Sexual Harassers Reflect Larger Social Beliefs

Amanda Marcotte

Fighting back is a good first step in the war against street harassment, but the abuse and crime will continue as long as our culture promotes sexist beliefs that women lack intelligence and autonomy.

Talking back to street harassers just went viral: Hollaback posted a video of a woman on a subway train who, when she realized the man that was crowding her on the subway was doing so because he’d pulled his condom-sheathed penis out and was rubbing it on her, started to berate the man and tell him that she was going to have him arrested. She got her wish, since the assailant was quickly arrested.  (The article minimizes the reality of sexual assault by diagnosing the assailant as “sick” from afar.  This kind of thing should be stopped, as it implies that women should pity and tolerate sexual assailants, instead of fight back against them.)  Score one for the strategy of fighting back.

Fighting back has more to offer for it than just raising the possibility that street harassers face legal consequences. As Jaclyn Friedman noted, it helps reverse  the narrative on which street harassers rely, which is that women should be embarrassed by sex, and that when men harass them on the street, they should take the abuse in silence and shame.  By turning the tables, you make this not about sex-shame, but about boundaries, respect, and women’s right to move freely through the world.  And, of course, fighting back (when it’s safe, as it appeared to be for this woman) raises the price for harassers.

But a lot of this is guesswork and conjecture.  If we really want to stop street harassment and assault, we have to start with the question of why the men who do this are doing it.  If we can get at their reasons—instead of simply dismissing them as “sick”—maybe we can come closer to the answer of what it would take to get them to stop.  Luckily, we live in the age of the internet, which, combined with traditional male privilege means that for every sexual desire that men might have, no matter how illegal, there’s an internet forum for it.

After the subway groper incident, both Broadsheet and Jezebel posted the video on a forum for men who like to waggle at or rub their penises on women who are committing the crime of being female while out in public without a male escort. The site is decorated with pictures of the fantasy being catered to—pictures of women looking shocked and angry, but also awed and, in some cases, a little pleased.  (The reality, of course, is much different.)  For men that are “sick”, they sure are organized!  As Tracy at Broadsheet reports, the forum posters took great interest in this video, denouncing the woman for being uppity and not just taking it, but admiring the assailant for being smart enough to use a condom, which they do to keep the evidence of their crimes from staining their pants.  (All of which shows a level of planning and thoughtfulness that would preclude an insanity defense if the crime was eligible for it, like murder.)  What we learn from this is that the men on the forum are steeped in entitlement, that they view women as objects and supplicants who exist to get them off and have no real rights of their own.

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The forum posters neatly disprove the stereotype of rapists, harassers, and other assailants as men who are simply compelled by their victim’s sexiness to act out of hand.  These are no impulse crimes.  The men on the forum use experience to teach each other how to find vulnerable victims and strategies to avoid detection by anyone but the victim, and they let the lack of respect women get do the rest of the work by making women afraid to speak up or ignored if they do.  According to Jezebel, a great deal of mental effort is expended in figuring out who to target—young women are preferred, precisely because they are more afraid to fight back and because they are dismissed if they seek help.  One poster suggested attacking non-white women.  He had elaborate rationalizations, but the basic gist is that white women over 25 have too much social privilege, which means they are more likely to take effective action to fight back. Other suggested targets are service workers that can be assaulted in solitude, such as hotel maids or nurses.

Flashers seem to be divided into two groups: those who enjoy scaring their victims and those who cling to the delusional belief that women secretly like it.  In both cases, victims are dehumanized.  The latter group might invoke sympathy, because they’re delusional, but let’s look at what they’re suggesting—that women behavior doesn’t resemble human behavior.  I don’t imagine any of these men would like it if a man rubbed his penis on them and then suggested he secretly liked it.  They also strain to redefine survival strategies women use—such as smiling to placate an assailant while you look for a chance to escape—as evidence the women like it.  But many of them also express frustration and anger that women don’t actually do what they want, which is apparently to like it so much they actually act like they do.

Taking all this into account, I think we have a better idea of what it would take to bring an end to these kinds of assaults.  Fighting back is definitely an important strategy.  It not only raises the price of doing this to women, but it signals to the wishful thinking guys that their fantasies that women like it are not true.  However, we must understand that fighting back might be desired by the open sadists, though obviously it’s a better response than simply being afraid.

What was really interesting to me was how much these men have taken society’s sexism and have amplified it to justify their own desires, however.  The reason they can believe that women are there to be used sexually and mistreated is that society teaches that women don’t have full rights, dignity, or autonomy when it comes to sex.  In a society where people argue with a straight face that a woman gives up her right to say no to child-bearing because she chooses to have sex, it’s not much of a leap for a sexual assailant to believe that a woman gives up her right not to be molested because she leaves the house.  When we live in a society where anti-choicers argue that women must be prevented from having abortions because they don’t really want them, it’s not much of a leap for assailants to believe that the woman who runs away in disgust and fear really wants to have sex with him.

Flashers don’t come by their beliefs—that women don’t know their own minds, that women don’t have full human rights, that women are “asking for it” by making independent choices—by accident.  They’re picking up on ideas that are in the larger culture, promoted by authorities like politicians and churches.  If we want to stop sexual harassment for good, then we as a society need to bring a halt to these sexist narratives about women. 

News Politics

Tim Kaine Changes Position on Federal Funding for Abortion Care

Ally Boguhn

The Obama administration, however, has not signaled support for rolling back the Hyde Amendment's ban on federal funding for abortion care.

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA), the Democratic Party’s vice presidential candidate, has promised to stand with nominee Hillary Clinton in opposing the Hyde Amendment, a ban on federal funding for abortion care.

Clinton’s campaign manager, Robby Mook, told CNN’s State of the Union Sunday that Kaine “has said that he will stand with Secretary Clinton to defend a woman’s right to choose, to repeal the Hyde amendment,” according to the network’s transcript.

“Voters can be 100 percent confident that Tim Kaine is going to fight to protect a woman’s right to choose,” Mook said.

The commitment to opposing Hyde was “made privately,” Clinton spokesperson Jesse Ferguson later clarified to CNN’s Edward Mejia Davis.

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Kaine’s stated support for ending the federal ban on abortion funding is a reversal on the issue for the Virginia senator. Kaine this month told the Weekly Standard  that he had not “been informed” that this year’s Democratic Party platform included a call for repealing the Hyde Amendment. He said he has “traditionally been a supporter of the Hyde amendment.”

Repealing the Hyde Amendment has been an issue for Democrats on the campaign trail this election cycle. Speaking at a campaign rally in New Hampshire in January, Clinton denounced Hyde, noting that it made it “harder for low-income women to exercise their full rights.”

Clinton called the federal ban on abortion funding “hard to justify” when asked about it later that month at the Brown and Black Presidential Forum, adding that “the full range of reproductive health rights that women should have includes access to safe and legal abortion.”

Clinton’s campaign told Rewire during her 2008 run for president that she “does not support the Hyde amendment.”

The Democratic Party on Monday codified its commitment to opposing Hyde, as well as the Helms Amendment’s ban on foreign assistance funds being used for abortion care. 

The Obama administration, however, has not signaled support for rolling back Hyde’s ban on federal funding for abortion care.

When asked about whether the president supported the repeal of Hyde during the White House press briefing Tuesday, Deputy Press Secretary Eric Schultz said he did not “believe we have changed our position on the Hyde Amendment.”

When pushed by a reporter to address if the administration is “not necessarily on board” with the Democratic platform’s call to repeal Hyde, Schultz said that the administration has “a longstanding view on this and I don’t have any changes in our position to announce today.”

Roundups Sexual Health

This Week in Sex: The Sexually Transmitted Infections Edition

Martha Kempner

A new Zika case suggests the virus can be transmitted from an infected woman to a male partner. And, in other news, HPV-related cancers are on the rise, and an experimental chlamydia vaccine shows signs of promise.

This Week in Sex is a weekly summary of news and research related to sexual behavior, sexuality education, contraception, STIs, and more.

Zika May Have Been Sexually Transmitted From a Woman to Her Male Partner

A new case suggests that males may be infected with the Zika virus through unprotected sex with female partners. Researchers have known for a while that men can infect their partners through penetrative sexual intercourse, but this is the first suspected case of sexual transmission from a woman.

The case involves a New York City woman who is in her early 20s and traveled to a country with high rates of the mosquito-borne virus (her name and the specific country where she traveled have not been released). The woman, who experienced stomach cramps and a headache while waiting for her flight back to New York, reported one act of sexual intercourse without a condom the day she returned from her trip. The following day, her symptoms became worse and included fever, fatigue, a rash, and tingling in her hands and feet. Two days later, she visited her primary-care provider and tests confirmed she had the Zika virus.

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A few days after that (seven days after intercourse), her male partner, also in his 20s, began feeling similar symptoms. He had a rash, a fever, and also conjunctivitis (pink eye). He, too, was diagnosed with Zika. After meeting with him, public health officials in the New York City confirmed that he had not traveled out of the country nor had he been recently bit by a mosquito. This leaves sexual transmission from his partner as the most likely cause of his infection, though further tests are being done.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s recommendations for preventing Zika have been based on the assumption that virus was spread from a male to a receptive partner. Therefore the recommendations had been that pregnant women whose male partners had traveled or lived in a place where Zika virus is spreading use condoms or abstain from sex during the pregnancy. For those couples for whom pregnancy is not an issue, the CDC recommended that men who had traveled to countries with Zika outbreaks and had symptoms of the virus, use condoms or abstain from sex for six months after their trip. It also suggested that men who traveled but don’t have symptoms use condoms for at least eight weeks.

Based on this case—the first to suggest female-to-male transmission—the CDC may extend these recommendations to couples in which a female traveled to a country with an outbreak.

More Signs of Gonorrhea’s Growing Antibiotic Resistance

Last week, the CDC released new data on gonorrhea and warned once again that the bacteria that causes this common sexually transmitted infection (STI) is becoming resistant to the antibiotics used to treat it.

There are about 350,000 cases of gonorrhea reported each year, but it is estimated that 800,000 cases really occur with many going undiagnosed and untreated. Once easily treatable with antibiotics, the bacteria Neisseria gonorrhoeae has steadily gained resistance to whole classes of antibiotics over the decades. By the 1980s, penicillin no longer worked to treat it, and in 2007 the CDC stopped recommending the use of fluoroquinolones. Now, cephalosporins are the only class of drugs that work. The recommended treatment involves a combination of ceftriaxone (an injectable cephalosporin) and azithromycin (an oral antibiotic).

Unfortunately, the data released last week—which comes from analysis of more than 5,000 samples of gonorrhea (called isolates) collected from STI clinics across the country—shows that the bacteria is developing resistance to these drugs as well. In fact, the percentage of gonorrhea isolates with decreased susceptibility to azithromycin increased more than 300 percent between 2013 and 2014 (from 0.6 percent to 2.5 percent).

Though no cases of treatment failure has been reported in the United States, this is a troubling sign of what may be coming. Dr. Gail Bolan, director of CDC’s Division of STD Prevention, said in a press release: “It is unclear how long the combination therapy of azithromycin and ceftriaxone will be effective if the increases in resistance persists. We need to push forward on multiple fronts to ensure we can continue offering successful treatment to those who need it.”

HPV-Related Cancers Up Despite Vaccine 

The CDC also released new data this month showing an increase in HPV-associated cancers between 2008 and 2012 compared with the previous five-year period. HPV or human papillomavirus is an extremely common sexually transmitted infection. In fact, HPV is so common that the CDC believes most sexually active adults will get it at some point in their lives. Many cases of HPV clear spontaneously with no medical intervention, but certain types of the virus cause cancer of the cervix, vulva, penis, anus, mouth, and neck.

The CDC’s new data suggests that an average of 38,793 HPV-associated cancers were diagnosed each year between 2008 and 2012. This is a 17 percent increase from about 33,000 each year between 2004 and 2008. This is a particularly unfortunate trend given that the newest available vaccine—Gardasil 9—can prevent the types of HPV most often linked to cancer. In fact, researchers estimated that the majority of cancers found in the recent data (about 28,000 each year) were caused by types of the virus that could be prevented by the vaccine.

Unfortunately, as Rewire has reported, the vaccine is often mired in controversy and far fewer young people have received it than get most other recommended vaccines. In 2014, only 40 percent of girls and 22 percent of boys ages 13 to 17 had received all three recommended doses of the vaccine. In comparison, nearly 80 percent of young people in this age group had received the vaccine that protects against meningitis.

In response to the newest data, Dr. Electra Paskett, co-director of the Cancer Control Research Program at the Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center, told HealthDay:

In order to increase HPV vaccination rates, we must change the perception of the HPV vaccine from something that prevents a sexually transmitted disease to a vaccine that prevents cancer. Every parent should ask the question: If there was a vaccine I could give my child that would prevent them from developing six different cancers, would I give it to them? The answer would be a resounding yes—and we would have a dramatic decrease in HPV-related cancers across the globe.

Making Inroads Toward a Chlamydia Vaccine

An article published in the journal Vaccine shows that researchers have made progress with a new vaccine to prevent chlamydia. According to lead researcher David Bulir of the M. G. DeGroote Institute for Infectious Disease Research at Canada’s McMaster University, efforts to create a vaccine have been underway for decades, but this is the first formulation to show success.

In 2014, there were 1.4 million reported cases of chlamydia in the United States. While this bacterial infection can be easily treated with antibiotics, it often goes undiagnosed because many people show no symptoms. Untreated chlamydia can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease, which can leave scar tissue in the fallopian tubes or uterus and ultimately result in infertility.

The experimental vaccine was created by Canadian researchers who used pieces of the bacteria that causes chlamydia to form an antigen they called BD584. The hope was that the antigen could prompt the body’s immune system to fight the chlamydia bacteria if exposed to it.

Researchers gave BD584 to mice using a nasal spray, and then exposed them to chlamydia. The results were very promising. The mice who received the spray cleared the infection faster than the mice who did not. Moreover, the mice given the nasal spray were less likely to show symptoms of infection, such as bacterial shedding from the vagina or fluid blockages of the fallopian tubes.

There are many steps to go before this vaccine could become available. The researchers need to test it on other strains of the bacteria and in other animals before testing it in humans. And, of course, experience with the HPV vaccine shows that there’s work to be done to make sure people get vaccines that prevent STIs even after they’re invented. Nonetheless, a vaccine to prevent chlamydia would be a great victory in our ongoing fight against STIs and their health consequences, and we here at This Week in Sex are happy to end on a bit of a positive note.