Saturday, December 3, 2011

Blame the Victim 2.0

Herman Cain convened a press conference earlier this week to address mounting allegations of sexual harassment. No one expected contrition, let alone a confession. Still, it was hard not to be taken aback by the sheer steadfastness of Mr. Cain’s will to innocence. A less self-assured man might have tried to deflate the crisis by admitting at least the theoretical possibility of errors in judgment. Not Mr. Cain. In his playbook, the best defense is a good offense. And so, rather than accounting for his own behavior, Mr. Cain and his team have launched a campaign to discredit the women who have alleged misconduct. Far from a high-tech lynching, what we’ve seen in recent days looks a lot more like Blame the Victim 2.0.

Setting matters of principle aside (always a risky undertaking, in my view), Mr. Cain does seem to be running out of options if he wants to beat this thing. Having cultivated a reputation for folksy irreverence, it’s unlikely anyone is going to be convinced (or compelled) by his hasty re-packaging as a man of unfailing rectitude. But I suppose you do have to hand it to him for trying.

Still, if the best evidence Mr. Cain can rally in his own defense is that his wife of forty-three years just doesn’t think her Herman is the kind of guy who would do this sort of thing, well, it’s no wonder Mr. Cain has gone into attack mode. Because if we’ve learned anything at all in the scandal-laden years since the Clinton presidency, it’s that a politician’s wife is as likely as anyone to be surprised by what some men will do in pursuit of a thong or a tweet.

If Mr. Cain flounders when staking his claim on the moral high ground, he’s hoping the attacks on his accusers will stabilize his reputation. Of course, when it comes to charges of sexual wrongdoing, turning the tables on the accuser is nothing new. But the Cain scandal throws into high relief the contours of a new politics of victim blaming—one custom-made for an era of shifting sexual mores and technological advances.

What’s changed about the treatment of women who come forward with sexual allegations? Traditionally, men facing charges of serious misconduct (whether workplace harassment or violent assault) have followed a simple formula: deny all wrongdoing while insinuating that the accuser was “asking for it.” How often have accusations of sexual assault been waved off with the suggestion that a victim wore provocative clothing or had too many boyfriends? And how often has the question of a woman’s chastity, rather than her consent, become the central focus of attention?

Today, we see these same old tactics at work, but with a new twist. When Mr. Cain’s team suggests that his most recent accuser, Sharon Bialek, is in bed with celebrity lawyer Gloria Allred, the point is not that Ms. Bialek is a slut in the old-fashioned sense. The point is that Ms. Bialek is a media whore. That’s hardly progress.

It’s not just the terms of the victim blame game that are shifting; it’s how the game is played. While Mr. Cain decries his own virtual victimization, his backers have been engaging in technological warfare. From email blasts to paid search results to “promoted” tweets, the Cain campaign has been working around the clock to get their message out: the accusations are groundless and his accusers are untrustworthy. When Mr. Cain’s lawyer, L. Lin Wood, kicked off the press conference with an indignant diatribe against those who would try his client in the court of public opinion, the hypocrisy was so thick you could cut it with a knife. Since then, the line between victim blaming and victim baiting has blurred beyond recognition. And with new technology, news travels fast: someone calls Ms. Bialek a “gold digger” or Karen Kraushaar a “whiner,” and the whole world smirks. It’s schoolyard politics gone viral.

But perhaps the most disturbing aspect of Blame the Victim 2.0 is the way that taking a stand against sexual harassment and taking a stand against racism have been reconfigured as either/or propositions. Twenty years later, we still have Justice Clarence Thomas to thank for the handy bit of right-wing sophistry that would equate an inquiry into documented allegations of sexual harassment with the lawless brutality of lynching. In this distorted worldview, the (blonde, white) women who have alleged wrongdoing aren’t victims of sex discrimination—they’re racists.

Cain’s camp insists the charges against him have traction precisely because they resonate with pernicious stereotypes, particularly those that play on images of the predatory hyper-sexuality of black men. And you know what? There’s more than a grain of truth to the idea that these racist stereotypes are still very much alive and well in America, even in our supposedly post-racial age. But reckoning with cultural prejudice is one thing; exploiting it for personal gain is quite another.

The new politics of victim blaming are sure to outlast Mr. Cain’s candidacy. Already the public is showing signs of moving on as Cain coverage cedes airtime to the monstrous cover-up of child sexual abuse in the Penn State football program. To be sure, there is a world of difference between these two stories. But it would be naïve to think that the way Cain’s accusers are treated will go unnoticed by anyone who has ever wondered whether the personal price one may be asked to pay for justice is worth it.

Guest Blogger: Paul Apostolidis

The other day I was a guest on a radio talk show about Herman Cain’s alleged sexual harassment of women he worked with at the National Restaurant Association. Right out of the gate, the host asked me skeptically whether I thought the “details mattered.” “Isn’t this just about low-road political combat, and aren’t we all tired of that old story?” – those were the implied questions. Or maybe: “Isn’t it kind of juvenile to look for cheap thrills by asking who did what to whom?”

I think the details do matter. And it’s a sign of political sophistication rather than naïveté or puerility to think so.

In the first place, they matter because this scandal is about sexual harassment, not just sex with the wrong people. Sexual harassment is illegal. That makes it fundamentally different from the behavior usually at issue in a sex scandal: marital infidelity, or sex that isn’t straight, like what John Edwards, Tiger Woods, or Larry Craig (allegedly) did.

What’s more, sexual harassment is a deeply rooted social problem that our political system isn’t helping to solve – but should. As president, would Cain be part of the problem, or part of the solution? There is a huge amount we don’t know about why sexual harassment happens and what its effects are. That’s because only a tiny percentage of sexual harassment charges are not settled in the confidential way that Cain’s were. With such “agreements” putting a gag on people who bring charges, we need action by the Justice Department to study the problem and give us some basic information. Small chance of that happening under a President Cain, who doesn’t even want to talk about the subject.

The details also matter because they remind us that we ought to judge Cain’s candidacy, in part, by whether he would do anything as president to address the many stubborn inequalities women in America face. Take a look at Cain’s website, and you’ll search in vain for proposals that mention anything resembling a gender imbalance. Women earning less than three-quarters of men’s income? Not interested. The massive subsidies this showers on discriminatory employers, whose tax burdens Cain so thunderously denounces? Hmm, let’s talk about something else. The way women’s unequal pay reduces government revenues and helps bankrupt the public programs women need? Just keep saying “9-9-9,” and maybe it will all go away.

America needs a president who is not so comfortable with the ways our society still treats women as second-class citizens.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Friday, June 10, 2011

Do Feminists Have a Problem with Anthony Weiner?

In the aftermath of Rep. Anthony Weiner’s spectacular free fall from grace, there’s been a rush to bring feminism down with him. Go figure. Yet another politically powerful man is caught venturing outside the bounds of sexual propriety, and somehow feminists get served up a healthy portion of blame. Our crime? Failing to hate Weiner enough for what he’s done…to women.

Earlier this week, Fox “news” analyst and Daily Beast commentator Kirsten Powers lambasted Weiner for his “predatory behavior” and “misogynist view of women.” Meanwhile, Wall Street Journal columnist James Taranto accused feminists of hypocrisy for standing by the wayward Weiner now that the world knows a “closet male chauvinist” lurks beneath the surface of that “enlightened” guy persona. Then there’s Andrew Breitbart’s TV blog, which sardonically (wishfully?) declared “Feminism Officially Dead” following Rachel Maddow’s quip that the congressman has done nothing more than shown “bad manners on Facebook.” And don’t forget New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, who chalks up the lack of “feminist umbrage” taken to “post-feminist resignation.”

Are these people tuned in to the same sex scandal I am? Because the one I've been following is about a guy who inadvertently posts a revealing photo of himself on Twitter only to spend the next week (and probably eternity) as the butt of puerile jokes about his manly endowment (not to mention that sleekly waxed chest). What with all this feminist-baiting, you'd think Weinergate is just another one of those boilerplate powerful male/exploited female stories. But it’s not.

Among the more intriguing departures from the all-too familiar sex scandal script is the prominence of that picture of Weiner as the visual anchor of this story—something that may prove pathbreaking in its own right. Admit it: when you think sex scandal and underwear, you think thong. Well, think again—because this time, Exhibit A is the pol's own underwear (and its thinly veiled cargo).

And that’s not all. In recent days, we’ve heard a great deal from Meagan Broussard, one of the women with whom Weiner has exchanged banter and photos. Broussard insists that what was most offensive about Weiner’s come-ons wasn’t his demand for sex. It was his insistence on talking. Indeed—as Nancy Dowd recounts in the very same op-ed piece in which she excoriates feminists for their indifference to Weiner’s bad behavior—Broussard admits that she sometimes found Weiner “a turn-off” not just because of his arrogance, but because of his chattiness. That hurts. Broussard elaborates elsewhere that it struck her as “weird” that Weiner would ask her if she missed him. “I didn’t understand that—how could I miss someone I hadn’t met and didn’t know? What is there to miss about me if you don’t even know me?” In other words, Weiner’s big mistake was letting his emotional needs (chiefly narcissistic ones, it would appear) get in the way of the hard-core flirtation Broussard was after.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying Weiner’s tweets represent some kind of giant leap forward for sex equality. But the story hardly presents a textbook case of the sexual exploitation of women either—as those who are hoping to recruit feminists to their finger-wagging campaign would have us believe.

Let's remember that Weiner got into this mess not because he sexually objectified the women he was involved with—but because he sexually objectified himself. This behavior may turn out to be disastrous career-wise. But as a feminist, why should I have such a big problem with a man who by all accounts is eager to give as much as he gets, at least on Twitter. Some might even call this progress.

At the very least, don’t you think they should cut us feminists some slack, especially in light of how unaccustomed we are to anyone giving a damn what we think? When was the last time you saw the media tripping over itself to include a feminist perspective on a topic we're supposed to take seriously, like rising poverty rates, military operations abroad, or the environment? Feminists have a great deal to say about these topics, and countless others too; the mainstream media couldn't care less.

But when the rallying cry is “off with his head,” everyone suddenly expects feminists to drop everything, brandish our cleavers, and rush to the chopping block.

Well, too bad folks: we’re not here to do your dirty work. (Leave that to the “family values” crusaders whose outrage at moments like this emanates in a worldview premised on the moral supremacy of monogamous, heterosexual couples–an agenda feminists should want no part of).

Because in case you haven’t noticed, we feminists are up to something a little different these days. Then again, given the enduring stereotype of feminists as a roving band of politically correct (not to mention hirsute) sex police, you'd hardly know it. Amazingly, it’s been nearly thirty years since the so-called “sex wars” reached a fever pitch in this country, exposing not just the divisions but also the diversity of perspectives among feminists on matters of sex and power. Back in the 1980s, those feminists who opposed the sexual objectification of women by the sex industry or who questioned whether women with economic opportunities would freely choose sex work were ridiculed and dismissed as “anti-sex.” But it never was a question of being “pro” or “anti” sex. It was, and continues to be, a vibrant and important debate over how to fight sexual objectification and sexualized violence without compromising sexual autonomy and sexual diversity.

The lasting legacy of cabined and reductionistic accounts of this period are still evident in the way feminist political commentators are boxed in by a media that looks to us for a one-dimensional rush to judgment and nothing more. Sorry to disappoint you.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

For Better or For Worse

The past week has been yet another bonanza for those of us on the sex scandal beat. First came news that an evocative photo of a well-endowed man’s underwear-clad package had been uploaded to the Twitter account of Representative Anthony Weiner, apparently in a botched attempt to private message a 21-year-old college student from another state. Rep. Weiner vehemently denied posting the photo, claiming he’d been hacked. When pressed on whether the photo was from his personal library, the indignant Gentleman from New York ventured only that he could not say "with certitude" that this was a photo of his body. (And exactly which part of your body might this be, Mr. Weiner, if the photo were in fact of you? It's been said a man’s nose can grow several inches with a single fib).

Unsurprisingly, Rep. Weiner’s response failed to satisfy (kind of like Twitter sex)—falling evidently short of the gold standard of equivocation established by Bill “It depends upon what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is” Clinton. By the middle of last week, the nation was coasting through the news cycle on a wave of bad penis jokes. What could be better?

By Friday, we had our answer. The media calculus was simple: if you liked the first big Weiner story, here’s an even bigger wiener for you. His name? John Edwards. Late last week, the once-darling presidential hopeful was charged in a six-count indictment for violation of campaign finance laws on grounds he spent hundreds of thousands of donated dollars to keep his extramarital affair with Rielle Hunter and the subsequent birth of their child out of the public eye.

As if all this weren’t enough, along comes Rep. Weiner’s surreal press conference on Monday. In his statement, Rep. Weiner tearfully apologized not only for his online sexual adventures, but also for having been dishonest. In fact, Rep. Weiner directed his harshest self-criticism not at the “inappropriate” behavior, but rather at himself for clinging so long to a false story about it—a decision he characterized as “a hugely regrettable mistake.”

In recent years, we’ve grown accustomed to the news that a politician has been caught behaving badly. We’re accustomed, as well, to the fact that the things a politician will do to cover up his sexual exploits are often more shame worthy than the deed itself. Take Edwards. Already despised for cheating on his cancer-stricken wife, he went on to prove himself not just a prolific liar but a profligate one, burning extraordinary sums of cash to keep his “family man” reputation burnished. And then there is Rep. Weiner, whose staged indignation last week at the mere suggestion of impropriety has made him look like an even bigger, well, you know, than that underwear did.

If nothing else, these cases remind us of the extreme—and often absurd—lengths to which politicians will go to maintain that “family man” veneer. And that’s got me thinking about why we expect politicians to pretend to be model citizens, sexually speaking, in the first place. In light of recent events, I wonder if these guys aren’t doing themselves a bigger disservice trying to conform to a Mr. Squeaky-Clean image than they would by distancing themselves from that standard in the first place.

Because of all the mistakes John Edwards has made (does anyone even remember his Iraq vote?), surely one of the biggest was to stake his political fortunes on his devoted husband act in the first place. That’s not to say I endorse the strained legal theory behind the criminal indictment, which I don’t. But even if Edwards does get vindicated in court, there still is an important lesson to learn here about pimping family values to win elections. Especially if you are the kind of guy who is into extramarital affairs, prostitution, or sexting (let alone gay-bashing by day and soliciting sex from other men by night, as so many family values conservatives have been caught doing in recent years)—then I’d say it’s probably not the best idea to mount your campaign on the house of cards otherwise known as your personal life. Why not focus on your public record instead?

For the rest of us, maybe it’s time to take a closer look at our own unthinking investment in the “family man” ideal—an ideal that comes bundled (free!) with a whole suite of moralistic values that promote conformity to a model of family life increasingly far removed from the lived experience of most Americans. It’s the same set of values that stacks the political deck against gay men, divorced women and countless other potential leaders who time and again are summarily disqualified from public office on the basis of non-normative lifestyle choices.

All of which brings me to Rep. Weiner, whose political future hangs in the balance as the voters of New York contemplate whether they will continue to support an elected official with a known penchant for online entertainment. In the days to come, we can expect all the major news organizations to bombard us with show after show contemplating Rep. Weiner’s fitness to lead (though in all fairness to Rep. Weiner, those pictures do make a pretty compelling case in the fitness department).

As Rep. Weiner’s constituents weigh their options, the revelation of his sexting habit doubtless will loom large. But why should it? If you don’t want to be in a committed relationship with a guy who gets off on instant messaging, don’t be. But you'd do well to keep in mind that a politician like Weiner isn’t asking for your hand in marriage. He's after your vote. And to earn it, what matters isn't the kind of husband he'd be—it's the kind of legislator he is.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Shocked, Shocked

It’s been well over a week now since the Schwarzenegger and Strauss-Kahn stories first broke, and it’s high time we all got back to work—that is, those of us fortunate enough to still have jobs these days. But hey, who has time to worry about historic rates of unemployment (let alone rising gas prices or unrest in the Middle East) when we could be googling the latest snapshots of Arnold’s love child?

Enough already. It was fun while it lasted, but our Casablanca moment is officially over. Yes, the movie. You know the scene. It’s the one where the dastardly Captain Renault commands our hero, Rick Blaine, to shut down his nightclub:

Rick: How can you close me up? On what grounds?
Capt. Renault: I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here.
Employee of Rick’s [handing Capt. Renault his money]: Your winnings, sir.
Capt. Renault: Oh, thank you very much. Everybody out at once!

Over the past few weeks we’ve become a nation of Captain Renaults, extravagantly performing our surprise and dismay upon hearing the supposedly revelatory “news” that two men were caught doing, well…..exactly the kind of stuff we’d expect those guys to do.

What gives? For years, Schwarzenegger and Strauss-Kahn have been rewarded with knowing winks and high fives for their sexual exploits. And now everyone suddenly decides to be “shocked, shocked” that two of the world’s most revered Casanovas have been at it again? We all doth protest too much, methinks.

As I see it, the real purpose of trumpeting our astonishment at these most recent revelations isn’t to condemn the deeds disclosed. No, the real point is to convince ourselves that we didn’t—and couldn’t—have seen it coming. By professing surprise when confronted with the seamy underside of alpha-male privilege, we deny that we’ve known all along about the inevitable downside of glamorizing male sexual entitlement.

Because really, what’s the big news? Sure, Schwarzenegger cheated on his wife with a longtime household employee, secretly fathered a child, and hid the truth for years from his wife and kids, not to mention the California electorate. Still, it’s hard for me to understand all the hubbub. Call me jaded, but the only shocker here is the fact that the extramarital excursions of California’s two-term Groper-in-Chief still have the power to turn heads, let alone grab headlines. Did anyone seriously think this guy drew the line at fondling women on the job?

And then there is Strauss-Kahn, who has long enjoyed the admiration of the international financial community and the French public—not to mention his wife—in spite of (because of?) his reputation as an unrepentant “womanizer.” All one needs to know, really, is that the guy’s nickname is the “Hot Rabbit." Face it: you don’t get compared to the most prolific breeders in the animal kingdom by being a stickler for consent.

But we as a society continue to be enthralled by the spectacle of playing cat-and-mouse with the truth—the “drama of the secret and its discovery,” as political theorist Jodi Dean puts it in Publicity’s Secret, her brilliant analysis of the politics engendered—and foreclosed—by this obsession. And so maybe what makes us most uncomfortable about the Schwarzenegger and Strauss-Kahn stories is that they strain the credibility of this familiar “gotcha” script. Because in this case, the real story isn't that we didn't know. It's that we just didn't care.

To be sure, it's way more fun to watch in overwrought surprise as the truth dribbles out than it is to acknowledge our own love affair with the "boys will be boys" cloth from which characters like Schwarzenegger and Strauss-Kahn are cut. But when the emperor vacations at a nude beach, it hardly qualifies as news that he has no clothes.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Say What?

As everyone now knows, IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn was arrested on Saturday in dramatic fashion, hauled out of his first-class seat on an Air France plane just as it was preparing for take off to Paris. Shortly after the arrest, NYPD spokesman Paul J. Brown explained that Strauss-Kahn was being held “on charges of criminal sexual act, attempted rape, and an unlawful imprisonment in connection with a sexual assault on a 32-year-old chambermaid….”

Chambermaid??? You've got to be kidding me. Just mention the word and
cheesy Halloween costumes and cheap porn leaps to mind. No wonder, I guess, that the New York Times saw fit to characterize the allegations of sexual assault and attempted rape as “tawdry.” Personally, I would have thought a word like “disturbing” to be more apt. But that’s just me. Apparently, the folks at the Times thought the alleged victim’s account of the attack was pretty hot.

And so I guess it’s not surprising to see her described by the Times and other news agencies over the past few days as a “chambermaid” or, more commonly, simply as a “maid” (maids still get to wear those cute outfits, right?). That’s the term currenty favored by news outlets like the Washington Post, the Associated Press, USA Today, and NPR, among many others.

To be sure, if the goal is to milk this thing for all its worth, identifying the alleged victim by her official job classification probably isn’t the best idea. But if the goal is to report the news, then journalists would seem to have an obligation to set the titillating rhetoric aside and accord this woman the respect she deserves by referring to her occupation by its proper name.

Whoa there, you might be saying to yourself. "Maid" is the proper term, right? Wrong. According to eminent labor historian Professor Dorothy Sue Cobble of Rutgers University, the term "chambermaid" is "archaic." And having conducted my own admittedly unscientific survey of service-sector employment websites, I can say with confidence that no respectable hotel on the planet today uses the term “chambermaid” or even “maid” as an official job title. Instead, most hotels refer to the field in question as “housekeeping,” and most often, people working in this field are referred to as “housekeepers.”

Of course, the Sofitel is no ordinary hotel, and so it’s not surprising to discover, as I did, that Sofitel eschews the pedestrian term “housekeeper.” Instead, as Sofitel spokeswoman Stacy Royal informed me in an email exchange on Monday, the hotel employs the term "room attendant."

Shocking, right? I mean, who would have thought that women who make a living cleaning up after the privileged among us have been granted such a dignified, gender-neutral, and totally un-sexy job title? I know, I know—the story of a chambermaid being chased around a swanky hotel room by a world-class Romeo goes down better with your morning cappuccino than a “just the facts” story of an alleged rape. But is it really too much to expect the media to refrain from perpetuating the kind of disrespectful attitude toward women working in the “hospitality” industry that has made them so vulnerable to sexual harassment and sexual abuse in the first place?

Cleaning hotel rooms may not be glamorous, but it is a job, and those who do it deserve our respect. It may be inconvenient when it comes to the business of selling the news, but the truth is that there really isn’t anything very sexy about cleaning hotel rooms. Ditto sexual abuse and attempted rape. And shame on anyone who would try to make it seem otherwise.