Privilege, sexual assault and other issues

by: Stephen Marsh

November 11, 2011

A recent discussion on-line reminded me of the time I was groped at a job I once  had.

There was nothing pleasant about having my butt grabbed pretty hard by an older, unattractive individual.  I found it more than a little disconcerting.

On the good side, I did not feel particularly threatened.  I had more status, I was physically a good deal more fit, but … I found myself paralyzed.  I could not think of anything I could do about the situation either, other than be terribly distressed. That incident still disquiets me, even though it is in the past.  But I thought about it in the context of a discussion of privilege.  The link is to a public discussion of the theme, the discussion that I was part of was an LDS oriented closed facebook group, so a link wouldn’t do much.

Now I have serious discomfort with using the term “privilege” to describe what is going on.

To begin with, a privilege is something one does not have a right to and is undeserving of.

As one commenter put it:

-First there is the implication that as a man I do not have a right to walk to my car on my own without fearing for my life or limb. Obviously, I disagree. I very much have a right to go through life unmolested. I sometimes get the distinct impression from feminist bloggers that I should feel ashamed because I do not fear assault when walking to my car.

-Second is an embedded implication that women also do not have the right to walk to their cars without fearing for life or limb. After all, it’s a privilege, not a right. Obviously, that is also foolish. Women just like other human beings have a right to go about their lives unmolested.

I think this is a noxious approach. I think it would be much preferable to speak of it in terms which would describe the fact that women’s rights are being violated. I cannot offer a term but maybe somebody else can.

I am persuaded by a linguist friend of mine (who is also an atheist) that there is value in using the term to open a discussion, but I agree that it is not a good term to frame the discussion with.  If nothing else, because the term gets used by almost anyone with a level of  unhappiness about how they are treated or a general reflection of inequality.  e.g. Checklist of Neurotypical Privilege « Chroanagram (and yes, do consider that I’m male and I have a daughter with Tourette’s — you can do the biology).

As others have pointed out:

And privileges CERTAINLY aren’t things one “does not have a right to.” After all, the very definition of privilege includes a discussion of rights. E.g., “a right, immunity, or benefit enjoyed only by a person beyond the advantages of most

In addition, because many of the situations where someone is talking about privilege and related themes resolve around class divides as well.  For example, in Texas, the beneficiaries of affirmative action are upper-class individuals who are often a quarter or less Black.  The people complaining about it are often lower class, grew up in trailer parks, whites.

Efforts to include class as well as race in affirmative action (e.g. giving affirmative action benefits to historically disadvantaged groups, and to members of those groups still suffering from historical disadvantage) have been roundly rejected by some institutions.  In general, a millionaire’s kid, regardless of race, has different issues.  Someone who is poor and Black needs help probably more than anyone else.  But this is not a matter of “oppression olympics” or comparison.

As someone else stated:

Additionally, privileges intersect. So, when people talk about affirmative action, they are referring to the privileges and oppressions related to race and gender, primarily, not socioeconomic privilege. To say, “In general, a millionaire’s kid, regardless of race, probably does not need help” assumes that there is no such thing as racial privilege or racial oppression and that the only thing that matters is socioeconomic privilege or oppression.

In fact, the two intersect — a well-to-do black or Hispanic person may have socio-economic privilege, but he or she still is oppressed as far as race. He does not have IMMUNITY from being second-guessed because of the color of his skin, ethnic, background, etc., And because you can see skin color a lot quicker than you can see wealth, that still matters

Finally, many of the “privilege” issues are the benefits that go to those who are tall and good looking and socially adept and denied those who are short, ugly and outcast.  Kind of like the baby seals are more likely to have someone stand up for them than endangered mosquito populations.  Other issues are not.

You can tell, I’m meandering.  So, let me recapitulate the points I should have made.

At the heart of many discussions of privilege is the fact that women are more likely to be physically, socially and verbally assaulted than men.  When they are assaulted, the assaults are likely to be more common, more consistent and more forceful.

On the internet, discussion of this phenomena has been in old fashioned terms of “privilege” (i.e. that men are the beneficiaries of privilege that makes them blind to the unfair differences and the structures that make women vulnerable).

When such a discussion comes up, some object, some are blind (and remain so during conversations), some use the term to expand the context (claiming that women are privileged, or that white women are part of the group that has white privilege, or that internet users have wealth privileges or …), but some think.

And the reality that they should think about is that people should be free of sexual or other assaults.  I have some gay friends who fear physical assault and who map their lives around avoiding it.  They should not have to fear that.  I know women who fear sexual assault (and who have been assaulted), they should not have to map their lives around avoiding assault.  In some areas of the South you had places that had “sunset laws” (and some that did not) and there are people whose lives are still affected by that lingering issue.

Finally, we have spaces on the internet where people should not have to fear assault.  Those spaces, should, perhaps, include all of the internet.

What do you think on the issue?  How can we address that while still  having open and robust communication?

I know, I promised to start writing about how to build Zion, now that I’ve discussed the elements of what makes for stable Utopian efforts and what does not.  But I think that on the road to being the pure in heart we need to free our public spaces of violence.  What do you think?  What would you say? — my much shorter thoughts in parallel to this essay.


9 Responses to Privilege, sexual assault and other issues

  1. Stephen M (Ethesis) on November 11, 2011 at 3:23 PM

    Racially it helps that I have not lived in areas that have a lot of anti-Greek bias (unlike the poor guy I knew whose girl friends father threw him out of the house) and that in spite of two grandparents who were born in Asia Minor, I pass for WASP rather well.

    So I do not have those issues or the fear if violence that some of my gay friends deal with.

    Seriously, growing up short and in trailer parks is no where near the disadvantage that other things are. And the ADD and related neuro issues can be somewhat taken care of with medication.

    Which is why I am more moved to ask for advice and perspective when I encounter theses issues.

    Something is seriously wrong if people are dogged by violence and threats of violence or disadvantaged by the shape of public spaces.

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  2. Stephen M (Ethesis) on November 11, 2011 at 3:25 PM

    Hmm, did not catch all the auto correct help and typos in that comment. Sorry.

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  3. mh on November 11, 2011 at 4:29 PM

    i thought you might have something to say regarding the penn state scandal. if the allegations are true, that is a big abuse of privilege by an old man preying on young, disadvantaged boys. the mother of victim #1, said her son was too stunned to say anything even though the eexual abuse continued for years.

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  4. Stephen M (Ethesis) on November 11, 2011 at 4:55 PM

    MH that is an excellent example of the abuse of power and position that can occur (if it is true, there is surely probable cause).

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  5. Henry on November 12, 2011 at 10:18 AM

    I have known people to be rude to a woman or to a child who was alone. But when that woman’s big husband or that child’s big father is present with them, no harassment. It would be nice if women and children could go about alone without fear of rudeness or whatever.

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  6. Ray on November 12, 2011 at 11:10 AM

    I think we can start by being aware of and not allowing “attacks” in whatever public space we inhabit.

    Having said that, it’s a fine line in many cases between a disagreement, expressed forcefully, and an attack. The opposite end of allowing attack is disallowing disagreement – and I don’t like that alternative, either. It’s hard to walk a proper line of “modesty / moderation” in this regard – which is why I think it is relatively rare to see that standard actually applied at most sites online.

    With that in mind, we might not be able to do much on a large scale as individuals, but we can be aware of the issue and resolve to step forward and address what we experience personally. Generally, it can be done quietly, calmly and in a non-agressive way – but sometimes (like the incident that propelled the Penn State case into the media) it simply must include forceful action.

    It gets trickier when it occurs online – like here in this forum. When does a comment cross the line from forceful disagreement to attack? When is a comment so egregious that it should be deleted or moderated, because it is an actual attack? I think we all read the comment section somewhere else (espeically with open newspaper articles – think SL Tribune, for example) and think, “They really need to moderate this garbage. It’s unreadable.”

    The extremes are easy; it’s finding the proper line in the middle that is much harder – but I believe it’s just as important to be aware of and OK with possible abuse and possible moderation even in a forum like this. I don’t believe it should be common at all, and I believe it should be exercised carefully and rarely (assuming a generally good environment like this), but I believe it simply has to be an option – or we end up allowing online things we never would tolerate in person.

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  7. SilverRain on November 13, 2011 at 6:41 AM

    I have been blamed for not moderating my blog evenhandedly. But I answered by pointing out that my blog was my forum, and therefore I had to make the judgment calls.

    I think public forums are more difficult, because 1) we Americans have taken the concept of freedom too far, 2) we are eager to voice aggressive opinions, but afraid to appeal to courtesy or morality, and 3) we have become a people eager to make others offenders at a word.

    We have rejected our moral compass, and have found that civility is an unforeseen casualty.

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  8. SilverRain on November 13, 2011 at 6:52 AM

    Oh, and as far as privilege goes, people have a hard time seeing things through another’s point of view. I just dated a guy who believed that the community has no right to interfere in a domestic violence situation. He believed that if a woman refused to prosecute her attacker, this state should not interfere. He was quite vociferous, and when I tried to explain the nature of abuse dynamics, insisted that I was claiming she had no agency.

    Because he had never known such a situation for himself, he believed it didn’t really exist except in the minds of deluded people.

    I agree with the above definition of privilege, that it is experiencing a right beyond the access of another group. It is also lacking the humility to admit that you may not understand something beyond your own experience.

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  9. Sarah on November 20, 2011 at 12:46 PM

    I would say that most people with a high opinion like the man you went on date with Silver Rain, has barely any compassion for people in general.

    About this, I would say that yes it is our right not to walk in fear to a car. Why I want a gun and probably will get a small one with in the next year. I seriously believe that we have to be proactive in our own defense.

    I also believe that women and men can and do both get assaulted sexually. Stephen your story proves that. Its just unnerving to have that happen. I haven’t had anything like that happen to me. *knocks on wood*

    Culturally this world is messed up in my opinion. Penn State, The Catholic sex abuse scandal, I mean I’m sure there are more out there. We hear of Rape of women in congo so that the conflict over there can continue. Just messed up, but there is good in this world too. I guess we just have to work at getting at the bad.

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