Friday, November 28, 2008

Why Feminism Is Still Relevant: Upskirting Incidents

One of the first Friday Feminist Fuck You videos I saw made by the women of Feministing dealt with public perverts. I think it may have been one of the first ones they actually did. I loved it. I was horrified by the first incident they talked about, that being a 16 year old who put on a skirt, went to a Target, had a man stick a camera up her skirt, and then had no legal recourse because she had no "reasonable expectation of privacy":

As Tracy Clark-Flory makes clear in her recent article addressing the subject, "In non-legalese: Wear a skirt in public, and you might just get a camera in the crotch." The article is incredible, both moving and scary. It definitely makes me want to think twice about wearing skirts or sundresses, and while I've always been more at home in a pair of jeans, I do love my skirts and dresses. And what makes matters worse is that concerns about "upskirting" are often boiled down to the most ridiculous of arguments. Like this one from John Morris, general counsel for the Center of Democracy & Technology: "If you don't want to be photographed walking down the street, don't walk down the street - it's a public street". That is the kind of response that minimizes the impact this has on women, on their autonomy, on their feelings of safety, and their rights as human beings not to be reduced to body parts and sexual objects as soon as they step out of the door in the morning. The idea that there is some debate about whether or not upskirting (or "downblousing") actually violates privacy and privacy laws is ludicrous. As Harper Jean Tobin writes at Polymorphous Perversity,
"Of course they do. How do we know? Consider the analogous situation of the bathroom stall. The bathroom itself is a public place. The stall is, typically, not completely closed off from the rest of the bathroom; its walls do not extend all the way to the floor or ceiling. Others could certainly peep over or under. Yet most of us would agree that there is a general, reasonable, and fairly strong expectation of privacy in the closed stall. This has often come up in Fourth Amendment cases, and court generally agree that there is a reasonable expectation of privacy in the stall (though they sometimes disagree about how it applies to many situations involving law enforcement searches and surveillance).

When you wear a skirt on the street, the parts of your body covered by the skirt are like all of you when you're in a bathroom stall. Your deliberate concealment creates a reasonable expectation of privacy as to the parts concealed, even if someone could go out of their way to peek. This doesn't seem to me to be a difficult question."
What upskirting demonstrates is something many women know all too well: that women are still considered, in some way shape or form, to be public property. That women are still second-class, are still worth less, and whose thoughts and feelings and autonomy still remain unconsidered by a whole swath of society. No, not every man is someone who would stick a camera under a girl's skirt and click. I would venture many men don't fall into that category. No, not every man is someone who would even contemplate catcalling a woman or thinking it is a complement. Again, I would venture that many men wouldn't. But that doesn't change the fact that it is not considered a societal issue, and the men who do engage in these activities are more often than not left out of the equation as we once again discuss women and women's behavior as being the root cause of their own strife. That is what John Morris' comment does; it puts the onus on women not to be made victims of upskirting. It says, "Well, you should expect to be photographed (or harassed, or catcalled, or leered at, or touched) if you leave the house."

And unfortunately, that is the dominant viewpoint of society; for instance, there are comments on Feministing from a man (KeithIrwin) who claims "There are times when I consider myself very proud to label myself a feminist male" but who had previously said on the same thread, "saying things like 'I don't want someone to take a picture of my crotch, so they shouldn't be able to, period' is why people sometimes assume that feminist is a synonym for fascist". Wha? Saying that I have a right to my privacy and to not be violated by someone sticking a camera in a place that had I been walking down the street with it exposed I could be charged with indecent exposure is fascist? How fucking clueless can a person get? Seriously now. How fucking privileged can a person be to not recognize that women have a right to be enraged by the very thought that they are susceptible to this sort of violation, to be enraged by the act of this sort of violation, and to declare unequivocally that this violation is unacceptable? How is that in any way fascist? Oh, this must be a definition of fascism I'm not aware of, where just by suggesting that a man doesn't have the automatic right to my body means that I am exercising strong autocratic or dictatorial control! The idea that this man may otherwise hold feminist notions is slightly frightening to me, because this one statement - along with conflating someone taking a picture of your hair with having someone shove a camera toward your crotch - belies the very truth of feminism; that being the radical idea that women have a fundamental right to personal autonomy, that women have the right to walk down a street without being accosted or threatened, and that women - as human beings - have the inherent right to be seen first and foremost as human beings and not simply as sex objects or dismembered body parts there for male pleasure, the male gaze, or male approval (or, for that matter, female approval).

Here's the thing: I'm not one to pull the "you don't know what it is like" card, because I find it more than slightly wall-building and a bit condescending and doesn't exactly open up the conversation toward a more mutually satisfactory debate. It basically shuts conversation down; and I am, beyond all else, a conversator (and a word maker-upper, but that's a whole other post). But guys like Keith really don't know what it is like. Guys in general usually have a hard time understanding what it is like to live in a world that constantly seeks to strip bits and pieces from you throughout your outdoorsy travels. I don't think I've ever been upskirted. But that doesn't mean that I haven't been, and it doesn't mean that I don't now worry about it happening. It doesn't mean that Karen Simoncelli, who was upskirted, hasn't suffered from it, describing her situation as:
"'I had to have my fiance for about a whole year walk me in and out of our house... ...I have had a loaded gun next to my bed ever since. I constantly think someone is following me.' She says she'll stare at a small sliver of her bedroom window that isn't covered by the blinds and become convinced that 'someone is watching me, someone is looking'."
Upskirting is just another way of asserting power over a subject, as Professor of political science Susan Gallagher states. It is another way of making women feel, like Karen Simoncelli, unsafe. It is just another example of what Gwen Stefani described in "I'm Just a Girl". This world continually seeks to force women to hold a man's hand. And although every individual upskirt picture snapper is individually to blame, this is also a societal issue. Because we as a society do not take these assaults against women very seriously. Because these assaults, in their various forms, have become engrained as normalized behavior. And that is the bigger issue. Because even if we manage to do what Japan did and require every single camera phone to make an extra loud shutter sounds, the reasons why this behavior is prevalent (and in some cases rampant) are still very much present. And so, I leave you with "I'm Just A Girl", both because I like it and because it is still so very relevant:

Part 1 of the series.


MediaMaven said...

"I am, beyond all else, a conversator"

The word is converser. :)

petpluto said...

As I said, I also like to make up new words!


John said...

I find that all pretty ridiculous - not that it happens or that it's an outrage, mind you, but that there aren't laws on the books protecting women from invasion of personal space. If I ever decided to go TV and walk around in a skirt in public, I wouldn't buy the argument that my underwear is on public display because I'm wearing it in a public place. That's even more absurd than me walking around in public in a skirt!

jjfs85 said...

If you can't expect a certain amount of privacy wearing a skirt in public, as apparently the law fails to protect, then why wear a skirt at all? I'm sure nobody would have a problem with women walking around in public around families and children and fancy restaurants without pants or a skirt on. Right? I mean obviously the skirt does nothing to conceal your undergarments from these people according to the law.