What World of Warcraft and a year-old hashtag meme can tell us about feminism’s PR problem

I’ve been thinking further about my last post.  In particular, I’ve been thinking about how it relates to the #sorryfeminists hashtag meme from a year ago.

Yeah, sometimes I don’t understand how my brain works, either, but hear me out.

In case you’ve forgotten about it (and I wouldn’t blame you), a summary is here.  In brief; the #sorryfeminists hashtag meme was born roughly a year ago from a tweet from Deborah Needleman, editor of T Magazine.  The offending tweet was as follows:

The sexy (sorry, feminists), smart, sassy Katie Roiphe live on stage @nypl on Wednesday night.

Several people took issue with the apologetic aside, eventually starting a mocking hashtag meme.  Personally, I was just thoroughly confused as to whether anyone was using the hashtag meme sincerely, ironically, or meta-ironically. At this point I decided that I had probably had enough internet for today and went outside.

But the initial criticism was essentially that the tweet promoted the widespread fallacy that feminists are thoroughly anti-sexual, and indeed anti-anything remotely fun.  Katie Baker of Jezebelle described it as “laughably idiotic” and praised those who “[made] fun of Needleman, Roiphe, and the concept that one can’t be a sexy feminist.  Or a fun feminist.  Or an [insert generally positive and/or stereotypically feminine adjective] here” [sic].

Despite the confusion, this was an admirable attempt at debunking a common myth through humor.  But it seems to me that in this regard, those promoting gender-equality (self-identified feminist or otherwise) are frequently our own worst enemies.

As an example, let’s consider the NPC dialogue that was the focus of my last post.  What exactly is wrong with the dialogue?

I don’t mean to imply that there’s nothing wrong with it.  That dialogue makes me rather uncomfortable.  But I have a very difficult time describing why exactly.

So let’s look at the original post on Blizzard’s forums taking issue with the dialogue.  Describing it as “street harrassment” or “catcalling” as in the original post doesn’t seem accurate, as there’s no indication that the woman in question even hears them (although I could be wrong about this — I haven’t managed to find a Youtube clip).

Besides these two, the other main complaint voiced in the post is that the dialogue involves “total strangers evaluating a woman’s relative attractiveness.”

The problem with this, however, is that everyone who is sexual to any degree regularly evaluates the relative attractiveness of strangers.  One evaluates the relative attractiveness of total strangers simply by being attracted to someone, because being attracted to someone by definition involves evaluating them as more attractive (to you, anyway) than most other people.  So telling someone “don’t evaluate the relative attractiveness of a stranger” is basically telling them “don’t be attracted to anyone you don’t know.”  So a reasonable conclusion here actually is that finding someone attractive is considered inherently degrading.

Apple Cider argues that (part of) the problem is that the “scale of hotness” is inherently degrading.  I’m ambivalent about whether that’s true or not, but let’s assume for a moment that I completely agreed with her on that issue.  There’s still a problem, because it wasn’t made clear in the forum post that this was the issue (at least not in the OP — thanks to Blizzard’s mods, the ten pages of responses have been consigned to oblivion).  One could try to claim that the problem is obvious, but that is clearly false.  A large portion of the population did not see what was wrong with it, so it is by definition not obvious.

Here’s another example, this time from something I received in my inbox this week: this petition against a group of pick-up artists calling themselves “Simple Pickup”.  Now, by all indications, Simple Pickup are a group of sleazy, uncouth imbeciles who are pushing some remarkably bad ideas about gender and sexuality.  But most people reading this blog post probably don’t need to be convinced of that, so instead I’d like to point out something about the petition itself that troubles me.  A few quotes, with relevant portions bolded:

Simple Pickup is a YouTube channel that features three guys as they harass, sexualize and often downright grope women on the street.

Unfortunately, the channel has over a million subscribers, and the message it sends is clear: it’s totally okay to harass women on the street, sexualize them, make them uncomfortable, and touch them without their consent.

What troubles me is the presence of the word “sexualize” in both those passages, in the context of a group of very clearly negative actions.  The natural message to take from this is that sexualization — the act of regarding someone as a sexual being, AKA being attracted to them — is inherently disrespectful or degrading.  This is a bad thing to teach people, and it seems to be a pretty widespread attitude.

The third example I’ve found in the last few days is the most disconcerting.  It comes from a draft report to the European Parliament on the subject of the sexualization of young girls.  We can (hopefully) all agree that the sexualization of young girls is a bad thing that we should avoid.  But I’m concerned by their definition of “sexualization”:

The definition of sexualisation

I. whereas sexualisation consists of an instrumental approach to a person by perceiving that person as an object for sexual use disregarding he person’s dignity and personality traits, with the person’s worth being measured in terms of the level of sexual attractiveness; sexualisation also involves the imposition of the sexuality of adult persons on girls, who are emotionally, psychologically, and physically unprepared for this at their particular stage of development; sexualisation not being the normal, healthy, biological development of the sexuality of a person, conditioned by the individual process of development and taking place at the appropriate time for each particular individual.

So there are a few things here that trouble me.  The first is that rather than picking a more intuitive term for this phenomenon — “sexual exploitation”, “sexual degradation”, etc. — the author chose simply “sexualization.”  A reasonable implication is that sexuality itself is the problem, rather than the way it is handled.

But that’s a fairly minor concern.  So long as most of us agree on what a term means, whether that term “makes sense” for its definition is not that important.  For example, most of us get that “Central European” and “Eurocentrist” mean two very different things.

But that brings us to the second, more important concern — this is not the generally understood definition of “sexualize”.  For example:

Merriam-Webster: “to make sexual: endow with a sexual character or cast”

Whatever eldritch technomancy Google uses to get its definitions: “make sexual; attribute sex or a sex role to.”

So once again, the problem is presented such that sexuality itself, rather than unhealthy attitudes toward sexuality, is the problem.

You might say that these are all nitpicks that are inconsequential in the face of the larger issue.  And if these writings were atypical, I would agree with that statement.  But my experience has been that this kind of imprecision is quite common among gender-equality advocates.

Now, as we must constantly remind the internet, personal experience is incredibly limited and unreliable when it comes to talking about large-scale issues.  But to my knowledge, no one has done a scientific survey on this (and I’m not sure how one even would), so personal experience is the best we can do for now.  And my experience has been that many, many feminist writings on these issues — perhaps the majority — have been quite imprecise about what exactly the problem is.

Perhaps you think I’m incorrect about that, based upon your own experience.  And if so, I’m afraid we don’t have the resources to definitively answer that question, so the rest of this post is kind of useless to you.  Sorry to waste your time.  As a peace offering, here is a link to a song by an excellent but little-known defunct Rock band called Chamberlain:

Anyway, one could also argue that, rather than forum posts and change.org petitions, it would be more accurate to look at writings by the intellectual “leaders” of feminism — the Gloria Steinems and Betty Friedans of the world.  But by and large, the ones who will be reading those works are people who are already convinced or nearly-convinced that, for example, street harrassment is a serious problem that we need to address.  For those who don’t believe that, or simply haven’t thought about it much, most of the exposure they’ll have to feminism and gender-equality will be things like forum posts and online petitions.  So in a very real sense, those are actually more important than The Feminine Mystique.

If a reasonable person repeatedly hears these arguments about degradation and sexuality without a clear explanation as to what exactly the problem is, they will reach the conclusion that the problem is (male hetero)sexuality itself.  The message they will receive is not “harrassment is a bad way of expressing male sexuality.”  The message they will receive is “male sexuality is harrassment.”

An analogy might make this point clearer; if you are a strong advocate of seat belts, you might frequently tell stories of car crash deaths to try to convince people that seat belts are a good idea.  But if you don’t consistently make clear that a lack of seat belts is the specific problem, people will not conclude that you are in favor of seat belts.  They will conclude that you are against cars.  I suspect that something similar is occurring here.  And I further suspect that this is largely the cause of the “feminists-as-antisexual” stereotype that so many (rightly) decry.

And to make matters worse, we live in a society that still largely embraces the idea that female sexuality is nonexistent and that women do not enjoy or want sex in any capacity.  This further pushes the idea that women are responding negatively to sexuality itself, rather than harrassment.

So, to return to the #sorryfeminists meme; given the way feminists frequently write about sex, the idea that one should apologize for describing a feminist as “sexy” is not “laughably idiotic.”  It’s kind of just reasonable.  And that’s a problem, because clearly most feminists (self-identifying or not) do not remotely support the idea that sexuality is inherently degrading.

But the defamation of feminists is not the only problem that this imprecision is likely to cause.  It will also lead many people to simply give up on the idea of gender-equality in sexuality.  Because if we tell people “male sexuality is harrassment”, we have essentially given half the population the choice of a) completely repressing one of their primary evolutionary drives, or b) being a misogynist.  And many of those people, when faced with that choice, will shrug, say “I guess I’m a misogynist then”, and move on.  This is obviously not the outcome we want.  When you tell people that success is impossible, they stop trying.

It is sometimes asked, reasonably, why many men do not take the negative reactions of women as a sign that they should stop harrassment.  Well if, as a male, this is what you have been told about your sexuality for most of your life — that it is inherently degrading — you will not be surprised when women respond to it negatively.  Why on Earth would you be?  That is they way of things, or so you’ve been told.  Male sexuality is harrassment.  This, you have accepted, is the best you can do.

If we want to debunk that idea, we need to be very clear that the problem of harrassment is not male sexuality itself, but the way in which it’s expressed.  We also need to be clear that there is a viable alternative, that there is a healthy and respectful way of asserting male sexuality, and it isn’t “always wait for the woman to make the first move.”  And from what I can see, there’s a lot of room for improvement there.

And if you do believe that sex is inherently bad, well, you’re kind of dumb.

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