Commentary Sexuality

Late One Night

Stigma Shame and Sexuality Series

I realize that for years I've been thinking that every loud woman in a bar who gets drunk or laughs about showing her underwear is stupid. Stupid why? If you want to have sex, that can be a very effective way of going about it. Have I been implicitly assuming that women don't want to have sex?

This post is by Gemma Mason, and is part of Tsk Tsk: Stigma, Shame, and Sexuality, a series hosted by Gender Across Borders and cross-posted with Rewire in partnership with Ipas.

It’s late one night, in a pub in Cambridge, England.  To my left is a cute, well-meaning liberal guy. To his left is the sort of girl I dismiss automatically: she dyes her hair blonde, for one thing (who wants to be perceived as blonde?), and she talks in a loose way about hooking up in nightclubs.  She’s a Cambridge student – therefore intelligent – but I have decided that she doesn’t seem to care about her intelligence, and I think her silly.

I’ve been struggling with my sexuality for a while now, hating my 21 years of virginity (and burning up with sexual frustration), but worrying that I can’t develop a more sexual way of presenting to the world without people dismissing me as a person.  As a feminist, I think it’s wrong to conform to some idea of ‘sexy’ that will only reinforce men’s tendencies to view women as sex objects.  “Because I’m incredibly horny” is a tempting excuse, but that only makes me less likely to view it as a good reason.

The cute guy to my left is talking about ‘Lady’s Mags’: “Like, Nuts and Zoo and stuff, with pictures of naked ladies — it’s all fine, right? I mean, they can be empowering and stuff.”  I shrug awkwardly.  I disagree, except that disagreeing seems so restrictive, so not fun, and I don’t want to rock the boat, and he turns to the woman on his left, she of the dyed blonde hair, and says “Right?”

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“Um, not really,” she says, frank but casual, and I am left to deal with the fact that one of us spoke up and said, yes, there might be a problem with displaying scantily clad women alongside demeaning commentary, and it was her, the one who I thought was stupid and weak and out to please men.

It is at this point that I realize that I am sexist.  I am sexist! What did I dismiss her for?  For choosing to have blonde hair, and slightly slutty clothes, and having casual sex, and talking about it.  I thought she was stupid.  I realize I’ve been thinking that for years, about every loud woman in a bar who gets drunk or laughs about showing her underwear.  “How stupid,” I think. Stupid why? If you want to have sex, that can be a very effective way of going about it. From that perspective, it’s not stupid at all.  Have I been implicitly assuming that women don’t want to have sex?

It’s a pernicious notion that sexuality and stupidity in women are somehow linked.  Perhaps the most obvious illustration of this idea occurs in the stereotype of the “dumb blonde” who conforms (naturally or by choice) to the classic female beauty stereotype right up to the colour of her hair and barely has enough brain cells to tie her shoes. But the purest illustration of this idea is in the stereotype of the “dumb slut” who “gives her body away for nothing.”  This supposed connection between women’s sexuality and stupidity is rooted in the transactional model of sex, where men gain and women lose from sex, and so a woman who would “give it up” without asking for something in return has clearly been tricked, scammed even, and must be pretty stupid to have done so.

My own prejudice against openly sexual women was rooted in the idea that no intelligent woman would want to be perceived as stupid. It is at this point that the idea of the “dumb slut” becomes self-reinforcing. Given that sluttiness will make people think you are stupid, surely only a stupid girl would choose to be perceived as a slut?

The question that makes it all fall apart is “Why should I have to choose?” Why should I have to choose between being seen as sexual and being seen as smart, and, even more pertinently, what would be the best way to shatter the stereotype of the silly little slut?

We can break stereotypes by not making assumptions about women’s intelligence or worth as people based on their sexual behaviour. We can break even more stereotypes by being strong and sexual and clever and female.

It’s not easy to set myself up as a counterexample to the stereotype. There’s no pre-approved way to say to the world that I want to have sex, on my terms.  What does a “slut who knows her own mind” wear? What does a “sexual woman who wants and deserves your respect” say? What sort of a smile does she have? How does she walk?  There’s no accepted way to signal an idea that might not even fully exist, yet, in our cultural consciousness.

So perhaps the best way to proceed is just to be sexual and smart and courageous, expecting that people will perceive the truth. That’s not easy either.  It involves taking risks and making compromises and trying to stay true to yourself and to what you really want. What do you really want?  Sometimes I know, and sometimes I don’t.

Here’s what I do know. Since that night in Cambridge, there have been times when I’ve specifically wanted sex with a stranger, and it’s been the right choice.  There have been other times when casual sex has made me realize that what I really want is a relationship. There have been times when I was wise to put my sex life on hold, and times when I was wise to dive back in. I can make those decisions, because one night in Cambridge, a woman with dyed blonde hair made me realize that sending a sexual signal doesn’t make you weak or stupid, and that a flawed, evolving sexuality that gets stronger as it learns is a more powerful blow against sexual objectification than chastity or modesty can ever be.  Refusing to be seen as sexual is only a protection against slut stereotyping for the woman who does it. Refusing to be seen as stupid helps us all.

Gemma Mason comes from New Zealand and is currently working towards a PhD in applied mathematics at California Institute of Technology. 


Commentary Economic Justice

The Gender Wage Gap Is Not Women’s Fault, and Here’s the Report That Proves It

Kathleen Geier

The fact is, in every occupation and at every level, women earn less than men doing exactly the same work.

A new report confirms what millions of women already know: that women’s choices are not to blame for the gender wage gap. Instead, researchers at the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), the progressive think tank that issued the report, say that women’s unequal pay is driven by “discrimination, social norms, and other factors beyond women’s control.”

This finding—that the gender pay gap is caused by structural factors rather than women’s occupational choices—is surprisingly controversial. Indeed, in my years as a journalist covering women’s economic issues, the subject that has been most frustrating for me to write about has been the gender gap. (Full disclosure: I’ve worked as a consultant for EPI, though not on this particular report.) No other economic topic I’ve covered has been more widely misunderstood, or has been so outrageously distorted by misrepresentations, half-truths, and lies.

That’s because, for decades, conservatives have energetically promoted the myth that the gender pay gap does not exist. They’ve done such a bang-up job of it that denying the reality of the gap, like denying the reality of global warming, has become an article of faith on the right. Conservative think tanks like the Independent Women’s Forum and the American Enterprise Institute and right-wing writers at outlets like the Wall Street Journal, Breitbart, and the Daily Caller have denounced the gender pay gap as “a lie,” “not the real story,” “a fairy tale,” “a statistical delusion,” and “the myth that won’t die.” Sadly, it is not only right-wing propagandists who are gender wage gap denialists. Far more moderate types like Slate’s Hanna Rosin and the Atlantic’s Derek Thompson have also claimed that the gender wage gap statistic is misleading and exaggerates disparities in earnings.

According to the most recent figures available from the Census Bureau, for every dollar a man makes, a woman makes only 79 cents, a statistic that has barely budged in a decade. And that’s just the gap for women overall; for most women of color, it’s considerably larger. Black women earn only 61 percent of what non-Hispanic white men make, and Latinas earn only 55 percent as much. In a recent survey, U.S. women identified the pay gap as their biggest workplace concern. Yet gender wage gap denialists of a variety of political stripes contend that gender gap statistic—which measures the difference in median annual earnings between men and women who work full-time, year-round—is inaccurate because it does not compare the pay of men and women doing the same work. They argue that when researchers control for traits like experience, type of work, education, and the like, the gender gap evaporates like breath on a window. In short, the denialists frame the gender pay gap as the product not of sexist discrimination, but of women’s freely made choices.

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The EPI study’s co-author, economist Elise Gould, said in an interview with Rewire that she and her colleagues realized the need for the new report when an earlier paper generated controversy on social media. That study had uncovered an “unadjusted”—meaning that it did not control for differences in workplace and personal characteristics—$4 an hour gender wage gap among recent college graduates. Gould said she found this pay disparity “astounding”: “You’re looking at two groups of people, men and women, with virtually the same amount of experience, and yet their wages are so different.” But critics on Twitter, she said, claimed that the wage gap simply reflected the fact that women were choosing lower-paid jobs. “So we wanted to take out this one idea of occupational choice and look at that,” Gould said.

Gould and her co-author Jessica Schieder highlight two important findings in their EPI report. One is that, even within occupations, and even after controlling for observable factors such as education and work experience, the gender wage gap remains stubbornly persistent. As Gould told me, “If you take a man and a woman sitting side by side in a cubicle, doing the same exact job with the same amount of experience and the same amount of education, on average, the man is still going to be paid more than the woman.”

The EPI report cites the work of Harvard economist Claudia Goldin, who looked at the relative weight in the overall wage gap of gender-based pay differences within occupations versus those between occupations. She found that while gender pay disparities between different occupations explain 32 percent of the gap, pay differences within the same occupation account for far more—68 percent, or more than twice as much. In other words, even if we saw equal numbers of men and women in every profession, two-thirds of the gender wage gap would still remain.

And yes, female-dominated professions pay less, but the reasons why are difficult to untangle. It’s a chicken-and-egg phenomenon, the EPI report explains, raising the question: Are women disproportionately nudged into low-status, low-wage occupations, or do these occupations pay low wages simply because it is women who are doing the work?

Historically, “women’s work” has always paid poorly. As scholars such as Paula England have shown, occupations that involve care work, for example, are associated with a wage penalty, even after controlling for other factors. But it’s not only care work that is systematically devalued. So, too, is work in other fields where women workers are a majority—even professions that were not initially dominated by women. The EPI study notes that when more women became park rangers, for example, overall pay in that occupation declined. Conversely, as computer programming became increasingly male-dominated, wages in that sector began to soar.

The second major point that Gould and Schieder emphasize is that a woman’s occupational choice does not occur in a vacuum. It is powerfully shaped by forces like discrimination and social norms. “By the time a woman earns her first dollar, her occupational choice is the culmination of years of education, guidance by mentors, parental expectations, hiring practices, and widespread norms and expectations about work/family balance,” Gould told Rewire. One study cited by Gould and Schieder found that in states where traditional attitudes about gender are more prevalent, girls tend to score higher in reading and lower in math, relative to boys. It’s one of many findings demonstrating that cultural attitudes wield a potent influence on women’s achievement. (Unfortunately, the EPI study does not address racism, xenophobia, or other types of bias that, like sexism, shape individuals’ work choices.)

Parental expectations also play a key role in shaping women’s occupational choices. Research reflected in the EPI study shows that parents are more likely to expect their sons to enter male-dominated science, technology, engineering, and math (often called STEM) fields, as opposed to their daughters. This expectation holds even when their daughters score just as well in math.

Another factor is the culture in male-dominated industries, which can be a huge turn-off to women, especially women of color. In one study of women working in science and technology, Latinas and Black women reported that they were often mistaken for janitors—something that none of the white women in the study had experienced. Another found that 52 percent of highly qualified women working in science and technology ended up leaving those fields, driven out by “hostile work environments and extreme job pressures.”

Among those pressures are excessively long hours, which make it difficult to balance careers with unpaid care work, for which women are disproportionately responsible. Goldin’s research, Gould said, shows that “in jobs that have more temporal flexibility instead of inflexibility and long hours, you do see a smaller gender wage gap.” Women pharmacists, for example, enjoy relatively high pay and a narrow wage gap, which Goldin has linked to flexible work schedules and a professional culture that enables work/life balance. By contrast, the gender pay gap is widest in highest-paying fields such as finance, which disproportionately reward those able to work brutally long hours and be on call 24/7.

Fortunately, remedies for the gender wage gap are at hand. Gould said that strong enforcement of anti-discrimination laws, greater wage transparency (which can be achieved through unions and collective bargaining), and more flexible workplace policies would all help to alleviate gender-based pay inequities. Additional solutions include raising the minimum wage, which would significantly boost the pay of the millions of women disproportionately concentrated in the low-wage sector, and enacting paid family leave, a policy that would be a boon for women struggling to combine work and family. All of these issues are looming increasingly large in our national politics.

But in order to advance these policies, it’s vital to debunk the right’s shameless, decades-long disinformation campaign about the gender gap. The fact is, in every occupation and at every level, women earn less than men doing exactly the same work. The right alleges that the official gender pay gap figure exaggerates the role of discrimination. But even statistics that adjust for occupation and other factors can, in the words of the EPI study, “radically understate the potential for gender discrimination to suppress women’s earnings.”

Contrary to conservatives’ claims, women did not choose to be paid consistently less than men for work that is every bit as valuable to society. But with the right set of policies, we can reverse the tide and bring about some measure of economic justice to the hard-working women of the United States.

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.”