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Are Women Human?

The DNA evidence has come in, and the answer is clear. Women are human beings. Who knew? Consider all the evidence to the contrary.

Skip lightly over the centuries when women were explicitly defined as property. Skip likewise over Samuel Johnson’s famous commen when he said, “A woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well, but you are surprised to find it done at all.” He is said to have been intelligent, witty, devoted to his wife, and kindhearted. It was the 1700s, and DNA hadn’t been discovered yet.

We know better now, right? No, not exactly. Catholicism, Islam (except Sufism, I believe), Judaism, some Protestant sects, the Mormons, many organized religions in fact, tell us that women cannot commune with God well enough to minister to others. Given that the argument can be made, and has been made, that religious awe is what divides us from animals, exclusion from the priesthood says something about the attitudes involved. Especially so when you consider that it can be the same people making the argument and doing the excluding.

It would make sense if women, at least, avoided religions that relegate them to irrelevance, but that’s not what happens. It is, perhaps, the strongest proof that (some) of reality is a social construct. Women don’t mean much even to women.

Consider some examples. There are plenty to choose from. After Pope John Paul II’s death, someone who’d had enough of the eulogies pointed out that his policies had led to millions of excess deaths. Well, I thought, if you add up all the unwanted children who’d died as the pope implemented his policies, and the women dying in unwanted childbirths and botched abortions (e.g. for one year: WHO, world health report 2005), as well as AIDS deaths due to unprotected sex (UNAIDS,2004), it would easily reach into millions. But it turned out the speaker had been thinking only of AIDS. The others were invisible.

Another example is a discussion I had regarding Iraq. I pointed out how braindead it was for the US to let violence and fundamentalism disenfranchise women. The US was wasting a huge bloc of moderate, non-violent voices of the kind they kept saying they wanted. I was told that the issues in Iraq were much bigger than “women’s rights.” I was speechless. The right to freedom of movement, to free assembly, to vote–these are women’s rights? I had thought they were human rights. Furthermore, if women are human, we’re talking about half the population. Of course, if they’re not, then it makes sense that their rights are secondary.

Now, on a personal level, this seems crazy. People, men and women both, care about the women in their lives, and there aren’t many who would insist that their own wives, mothers, sisters, and daughters are some kind of different order of being. It’s hard (but not impossible) to live with someone and not realize that you both have hopes, fears, dreams, and hardships. Thinking of women as belonging to some other species is not something that anyone does. It’s something “other people” do.

Take one example. Ask any father whether he loves his children, and he will say yes. However, look at the marriage statistics of brides who were pregnant at the time and who knew the sex of the child-to-be. The couple was more likely to be getting married if they were expecting a boy (Dahl and Moretti, 2004). Few people see this in their own lives, but, in the aggregate, it happens. Most people’s contribution to the rush of events is so small, it can’t be seen, like a molecule of air. But put all the contributions together, and, like air, they can make people live or die.

The peculiar attitude to women, in the aggregate, can be seen in every aspect of life, but people are tired of being reminded about the world’s social backwaters. However, troglodyte fundamentalists aren’t the only problem. For instance, the left side of the blogosphere had a discussion recently about female bloggers and the relative lack thereof at the top of the blogging tree. Why, we pondered, were there so few female bloggers with huge readerships who were linked to by other important bloggers?

There were many explanations. Women are less techie, so there’s a smaller pool to draw from. Women’s writing of the same quality gets linked to just as much, and the lack of links indicates lack of quality. Women write perfectly well, but the topics they write about have less general interest. And so on. All of these explanations may have some merit, and yet the 800-pound gorilla sitting in the middle of the room was missed.

There are a number of classical experiments in psychology where researchers looked at attitudes to writing based on whether the author had a male or female name. Regardless who the actual author was, papers apparently by males were significantly more highly rated. Yet this obvious explanation was not brought out by the heavy hitters, nor was it noticed when I contributed it.

The big problem, in other words, is not with the women doing the blogging. The problem lies with the audience and with the many small, unnoticed moments of inattention that end up making a huge pattern. To take an analogous, far more extreme situation, the level of analysis in blogspace would have been like that of an Abolitionist who said that slavery was bad . . . and then asked what was wrong with blacks that they were trapped in it.

Sex, like religion, is central to who we are, and the same pattern is repeated. Women are irrelevant. No, really. Think about it. Even the definitions give the game away. Sexually repressed women have to dress in tents. Free women can wear lipstick and thong underwear. And this is supposed to do exactly what for women? (I’m talking about heterosexuals, of course. Homosexuals don’t have to contend with the X-challenged world in quite the same way.) Being “allowed” to be attractive to men is not the same as having men who are willing to think about what a woman might want. Defining a situation in a way that works for you is freedom. Living inside someone else’s reality is not.

I’m sure I’ve hit a sore point by bringing up what women want. Men’s regular complaint is that they can’t figure this out. Well, how about the same things men want? Such as pleasure, perhaps? Such as someone who’s both willing and wants to please, like the nice young women in all the ads? The specific way a man acts who wants to please would be different, because he’d look stupid batting his eyelashes. And what he does would also depend on the specific woman in question, since women don’t actually come out of a mold down at the female factory. However, the principle, surprisingly enough, is the same.

The irrelevance of women is particularly evident in mainstream ads, big movies, and other dominant myths. The images of women of reproductive age all tend toward the slightly exaggerated breasts-forward, tush-back, pleased-smile look. It’s something that anthropologists call “presenting” when they observe the equivalent in a troop of, say, rhesus macaques. It says, “I want sex,” and it is the female equivalent of an erection. To spell it out, in case it’s not clear, that message is aimed at males. Not females. Is there any equivalent message of obvious and willing male sexuality for women? Have you ever seen even a hint of an erection shown in any medium intended for general audiences? Ever? It’s as if only men have sex. Women have children.

The usual objection to exposing general audiences to actual male sexuality is that it would be bad for the children. However, given that children survive exposure to blatant female sexuality, that doesn’t seem like the real problem. Men, on the other hand, would be in the novel position of seeing themselves as sex objects for women, something which seems to make them squeamish. (That may sound implausible, but there is a difference between wanting sex and doing what someone else wants.) Having said that, personally I don’t think I’d like seeing men on display the same way women are. Sex seems to work better in private, where it’s more interesting (and more feasible), and I’d rather not have either side of it relentlessly in my face. But what do I know? I’ve never been surrounded by images of men with tastefully concealed erections lining up to please me, 24/7, selling everything from broadband to soap to themselves.

So far, I’ve been discussing religion and rights and sex. These are all optional, on some level. Survival isn’t, and the weirdness in attitudes is at its most stark in the reaction to crimes against women.

We had an election for governor not long ago in California. During the campaign, news came out that Schwarzenegger had perhaps praised Hitler, and people even grew concerned about his father’s activities during the World War. There was a great deal of back-and-forth, lots of digging for facts, and it came out that, no, he did not admire Hitler, and that his father had not committed atrocities during WWII. His campaign came back on track.

Shortly before the election, he was accused, by the woman involved, of groping her on a movie set. There was a certain amount of disbelief, but then six other stories surfaced of similar behavior (e.g. LATimes, Oct. 7, 2003) with other women, spanning 25 years right into very recent times. It began to look like he might have had a habit of forcing his attentions on women, to use an old phrase. However, it was not essential to his campaign to show his innocence before the election. He lost a few points in the polls, but only enough to feel called upon to apologize for “playing.” And people voted for him. Women voted for him. The point here is not what he did or did not do. The point is the difference in people’s reactions to accusations of antisemitism versus accusations of anti-women behavior. The point is that people didn’t care enough. Somehow, although nobody agrees with the statement when face-to-face, crimes against women just aren’t that important.

Then there are the attitudes to a far more serious crime: female genital mutilation. The attitudes in Africa vary in ways that are painful to discuss, but what about attitudes here in the progressive West? There are a number of confounding issues: it’s happening “over there,” and it’s happening in a very different culture. Except when it isn’t. At least in the US, I haven’t noticed that it’s much of a priority to prevent this heinous child abuse by the relevant ethnic groups living in this country. (For some statistics on the practice, see, e.g., Dr. N. Nour, African Women’s Health Center at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston, “Number of women, girls with or at risk for female genital cutting on the rise in the United States”)  The British make slightly more effort (see, e.g., this BBC report).

The objection is that, well, it’s highly regrettable, but it is their culture and who are we to interfere? The practice has also been intertwined with religion, so for a while it was excused on religious grounds, until people more familiar with Islam pointed out forcefully that the Koran sanctions no such thing. Either way, there is no other group for whom culture or religion is allowed to trump the most basic human rights. Imagine the reaction to a headline that said: “Penises cut off to keep men faithful.” (Subtitle: “Strangely effective!”) You might as well excuse cannibalism on cultural grounds. That’s only possible if the people involved really are “long pig,” as that particular meat was called by Fijians in the very old days.

Consider the archetypal crime against women: rape. We’re all agreed it’s a very bad thing. We’re all agreed it’s a hate crime. Consider the New Yorker, a magazine with impeccable liberal credentials. They published a book of humor a few years ago, and since like many people the first thing I look at in the magazine are the cartoons, I was sure it was going to be good. I trotted right down to the bookstore. There, at the beginning of the book, was a funny story about rape. To say that I was stunned would be putting it mildly. I returned the book to the shelf and didn’t read any of the rest, so I don’t know if there were jokes further in about lynching, or gas chambers, or murders of gay men. Somehow, I doubt it.

Rape is not a joke. Rape is not a regrettable form of sex any more than foot-binding is a regrettable form of shoes. Rape is a type of torture that uses sex. Like other torture, it is primarily meant to break the spirit, not the body. Its intention is to turn the victim into a tool of the torturer. Obviously, torturers aren’t likely to be the introspective type and articulate all this. But the actions can be judged by the results, whether it produces women who stay in their place or compliant prisoners.

The BBC did a report a few years ago on a brave woman living in one of the predominantly Muslim housing projects outside Paris. She didn’t wear a veil, as per the local thugs concept of propriety, so they gang-raped her. Instead of being intimidated, she spoke out against the reign of terror directed at women. So they gang-raped her again. As the reporter said, “Who in such a system would dare to speak, or even know, her own mind?”

Well, yes, you might say, that’s all very dreadful. But it doesn’t touch me. It has nothing to do with my life. Maybe not, but I see women who think crimes against women are isolated incidents, even as I watch them rearrange their whole schedule to avoid the late-night train. I see men who want everyone to understand that it’s-not-their-fault-they-found-it-that-way, and who are tied in knots about how to approach a woman so she doesn’t misunderstand their intentions.

The threat of physical danger focuses anyone’s mind, male or female. When faced with an unknown man, women go through some millisecond decision-making about the need for fight or flight or whether they can go off red alert. After all that, if he’s trying to be friendly, comes the question of whether he was worth all the bother. The sexual landscape women have to live in is so different from the one inhabited by men that obvious male sexuality is often considered repellent rather than attractive. That makes as much sense as men being put off by sexy women. Imagine how much damage it would take to achieve that effect, and you start to have an idea how much crimes against women complicate everyone’s life, male and female.

The various points raised in this essay are not new. We’ve known about all this forever, or, at least, it feels like forever. Many people, certainly among those reading this, would agree that the human rights of women haven’t been any too good in the past, and that very serious issues still exist in benighted sectors. But the feeling is that the problem has been identified, we dealt with all that years ago, and this is the post-feminist era. The “Mission Accomplished” banner is up and it’s time to move on.

The only problem is that we haven’t actually moved on. Besides the vast swamps of pure-bred ignorance, even progressives don’t always seem to know which species women belong to. It’s not time to move on. It’s time to get back to work.

I know that’s an unwelcome message. Adjusting gender attitudes is the open heart surgery of the soul, and there’s no anesthetic. However, the thing about surgery is that it’s a lot better than the alternative. I’m not suggesting that some sort of new millenium would break out afterwards, but simply that we’d be free of a whole set of aches and pains. Nor am I saying that it’s up to men to do all the work, since there’s plenty of attitude adjusting for women to do too. Actually, it would be surprising if that weren’t the case. We are, after all, only human.

Technorati tags: human rights, gender equality, sexism, hate crimes, discrimination, women priests, genital mutilation, crimes against women