The Invisibility of Misogyny
In the summer of 2010, Mel Gibson’s phone rant to his ex-partner Oksana Grigorieva became an internet sensation. The recording of Gibson’s enraged comments was circulated under headlines about his “insane,” “racist” and “psychotic” rant. There’s no doubt about the aptness of the “insane” and “psychotic” descriptions, and Gibson’s statement that Grigorieva’s choice of wardrobe made her look “ like a fucking pig in heat” who risked getting “raped by a pack of niggers” shows plenty of overachievement in the racism department. But while commenters seemed to easily notice the general craziness of Gibson’s words and their disturbing racism, very few drew attention to his rant’s most distinguishing feature: its unremitting misogyny. Gibson proclaims, “I am going to come and burn the fucking house down … but you will blow me first. 1” (This and other threats of violence in the recording seemed to have been more than just angry talk, since Grigorieva filed domestic violence charges against Gibson in this same time period). He calls her a “bitch” and a “cunt” repeatedly during the call, and his prediction about the potential consequences of Grigorieva’s fashion sense is a classic bit of sexist victim blaming, indicting women for supposedly inviting abuse. But aside from discussion on a smattering of feminist periodicals and websites, coverage of Gibson’s rant largely ignored its blatant contempt for women.
In January 2011, a shooting at a public political event killed six people and left Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D, Arizona) gravely injured after being shot in the head. Investigations revealed that the alleged shooter, Jared Lee Loughner, had a special animosity for Giffords, and had attempted to communicate with the congresswoman about his bizarre political theories. The attack occurred after a period of particularly heated anti-liberal rhetoric from pundits, which even Giffords herself had remarked upon shortly before the shooting. News coverage in the days following the attack played up the potential connection between the heated political climate and the violence, even though no clear evidence was produced demonstrating that Loughner was influenced by political rhetoric. Even President Obama called for an end to partisan extremism in political discourse, although he was careful not to posit a direct link between punditry and the shooting. Yet, while the case for blaming the political climate was never convincingly made, ample evidence surfaced that Loughner was a misogynist who did not want women to hold positions of power, who had scrawled the words “die, bitch!” on a letter he had received from Giffords, and who apparently made Giffords the primary target in the plans for his rampage.2 Despite the clear motivation of misogynist beliefs in the shooting, there were no media discussions of the pervasiveness of misogyny, and certainly no public statements by the President about the need for us to come together as a nation to confront and end misogyny. In fact, to the degree that Loughner’s statements were mentioned at all, they were rarely presented as examples of misogyny, but rather just as more examples of a general mental instability.
In early March of 2011, actor Charlie Sheen did one interview after another bragging about his lifetime of drug and alcohol abuse. But his many interviewers barely bothered to ask him about his repeated abuse of women, which has included accidentally shooting one former lover and alleged verbal, psychological and physical aggression toward others. Nor has there been much real discussion of the rampant sexism on his sit-com “Two and a Half Men.” His abuse of women is implicitly treated as just another example of his bad boy behavior – we’re supposed to see it as a way he’s damaged himself, rather than a way he’s repeatedly damaged others.
These examples could be multiplied many times over, and aren’t limited to stories on the front pages and current events sections of mainstream newspapers. In fact, the worst cases of misogyny in the world today are rarely even deemed newsworthy. In India, a “bride burning” in which a young bride is set ablaze as punishment for unacceptable dowries, occurs about once every two hours. 39,000 baby girls under 1 year old annually die in China each year directly because of gender discrimination, which causes parents to deny them the medical treatment reserved for boys. According to some estimates, more girls have been killed directly because of being girls in the last 50 years than all of the men killed in all of the wars of the 20th century, and more girls die in any given decade than all people killed in all of the genocides of the 20th century. Additionally, a staggering number of girls and women are also victims of various forms of sexual violence. As many as 3 million women and girls worldwide are victims of sex trafficking, with hundreds of thousands of new victims added each year. Rates of rape around the world are staggeringly high, not just in areas like the war-torn East Congo, but also in the United States military, where recent reports indicate that one out of every three women in service has been sexually assaulted, and surveys of college-aged women routinely show that approximately 25% have experienced rape or attempted rape.3 And rape is abetted everywhere by ingrained cultural attitudes that still, even in ostensibly liberal democracies like the United States, blame the victim and diminish the responsibility of the rapists. Even the mainstream New York Times recently got on the victim blaming bandwagon when their coverage of the gang rape of an 11-year old girl included quotes from members of the girl’s community who observed that the girl acted older than her age, hung around too much with neighborhood boys, and obviously wasn’t being properly supervised by her mother. 4
In all of these cases, it’s striking how little awareness people have of both the frequency of sexist discrimination against women, and also of the severity and sheer contempt for women that often come with it. When misogyny plays a central role in stories that get mainstream media attention, as in the first three examples discussed here, it’s rarely called out as such. And when it is itself the whole story, as in the examples of global injustice and violence toward women, it rarely commands attention and serious analysis. It’s not just the fact that misogyny is invisible that we need to face – it’s also the fact that this invisibility is a large part of what makes it the enormous problem it is. We cannot begin to properly address misogyny and the harm it causes unless we start being able to see it.
Wherever misogyny exists, it is embedded in cultural practices and ideologies that have accrued over enormous stretches of time. It is based on a hierarchy of values, and inflexibly essentialist ideas about gender roles, that privilege “male” attributes of aggression and leadership and relegate women to backing roles of mothering and pleasure providing. And these attitudes that equate femininity with passiveness and submission, that see it as being of use only insofar as it advances male interests, are so commonly expressed in so many places in our culture that they acquire the status of common sense. They’re expressed in the commonly used insults that equate womanhood with weakness, such as the denigration of men who aren’t judged to be manly enough as being “pussies,” or as one military leader put it when addressing complaints of trauma by male soldiers, as having “sand in their vaginas.” (These comments show, as many other examples do, that misogyny and homophobia are closely related). The attitudes are expressed through fairy tales we tell our children about passive princesses rescued by handsome princes, by the movie and television scripts that update these stories for alleged adults, and by the gender stereotypes of hyper-emotional women prevalent on reality television programs. They’re expressed through the overwhelming prevalence of images of nude, sexualized women on magazine covers and advertisements, and in photo layouts and mainstream movies – coupled with the overwhelming absence of women in positions of real power in the media.
If anthropologists from another planet visited a news stand or convenience store magazine rack in any US small town, they would likely be baffled by the numerous magazines decorated with mostly naked women arranged in available poses for male viewers. They’d also likely be stunned by the fact that so many other shoppers seem to regard this display as completely normal, and an accepted part of the background of everyday life. An acquaintance recently told me about a time when her two male children were young, and she noticed that her boys were busy flipping through a “lad’s mag” loaded with pictures of nearly nude women. She complained about the easy accessibility of the magazines to the store manager, who apologetically explained that he didn’t even really notice the magazines were there, because he guessed he’d just become used to seeing them. In the busiest places in our busy world, misogyny is hidden in plain sight.
Degrading images of women like the images on those news stand magazines are hard to escape from, and nowhere are they more common or more extreme than in the pornography industry. Pornography in its most common mainstream, heterosexual varieties is often both an expression of misogyny and one of the key vehicles for perpetuating it through all levels of culture. The porn industry rakes in approximately 100 billion dollars per year, and benefits from distribution by corporate behemoths such as the General Motors-owned Direct TV, AT & T Broadband and Comcast Cable, which pump porn into cable/satellite television receivers and computers around the world. And this mainstreaming and mass distribution of porn involves mainstreaming and mass distribution of gender myths about sexuality – the adult versions of children’s fairy tales about passive women and active, conquering men. As the popularity of porn has grown and distributors and producers compete for viewer dollars, the industry has increasingly lured male consumers with misogynist content. As Rebecca Whisnant notes in a recent article,
In today’s mainstream pornography, aggression against women is the rule rather than the exception. For some initial evidence supporting this claim, one need only survey lists of titles at any online porn portal, or any website selling adult DVDs: Border Bangers, Disgraced 18, Gangland Victims, Bitchcraft, Gag on My Cock, Animal Trainer 20, Wrecked ‘Em, Butthole Whores 2, Tanned Teens. The industry further markets hostile treatment of women through publications such as Adult Video News (AVN). A content analysis of bestselling ‘adult DVDs’ – identified through AVN listings – confirms this is not simply hyperbolic marketing: physical aggression occurred in 88 per cent of all scenes and verbal aggression in 48 percent. Thus, both cursory observation and detailed research indicate that hostile, aggressive content is so prevalent in contemporary pornography that it would be hard for a regular consumer to avoid it….In online forums, consumers frequently remark on the normality of aggressive, ‘over the top’ content in today’s pornography. Some celebrate this trend and others decry it, but virtually all agree that the trend exists and is unlikely to reverse itself. 5
Some pornographic material, in fact, seems to be intentionally marketed for its misogyny to male customers who may feel confused or resentful about the social and political gains women have made due to the feminist movement. A review of a porn production called “Fuck Slaves 3” in the September 2008 issue of AVN describes the film as a “misogynistic gem that will appeal to men who have survived the social castrating of their gender.6” Misogyny may be downplayed by many defenders of porn, but its usefulness as a motivation to attract at least some male customers hasn’t been lost on some of the producers and distributors of porn.
Additionally, because of desensitization to the content of pornography over time, viewers find themselves needing more extreme varieties for arousal. A porn viewer may begin watching porn with established boundaries in mind, such as avoiding material that is blatantly violent, involves humiliation of women, or depicts sex with partners who are or who are intended to portray teenage girls. However, many viewers will cross those boundaries eventually, as the less extreme material they at first exclusively watch no longer holds their interest. This may explain the overwhelming demand for porn that shows women being violently penetrated by multiple partners, and women who are depicted as being asleep or unconscious being sexually molested. There is a great deal of continued controversy about the causal links, if any, between porn viewing and sexual violence against women. However, these controversies seem to miss the deeper question: what does it tell us that so many men are masturbating to images of women being humiliated and degraded? The fact that these men can find such contemptuous depictions of women pleasurable to view says quite a lot about both the pervasiveness of misogyny, and the failure of many people to even notice it. And since the pornography industry has had such a deep influence on the advertising industry, on fashion, and on expectations about sexuality, the repercussions of this hidden misogyny are grave.
The ubiquity of misogynist messages about women, coupled with the inability and unwillingness to seriously address it, are most tragically exemplified by the frequency of rape and the existence of a rape culture that aids and abets rapists. In the United States, studies indicate that somewhere between ¼ and 1/6 of women have been raped or have survived an attempted rape, and despite these staggering numbers of victims, the conviction rate for rape is only 6%. The majority of rapes do not conform to the stereotypical case of a stranger with a knife waiting in the bushes to assault passing women – they are attacks perpetrated by men the victim knows and may even have trusted. In fact, men who have raped are often not significantly different from men who have not, with the exception that they much more frequently express belief in “rape myths,” such as the idea that “no” might really mean “yes” or that women who dress a certain way, get drunk, or send “mixed signals” brought their assault upon themselves. Men who have these ideas acquired them through socialization, which has given them license to reinterpret a woman’s thoughts, words and actions to mean what they, as men, want them to mean. A senior thesis by a former Harvard student brilliantly describes the socialization that causes many men to adopt an adversarial and dismissive attitude toward women, and is worth quoting at length:
The man is taught to look upon his actions on a date as a carefully constructed strategy for gaining the most territory. Every action is evaluated in terms of the final goal – intercourse. He continually pushes to see “how far he can get.” Every time she (his date) submits to his will, he has “advanced” and every time she does not he has suffered a “retreat.” Since he already sees her as the opponent, and the date is a game or a battle, he anticipates resistance. He knows that ‘good girls don’t, and so she will probably say ‘no.’ But he has learned to separate himself from her and her interests. He is more concerned with winning the game. Instead of trying to communicate with her, he attempts to press her into saying ‘yes.’
Every time she submits to his will, he sees it as a small victory (getting the date, buying her a drink, getting a kiss, or fondling her breasts. He plays upon her indecisiveness, using it as an opportunity to tell her ‘what she really wants,’ which is, in fact, what he wants. If her behavior is inconsistent, he tells her she is ‘fickle’ or ‘a tease.’ If he is disinterested in her desires and he believes that she is inconsistent, he is likely to ignore her even when she does express her desires directly. When she finally says ‘no,’ he simply may not listen, or he may convince himself that she is just ‘playing hard to get’ and that she really means ‘yes.’ With such a miserable failure in communication, a man can rape a woman even when she is resisting vocally and physically, and still believe it was not rape. 7
The invisibility of misogyny thus causes some men who are not consciously hateful toward women to effectively act as if they hated them. They can and often do cause women years of trauma without ever being aware that they’ve done anything wrong. The effects of misogyny are invisible to many, but are all too real for the victims of rape, and for those who care for them.
We’ve seen from the above discussion that misogyny can be rendered invisible within a culture. But misogyny is also rendered invisible between cultures, because of the fact that sexist ideologies and actions against women are often seen as part of another culture’s identity, and therefore not rightly criticized by people outside of that culture. This attitude is ironically shared by some who consider themselves conservatives and by some who are proudly liberal. In the latter case, a multicultural belief in the rights of other cultures to self-determination is often at work – a belief that we need to recognize that not everyone in the world shares our own cultural values and norms, and that criticism of other cultures often is a form of thinly veiled prejudice against the “group rights” of other cultures. There is certainly some truth in that idea, and we need to be careful not to project our own biases onto cultures we imperfectly understand. Still, the multicultural argument is often tantamount to a blanket assumption that any and all criticisms of other cultures must be rooted in prejudice and nothing more. And often, this approach itself commits the sin of oversimplifying other cultures, and imposing a group identity on them that ignores the diversity of voices within, even when many of those voices are raised in protest against injustice.
The late scholar Susan Moller Okin made this point in her classic essay “Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?” In the essay, Okin examines the ‘groups rights” arguments made by liberals who argue against indictment of sexist cultural attitudes on the grounds of tolerance and multiculturalism. Okin argues that such practices are often de facto validations of misogyny because of liberal refusal to “label such practices as illiberal and therefore unjustified violations of women’s physical or mental integrity.8” She observes that
When liberal arguments are made for the rights of groups, then, special care must be taken to look at within-group inequalities. It is especially important to consider inequalities between the sexes, since they are likely to be less public, and less easily discernible. Moreover, policies aiming to respond to the needs and claims of cultural minority groups must take seriously the need for adequate representation of less powerful members of such groups. Since attention to the rights of minority cultural groups, if it is to be consistent with the fundamentals of liberalism, must be ultimately aimed at furthering the well-being of the members of these groups, there can be no justification for assuming that the groups’ self-proclaimed leaders—invariably mainly composed of their older and their male members—represent the interests of all of the groups’ members. Unless women—and, more specifically, young women, since older women often become co-opted into reinforcing gender inequality—are fully represented in negotiations about group rights, their interests may be harmed rather than promoted by the granting of such rights. 9
In the zeal to show our tolerance for other cultures, we therefore can tolerate that culture’s intolerance toward cultural and political minorities. In patriarchal cultures, that means toleration of the subordination of women.
This pseudo-tolerance is made possible by the assumption that cultures are homogenous units, consisting of people who share similar values and ideas, and that therefore any cultural practices that exist must have the endorsement of all “members” of that culture. This is especially true when these cultural practices are claimed to be protected religious traditions. The professed piety of the cultural majority, coupled with their demand to protect the integrity of “their” culture, deters many liberals from questioning the real-life consequences of the cultural practices. But ironically, the democratic champions of this strain of multiculturalism forget that their own political culture is based on the idea that society is made up of individuals who do not always agree, and that difference of opinion must be respected. No one has the right to deprive the individual of her or his freedom of expression in the name of cultural unity. But when they look at other cultures, these same multiculturalists find it perfectly acceptable to believe that there is only one real set of cultural beliefs in play, and to shrug aside suggestions that any presented consensus is only an apparent one reached through the systematic oppression of dissenters. The fact that the culture they’re protecting is the culture of oppressors is ignored or simply not noticed.
Why should we believe that all of the women of Afghanistan are represented by the repressive laws passed by warlords, or all the women of Iran are represented in the culture of sharia law? Might it just possibly be true that we have to take the ideas of women like Malalai Joya in Afghanistan seriously when they tell us, no, this is not their culture, and their rights and dignity as human beings are being denied them? Identifying a culture only with those who hold power within it silences and invalidates the work of all those who risk their lives drawing attention to the culture’s inequalities. This is simply unacceptable, because honoring the rights of others has to mean honoring the rights of oppressed minorities to demand equal treatment if it is to have any real meaning at all.
There are therefore many reasons for the invisibility of misogyny, and invisibility prevents effective action from being taken against it. But we have to begin seeing misogyny, because the future of humanity quite directly depends on us doing so. Not only is there a moral imperative to end the suffering and oppression of other human beings wherever it occurs, but there is simply no way we can make real progress on any of the challenges facing us unless we end the global subordination of women. Would you like to reduce world poverty? We can’t do that unless we first recognize that the face of the world’s poor is very disproportionately a woman’s face: women do 2/3 of the world’s work, yet receive only 10% of the world’s income and own only 1% of the means of production.8 Do you want to stop the spread of AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases? How can we do that when so many women lack reproductive health and real reproductive opportunity, and are frequently victims of sexual violence? Do you want to promote stronger families and community values? We can’t do that when such high rates of maternal death in childbirth take so many mothers away from their families, or when women have no positions of status or authority within the home, and marriage laws make them part of their husband’s property. Do you want to promote better conservation practices and environmental stewardship? How can we do that unless women have access to better family planning services, including birth control, and have real choice about whether and how often they become mothers? Do you want to reduce the social instability that leads to terrorism? There’s no long term solution that doesn’t involve empowering women to take active roles in the economy and in government, because we can’t achieve prosperity while half of the population is disenfranchised. And there is no possibility of real human rights in a world where so many women live in anxiety of being raped, and so many of their rapists avoid conviction.
Misogyny has been invisible for too long. All of us must take responsibility for confronting it and ending it.
The author would like to thank Rebecca Whisnant, who kindly shared a copy of her article “From Jekyll to Hyde: The Grooming of Male Pornography Consumers.”
1. Highlights of the Gibson rant, packaged under a typical headline about its racism, are available here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/07/01/mel-gibsons-new-racist-ra_n_632602.html
2. One of the few pieces about the shooting that did directly discuss Loughner’s misogyny was published here: http://www.feministpeacenetwork.org/2011/01/17/loughner-didnt-think-women-should-hold-positions-of-authority-or-power/
3. Statistics drawn from sources such as Kristof, Nicholas D. and WuDunn, Sheryl. 2009. Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, as well as violence against women summaries such as http://www.now.org/issues/violence/stats.html.
4. A discussion of the New York Times piece, with a link to the original NYT article can be found here: http://shakespearessister.blogspot.com/2009/10/rape-culture-101.html
5 Whisnant, Rebecca. “From Jekyll to Hyde: The Grooming of Male Pornography Consumers.” Published in Karen Boyle (Ed.) (2010) Everyday Pornography. New York: Routledge.
7. Quoted in Warshaw, Robin. 1988. I Never Called it Rape: The Ms. Report on Recognizing, Fighting, and Surviving Date and Acquaintance Rape. New York: HarperPerennial.
8. Okin, Susan Moller. “Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?” Boston Review, October/November, 1997.
10. Statistic cited in Banyard, Kat. 2010. The Equality Illusion: The Truth about Women & Men Today. London: Faber and Faber.
About the Author
Phil Molé is a freelance writer who lives in Chicago, Illinois, and often writes about science, skepticism, and society.