Skip to main content

Three lessons in gender and sexuality in this election

Charis Thompson, Former professor of gender and women's studies | October 31, 2016

The U.S. nation spent the last month or so deciding whether to mind that one of the two major party candidates, Donald Trump, had bragged about using his money and power to kiss and grope women without consent, including the line about “grabbing women by the pussy,” that spurred the striking “pussy grabs back” meme. This came on the heels of disrespect toward Mexican Americans, Muslim Americans, African Americans and those with disabilities, and against a background of unrelenting misogyny. trumplockerroom250

Were Trump’s boasts mere “locker room talk,” descriptively if not prescriptively normal?  Many athletes rejected this defense, while others noted that the talk was more typical of adolescent than adult braggadocio. The women who wore the “Trump is welcome to grab this (downward arrow)” shirts drew our focus away from the absence of consent by blazoning their permission across their bodies. The residual crudity struck some of those fed up of insider politics and elites as welcome realism: this is just how real men talk!

In an extraordinary speech on October 13th in New Hampshire, the First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama, channeled our collective disbelief and the affective toll of hearing the recording: “I can’t believe that I’m saying that a candidate for president of the United States has bragged about sexually assaulting women;” “I can’t stop thinking about this — it has shaken me to my core.”michelle-obama-sexual-assault250

The words were especially powerful coming from Michelle Obama, who hosted the first “United State of Women Summit” at the White House in June 2016.  This summit centered the intersectional nature of gender and sexuality: sexism does not exist in a power-neutral, binary male-female gender system, but is always already part of intersecting hierarchies of race, sexuality, ableism, and power.

Michelle Obama is incomparable. But she was also able to address the recording’s revelations in a way that Hillary Clinton could not.  The sexual exploits of former President Bill Clinton, and Hillary Clinton’s perceived complicity in making them go away, had long since unfairly rendered potentially the first ever woman President of the United States of America inauthentic on the topic of sexual abuse and the denigration of women.

weiner250With mere days to go and threatening to influence the outcome of the election, the FBI reopened its investigation into emails possibly related to Hillary Clinton. These emails came to light during a criminal investigation of Anthony Weiner, and were sent by Clinton’s close aide, Huma Abedin, Weiner’s estranged wife.  Former New York Congressman Weiner’s electronic devices were seized because he sexted women, including one underage young woman.  He notoriously sexted a photo of his crotch taken while sitting next to his and Abedin’s four-year-old child.

What can we learn from the fact that the scenography of this election has included explicit sexual predation at every turn?

First, the age of social media has shone a light on the ubiquitous pairing of power and sexual desire, harassment, and assault (it is important to remember that men are also victims of sexual harassment and assault, and that it is not confined to heterosexuality). Social media have become another means by which power reproduces and is in turn reproduced by racism, classism, sexism, ableism, and citizenship status. Little has been done to combat these patterns; on the contrary, we have evidence that algorithms and social media tend to amplify rather than correct for structural bias and discrimination. Our campus’s research on the age of social media is urgent.

Second, the temptation to see this ubiquity of crudity, misogyny, racism, and sexual predation as a race to the bottom, to the lowest of the low, to the vulgar and shameful, that takes our attention away from “real policy issues” must be resisted.  Sexual predation, like racial discrimination and ableism, is built into every aspect of our polity from unconscious bias to digital design, cityscapes, and the law.  Until we treat this locker room talk, this tawdry refrain of 2016, as the urgent policy issue that it is, underlying some of the most fundamental political trends of our day, we will not be able to counter it.

And third, we need to come to grips with what it means that many people in power today grew up during an era when sexual desire and various kinds of power – whether workplace, political, monetary, or aesthetic – self-evidently went together, with or without consent.  The fact that the person with less power was so commonly harmed in the long run, even in consensual relationships, took time to surface.

On campuses, our efforts to mount an anti-sexual harassment and assault culture curriculum beyond training and compliance are held back by our having not yet developed ways to talk about deeply embedded histories and geographies of power and sex.  In particular, within academia, we have to find a way to talk about the links between knowledge and desire and between knowledge and privilege, much as we are beginning to be able to talk about toxic masculinity and party culture. Older and newer genealogies of sexual desire and predation co-exist. In working to uncouple power and desire, are there other ways to build pleasures of the intellectual life into university culture, whether on the sports field or in the classroom?

In bringing the ubiquity of gendered and sexual harassment, assault, and denigration to light, we must do all we can to mitigate the structural inequalities that sustain this culture and that it in turn reproduces. And to center victims’ needs and rights, we must develop robust practices, for example, restorative justice, that would complement the legal and criminal approaches that frequently re-victimize victims and lead to under-reporting.

What is clear is that we need to start with the ubiquity: only then we can finally begin to move toward better ways forward.  There might yet be a silver lining in the horrific uses of gender and sexuality in this election season.

Comments to “Three lessons in gender and sexuality in this election

  1. Prof. Thompson, now that the election is over and the reality that about 40% of women voted for Trump is a fact of life, I must admit that your original comment “Women likely won’t take us to enlightenment either” is correct.

    Politicians continued to prove that their political brains are wired to respond to the power of money as their highest priority for political survival. Most unfortunately, this meant that both republican and democratic party leaders have betrayed the hopes of far too many Americans for far too long.

    And Trump proved, overwhelmingly once again, that misleading propaganda can control the minds of far too many voters, especially in this political era dominated by failures in truth and morality that prove nothing has really changed since Socrates decided it was hopeless to fight this human failure mode.

  2. Too bad we lost on Tuesday. We had everything to lose, and we lost it because we have continuously failed to learn how to communicate with people outside our Ivory Towers.

    Either we learn to communicate with the greatest sense of urgency today, or —

  3. The long-term future of America, and the human race, shall be decided in this election if women dominate voting at the polls.

    Women have a superior prefrontal cortex necessary to protect the human race, and men have proven since the beginning of this civilization that we are totally incompetent at protecting the human race from self-destruction.

    • Interestingly, Gender and Women’s Studies and Neuroscience / Psychology at Berkeley hosted a speaker last week, Professor Daphna Joel, who presented her research showing that brains do not differ according to binary gender – ie male brains and female brains – but more like a mosaic – as she wrote in PNAS in 2015: “humans and human brains are comprised of unique “mosaics” of features, some more common in females compared with males, some more common in males compared with females, and some common in both females and males. Our results demonstrate that regardless of the cause of observed sex/gender differences in brain and behavior (nature or nurture), human brains cannot be categorized into two distinct classes: male brain/female brain.” Women likely won’t take us to enlightenment either, this suggests – but, like you, I’m all for saving the human race and civilization, and getting out the vote of all those who identify as women!

      • Prof. Thomson, thank you for your feedback but “Women likely won’t take us to enlightenment either” is a most depressing suggestion because we are experiencing increasingly serious threats due to global warming, violence and inequalities.

        I have been searching for a much better legacy for my granddaughters but this election appears to be proving that we are losing complete control over long-term quality of life.

        Does UC have any solutions we can implement in time to protect an acceptable quality of life for our newest and all future generations?

        • sorry I didn’t mean to sound unhopeful – if we work together with friends and allies such as yourself and your granddaughters, I do believe we can work for better futures in so many ways – through education, through justice, through practical steps in each of our fields toward better policies. I cannot be explicitly politically partisan in this forum but Tuesday matters hugely, in my opinion. I would be interested to hear your ideas, too.

          • Yes, education, justice, better policies are required to produce and perpetuate a better future.

            We must unite once again to restore the spirit of our Declaration of Independence because It appears that we have recreated some of the conditions we fought against to build America in the first place.

          • Prof. Thompson, per your request, 3 ideas for an acceptable long-term future:

            1. Environmental protection to guarantee an acceptable quality of life for all people.

            2, Total equality for all women and races.

            3. Free education, preschool thru college, to enable all children to achieve Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

  4. We are all equal.

    As a result of this, however, I cannot get my way over you unless I can create a difference between me and you that allows me to gain power. As a wealthy, tall, good looking, educated white male with a BBC English accent, I have many weapons in my arsenal. But all of these only work as long as the current global value system presenting these as valuable traits persists and I can manipulate the message so that you are not aware of my numerous failings.

    If this debate is going to move forward, I believe we need to change the qualities and attributes that we celebrate and consider to be “Success”. One such attribute is compassion. Whilst we admire the Dalai Lama for his life of compassion I do not see his teachings in any course at any level of education. None of my weapons are of any use if compassion is my primary concern and the personal challenge is far greater (and rewarding). Many of the issues we face on the planet would be quickly resolved if we turned our efforts towards a compassionate response to the problem. We certainly do not lack the ingenuity to make compassion the centre of all that we do.

    As I write this, however, I imagine the ridicule and derision that these comments will provoke – indeed they flood my brain. Compassion is generally seen as weak, naïve, lacking in drive and ambition and certainly not a sign of leadership, but this is because of the way we have constructed our belief systems. If we let go of these values what new opportunities arise and what now becomes impossible to consider?

    Why would we remove sexism, racism, exploitation and all other forms of greed and conquest if these are the logical end points of the qualities we currently hold high? Especially if, by removing them, we might be the ones that lose out. At the moment I am “winning” on so many fronts, few of them to do with any particular ability or value of contribution. I might have to do something worthy.

    Trump speaks about the rigging of the election. Of course it is. Society is first rigged by the selection of our current values and priorities.

    The way to change this is to start recognising the contributions of those who have placed compassion and integrity at the centre of what they do. We could do well to study the priorities and methodologies of those who have implemented compassion in their lives. By combining compassion and integrity we elevate people who have strength and purpose but who have a subdued sense of entitlement and greed.

    The contrast between compassion and our current western obsession is being played out at the Dakota Pipeline site. What is interesting here is that the Native Americans have united over 500 tribes and the support they are receiving is widening.

    One avenue for the study of a new way of being is the work that Bhutan has carried out on the concept of evaluating progress based on Gross National Happiness as opposed to GDP. See here:

    • Thank you for this comment – it would be fantastic if our current obsession in neoliberal elite culture with emotions that are peddled in terms of the competitive advantage they confer could give way to cultivating emotions that make a better, kinder, more meaningful, less egocentric world possible; if we could move away from greed and conquest. The comment on the North Dakota pipeline is also very on point; re: the settler colonial aspects of gender and sexuality you might enjoy the work of certain indigenous scholars, such as the work of Kim TallBear

Comments are closed.