Deadly silence: what happens when we don’t believe women

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Not listening to women’s experience of abusive men – and of other areas from health to the economy – harms all of society

Jaclyn Friedman  –  The Guardian

A woman inspired by the Chilean feminist group called Las Tesis protest in front of the NYC’s criminal court during Harvey Weinstein’s trial. Photograph: John Lamparski/Echoes Wire/Barcroft Media

It’s become a grim ritual among the women I know: as soon as there is news of another mass shooting, we wait to hear the inevitable story about the shooter’s history of hurting women. (The shooter is always a man.) Sometimes he’s been violent to his mother or grandmother. More often, police reports reveal his history of abusing his girlfriend or wife.

But almost always he practiced his violence on a woman long before he planned his massacre, and within a day of the slaughter we’re sharing this history with impotent grief, asking again and again, what will it take to take women’s lives seriously? If we took women’s lives seriously, if men who abused the women in their lives faced any kind of real consequences, would the people we are now preparing to bury be alive today?

That’s a complicated question, tangled up with gun politics and our failed criminal justice system. But the core reality remains stark: it’s impossible to contain the suffering that stems from discounting and disbelieving women.

If we refused to accept the daily suffering of women and girls at the hands of men who claim to love them, we would have a federal policy removing guns from abusers, and we would ensure that it worked in practice. And we would have a lot fewer gun deaths. Period.

It’s vile to have to make this argument. It should be enough that women are hurt. But it’s not. Women’s pain is expected, part of the wallpaper of life. In her indelible essay “The female price of male pleasure,” Lili Loofbourow points to the chasm between what men and women define as “bad sex” to illuminate this basic fact of modern culture: if men find a sexual encounter boring or unsatisfying, they call it “bad”.

For women, though, “bad sex” almost always involves considerable pain and/or violence. As Loofbourow puts it, “[W]e live in a culture that sees female pain as normal and male pleasure as a right.” And that dynamic: that we accept that women’s suffering as an immutable fact – like the weather – that we cannot control but can only predict, is the very thing that makes women seem hysterical and overreacting when we speak up about it.

But we’re not. And when you don’t listen to us, we’re not the only ones who pay the price. Our national failure to take women seriously is a public health crisis, and not just because of bad guys with guns.

Take, for example, the medical establishment’s long-documented refusal to take women at our word about the symptoms we’re experiencing. Whether we’re suffering from acute and chronic pain, mysterious weight loss or gain, neuromuscular conditions, or depression and anxiety, we’re suspected of being melodramatic, told that all we need is an attitude adjustment and some self-care.

The result? Increased healthcare costs, lost workplace productivity, and the worst maternal death rate in the developed world. This last cost is borne disproportionately by black women, who are treated as even less trustworthy than white women. And mistrusting black women has this massive public health cost as well: if Congress and President Clinton had listened to black women in the reproductive justice movement in 1994, we could have fixed our healthcare system decades ago.

Or consider that if we could simply all agree to believe trans women that they exist and are the experts on their own gender identity, the sky-high rates of murder and suicide in the trans community (a recent study found that trans girls have nearly double the suicide attempts of their cis girl peers) would surely be reduced, as would the elevated rates of housing and job discrimination, sexual violence, and street harassment they are currently forced to suffer.

Imagine the lives and livelihoods that would have been saved if we had listened to Brooksley Born. In 1996, as the new head of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, she realized that the derivatives market, if left unchecked, would eventually cause a catastrophic economic collapse. She spent years trying to get powerful men like then-Fed-chair Alan Greenspan and treasury secretary Robert Rubin to help her sound the alarm. Instead, they fought her every step of the way, until she finally gave up on them and released a report about her predictions on her own. It was ignored and derided by the powers that be. A decade later, the very dynamics she warned against caused the Great Recession.

The list seems endless. If we trusted poor women, we wouldn’t withhold aid from their kids to prevent them from procreating as some kind of “scam”, and poor kids would grow up with better nutrition, more stable family dynamics, and better education. If we trusted women to make their own reproductive decisions, we would have unfettered access to safe, reliable birth control and abortion care, and that would likely decrease poverty levels, improve women’s mental and physical health, and create better outcomes for the children they choose to have.

Consider how brief and unimportant the Flint water crisis could have been if Michigan officials had trusted the mothers of Flint when they said their water was suddenly undrinkable. How many kids would have grown up without lead exposure? What could those kids have achieved without the lifelong cognition problems and emotional challenges that can result from childhood lead poisoning?

 

 

And of course, any discussion of the public health costs of disbelieving women must address itself to Hillary Clinton. It was so hard for voters – including white women – to believe in Clinton as a leader that we are all now suffering through the age of Trump. One chilling experiment suggests that the simple fact of Clinton’s gender could have cost her as much as eight points in the general election.

We don’t need science to tell us that it was more believable to almost 63 million US voters that Trump, a man who had never held a single public office, who had been sued almost 1,500 times, whose businesses had filed for bankruptcy six times and who had driven Atlantic City into decades-long depression, a race-baiting misogynist leech of a man who was credibly accused of not only of sexual violence but also of defrauding veterans and teachers out of millions of dollars via Trump University, would be a good president than it was to imagine that Clinton, a former first lady, senator and secretary of state and arguably the most qualified person to ever run, would be a better leader.

It is not an exaggeration to suggest that every public health impact the Trump administration is having on us – and the list is long and includes making quality healthcare access less accessible for millions, enabling rapists to roam free of consequences on American campuses, and literally speeding up catastrophic climate change by pulling out of the Paris accords – can be linked to our stubborn unwillingness to believe a woman about her own competence, or even just her assertion that a man is dangerous.

The truth underlying the public health crisis of women’s believability is even worse than it looks. That’s because social researchers have long demonstrated that it’s not just that we hold women to much higher standards than we do men before we believe them. It’s more perverse than that: we prefer not finding women credible. As a culture, we hate to believe women, and we penalize them for forcing us to do so.

In other words, as women’s credibility increases, especially in ways that defy gender norms, their social likability decreases. They become shrill bitches, ball busters, too aggressive, too bossy, such intolerable know-it-alls. It is not enough that we demand women clear a much higher bar than men do to prove their trustworthiness. It’s that we’re mad when they manage to succeed anyway. And we’re all paying the price for that anger.

Some of the losses are literally immeasurable. I know of no woman who doesn’t house inside her the nagging feeling that maybe what she has to say is not that important, or will cause too much trouble, or will put her in danger. I know of no woman who has not at least some of the time allowed that feeling to prevail, to smother her impulse to speak. I am haunted by the losses to humanity those infinite silences represent.

What inventions and innovations are we suffering without? What tragedies proceeded un-prevented? What kindness and community are we starving for that we could be sustained by, had women not silenced ourselves? For that matter, what offerings could we be benefiting from if women simply didn’t have to work so hard to prove our credibility to ourselves and others? How many hours of our lives have been stolen from us in this way?

And yet still today, how many women does it take to overcome the credibility of one man? It took 60 for sexual abuse allegations to become credible against Bill Cosby. For Harvey Weinstein to be credibly accused of sexual harassment and assault, the number is more like 80. For some, we have yet to find the number. Over a dozen accused Donald Trump of sexual assault and he is still the president of the United States as of this writing.

Women ourselves are far from immune from gendered disbelief. In one 2015 study, almost a quarter of the teen girls in one 2015 Harvard study preferred male political leaders over female ones. (Only 8% of the girls expressed a bias in favor of women leaders.)

Ultimately, the systemic disbelief of women is less about actually seeing women as untrustworthy, and more about fearing what happens if we are able to step into our full power. Not that this distinction matters in practice: do anti-abortion activists really think women are so easily duped by doctors, or is it just more convenient for them to blame “doctors” and posit women as frail-minded and in need of protection than it is to admit that they just want to dictate what we do with our own bodies? Do we not believe that trans women know themselves better than we do, or do we just fear how destabilizing it is to admit that gender is a construct? The damage is done either way.

But it’s important to understand how deeply rooted this dynamic is. As has been observed of many oppressive institutions, the delegitimization of women’s authority isn’t the unfortunate side-effect of a broken framework. It’s the grease that makes the entire system go. Women’s erasure is an essential part of the deal powerful men have always made with the men they would have power over: let me have control over you, and in turn I will ensure you can control women. It’s the same bargain white women make when they support misogynist white men in power: if I acquiesce to you demeaning me because of my gender, you will at least allow me to demean others because of their race.

Because the existing power structure is built on female subjugation, female credibility is inherently dangerous to it

But those who refuse to take women seriously rarely admit – to themselves even – what they’re really defending. Instead, they often imagine they have more “rational” concerns. Won’t innocent men be falsely accused? Will women have too much power? Can we really assume women are infallible? These are less questions than straw men, a sleight of hand trick drawing our focus to a shadowy boogeywoman who will take everything you hold dear if you don’t constrain her with your distrust.

There is one meaningful way in which the fearmongers are right. Because the existing power structure is built on female subjugation, female credibility is inherently dangerous to it. Patriarchy is called that for a reason: men really do benefit from it. When we take seriously women’s experiences of sexual violence and humiliation, men will be forced to lose a kind of freedom they often don’t even know they enjoy: the freedom to use women’s bodies to shore up their egos, convince themselves they are powerful and in control, or whatever other uses they see fit. When we genuinely believe in women’s leadership capacity, men must face twice the competition they previously had to contend with. And none of us, whatever our gender, are immune from the tremors that can come when the assumptions at the foundation our social contracts are upended.

But while we’re constantly obsessed with how risky it is to trust women, what we most of the time fail to consider is the cost of our ongoing mistrust, the cost of missing out on the unfettered power of women. A world in which we treat women as de facto credible is not a world in which men are doing women a favor. It’s a world in which everyone benefits from women’s increased power and knowledge and talent, one in which we recognize that addressing women’s suffering makes it more possible for people of every gender to thrive. The data bear this out in every sector: when girls and women have access to secondary education, their communities and future children have better outcomes. When women are well-represented in the top management of companies, those businesses do better. Even movies that pass the Bechdel test do better at the box office than movies that fail it.

Seeing women as fully human may cost men certain kinds of oppressive power, but it pays dividends to the human race in nearly every other way. It should be enough to believe in women simply because it’s better for women. But for every time it isn’t, remember this: the costs of disbelieving us are astronomical, and no one escapes the bill.

From Believe: How Trusting Women Can Change the World (28 January, Seal Press), an anthology edited by Jaclyn Friedman and Jessica Valenti

 

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