(I began this post before the U.S. election. But then I got a little distracted. A lot of us did. But now that the election is over, we can all get back to our regular, every-day efforts simply trying to obliterate patriarchal structures wherever they exist and to support women’s full equality at all times and in all places.)
A week or two before the election, I encountered a brilliant blog posting about the fact that one of the most famous pictures from V-J Day (the day in 1945 that Imperial Japan surrendered, marking the formal end of WW II) actually depicts a non-consensual sexual act. The post, entitled “The Kissing Sailor, or ‘The Selective Blindness of Rape Culture,’” points out that that the photo of the sailor who grabbed that nurse and bent her over backward while kissing her in Times Square in New York City in 1945 actually shows a man doing something that he did not have permission to do. The woman was not expecting to be grabbed. To be kissed. To be bent over backward by some strong, totally inebriated man.
The photo communicates what was probably a rather common sentiment at that moment: WAR IS OVER! GO GRAB A GIRL!
You can find the original post here: http://cratesandribbons.com/2012/09/30/the-kissing-sailor-or-the-selective-blindness-of-rape-culture-vj-day-times-square/
I thought that blog post made some critical points, including the fact that even though it is increasingly well known that the kiss was not consensual, no one has ever really paid much attention to that reality.
Of the sailor, and of our reaction to it, the blog’s author writes:
“He is perfectly entitled to be ecstatic. He is perfectly entitled to celebrate. However, this entitlement does not extend to his impinging on someone else’s bodily autonomy.
“The unwillingness to recognize a problem here is not surprising, considering the rape culture in which we live. It is not easy to assert that a woman’s body is always her own, not to be used at the whim of any man without her consent.”
We are so surrounded by -- so immersed in -- rape culture that we simply fail to recognize when an assault has occurred. And when it is pointed out, many of us just don’t care. Or we totally resist calling it what it is.
I thought that this posting was brilliant, and I immediately shared it on my Facebook wall.
But then I did a little bit of research on the people involved. Greta Friedman and George Mendosa. I read their stories. I saw interviews with them.
And I removed the post from Facebook. Because, as a man, leaving it up just didn’t feel right. And here’s why...
Was it a sexual assault? Legally, yes. Using a legal definition of sexual assault, what the sailor did to the nurse (she was a dental hygienist, actually) was a crime. Uninvited, he grabbed the woman, bent her backward, and kissed her.
Greta Friedman’s own words (collected by the blog’s author herself) tell the story:
“It wasn’t my choice to be kissed. The guy just came over and grabbed!”
“I did not see him approaching, and before I knew it, I was in this vise grip.”
“You don’t forget this guy grabbing you.”
“That man was very strong. I wasn’t kissing him. He was kissing me.”
But would Great Friedman call herself the victim of an assault? Probably not. Ms. Friedman’s descriptions of the events of that day do not make it sound like she was overly distressed by it.
And “Leopard,” the woman who writes the wonderful “Crates and Ribbons” blog, wrote in a follow up post:
Indeed, in an interview given to Patricia Redmond, Greta does not seem traumatised by the kiss, and describes the fame that resulted from the photo in a positive manner.
However, I do think it’s worth taking into account that, even in today’s society, there is a lot of pressure on women to smile and get along, to ‘let boys be boys,’ to accept unwanted sexual contact like groping or kissing, and not to make a big deal out of it. Many of the comments have confirmed this, with gems like, “It’s just a kiss, get over it,” and how women should “stop whining” about such matters. In Greta’s case, the pressure would undoubtedly be much higher.
But one thing Greta consistently asserts is that the kiss was sudden, that she was grabbed before she even became aware of his presence. Her remarks about his strength and “vice grip [sic]” don’t sound like the words of someone who had enjoyed the kiss. The fact is, consent was not given, and her feelings about it afterwards don’t change the nature of what George did.
This is a critical discussion. That men need to stay out of. I think these are vital points. That this is a critically important discussion.
Is it fair to consider what happened to Greta Friedman a sexual assault even if she didn’t experience it that way?
Does Greta’s not opposing that sort of behavior mean that it is somehow okay for men to act that way?
Who has the right to name Greta’s experience for her? Greta? Or feminist anti-violence advocates who know a sexual assault when they see it – women who see the need to educate society on men’s violence toward women?
Is oppression still oppression even if its victims don’t recognize it as such?
Yes, this is a critical discussion. But I just don’t think that it’s a discussion for me, a man, to be actively participating in. I think that this is one of those times when we men should just keep our mouths shut.
Even us men who like to think that we are allies to women’s liberation. Sometimes even we just need to shut up.
You know, watch and learn.
Thoughts on the proper position of men in the feminist struggle. Had I kept that post up on my Facebook wall, I would have been taking the position that Greta Friedman was sexually assaulted. But she herself does not seem to identity as a survivor of sexual assault. So I am naming her experience for her.
As a man, naming a woman’s experience for her is simply not an acceptable thing for me to be doing. It’s delineating her life. Defining for her what she has experienced and what she hasn’t. And when it comes to defining women’s experiences for them, that is something that we men have been doing for far too long. For centuries. For millennia. And we need to stop. Because it is simply not helpful for us as men to be doing that to women. In fact, it hurts. And we have just put ourselves (again) in the position of telling a woman just what her lived experience is. And that is not our place.
But what about my voice? Now, as a male, I was brought up with a very strong message that I am entitled to have an opinion on just about everything. And that I should pretty much always express that opinion on just about everything. It was only later that I realized that sometimes we guys just need to shut the hell up. All of us. That sometimes our opinion adds nothing but another level of distracting, unhelpful, patriarchal noise.
That sometimes, as men, we actually have nothing to add. And Greta Friedman does not need me, Bill Patrick, a man, to be telling her what her lived experience was.
I was recently interviewed by the editors of the wonderful new book Dancing at the Shame Prom: Sharing the Stories That Kept Us Small. Part of the interview included my talking about what I think it means to be profeminist. I said:
To me, being profeminist is also about de-centering the male experience. About no longer considering male as “normal” and female as “other.” It is also about understanding that there are many, many different female experiences, and many, many different male experiences.
This de-centering of the male experience also means making sure that I as a man do not dominate or take over women-sponsored activities and events. As men, it is part of our training to jump right in and take charge. To talk too much. (To write too much!) But that is the last thing that the feminist movement needs! To me, being a profeminist activist means embracing the role of being a true partner in the struggle for women’s empowerment. Sometimes that means being right there with women on the front lines, and at other times it means stepping back and staying out of the way. And sometimes it means encouraging other men to keep the hell out of the way as well!
And as to the dilemma of needing to (re)name a specific woman’s experience in order to educate us all about the prevalence of sexual assault and rape culture -- deciding whether or not we should call what George Mendosa did to Greta Friedman that day a sexual assault even though she seems unfazed by it -- I believe that is a discussion best held only amongst women. And that we men (even we profeminist men) need to step back and stay the hell out of the way.