More bad news about rape

In my round-up of 2019 I chose ‘rape’ and ‘rapist’ as my Words of the Year—partly as a protest against the way those words are avoided in many public discussions of sexual violence, and partly as a tribute to the women in Spain, Chile and elsewhere who used them so powerfully in public protests. I predicted that this story would continue in 2020, and sure enough, it has.

The Chilean anthem ‘Un violador en tu camino’ (‘A rapist in your path’) was performed again last week, in both Spanish and English, outside the New York City courtroom where the trial of Harvey Weinstein has now begun. In New York he is on trial for rape and sexual assault, and he has just been charged with the same offences in Los Angeles, where prosecutors reportedly considered bringing criminal charges in relation to eight different women’s complaints. In New York there are two complainants, but the court will hear supporting testimony from at least one woman whose case can’t be prosecuted because the events took place too long ago. Complaints that could potentially lead to further charges, including rape charges, have also been made in Britain and France.

In the light of all this, it is hardly controversial to refer to Harvey Weinstein as an ‘alleged rapist’. Yet on January 6, a report on BBC Radio prompted Sophie Walker to tweet:

Hey @BBCRadio4 there’s a clear, short word that you’re overlooking every time your journalist refers to allegations of ‘non-consensual sex’ against #HarveyWeinstein. Please use it. #rape

One reply to this tweet, from someone whose bio identified him as a journalism student, said: ‘I think they’re tied legally to not use the word rape. Frustrating but it could impact the case against Mr Weinstein’. I’ve seen this argument being made in other cases: it seems to be an increasingly widespread belief that using the word ‘rape’ (even qualified with ‘alleged’) before there has been a conviction is in itself prejudicial, and that its avoidance is legally required.

But this is a misconception. ‘The case against Mr Weinstein’ is, precisely, the case that he has committed what the laws of the state of New York define as the criminal offence of rape. That is what he is on trial for. So long as the media do not say or imply that he is guilty, it surely cannot be prejudicial for them to describe his alleged offence using the same word that appears on the indictment. On the contrary, if their job is to report the facts, there is no justification for not using that word. Substituting less ‘emotive’ terms implies a judgment which it is not their place to make.

The BBC has not consistently avoided the word ‘rape’ in its coverage of the Weinstein case. In a detailed timeline published on its website that word is used many times—it appears in every instance where a complainant has alleged that Weinstein raped or attempted to rape her. However, the piece does use the term ‘non-consensual sex’ when reporting statements made by Weinstein or his representatives. For instance, in relation to a rape allegation made by Rose McGowan in 2017, it says that ‘Weinstein has “unequivocally denied” any allegations of non-consensual sex in a statement released through his publicist’.

The placement of quotation marks here implies that ‘unequivocally denied’ is the only verbatim quote from the statement, but the fact that ‘non-consensual sex’ always appears in reference to Weinstein’s denials suggests that this phrase may also have been taken from that source. Either way, it raises questions. If the BBC is reproducing the language of the statement (without making that clear by putting the whole thing in quotation marks), does that give an accused rapist too much influence over the terms in which his case is reported? If ‘non-consensual sex’ is the BBC’s own wording, what’s the thinking behind that editorial choice?

Maybe they think it makes no difference, because (at least in jurisdictions which treat the absence of consent as a defining feature of the offence), ‘non-consensual sex’ means the same thing as ‘rape/sexual assault’. But I suspect Donna Rotunno, the lawyer in charge of Weinstein’s defence, knows better. Rotunno told an interviewer last September (as quoted in another piece on the BBC website) that

Any time we talk about men and women in sexual circumstances, I think we have to look at the fact that there’s always an area of grey. So there are these blurred lines, and I think sometimes one side walks away from an event feeling different from the other.

I think Rotunno understands why using ‘non-consensual sex’ rather than ‘rape’ (even when the message is that your client ‘unequivocally denies’ it) does make a difference. It’s not just that ‘rape’ is an emotive term. When you avoid what seems like the obvious word to use in a particular context, that prompts the recipient of the message to look for some unstated proposition that would explain the avoidance. In this case the conclusion a lot of people will come to is the one Rotunno spells out in the remarks just quoted, that there are ‘grey areas’ and ‘blurred lines’; it is possible for sex to be in some sense ‘non-consensual’ while still not quite counting as rape. For instance, it remains a widespread view that if a woman didn’t communicate her refusal clearly, the man can’t be blamed for (wrongly) thinking she consented. Maybe he’s obtuse but he’s not a rapist.

This is a belief Rotunno has clearly set out to foster in her presentation of her client, making a number of statements to the effect that his behaviour, though perhaps morally questionable, falls ultimately on the legal side of the line. (‘I’m not here to say he was not guilty of committing sins, but there’s a difference between sins and crimes’.) And it can only help her cause if the media use phraseology that supports this thesis.

There are worse offenders than the BBC. Rotunno has attracted a lot of media attention, not only because there’s so much interest in the case, but also because a woman defending someone like Harvey Weinstein is newsworthy in her own right (as Grazia put it, she’s ‘someone many are curious to get to know’). In profiles and other ‘soft’ pieces she’s been able to make controversial statements about Weinstein’s accusers without being seriously challenged. But while the BBC may not have given that kind of platform to people on Weinstein’s payroll, it still needs to think carefully about the way interested parties may be actively trying to manipulate the terms in which a story is reported.

This is not the only recent instance where the BBC has used questionable language. It has also done so in its reporting of the case of a young British woman who reported that she had been raped by a group of twelve young Israeli men in Ayia Napa, Cyprus. Later, following a lengthy police interrogation conducted without a lawyer present, the woman signed a statement retracting her original report. The men she had accused were allowed to leave Cyprus, while she was put on trial for causing ‘public mischief’, and eventually given a (suspended) sentence of four months in prison.

This case has prompted concern because there are reasons to think the woman’s rights may have been violated. She herself maintains that her retraction statement was dictated to her by the police, and that she signed it under duress. A forensic linguist who has analysed the statement believes it was composed by someone whose first language was not English. This linguist, Andrea Nini, was interviewed on the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire programme last week. In a clip from the interview which was tweeted out from the programme’s account, you can see a ribbon at the bottom of the screen reporting on a rally which had been organised to support the woman and protest her treatment by the authorities. The caption reads: ‘Rally in support of woman in Cyprus “rape” case’.

What is going on with those scare quotes around the word ‘rape’?

My guess is that the formulation ‘Cyprus “rape” case’ was meant to convey a neutral or non-committal stance on the question of whether the woman had been raped. Since her allegation remains unproven, because the suspects were released without trial—but at the same time, the finding that she lied can no longer be considered definitive because of evidence that casts doubt on the authenticity of her retraction statement—the caption writer may been looking for a form of words that would not commit the BBC to either of the two competing narratives (that the woman was raped and then forced to retract her complaint, or that the original allegation was false).

But if that was the objective, putting ‘rape’ in scare quotes did not achieve it. Scare quotes are a distancing device, a signal that whatever the quote marks enclose should not be taken at face value. But the stance their use conveys is not agnosticism or lack of certainty, it is scepticism or disbelief. (Scare quotes can also signal irony or mockery, but in relation to rape that’s a less likely interpretation.) So, while it may not have been intentional, the caption’s reference to the ‘Cyprus “rape” case’ is likely to have been taken as supporting the false allegation narrative.

Perhaps the caption could have referred to the ‘Cyprus rape controversy’: that’s compatible with the understanding that the facts are disputed, but it doesn’t suggest the BBC itself is taking sides. However, in this context I don’t think it would have been unreasonable to use the phrase ‘rape case’ without scare-quotes. ‘Rape case’ does not just have the meaning ‘court case in which someone has been found guilty of rape’, and we really need to push back against the idea that the word can only be used in that very narrow sense. Those who think its use should be restricted in this way may be sincerely concerned about protecting defendants’ right to a fair trial, but they seem to have difficulty grasping the point that reports which systematically avoid the word ‘rape’, put it in scare quotes or replace it with euphemisms, are not just neutral and inconsequential.

As the Glasgow Media Group long ago pointed out in an analysis of the reporting of industrial disputes (where it was always the management who made ‘offers’ while the unions made ‘demands’ or ‘threats’), the repetition of certain formulas over time tends to normalise their underlying assumptions. What is normalised by the repeated avoidance of the word ‘rape’ is the assumption that complainants’ accounts should be approached with extreme suspicion. And according to this in-depth investigation, that suspicion—the author calls it an ‘epidemic of disbelief’–is the single most important reason why so many rapists are never brought to justice.

This doesn’t just harm individual complainants. If we as a society have an interest in seeing rapists brought to justice, reporting that normalises disbelief cannot be said to serve the public interest. The BBC is not the only or the worst offender, but as a public service broadcaster it should arguably be setting a higher standard. When the story is sexual violence, it really needs to sort its language out.

2019: (not) the end of an era

In a couple of days’ time we’ll be marking not just the passing of another year, but by most people’s reckoning the end of the current decade. All kinds of commentators will be looking back over the last ten years, and many will turn to language (or at least, vocabulary) as a source of insight about what mattered in the 2010s. They’ll remind us this was the decade that gave us ‘Brexit’, ‘fake news’, the ‘gig economy’ and ‘influencers’; it was when ‘climate change’ became the ‘climate emergency’, and when global protest movements formed around the hashtags #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo.

This approach to documenting social trends—epitomised by the annual ritual in which dictionaries select a Word of the Year (WOTY)—has its limitations. It doesn’t capture the preoccupations of the speech community as a whole (if I quizzed a sample of my neighbours on the vocabulary items listed in the last paragraph, asking ‘have you come across this expression, can you define it, have you ever used it yourself?’, I suspect that only one item—‘Brexit’—would get affirmative answers across the board). It also imposes artificial temporal boundaries on a much messier reality: though some notable linguistic developments can be tied to specific events and dates, most don’t fit neatly into a single year or even a decade. In addition, the search for zeitgeist-defining terms encourages a focus on what’s new or what’s changed, though arguably it’s no less important (and may even be more revealing) to consider what has stayed the same.

That last point will be reflected in my own attempt to summarise the decade. When I look at this blog’s archive (over 100 posts going back to 2015) I see more continuity than change. The specifics differ from year to year, but the same general themes recur; and I’m sure they would have featured just as prominently if I’d started blogging in 2010. So, in this post I’m going to pick out (in no particular order) my top five recurring themes, using the way they presented themselves in 2019 as a starting point for some reflections on what has—or hasn’t—changed during the 2010s.

1. The return of crass sexism

In January this year, after belatedly learning that she had died, I wrote a post about the writer and editor Marie Shear, who will be remembered for her definition of feminism as ‘the radical notion that women are people’. She was also a sharp and uncompromising critic of sexist language, and the author of a widely-read piece which described what she called its ‘daily toll’: a continual insidious wearing down of women’s dignity and self-esteem whose cumulative effects she thought were too often underestimated.

Shear wrote this piece in 2010, at a time when sexist language had become an unfashionable topic. In the noughties some writers had argued that the overt sexism feminists had criticised in the 1970s was no longer a major issue: it survived only among ageing dinosaurs (like the surgeon in Shear’s opening anecdote) who would not walk the earth for much longer. Attention had turned to the subtler forms of sexism that were said to be more typical of the postmodern, ‘postfeminist’ era. But while postmodern sexism is still a thing (particularly in advertising and branding), the 2010s turned out to be the decade in which crassly sexist and misogynist language returned with a vengeance to the public sphere.

I say ‘with a vengeance’ because the crassness was more extreme this time around. In the past, the norms of mainstream public discourse discouraged the grossest expressions of contempt for women—they were reserved for taboo-busting radio shock jocks and men talking among themselves. But the 2010s saw the rise of public figures–most notably populist ‘strongman’ leaders like Donald Trump and Rodrigo Duterte–whose speech was not constrained by older notions of decorum (or gravitas, or honesty, or any other traditional public virtue). Crude misogyny is part of these men’s brand: I’ll leave aside Trump’s infamous reference to ‘grabbing [women] by the pussy’, since it wasn’t intended for public consumption; but think of his comment, made on CNN in 2015, that the journalist Megyn Kelly ‘had blood coming out of her wherever’ (her offence had been to question Trump about his earlier references to women as ‘dogs’ and ‘fat pigs’). In 2019 Britain got its own imitation strongman leader, Boris Johnson, who specialises in the crass sexism of the public school playground, denouncing his (male) opponents as ‘girly swots’ and ‘big girls’ blouses’.

But you didn’t have to be a political leader to broadcast male supremacist messages to a global audience. The internet gave ‘ordinary’ men with a grudge against women—incels, pick-up artists, MGTOWs et al—a megaphone for their misogyny (and for the violent fantasies which some of them, like Alek Minassian, would go on to enact in reality, making 2018 the year when mainstream, nonfeminist commentators started to talk about  ‘incels’, ‘misogyny’ and ‘toxic masculinity’). Not dissimilar messages also circulated under the banner of ‘harmless fun’. For instance, one of the items I reproduced in a post about greeting cards this year bore the message: ‘Women. Can’t live with them, can’t shoot them and bury them in the garden’. Which brings me to the second major theme of the decade…

2. The linguistic (mis)representation of sexual violence

Any feminist survey of the 2010s will be bound to treat the #MeToo movement as one of the most significant developments, if not the most significant, of the last ten years (the hashtag would be an obvious candidate for the feminist Word of the Decade.) But #MeToo also dramatized what for me was probably the most troubling linguistic trend of the decade: an increasingly marked reluctance on the part of institutions—educational establishments, the criminal justice system and above all the media—to name sexual violence and those who perpetrate it without equivocation, euphemism and overt or covert victim-blaming.

In 2017 and 2018, as #MeToo allegations multiplied, the media converged on a couple of phrases which were repeated ad infinitum: the whole spectrum of abuse, up to and including rape, was now covered (or covered up) by the bland euphemisms ‘inappropriate behaviour’ and ‘sexual misconduct’. This vague, affectless language was a boon to anyone who wanted to argue that the women making allegations were lying, exaggerating, reframing consensual exchanges of sexual for professional favours as abuse, or simply making a fuss about nothing (‘can’t men even flirt now without being accused of misconduct?’)

In 2019 we saw a similar pattern in reports on the case of Jeffrey Epstein, who was charged with child abuse and trafficking (though he killed himself in prison before he could stand trial). Oxymoronic terms like ‘underage women’ were used to describe girls who at the time were 14 or 15; and when attention turned, after Epstein’s death, to the actions of other men the victims had named, the words ‘rape’, ‘assault’ and ‘abuse’ were conspicuous by their absence.

Earlier in the year, most news outlets had even resisted using those words without qualification when reporting on the case of a severely disabled woman who unexpectedly gave birth in the care facility where she had spent most of her life. Though she could only have become pregnant as the result of a criminal assault—her vegetative state rendered her legally and medically incapable of consenting to sex (and also of lying about it)—reporters’ first impulse was still to hedge their statements with doubt-indicating words like ‘alleged’, ‘apparent’ and ‘possible’.

But in the last part of 2019 there were some memorable protests in which feminists harnessed the power of the R-word. In Spain, women who were disgusted by the verdict in a gang-rape case—the perpetrators were convicted only of ‘abuse’, because they had not used physical force against their barely-conscious victim—took to the streets to protest, shouting ‘no es abuso, es violación’ (‘it’s not abuse, it’s rape’). And in Chile on November 25, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, women gathered outside the Supreme Court to perform a chant which has since been taken up around the world (its title in English is ‘The rapist in your path’), calling attention to the way individual men’s ability to rape and kill with impunity depends on a larger culture of complicity and victim-blaming.

In acknowledgment of the power of these protests, and because nothing has made me angrier this year than reading about men ‘having sex’ with 14-year olds or police investigating a ‘possible/alleged assault’ on a woman who gave birth while in a vegetative state, I choose ‘rape’ and ‘rapist’ as my words of the year for 2019.

3. Curious contradictions: the case of the authoritative woman speaker

Among the themes which have recurred in each of the four-and-a-half years of this blog’s existence are two that, taken together, embody a stark contradiction. On one hand, women are constantly castigated because their speech allegedly ‘lacks authority’: how can they expect to be taken seriously when they’re forever apologising and hedging every request with ‘just’? On the other hand, women who do speak with authority are constantly criticised for being ‘angry’, ‘abrasive’, ‘arrogant’, ‘bossy’, ‘immodest’, ‘shrill‘, ‘strident’ and generally ‘unlikable’.

This familiar contradiction was on show again this year. We had more of the same old bullshit about ‘sorry’, ‘just’ and other female ‘verbal tics’, and more complaints about high-profile women leaders being ‘strident’ (teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg), bossy and ‘self-righteous’ (Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson), ‘angry’ (Democratic presidential hopefuls Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris) and ‘unlikable’ (every woman in the race for the Democratic nomination).

More unusually, two women—Marie Yovanovitch and Fiona Hill—attracted praise for their authoritative testimony during the proceedings that led to Donald Trump’s impeachment by the US House of Representatives. Unfortunately, I don’t think this is a sign of things to come. The positive reception Yovanovitch and Hill got was linked to their status as non-partisan public servants, and the same courtesy is unlikely to be extended to any of the female politicians who are still in the running for next year’s presidential election. It’s one thing for a woman to have authority thrust upon her, but actively seeking it is a different matter. Powerful and politically outspoken women will still, I predict, be ‘unlikable’ in 2020.

4. Studies show that women are rubbish

The training course where women executives at the accounting firm Ernst & Young learned that women’s brains are like pancakes and men’s are more like waffles (as reported in October by the Huffington Post) almost certainly wasn’t based on any actual science (or if it was, whoever designed the course should get the Allen and Barbara Pease Memorial Award for Neurobollocks). But while science can’t be held responsible for all the sexist drivel that gets talked in its name, it shouldn’t get a free pass either.

In the 90s and noughties we were endlessly told that women were naturally better communicators than men, but in the 2010s there’s been something of a shift: there are, it transpires, certain kinds of communication in which it’s men who are hard-wired to excel. This year, for instance, a widely-reported meta-analytic study put together the findings of 28 experiments investigating the proposition that men are better than women at using language to make others laugh. The conclusion was that men really do have more ‘humor ability’ than women, probably because this ability is ‘correlated with intelligence’, and as such is a useful diagnostic when females assess the fitness of potential mates. (Ah, evolutionary psychology: a 90s/noughties trend which sadly didn’t die in the 2010s.)

It isn’t hard to pick holes in these studies; but while it’s important to interrogate specific claims about why women are rubbish at [fill in the blank], we also need to ask more basic questions about why so much research of this kind gets done in the first place. What interests are served by this unceasing quest for evidence that sex-stereotypes and the judgments based upon them reflect innate differences in the abilities and aptitudes of men and women?

Another study published this year on the subject of gender and humour found that women who used humour in a professional context were perceived to be lacking in competence and commitment. This had nothing to do with their ‘humor ability’: in this study, subjects watched either a man or a woman (both actors) giving exactly the same scripted presentation, complete with identical jokes. But whereas the man’s humour was perceived as enhancing his professional effectiveness, the woman’s was perceived as detracting from it.

What this illustrates is the general principle that the same verbal behaviour will attract different judgments depending on the speaker’s sex. Judgments about women and humour are similar to judgments about authoritative female speakers, and they embody the same contradiction: women are widely disparaged for lacking humour, but those who don’t lack humour are disparaged as incompetent lightweights. What explains this effect–‘heads men win, tails women lose’–isn’t women’s behaviour or their natural abilities: it’s a consequence of sexism, which science too often reinforces.

5. The War of the W-word

In my round-up of 2018 I wrote at length about the increasingly contested status of the word ‘woman’, whose definition, use, avoidance and even spelling prompted heated arguments throughout the year. This isn’t totally unprecedented: as I’ve said before (beginning in my very first post), the W-word has a longer record of causing controversy than many people realise. But its current contentiousness is linked to something that is specific to the 2010s—the rise of a new politics of gender identity, which has also influenced language in other ways. It’s a development that divides feminists, and the kind of conflict we saw so much of in 2018 will undoubtedly continue in the 2020s.

In 2019, however, the most notable controversy about ‘woman’ was much more old-school. It started when the feminist Maria Beatrice Giovanardi was looking for a name for a women’s rights project she was working on. In search of inspiration she typed the word ‘woman’ into Google, and was shocked when her search returned a series of online dictionary entries full of offensive synonyms (‘bitch’, ‘chick’, ‘filly’) and insultingly sexist examples of usage (‘one of his sophisticated London women’; ‘male fisherfolk who take their catch home for the little woman to gut’). When Giovanardi started a petition calling on Oxford Dictionaries to change their entry, her intervention attracted extensive media interest, and by September the petition had over 30,000 signatures.

This is a good illustration of the point I made earlier—that the advent of new concerns does not mean the old ones become irrelevant. What Giovanardi drew attention to is one of many examples of the quiet survival of ‘banal sexism’, the kind of tediously familiar, low-level stuff whose ‘daily toll’ Marie Shear warned us not to underestimate. In the past five years I have come to agree with Shear. It’s striking to me that many of the most popular posts on this blog have been about things that would never register on any trend spotter’s radar: old chestnuts like ‘should women take their husband’s names?’, and ‘does swearing make women unattractive?’, which I could equally have written about at any time in the last 40 years, are still significant issues for many women. If feminism had started a linguistic to-do list in 1975, it would certainly be a lot longer now, but very few of the original items would actually have been crossed off.

So am I saying the next decade will look a lot like the last one? Yes: though change is a constant, in language and in life, what we mostly see is evolution, not revolution. That was true in the 2010s, and—barring some catastrophe that puts an end to civilisation as we know it—it will also be true in the 2020s. I know that’s not much of a prediction, and maybe not the happiest of thoughts when you look at the current state of the world, but there it is: we are where we are, and all we can do is keep going. I wish readers of this blog a happy new year/new decade (thanks as always to all the other feminists and/or linguists whose work I’ve drawn on in 2019), and I’ll see you on the other side.

Tedious tropes: the sexist stereotyping of female politicians

I don’t often find myself agreeing with the Conservative politician Amber Rudd, but this weekend she expressed a sentiment I agreed with 100%. Responding to a Spectator article in which Melanie McDonagh attacked the ‘relentless head-of-school self-righteousness’ of Jo Swinson, the Liberal Democrat leader who lost her seat in last week’s General Election, Rudd tweeted:

Can we stop criticising every senior female politician for being “head of school”, “headmistressy” or “like a school teacher”?

I’ve been complaining about this very thing since 2016, when Sylvia Shaw and I analysed press coverage of the 2015 General Election for a book we were writing about gender and political speech. We were struck by the frequency with which female politicians were compared either to head girls, headmistresses and school teachers, or else to nannies, nurses and ‘Matron’. There were other variations: Nicola Sturgeon was also compared to a dominatrix and a man-eating spider. But the headmistress/teacher/head girl comparisons were the ones that recurred most frequently. No one, by contrast, compared David Cameron to a supercilious prefect or Ed Miliband to a geography teacher.

heel boysLater in 2016, after the EU referendum result led to Cameron’s resignation, the competition to succeed him brought us more of the same clichés. The two female contenders, Theresa May and Andrea Leadsom, were both referred to as ‘Mummy’; when she won, May was depicted in the Sun as a dominatrix in spike heels. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, Hillary Clinton, the first ever female candidate for the US presidency, was disparaged for sounding like a bossy schoolmarm.

These clichés are deeply embedded in our collective imagination. Back in the 1980s. the management theorist Rosabeth Moss Kanter suggested that women who play public roles tend to be assigned to one of four archetypal categories (Kanter called these ‘role traps’): they can be Mothers, Seductresses, Pets or Battleaxes. These archetypes reflect the roles and settings in which women have historically wielded power–either in the home, and institutions like schools and hospitals which originated as extensions of it (the Mother),  in sexual relationships with men (the Seductress) or, occasionally, in quasi-masculine roles like ‘ruler’ or ‘warrior’ (the Battleaxe). The teacher or headmistress is a variant of the Mother: she is ‘routinely described as schoolmarmy, bossy, frumpy or mumsy’. And as Amber Rudd says, this is probably the commonest role-trap for women in politics. They can also, of course, be Battleaxes (like Margaret Thatcher, the ‘Iron Lady’), but even the most powerful female leaders are always liable to be put in the ‘Mother’ box. (Angela Merkel’s nickname, for instance, is ‘Mutti’.)

In an era when these archetypes no longer reflect the real-world limits on what women can do or be, their persistence as ‘natural’ reference-points for female authority in general is both frustrating and depressing. Whatever position a woman speaks from–she might be a CEO, a bishop, a Chief Constable, the First Minister of Scotland or the US Secretary of State–what we hear is apparently still the voice of Mummy or Teacher, lecturing and scolding us as if we were naughty children.

8615-3006Not only do these comparisons belittle the women concerned, making their authority seem trivial and petty, they also tap into a deep vein of resentment towards ‘She Who Must Be Obeyed’ (the fictional lawyer Horace Rumpole’s nickname for his wife). Older versions of the Mother, like Matron and the headmistress, are frequently caricatured as unnatural or monstrous, women whose need to dominate others reflects their sexual frustration and lack of feminine charm. Comparing a politician to one of these figures is thus a double put-down, implying that she is neither a proper leader nor a proper woman. It’s a way of reminding her that real power belongs to men: women who try to claim it are either ridiculous or repulsive.

Though the ‘mummy/teacher/Matron’ comparisons are wheeled out regularly by journalists of both sexes, in the sample Sylvia Shaw and I analysed it was noticeable that many of the most hostile examples were produced by right-wing female columnists. Melanie McDonagh, the author of the piece about Jo Swinson, was one of these; other repeat offenders were Sarah Vine in the Mail and Allison Pearson in the Telegraph. In Kanter’s terms, these women are ‘Pets’: they’re rewarded for acting as mouthpieces for the prejudices of the men who control the Tory press. Their editors know that if a man described Nicola Sturgeon as a power-crazed Lady Macbeth with a haircut like a Tunnock’s Teacake (I take this childish insult directly from a 2015 column by Allison Pearson), he’d just come across as a crude chauvinist bully. So the task of trashing women gets delegated to the ladies, producing a steady stream of female-authored ‘why I can’t stand [insert name of female politician]’ pieces.

But the journalists who occupy this niche may soon face a new challenge. In the wake of Jeremy Corbyn’s announcement that he plans to step down, the Labour Party is gearing up for a leadership contest in which it looks likely that most of the contenders will be female. So far, those who have been identified as potential successors to Corbyn include Yvette Cooper, Rebecca Long-Bailey, Lisa Nandy, Jess Phillips and Emily Thornberry—so far, along with one man, Keir Starmer. It will surely be difficult for the usual suspects in the media to write their usual ‘why I can’t stand X’ pieces about five different candidates without making it obvious that what they really mean is ‘I can’t stand women’. Which raises the question: in a contest as female-dominated as this one looks set to be, will sex–and therefore sexism–cease to be an issue?

Over in the US, the race for the Democratic presidential nomination has prompted feminists to ask the same question. Whereas in 2016 the field included only one woman, Hillary Clinton, the 2020 campaign started with half a dozen. As Rebecca Traister wrote recently, this initially looked like a game-changer:

If there were six different women running for the country’s highest office, it would be far harder to caricature them in all the ways that ambitious women get caricatured: as mean, angry, crazy, elitist, lightweight, and dissembling.

But in practice it has turned out (as anyone familiar with Kanter’s role-traps might have predicted) that you can caricature six women almost as easily as one: all you have to do is put different women into different boxes. Elizabeth Warren, for instance, is a battleaxe, elitist and angry (but not crazy or a lightweight); Marianne Williamson was lightweight/crazy but not angry. So although the criticisms are specific to each candidate, they all end up dealing with the same general problem: the perception that, in the words of a poll Traister cites, ‘most of the women who run for president just aren’t that likable’.

This statement, which a large number of respondents agreed with, suggests that women’s ‘unlikability’ has very little to do with their qualities as individuals. If the judgment were being made on a single woman you might well think it reflected her own shortcomings, but as the number of women increases that begins to seem less and less plausible. What are the chances that you’d have six women in the same race who all just happened to be inherently unlikable?

What the judgment really reflects, we might suspect, is the phenomenon which psychologists call the ‘likability–competence dilemma’. A number of experimental studies have found that if a woman is judged to be highly competent, she will also be judged less likable than either similarly competent men or less competent women. (For men there is no such trade-off.)  So, the very fact that a woman is running for the presidency (which implies a strong claim to competence, as well as overt ambition) will make her, in many people’s eyes, unlikable. The more qualified and confident she appears, the less likable people will judge her.

This prejudice is a particular problem for women in politics, because in modern times, as the historian Claire Potter explains, likability has become closely linked to electability.  Even some progressive Democrats who are keen to support Elizabeth Warren in 2020 have wondered whether, in a campaign where the absolute priority is defeating Trump, it would make more sense, strategically, to get behind Joe Biden. He may be less appealing in other ways, but at least his sex won’t stop people voting for him.

But the unwillingness of the average citizen to vote for a woman may have been overstated. Last month the political scientists Mary McGrath and Sara Saltzer wrote a piece for the LA Times about an experiment they had conducted. They recruited two groups of subjects—one constructed to be demographically representative of the US, the other constructed to have a 50:50 balance between men and women and between registered Democrats and Republicans—and presented them with a series of choices between two political candidates. The candidates differed in age, education, gender and political views: the subjects were not told that gender was the variable being investigated. And when the votes were counted, it turned out that the female candidates had done better than the male ones. This preference was seen among subjects in all subgroups: men as well as women, and Republicans as well as Democrats. But it wasn’t the result of a direct pro-female bias: the most important factor influencing subjects’ decisions was how well a candidate’s policies matched their own political beliefs. Noting that other recent studies have produced similar results, McGrath and Saltzer comment:

a growing body of evidence shows voter preferences are not a major reason for the persistently low rates of women in elected office.

But in that case, what does explain the continuing over-representation of men? McGrath and Saltzer think the answer may be what some researchers have dubbed ‘sexism by proxy’, a tendency they illustrate using the findings of a poll conducted last summer. Respondents were asked first whether they personally would feel comfortable with a woman as president, and then whether they thought their neighbours would feel comfortable with a woman as president. Three quarters of the respondents answered yes to the first question, but only a third answered yes to the second. The conclusion McGrath and Saltzer draw is that

The biggest obstacle to putting women in office may not be that voters are afraid of female candidates, but that people have convinced themselves others are afraid.

The US presidency is something of a special case: in Britain I don’t think you’d find a quarter of the respondents in a poll expressing discomfort with the idea of a female prime minister. We’ve had two of them, and while one (Theresa May) did not impress, the other (Margaret Thatcher) is still widely regarded as a great leader: even people who found her loathsome (myself included) would be hard-pressed to make the case that she wasn’t up to the job.

cropped-c-99ikjwaaeak_h.jpg

But although we no longer question women’s basic eligibility for the highest political office, our continuing ambivalence about female authority remains visible in the language that is routinely used, especially in the media, about the women we have elected to positions of power. It’s there in the belittling comparisons with nannies and schoolmarms, in the covertly gendered code-words (‘shrill’, ‘strident‘, ‘self-righteous’), in the popularity of innuendo-laden headlines and cartoons like the one shown above.

Since these tired old tropes are, to use a phrase beloved of Boris Johnson, ‘oven-ready’–a journalist on a deadline can just reach for them on autopilot–we may well see them being trotted out again once the Labour leadership contest gets going. Perhaps Emily Thornberry will be described as ‘headmistressy’ and Yvette Cooper will be the eager ‘head girl’; Jess Phillips might fill the ‘angry battleaxe’ slot while Rebecca Long-Bailey, said to be Corbyn’s preferred candidate, will be the ‘pet’. These descriptions don’t have to be accurate, or even especially apt, to stick. They just have to be repeated often enough.

The constant repetition of sexist stereotypes may not be up there with rape and death-threats as a deterrent to women’s participation in politics, but it undoubtedly constrains their freedom to participate on equal terms with men. In addition to actually doing their jobs, women must try to pre-empt the predictable criticism and mockery by engaging in continuous self-surveillance (‘is this outfit too mumsy? Do I sound like a bossy schoolmarm?’) We shouldn’t underestimate the energy-sapping effect of this–nor the emotional impact of being trashed in the media. People may say it ‘comes with the territory’–‘if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen’–but some things only come with the territory for women.

So, for once I am happy to add my voice to Amber Rudd’s. Can we stop criticising female politicians in ways we don’t criticise male ones? Can we find ways of thinking and talking about female authority that bear some relation to the realities of the 21st century? And can we please consign the ‘why I as a woman can’t stand this other woman’ genre of political commentary to the toxic waste-dump of history?

Marie and Fiona go to Washington

This week something unusual happened. Two women participated in a high-stakes, high-profile political speech event, and were widely praised for their ‘authoritative’ performances. Even their voices attracted no criticism: they were not described as ‘abrasive’, ‘shrill’ or ‘strident’.

The event in question was the ongoing inquiry into whether Donald Trump should be impeached; the women who appeared before the House Intelligence Committee were Marie Yovanovitch, the former US Ambassador to Ukraine, and Fiona Hill, an expert on Russia who had served as an advisor to the Trump administration. Both women presented themselves as non-partisan public servants who considered it their duty to give evidence. As Hill told the committee, ‘I have no interest in advancing the outcome of your inquiry in any particular direction except toward the truth’.

Of course, the inquiry is itself partisan, initiated by the Democrats and opposed by the Republicans: not everyone thinks these women are sheroes. But the Trump-supporting media were surprisingly muted in their criticisms. Yovanovitch even got some support from the unlikely quarter of Fox News, where one anchor described her as a ‘sympathetic witness’, while another went so far as to tweet that if you weren’t moved by her testimony you probably didn’t have a pulse. Meanwhile, over in the liberal media camp, admiration for the two of them knew no bounds. ‘What does female authority sound like?’ asked the Washington Post: ‘Marie Yovanovitch and Fiona Hill just showed us’.

In cases (though I found few) where sexism did come into play, it didn’t always come from the direction you would have predicted. Writing about Yovanovitch for the Guardian, for instance, Art Cullen praised the ‘decency’, ‘modesty’ and ‘restraint’ shown by this ‘61-year old single woman’ who had devoted her life to serving her country. These virtues were apparent, he said, in her ‘downward gaze’ and ‘the timbre of her quiet voice’. This picture of Yovanovitch may have been stereotypical, patronising and reductive, but it was a long way from the usual portrayal of women who expose men’s wrongdoing as lying bitches or vengeful harpies.

Whereas Yovanovitch was applauded for her restraint, Fiona Hill was praised for her forthrightness. USA Today called her ‘fierce, focused and fearless’;  it credited her with delivering ‘punchy lines of testimony’ and noted that her ‘wit and humor were on full display’. It also quoted, approvingly, the committee member who called her ‘steely’. One frequently-referenced symbol of this ‘steeliness’ was her voice–or more exactly her accent, which still bears witness to her working-class British origins (she is a coalminer’s daughter from County Durham). It’s not unusual for the media to fixate on women’s voices, but in this case the commentary completely bypassed all the sexist clichés (does she sound too shrill and squeaky, or is she harsh and grating?) that usually dominate the discussion. Instead, Hall’s accent became a positive symbol of both her toughness and her successful journey from the coalfields to the corridors of power.

The Washington Post’s question, ‘what does female authority sound like?’, alludes to something that was said during another high-profile political speech event that took place this week, the fifth debate featuring contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination. Amy Klobuchar spoke about the authority we grant to men who may not, as individuals, have done much to earn it: her comments were aimed at Pete Buttigieg, whose candidacy is being treated as seriously as that of Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris or Klobuchar herself, though they are experienced national politicians, while he is just the mayor of a small midwestern city. Because men have always been our models for what authority sounds like, we find it easy to compare men like Buttigieg with other male leaders we’ve admired in the past. For women, however, there are fewer comparators (as Klobuchar reminded us, in the case of the US presidency there are none); consequently we lack what the Post writer Monica Hesse called ‘the aural reference library to assess female authority, trustworthiness and power’. And that’s where she thinks Yovanovitch and Hill have made a difference:

Perhaps the next time an authoritative woman steps forward…listeners will remember that they’ve heard a voice like that before, and trusted it when they did.

But while I agree that it’s desirable for people to hear more authoritative female voices, I think Hesse overlooks an important point. It isn’t true that we have no cultural template for ‘what female authority sounds like’: the problem is rather that centuries of male dominance have imbued the figure of the powerful woman with all kinds of negative associations. Some of these are linked to our experiences (and perhaps especially men’s experiences) of resenting female authority in childhood: that’s why women who exercise power over adults are so often belittled by comparing them to overbearing mothers, nagging nannies and bossy schoolmarms—this both expresses resentment and metaphorically puts women (back) in their place. Other archetypes of female authority, like the ‘iron lady’ and the witch (remember Hillary Clinton’s ‘cackle’?) do the opposite, magnifying women’s power to the point where it becomes grotesque–unnatural, tyrannical and threatening.

Yovanovich and Hill were neither belittled nor demonised: they were presented not only as authoritative, but also as likable–‘decent’, ‘sympathetic’, ‘sincere’, and, even, in Hill’s case, ‘funny’.  For women to tick both these boxes simultaneously is a rare feat, and we might well wonder how they managed to pull it off.

I suspect the answer has less to do with the details of their speech than with their perceived motivations for speaking, and with their status as public servants rather than politicians. For them there was no quid pro quo: they were seen to be acting in the public interest, and not in pursuit of their own power. Unfortunately, that may limit what can be learned from their example, particularly by women who are running for elected office. However dedicated they may be to public service, politicians are also seeking power for themselves; and for women that’s still a problem. The civic-minded whistle-blower isn’t automatically protected from misogyny (see Anita Hill and Christine Blasey Ford), but the openly ambitious woman is a prime target.

But even if Hill and Yovanovitch haven’t changed the game for women, both the impeachment inquiry and the Democratic debate suggest that the rules of the game are changing. Feminist criticism of sexism and misogyny, which has taken on a new urgency since the defeat of Hillary Clinton and the advent of #MeToo, is being picked up and amplified more widely; many women have stopped pretending that sexism is not an issue for them, or that it’s something they should discuss behind closed doors to avoid putting men publicly on the spot. The voice of female resistance, in short, sounds louder and more militant in 2019 than it did in 2015.

We heard this resistance in Amy Klobuchar’s remarks during the debate; we also heard it during Fiona Hill’s testimony. At one point Hill referred to a ‘blow-up’ between herself and Gordon Sondland, the US Ambassador to the European Union, and added: ‘I hate to say it, but often when women show anger it’s not fully appreciated. It’s often, you know, pushed onto emotional issues, perhaps, or deflected onto other people’. This remark seems to be channelling the post-#MeToo literature on women’s rage, and I’m inclined to read it as a strategic move by Hill, designed to counter any attempt by Sondland or his allies to portray her as ‘difficult’ or ‘hysterical’. The ‘no free pass for sexists’ message has also reached some men: when one of the Republicans subjected Hill to a lengthy exposition of his party’s arguments against impeachment, a male Democrat apologised for his colleague’s ‘epic mansplaining’.

Of course there’s still a long way to go, as Rebecca Traister noted recently in a piece about the Democrats: even with several women in the race (whereas previously the maximum was one), people’s judgments of them continue to be shaped by well-worn sexist stereotypes–they’re ‘meanies, lightweights, crazies, or angry, dissembling elitists’. And people still say, when pollsters ask them, that women who run for president ‘just aren’t that  ‘likable‘. Clearly, political cultures don’t change overnight. But this week, for once, I feel hopeful.

The spinster returns?

Not long ago on Twitter, where my handle is @wordspinster, I made a joke about the recent announcement that Facebook has now become FACEBOOK. ‘Should I rebrand as WORDSPINSTER’, I tweeted, ‘or is that just silly?’

But some people who saw this tweet either hadn’t followed the FACEBOOK story or else they didn’t make the connection. They thought I might be planning to extend the use of my Twitter handle to other domains—this blog, for instance—and they didn’t think that was a great idea, because of the negative associations of the word ‘spinster’.

Choosing @wordspinster as my handle was another joke, and to get it you need to know a bit of English linguistic and social history. The ‘-ster’ in ‘spinster’ comes from the Old English feminine agentive suffix ‘-estre’, which could be added to verb-stems to form occupational titles. The last names ‘Brewster’ and ‘Baxter’, for instance, were once terms denoting women whose job was brewing or baking. ‘Spinster’ meant a woman whose occupation was spinning yarn.

Spinning, in fact, was the prototypical female occupation: though there is some uncertainty about, in one historian’s words, ‘the relative importance of age, marital status, and husband’s occupation in determining which women spun’, by the early 17th century ‘spinster’ had become the legal term that designated unmarried women in general (a status it would retain until the introduction of civil partnerships in 2005). About a hundred years later, written evidence shows that ‘spinster’ had started to be used in the way it is mainly used today: as a pejorative label akin to ‘old maid‘, applied to women who were no longer young, but who had not succeeded in finding husbands.

My Twitter-name ‘wordspinster’ was meant to riff on the modern pejorative meaning of ‘spinster’ (since I myself am no longer young, and there’s no chance I’ll ever have a husband), while also alluding to the original occupational meaning (since you could say my job involves ‘spinning words’). It was, in addition, a nod to those feminists—most notably Mary Daly—who had promoted ‘spinster’ as a positive term.bspinster (Daly’s definition, recorded in her Wickedary, was ‘a woman whose occupation is to Spin, to participate in the whirling movement of creation; one who has chosen her Self, who defines her Self by choice neither in relation to children nor to men; one who is Self-identified; a whirling dervish, Spiraling in New Time/Space’.) I’m not sure who I thought would appreciate this joke—which seems even more obscure now I’ve written this lengthy explanation of it—but hell, it’s only Twitter, and it gave me a certain satisfaction.

Anyway, by one of those strange coincidences that sometimes happen on social media, while I was sorting out the confusion my tweet had caused, the writer Becky Kleanthous tweeted a link to a piece she’d written which also raised the issue of ‘spinster’ and its negative associations. It was prompted by the reaction to something the actor Emma Watson, who will turn 30 next year, had said in an interview with Vogue: 

It took me a long time, but I’m very happy [being single]. I call it being self-partnered.

For this Watson was pilloried on social media. Some critics re-stated the common-sense belief that no woman really wants to be single: a female celebrity who says she’s happy that way is either lying to conceal her shame, or hoping to attract attention by saying something ‘controversial’. Others focused on the term ‘self-partnered’, which was criticised for being pretentious, narcissistic and, as one man commented (in a bravura display of missing the point), ‘utterly offputting to potential suitors’.

I’ll admit to finding ‘self-partnered’ a rather peculiar expression myself—a bit like Gwyneth Paltrow’s description of splitting up with that bloke from Coldplay as ‘conscious uncoupling’. But it’s not hard to see why Watson might have chosen it. Reminiscent of Mary Daly’s ‘one who has chosen her Self’, ‘self-partnered’ presents the single woman not as a failure or a freak, but as someone who chooses, and values, her independence. Which led Becky Kleanthous to float an idea: instead of resorting to new-agey neologisms, ‘what’, she asked, ‘if single women embraced the pejorative label “spinster”?’

This is not a new suggestion. Since the 19th century there have been periodic calls for women to reclaim both the word and the status it names. In 2015, when Kate Bolick published a well-received book entitled Spinster: Making A Life of One’s Own, there was a spate of think-pieces asserting that the shame was over and the spinster’s time had come. But evidently it wasn’t and it hadn’t. The word is still being avoided, unless a speaker is being ironic (Emma Watson could not have told Vogue, unironically, ‘I’m very happy being single. I call it being a spinster’), and it still elicits strongly negative reactions. In 2005, when ‘spinster’ ceased to be the official legal term for unmarried women, even the radical lesbian feminist Julie Bindel declared that she was glad to see it go. ‘The word’, she wrote, ‘is not reclaimable’. But what is it that makes ‘spinster’ so resistant to rehabilitation? If ‘bitch’ and ‘slut’ are considered reclaimable (by some feminists, at least), why should ‘spinster’ be a harder nut to crack?

To answer that question, we need to look more closely at what kind of pejorative label ‘spinster’ is. And one way of doing that is to compare it with its supposed male equivalent, ‘bachelor’. The basic definition of both terms is ‘an unmarried person’: in theory the only difference between them is that ‘spinster’ refers to a female person whereas ‘bachelor’ names a male one. But if you look at the way they’re used in practice, it’s obvious their meanings are not the same.

One person who has investigated the differences is the corpus linguist Paul Baker. When he examined the use of ‘bachelor’ in the British National Corpus (BNC), he found that although it can have negative overtones (suggesting that a man is socially isolated, or hinting that he is secretly gay), more commonly the bachelor is a happy heterosexual, attractive to women and envied by other men. Calling a man a ‘bachelor’, regardless of his age, need not imply that he will never marry, and certainly not that he is celibate. The BNC contains many examples like these:

I believe he was a real bachelor with a ravishing mistress tucked away

Certainly in his bachelor days Johnnie Spencer was the catch of the county

Calling a woman a ‘spinster’, by contrast, does generally imply that her single status is permanent, unchosen and probably resented. In the BNC, Baker finds, spinsters are recurrently described as ‘unattractive, plain, sex-starved or sexually frustrated’. He also observes that whereas the carefree ‘eligible’ bachelor is a familiar figure, the ‘happy young spinster’ is not. aspinsterIt’s not that unmarried women can’t be happy, young and ‘eligible’, but if they are, we avoid the label ‘spinster’. No one would throw a ‘spinster party’ for a bride-to-be, or commission a reality TV show called ‘The Spinster’. For the not-yet-married-but-still-desirable woman we prefer to use words derived from the more positive male term, like ‘bachelorette‘ and the (now archaic but once popular) ‘bachelor girl’. Both terms, incidentally, were first recorded in the 1890s: ‘spinster’-avoidance isn’t new.

This evidence about its usage (and avoidance) suggests a reason why ‘spinster’ might be harder to reclaim than ‘bitch’ or ‘slut’. As Julie Bindel remarked in 2005, the word ‘will never sound sassy or cool’. I think that goes to the heart of the problem: ‘spinster’ is associated with two things which are negatively evaluated in both mainstream and most contemporary feminist culture. One is sexual inactivity; the other is ageing. A bitch can be celebrated for her sassiness, and a slut (not unlike the bachelor) for her sexual adventurousness, but what can anyone find to celebrate about an older women who doesn’t have sex?

There’s a more general point to be made here about the project of reclaiming negative terms. Word meanings don’t change in a social vacuum: they change when there’s a shift in our cultural narratives, the stories we use words to tell. What’s behind our negative reactions to ‘spinster’, and the consequent failure of attempts to rehabilitate it, is the negativity of the prevailing cultural narratives about both female ageing and women without men.

As Clare Anderson points out in a recent book on this subject, ageing in women is almost invariably represented as an inexorable process of decline. This is the dominant narrative in literature on women’s health, in the fashion and lifestyle advice doled out by women’s magazines, and in the discourse of the beauty industry, which typically locates the onset of decline in a woman’s late 20s (after which it’s downhill all the way).

In the interviews she conducted with women and men about their personal experiences of getting older, Anderson found that although middle-aged and older women were critical of the ‘ageing as decline’ narrative, they still tended to reproduce its presuppositions when they talked about themselves, whereas the men she interviewed did not. In their late 40s and 50s, these men felt they were in their prime: they said they were happier, more confident and more at ease with their bodies than they had been when they were younger. Women of the same age reported more or less the opposite. As much as many of them disliked the prevailing discourse, their language suggested they had internalised it.

This ageist and sexist narrative doesn’t just affect women over 40. ageIt’s also the basis for what Emma Watson experienced–the public dissection of her feelings about (still) being single at 29. The modern beauty and advice industries have made a speciality of telling women what they’re supposed to feel in their 20s, 30s, 40s, etc: Anderson and others call this ‘decadism’. If the end of a woman’s 20s marks the beginning of her long decline, then she can be expected to feel anxiety about being single: she knows the clock is ticking and her time is running out. And if, like Watson, she says that isn’t how she feels, people either don’t believe her or else they think there must be something wrong with her.

The same rules do not apply to male celebrities, or indeed to men in general. Not only is it assumed that a 30-year old man still has plenty of time to find the right one and settle down, it won’t be held against him if he never does. He will remain an ‘eligible bachelor’ for at least another 25 years. His female counterpart, on the other hand, had better get her skates on, before the once-eligible bachelorette turns into a frustrated and embittered old spinster.

Feminist attempts to reclaim ‘spinster’ have channelled the spirit of the old slogan ‘a woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle’: they have celebrated the joys of independence and the freedom to please yourself. But what the response to Emma Watson’s ‘self-partnered’ comment illustrates is that for many people, a woman without a man is more like a fish out of water. Until that story changes, along with the story that men get better with age while women peak early and then decline, I don’t think many single women will embrace the label ‘spinster’. It will remain either an insult or—like my Twitter handle—an old crone’s joke.

Out of humour

I say I say I say, have you heard the one about a new study showing that men are funnier than women? Probably, because every media outlet in the universe has picked it up and rehashed it, from the BBC and Science Daily to Malaysia News and Reddit. Which is no surprise, because it’s a gift to the media, a perfect example of ‘soundbite science’. But if you read this blog regularly you will also have heard the one about why it pays to take a closer look at these sex-difference stories. And guess what, I’m going to tell that one again.

I’ll start by summarising the research itself, as described by one of the researchers, Gil Greengross, in Psychology Today. What he and his colleagues did was a meta-analysis: rather than carrying out their own experiment, they combined the statistical findings of 28 previous studies and calculated the overall size of the effect they were interested in, which was the effect of gender on funniness—or as they called it, ‘humor ability’.

In the studies they selected, one set of experimental subjects had been given some cartoons and asked to come up with amusing captions; another set of subjects then rated the funniness of each caption on a numerical scale. Crucially, the raters didn’t know if the caption they were reading had been written by a man or a woman. If they’d known, their judgments could have been influenced by the stereotype of women as less funny than men. The studies had been designed to investigate whether there was any basis for that stereotype. Would women still be judged less funny by people who had no way of knowing they were women?

The short answer turned out to be ‘yes’. As the Psychology Today piece explains,

In statistical technical terms, the effect size was 0.32, or roughly one-third of the standard deviation. In plain English, this means that 63 percent of men score above the mean humor ability of women. This is considered a small to medium difference.

Evidently aware that such findings often attract criticism, and are frequently misinterpreted, Greengross goes on to assure us that yes, they did look for possible confounding factors (e.g., if there were cultural differences which calculations based on aggregated data were masking, or if there were more male than female raters, which might skew the ratings in men’s favour because men prefer the humour of other men); and no, they weren’t saying that all men are funnier than all women. Some women are very funny, and the most successful female comedians are funnier than 99% of men. Their claim was only that men on average are funnier than women on average.

Greengross then turns to the question of why that might be the case, and tells a story I have discussed on this blog before, in fact more than once, because it features in some accounts of the evolution of human language. It’s about sexual selection, the concept developed by Darwin to explain evolved traits like the peacock’s tail, which can’t have been selected because it made the bird better adapted to its environment (it’s hard to fly away from predators trailing that monster); rather it was favoured because it was attractive to potential mates, ensuring that big-tailed peacocks passed their genes to more offspring.

Peacocks are animals that ‘lek’, display themselves at mating time so that peahens can judge their fitness. The idea is that being funny serves a similar purpose for humans: it’s a form of display put on by men so women can assess how good they’ll be as mates. ‘Humor’, Greengross notes, ‘is strongly correlated with intelligence’. He also reminds us that women advertising on dating sites often mention humour as an important quality in men, whereas men are less interested in whether a woman is funny.  The principle that ‘males do the courting and females do the choosing’ explains why ‘humor ability’ has been selected for in male humans, but not in females, whose reproductive success is not enhanced by it.

This explanation presupposes that ‘humor ability’ has a significant genetic component; but couldn’t being funny be a learned skill which is more common or better developed in men because they get more opportunity or encouragement to practise it? The researchers, it transpires, did consider that possibility, but they dismissed it on the grounds that

There is minimal evidence to support the view that our society suppresses women from producing and exhibiting humor.

Mate, stop it, my sides are going to split—because this has to be a joke, right? You do realise that there’s a long tradition of discourse, both expert and popular, which ‘suppresses women from producing humor’ by telling them that they’re no good at it, it’s unfeminine, and men don’t find it attractive; and you do understand that YOUR OWN STUDY SITS SQUARELY IN THAT TRADITION? Oh, and while we’re on the subject, it presumably hasn’t escaped your notice that saying ‘men have more humor ability than women’ followed by ‘humor is highly correlated with intelligence’ will lead a lot of people to deduce the proposition ‘men are more intelligent than women’—which you wouldn’t be suggesting in all seriousness, would you?

So far I haven’t questioned the central claim made for this meta-analysis: that it confirms the robustness of the effect it investigated (i.e., sex affects funniness and men are funnier than women). Here are a few reasons why I think that claim needs to be at least qualified, and possibly rejected.

First, the studies used in the meta-analysis were chosen because they investigated the same question using a similar experimental design, which elicited evidence of people’s ‘humor ability’ by asking them to write funny captions for cartoon images. Presumably this task was used because it’s something you can get people to do in a lab, and because a written caption does not reveal the writer’s sex (whereas a recording of them telling a joke or a funny story would). But how good a proxy is captioning cartoons for the general ability to be funny?

I would say, not very good. Most everyday humour is produced spontaneously in the course of interaction, typically with people you know, like and have things in common with, and whose reactions guide your performance from moment to moment. The lab cartoon-captioning task reproduces none of these features. It requires subjects to be funny on command (not spontaneously), in isolation (not in a social group) and in writing (not speech), for an absent audience of strangers whose reactions they can only guess at. To me that makes it a dubious basis on which to generalise about ‘humor ability’. At best, the analysis shows that in lab conditions men write funnier cartoon captions than women—not that they’re funnier across the board.

Second, the finding that men are funnier than women is based on averaging the numerical scores given to subjects’ captions by the judges. But what do these numbers correspond to? Clearly, judges’ ratings must reflect their subjective response to a caption, but how, if at all, does that response relate to the caption-writer’s abilities? The problem is that there’s a lot of variation, individual as well as cultural, in what people find funny. If a judge rates one caption as a 2 and another as a 4, is that because of some objective quality of the two captions—the second is simply funnier than the first–or does it just reflect the judge’s preference for certain kinds of jokes over others? In short, can we have any confidence that these numbers are a useful measure of ‘humor ability’?

I’m sceptical, to be honest. I’m not convinced there’s such a thing as ‘humor ability’, and if there is, as I’ve already said, I have trouble seeing the very specific skill of writing funny cartoon captions as a fair test of it. It’s a test most of us would probably fail: back in 2011, in a Psychology Today piece criticising one of these studies, Ben Hayden noted that the commonest score awarded to captions, regardless of the writer’s sex, had been 1, which meant ‘not funny at all’. ‘That indicates’, he comments, that ‘the experimental subjects were not well-matched to the test—they were just swinging wildly’. They were like the proverbial roomful of typing monkeys, only in the field of cartoon-captioning rather than Shakespearean drama.

Third, even if we do trust the numbers, what the meta-analysis reports is only, as Greengross acknowledges, a ‘small to medium difference’. The effect-sizes reported in meta-analytic studies are generally described using a scale that goes from very small/slight to very large, so this effect isn’t even at the mid-point: to put it in context, it’s smaller than the reported effect of sex on spelling accuracy, and much smaller than the reported effect of sex on the distance someone can throw an object. As sex-differences go, it’s not a biggie. (Yet another ‘men are funnier’ study discussed in Psychology Today in 2011 found a difference so slight that even one of the authors described it as ‘just on the edge of detectability’–and he meant, by using statistical methods, not just observation.) Even liberally sprinkled with the words ‘on average’, the statement ‘men are funnier than women’ gives a misleading impression, because what ‘funnier’ means to most people is ‘noticeably funnier’: it implies a difference large enough to be significant in the ordinary rather than the purely statistical sense.

There are, then, a number of reasons to query the presentation of this meta-analysis as  clear confirmation that ‘men are funnier than women’. But my biggest problem with it isn’t the design of the studies analysed, the conclusions drawn by the researchers, or the exaggeration of their significance by the media: it’s the fact that this kind of research is seen as worth doing in the first place.

Think about it: in what other case would anyone design a study to investigate whether there’s a basis for some entrenched negative stereotype of a social group? ‘Is it true that poor people are lazier than rich ones?’ Nope. ‘Are Jews/Scots/Yorkshiremen really meaner than other people with money?’ Nope to the nth power. It would be utterly offensive: no one would fund it and the ethics committee would never approve it. Sex-differences, though, are always potential research fodder. And when the frame, as in this case, is evolutionary psychology, they will always turn out to be explained by the supposed—though in reality often misrepresented–activities of prehistoric hunter-gatherers, and beyond that, by the irreducible difference between the sperm and the egg.

Actually, let me go back a step: it’s not true that all sex-differences are potential research fodder. As Caroline Criado Perez shows in her book Invisible Women, in many areas where women are consequentially different from men, whether it’s the way their bodies respond to drugs or their patterns of travel on public transport, there’s a huge data gap because the differences have not been investigated systematically. Research that would have a positive effect on women’s lives does not get done; yet there’s always room for one more study explaining that women are rubbish at something—maths, map reading, being funny–because biology. (Or alternatively, that women are better than men at something trivial or menial, like nappy-changing or keeping track of people’s birthdays.)

I hope what I’ve just said explains why I think it’s important to challenge claims like ‘men are (on average) funnier than women’. In fact, as I’ve said before, I think the way we talk about who is or isn’t funny matters in its own right: the proposition that ‘Xs have no sense of humour’ has a long history of being used to dehumanise the group in question, and ‘Xs aren’t as funny as Ys’ can also, as noted earlier, be code for ‘they’re not as intelligent’. But even when the difference under discussion really is trivial (for instance, a study once found that female shoppers spend more time browsing than their male counterparts—like their prehistoric ancestors they are natural foragers, whereas men are mighty hunters), it must be seen as part of a larger enterprise, in which the point of cataloguing sex-differences is ultimately to affirm that the sexes are not just different, they are different in ways that make equality a pipe-dream. The meta-message being communicated is ‘women, know your limits’.

Whenever we hear this message we should remember that the whole history of feminism is a story of women refusing to accept the limits imposed by their societies—limits which have always been represented as ‘natural’ rather than man-made. Once, scientists maintained that if women were admitted to universities, the intellectual stress would cause their ovaries to shrivel. Now we recognise that as just self-serving male chauvinist nonsense. The claims made by many scientists today are destined to end up in the same dustbin. Let’s use our intelligence and our ‘humor ability’ to speed them on their way.

We need to talk about rape

Content note: this post does what its title suggests

When is a rape not a rape? The answer, apparently, is ‘most of the time’.  Of more than 58,000 rapes reported to the police in England and Wales last year, only 1758 resulted in anyone being charged with rape, let alone convicted. Of course there are legitimate reasons why some cases aren’t pursued. Some rapists are never caught; some complainants are too traumatised to participate in the long and gruelling process of bringing a perpetrator to justice. (And yes, a small percentage of reports—as with any crime—may turn out on investigation to be untrue.) But the number of reported rapes that disappear into the void—that get ‘no-crimed’, reclassified, put on the back burner, or abruptly dropped without charge—suggests a deeper and more systemic problem. As EVAW, the End Violence Against Women Coalition, said last month, the chance that a rapist will be convicted is now so small, rape is ‘effectively being decriminalised’.

Language can also make rape disappear. When I called this post ‘we need to talk about rape’, what I meant was that we need to talk about the word ‘rape’: how it’s used, when it’s avoided, and how that both reflects and contributes to a culture of impunity and injustice.

Earlier this year, when the victims’ commissioner Dame Vera Baird expressed concern about the low rate of rape convictions, one critic accused the QC and former Solicitor-General of failing to grasp a fundamental principle of the justice system. ‘The jury’ he mansplained,

is there to ensure that what gains a rape conviction is what the general society agrees is indeed rape. That’s actually the point.

Though I do not draw the same conclusion this writer does–that the system is working as it should–he is surely right to say that the treatment of rape in the justice system is affected by ‘what the general society agrees is indeed rape’. From a feminist perspective that’s exactly the problem: what is generally agreed to be rape overlaps only partially with what women experience and report as rape, or even with what the law defines as rape. There’s a mismatch between the legal definition (which in England and Wales, as in many other modern jurisdictions, centres on the absence of consent, or of a ‘reasonable belief’ in consent) and the common-sense understanding people carry in their heads.

One place where you can see this mismatch is in language, which is both an expression of our cultural common sense and a means through which it is reproduced. That’s why I think it’s instructive to examine the way words like ‘rape’ are used–or, just as importantly, not used–in public discourse. Here I’m going to concentrate mainly on the language of the media, whose reporting both reflects and shapes public opinion. How do the media talk about rape? What tacit assumptions underlie their linguistic choices?

I’ll start with a case that made headlines at the end of August, when Virginia Roberts Giuffre, one of the victims of the now-deceased child abuser and trafficker Jeffrey Epstein, made a public statement in which she described three coerced sexual encounters with Prince Andrew. (For the record, he denies this.) The first two took place when she was 17, and in Florida, where she made a sworn statement of these facts in 2011, a 17-year old is below the legal age of consent. It is also illegal, not just in Florida but in most jurisdictions, to make use of the sexual services of a person under the age of 18. Furthermore, Giuffre’s statement made clear that even if she had possessed the legal capacity to consent, she was not, and did not act like, a willing participant.

If ‘rape’ means sex without consent, then what Giuffre alleged in her statement was rape (or in legal terms, possibly, depending on the details, sexual assault). But as a number of people noted on Twitter, the word ‘rape’ did not appear in any of the news reports, which in most cases used the formula ‘forced to have sex’. Though ‘forced’ obviously implies coercion, those who tweeted about it saw ‘forced to have sex’ as a euphemism, deliberately avoiding the strongest term the English language makes available for describing non-consensual sex. And many evidently suspected that the reason for that avoidance was Andrew’s status as a member of the royal family.

My own explanation is different. While I’m sure the media were keen to avoid suggesting that the Queen’s son might be a rapist, the fact is that they also avoid the term ‘rape’ (or ‘alleged rape’) in many ‘ordinary’ cases. This avoidance, as we’ll see, reflects various assumptions about what rape is and what it isn’t. In this case, I think the basis for those assumptions was not the status of the people involved but the context in which their encounters took place.

‘Forced to have sex’ is an agent-deleted passive: once you make it active, you see that the grammatical subject and semantic agent of the verb ‘force’ is not Prince Andrew but Jeffrey Epstein. The underlying structure, in other words, is ‘A forced B to have sex with C’. And in this scenario, where one man (let’s call him a pimp) makes a contract with another (a punter–though in this case not a paying punter: girls were ‘loaned’ to Epstein’s associates without charge), we do not generally call either man’s actions ‘rape’. We only think of it as rape when the two roles, forcing someone to have sex and actually having sex with them, are played by the same individual.

It is also typically assumed that sexual encounters of this type must be consensual by definition, because that’s what punters pay for, and because women who sell or are sold for sex have neither the right nor any reason to refuse (prostitutes who make rape complaints tend to get particularly short shrift from the police.) Repulsive though feminists may find them, these assumptions are widely accepted, and they explain why the word ‘rape’ is rarely considered applicable to this kind of situation.

But it should not be thought that this is the only context in which the media prefer formulas that do not contain the ‘R-word’; the same avoidance can be observed in almost all contexts. Jane Gilmore, the Australian feminist behind the ‘Fixed It’ project, where she takes a red pen to sexist headlines and publishes a screenshot of her amended version with the caption ‘here you go [name of media outlet], I fixed it for you’, is particularly exercised by the persistent use of the word ‘sex’ rather than ‘rape’ in reports on rape cases, even though the media could meet their legal obligation not to prejudice criminal proceedings simply by adding the modifier ‘alleged’. cropped-fixedit_ex-cop-rape-400x468.jpgAs Gilmore says, this is not how they approach the reporting of other crimes which no one has yet been convicted of. If someone is accused of stealing a car, the media feel no need to describe them as merely ‘driving’ the car until a jury has convicted them of theft. Even if their defence is ‘I was driving it with the owner’s permission’, words like ‘theft’ or ‘steal’ won’t be completely off-limits. ‘Rape’, however, is a different matter.

I came to similar conclusions while researching an article for the TES on the language used in media reports on child sexual abuse. The reports I read, especially on cases involving adolescent girls, showed a marked reluctance to use either the word ‘rape’ or other words implying criminality, like ‘assault’ or ‘abuse’. For instance, teachers who had been charged with abusing a position of trust were most commonly said to have ‘had sex with’ the teenage pupils they solicited; sometimes they were said to have had a ‘relationship’ or an ‘affair’. The language, in other words, was drawn from the register we would normally use to talk about sex or romance between consenting adults—even when the teacher was a serial offender preying on pupils as young as 13, and even in reports published after he had been convicted.

Why are reports on cases involving children so cautious about words like ‘rape’, ‘assault’ and ‘abuse’? I did wonder if it might be because the actual charge in most of these cases isn’t rape (offences against minors have other names, like ‘sexual activity with a child’). But on reflection I concluded that the charge was not the issue: the avoidance had more to do with two other factors.

One of these factors is a reluctance to use words which imply violence in cases where the perpetrator used emotional and psychological manipulation rather than force or threats. This is how many child abusers operate. In a talk I heard recently about the case of Larry Nassar, the US gymnastics team doctor who abused hundreds of girls over a period of two decades, the journalist Lindsey Smith (who, with her colleague Kate Wells, covered the case for Michigan public radio, and went on to tell some of the survivors’ stories in the award-winning podcast Believed) explained that the main reason Nassar got away with it for so long was his ability to win the trust both of his victims and of their parents and coaches. Teachers who exploit their pupils also rely on trust; perhaps, then, it’s not surprising that the ‘abuse of a position of trust’ cases were the ones where formulas like ‘had sex/a relationship/an affair with’ were most consistently favoured. By using this language, though, the media just repeat the gaslighting which enables this form of abuse to flourish.

The second factor is a tendency to deny or gloss over the power imbalance between adult men and adolescent girls. The language of ‘relationships’ and ‘affairs’ implicitly affirms what Jeffrey Epstein argued explicitly–that teenage girls should not be thought of as vulnerable children. They may be technically underage, but in reality they are sexually and socially mature adults: they neither need nor want protection from the sexual attentions of older men.

Sometimes the denial of girls’ vulnerability is taken to the next level, by representing them as more powerful, calculating and in control than the men who have exploited them. This victim-blaming story is quite often told in court. At one trial in 2015, the judge said, of a 44-year old teacher who had just been convicted of abusing a position of trust by having sex with a 16-year old pupil, that he had been ‘groomed’ by an ‘intelligent and manipulative girl’. Another adolescent victim was described as a vindictive ‘bunny boiler’.

This portrayal of adult men as the real victims, ensnared and manipulated by predatory teenage girls, is a good example of what the philosopher Kate Manne calls ‘himpathy’, our socialised tendency to feel a man’s pain more easily and keenly than we would feel a woman’s, and to give him, wherever possible, the benefit of the doubt. That tendency provides another motive for not naming men’s actions as rape: since everyone agrees that rape is a particularly heinous crime, we must be ultra-cautious about making such a damaging accusation. We see this concern about ruining men’s lives in everything from the reluctance of judges to punish young men with promising futures to the demand that defendants in rape cases should be granted the same anonymity as their victims. Though the world is full of men who have been accused of rape and have not lost everything (think of Roman Polanski and Donald Trump), this may be yet another reason why  people so often shy away from the R-word.

Himpathy can influence attitudes to rape in other, less obvious ways. Earlier this month, the Court of Protection delivered a judgment in the case of a cognitively impaired man who wanted to have sexual relationships, but who had no understanding of consent. In the past he had behaved ‘inappropriately’ towards women, and his carers, worried that he might be arrested for reasons he was unable to comprehend, had put measures in place to prevent this. The judge, however, ruled that those measures infringed his fundamental rights. He was entitled, as she put it, ‘to make the same mistakes which all human beings can, and do, make in the course of a lifetime’.

As the lawyer Ann Olivarius commented on Twitter, the judge seemed wholly indifferent to the consequences of her ruling for the women this man’s carers believed he would victimise. In fact, she actively minimised the threat he posed to women by reframing it in bland, euphemistic language. Talking about ‘mistakes which all human beings can and do make in the course of a lifetime’ suggests that the issue is something commonplace and relatively minor–like the possibility the man might cause offence or embarrassment by making clumsy and unwelcome advances. In reality his carers feared he would commit a serious sexual offence. Few people would describe raping someone as a ‘mistake’, and certainly not as the kind of mistake that ‘all human beings can and do make’ (especially if we think women count as human beings). Of course, the judge could hardly have said, in so many words, ‘this man should have the same freedom to rape women as all other men’. But if you can get past the silences and the euphemisms, is that not, in essence, what her ruling does say?

This year, schools in England and Wales will be required to teach their pupils what the law says about sexual consent. Young people will learn that you have to be 16 to give consent, and that sex without consent is illegal. But outside the classroom the same young people will encounter large quantities of discourse in which non-consensual sexual acts, including acts involving minors, are described in terms that either normalise them (‘sex’, ‘relationship’, ‘affair’) or trivialise them (‘behave inappropriately’, ‘make mistakes’). Which of these conflicting messages do we think they will retain?

We need to talk about rape—by which I mean, talk about it as rape. EHcdN-TVUAAaSgZThe legal definition may have changed, but ‘what the general society agrees is indeed rape’ is still, in many ways, closer to the view Susan Estrich critiqued in her 1987 book Real Rape, according to which rape was only ‘real’ if it involved a savage attack by a stranger on a woman of blameless reputation. (The reporting of this kind of case is the one context in which we don’t see any avoidance of the R-word.) If we want to change the current consensus, we need (among other things) to stop using, or tolerating, language that makes the reality of rape disappear.

 

Postscript

Since I originally wrote this post, two high-profile news stories have underlined its point about the way language is used to downgrade the seriousness of sexual violence against women and children, and to cloak the reality of violence in vagueness and euphemism. They’ve also demonstrated that this isn’t just an English language problem.

In Spain there have been street protests following the decision of a court in Barcelona that six men who gang-raped a 14-year old girl in Manresa in 2016 could only be found guilty of the lesser charge of ‘abusing’ her, because they did not use ‘violence or intimidation’. They didn’t have to, because drink and drugs had rendered their victim incapable of resistance. Although the Spanish penal code does not recognise ‘rape’ as a specific offence (the more serious crime is ‘sexual assault’), ‘rape’ was the word protesters used in denouncing the ruling and calling for the law to be changed to frame the offence in terms of (non-)consent. ‘No es abuso, es violación’–‘It’s not abuse, it’s rape’–they chanted.

In France, the actor Adèle Haenel gave an interview in which she recounted her experience, between the ages of 12 and 15, of being abused by the director Christophe Ruggia. I have chosen the word ‘abused’ because Haenel was a child at the time. The details she has given do not suggest rape (i.e. penetration), but they do indicate a sustained pattern of abusive behaviour–forced touching/kissing and constant unwanted sexual attention–by a much older man towards a minor girl he had power over. But media reports, as usual, preferred other words, like ‘sexual harassment’ (as used in reports on #MeToo cases involving adults in the entertainment industry), and in the case of Screen Daily, the old-fashioned, euphemistic ‘molest’ and ‘molestation’.

What we see in these cases is a pattern whereby the language used, by the courts and/or the media, systematically downgrades the seriousness of whatever behaviour has been complained of. Gang-rape becomes ‘abuse’; child abuse becomes ‘harassment’ or ‘molestation’ (and as we saw at the height of #MeToo, harassment becomes ‘inappropriate behaviour’). The repetition of these formulas establishes them as the ‘official’ reality.

But the Spanish case shows how powerful it can be to challenge this linguistic downgrading. abuse Even where the word ‘rape’ has been removed from the penal code, it remains meaningful–and potent–in everyday language. The protestors are saying, in effect, ‘your patriarchal law cannot define our experience; its language does not speak for us’. (The cartoon alongside captures this sentiment: it’s captioned ‘sorry, but the only one who can decide if you were raped or not is me’.) Spanish feminists have insisted on talking about rape as rape; they have foregrounded the naming of the crime in chants and hashtags (#NoEsAbusoEsViolacion). Wherever we see the same kind of linguistic avoidance and downgrading, we should follow their example.

The illustrations are reproduced from Jane Gilmore’s ‘Fixed It’ project, from the Denver Post (h/t Twitter correspondents Jarvis Good and EwokNews), and from the Facebook page of Campus Relatoras (h/t Pilar Cuder Domínguez)