty? And why do we subsequently give ourselves the impossible task of living up to the associated standards? The answer is not that we are too naive to realize that the images are unrealistic. Every single woman looking at those images recognizes, at some level, that "alterations" have been made. The photos may have been edited, or makeup may have been lavishly smothered on the women's skin. Whatever the case, we know that those women do not actually look like that.

I'm one of those people who happens to think that audiences are not passive bystanders. We actually make choices about what forms of media to be exposed to. So we consciously choose to buy the fashion and style magazines, and we choose to watch those runway shows. I think that it is too easy to speak of the nuttiness of the fashion industry when we know only too well that their actions meet a neurotic need on our part.

What is to stop us from being more judicious in our choice of reading materials? What is to stop us from being more selective about the TV channels we watch? The answer is simple, but sad: Many women do not want to see images of "flawed" bodies on their TVs or in their magazines. They want to see "perfect" bodies. Any female celebrity who makes the "abominable" mistake of being caught on camera after venturing out without makeup or putting on a few pounds learns this very quickly.

It is apt that one of the commenters on Erika Nicole Kendall's article makes this  precise observation (in comment number 1.1). The commenter, Mac, points out that "when someone actually posts a picture of a woman with flaws, the other women in the crowd usually pick her apart every way possible. Someone posts a lady in a swimsuit and all you hear is, 'what’s that on her forehead,' 'her stomach doesn’t look right,' 'her arms need a little bit more work, she needs to go back to the gym,' and it goes on and on no matter how beautiful the woman is or what the commenters look like."

Mac hits the nail on the head. But it wouldn't be honest to claim that all women were guilty of responding negatively to portrayals of "real" bodies. Plenty of women see beauty and character in idiosyncracies. Freckles, moles, and birthmarks are among the so-called imperfections that make faces more interesting, and people more memorable. Excessive makeup and airbrushing tend to have the effect of making all models look alike. They all have the same look, the same bodily proportions, the same hair textures and styles. Frankly speaking, they become boring to look at, part of the monotonous background that we peer at as we flip through magazines, suppressing the urge to yawn.

Personally, I prefer to see images of "real" women because they are more interesting. I think that there is beauty in our idiosyncracies (which photo editors and makeup artists would likely call flaws) and in our diversity. It is truly sad that we allow people with limited imaginations to set the limits for the images we are allowed to see on screen and in print.

This work is licensed to Rose Kahendi under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

On "Schrodinger's rapist" and the construction of healthy boundaries

An online search for the term "Schrodinger's rapist" led me to some very interesting articles, including the two listed below:

1. Schrodinger's rapist: or a guy's guide to approaching women without being maced
2. Schrodinger's rapist and Schrodinger's racist

I strongly recommend that you read these articles, because they bring into focus the all-important issue of setting boundaries and respecting them. Both articles address, to some extent, interactions between a man and a woman who are relative strangers to each other. They point out the degree to which the average woman has to be extra cautious when interacting with a man, because she has no way of knowing whether or not he poses a threat to her. He might turn out to be a rapist; he might turn out not to be one. But because rapists don't wear neon signs on their foreheads declaring that they are rapists, and because they do not have horns growing out of their heads or visibly forked tongues, she simply has to be cautious.

Now the thing is that there are many well-intentioned men in the world. They bear no ill-will towards women. When they set out to interact with a woman, perhaps they are just being friendly: Maybe they're trying to help a woman in a bad situation. But then the woman responds to their friendliness with coldness, suspicion or fear. The immediate response of many of these men is to take offense at the very idea that they could be thought of as potential rapists or thugs. It is a perfectly natural response and one that I understand. I imagine that I might be similarly miffed if, in a parallel situation, somebody misunderstood my intentions.

It is what happens next that is particularly interesting to me: The man could realize that, for whatever reason, the woman feels threatened by his attention. He could then adopt a less threatening stance and step back, ultimately leaving her alone. Alternatively, he could choose to give her a piece of his mind and express his displeasure or anger at her assumptions. Now I suspect that some may think that the latter approach is the way to go. But the two articles are adamant that it is not, and I am bound to agree with them. It is better to recognize that the other person has set boundaries and that, whether or not one likes them, one must respect them. When a man is unwilling to recognize that a woman's previous experiences are shaping her perceptions of his actions, and when he refuses to acknowledge that he might, in fact, be intruding in her space, and that she has the right to determine for herself what situation she is uncomfortable with, he is trying to intimidate her into 'trusting' or 'liking' him. That is bullying, plain and simple.

Now, I recognize that the situation described thus far is gender-specific, but this analysis could be more broadly applied to other contexts. I'm sure we can all think of gender-neutral instances where relatives, friends, coreligionists, workmates, etc. have taken offense when an individual has expressed discomfort with a situation, subsequently claimed that this person's assertion has offended them and tried to intimidate the individual into going along with their agenda

I am familiar with one particular situation because of my interest in HIV/AIDS awareness efforts. One of the things that has long been evident to me is that many people in sexual relationships have a hard time discussing sexual health and protection frankly with their partners. Ideally, this is something that needs to be discussed before they became sexually intimate and then revisited afterwards. But their partners often shut down the discussion by invoking "trust." Any inquiry about the partner's history of STD infection or any request that they should use condoms is almost invariably met with the response, "Don't you trust me?" even when the offended party knows that he or she is being unfaithful or has previously been infected. Thus, the individual's attempts to take reasonable precautions and to draw boundaries within which he or she will feel comfortable are turned into a personal attack on his or her partner's trustworthiness. Not surprisingly, many are essentially bullied into having unprotected sex, into infection with HIV/AIDS or other STDs and, in the case of some women, into unwanted pregnancies.

Yet another situation involves the man or woman who decides to leave the religion within which he or she was raised. Perhaps something about the religion violates his or her conscience. Perhaps he or she has never really believed and is tired of keeping up the facade. Thus, he or she decides to set up new boundaries by no longer worshiping, attending services, or reading the scriptures of that religion. Perhaps he or she chooses an alternative religion, one that sits better with his or her personal moral code. The coreligionists who respond to such a decision by framing it as a rejection of them and fight against it on that basis are essentially refusing to recognize his or her individuality and freedom of conscience.

The above situations illustrate the problems that can follow when people are unable to appreciate and respect the fact that an individual holds a different viewpoint. When the appearance of consensus is prioritized above all else, the truth ends up being sacrificed. People feel pressured to suffer their discomfort, or fear in silence, because they have been led to believe that expressing what they actually feel will hurt others' feelings. The process by which the other person's feelings end up being prioritized over their own emotional well-being is hardly examined. It just proceeds smoothly, taken for granted as the normal course of events.

This subject is one that I have thought long and hard about because I have come to recognize that this kind of coerced consensus is maintained, not just in interpersonal relationships, but also at the communal level. The community can bully an individual into agreeing with the status quo, or it could stand by in silent approval while an individual does the bullying. This is an ethical problem of immense proportions. It whittles away at one's individuality and crushes his or her will. Furthermore, it creates an environment where abuse can thrive unchallenged for years. Ironically, this is the status quo in many communities that claim to hold free will, honesty, and integrity as ideals, most notably, intensely devout religious communities.

The question is, "What is the best way to address this problem?" Returning to the original example, is it incumbent on the man who is perceived as "Schrodinger's rapist" to respect the boundaries set by the woman, or is it incumbent on the woman to hold on to continue to assert herself, even in the face of resistance or intimidation by the man? The obvious solution is that both approaches are necessary. But I have a special interest in asserting the importance of the would-be victim's actions in this situation. I think it is especially empowering for individuals to gain the tools that allow them to set up and maintain their boundaries even when being pressured to give in by others.

The beginnings of victory lie in recognizing the moment when one's self-assertion is made to seem like an attack on the other person's feelings and resisting that interpretation of events.

This work is licensed to Rose Kahendi under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.