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A typical night out (even in Scandinavia)

October 27, 2009

Norway is incredibly proud of its gender equality, and in many ways it has the right to be. As I’ve detailed somewhat before, about 40% of the parliament is female, women earn about 90 cents on the krone, and have more higher education. These impressive statistics (find more here) are the result of affirmative action and other strong measures taken by the government to ensure gender equality. Talking with women my age at my internship, they too are proud of this equality and generally feel they have equal opportunities to men. But there is one issue that you still can’t escape in this pretty gender equal utopia, and that is sexual harassment and the threat of sexual violence.

All women have these experiences, and some days I can laugh them off and some days they make me so mad I could explode. And even though it really won’t surprise you anymore, here’s the quick story of one night in Copenhagen, when a friend and I just wanted to go out and dance. Now, Copenhagen is a pretty safe town (besides the gang wars) so my friend and I felt pretty comfortable walking the streets on our own, even while wearing clothes to go out in and drinking out of cans of Carlsberg. But of course, for many men we encountered, this was an invitation for them to talk to us, which I don’t necessarily mind. If I’m at a club, and someone asks me to dance, I’ll say yes or no (ok, mostly no) and if they respect my decision I can still feel comfortable. But when I’m on the street and someone says hi to me, I never really want to talk to them and I generally try not to respond or respond politely but clearly that I don’t want to talk. More so, I definitely didnt want to talk to the man who said hi to me and then continued to follow us for over four blocks. Or the man who was all dressed up who followed us out of the club and down the street, finally asking us, hilariously if we were psychokillers. I have to admit, I was proud of myself for responding, “well, we’re not the one’s wearing a wig and following people we don’t know home, are we?”, which I was rewarded for by another few blocks of lurking about 50 feet behind us. These are clearly inappropriate and threatening behaviors, but these interactions influence all my interactions with unknown men. As Phaedra Starling describes, based on these experiences all men become “Schrödinger’s Rapist”. I really encourage you to read her article, if you haven’t yet, which is addressed to men, detailing why women are so on guard when meeting someone new, and what men can do to be respectful of this need for self-protection.

In class this week we have been discussing Michel Foucault, and his concepts of sexuality that only has meaning within a social context and biopower , the means by which the state gains power over the body by regulating it and disciplining it. I was thinking about his defintion of power in relation to the threat of sexual violence, because we all know that rape is about power, not sex. This power is exercise over women at all times, not just at the point of rape. The constant threat of sexual violence leads women to constantly have to regulate and discipline their own behaviors. We chose wear to walk, what to wear and who to talk to based on this threat. The other night, we switched streets when we realized that ours was at the center of the redlight district and that we were surrounded by groups of men, with few women in sight – clearly, not a safe place to walk. This self-regulation is a form of male oppression and men are constantly exercising this power over women, even if they don’t mean to, because they are all “Schrödinger’s Rapist¨”. Women participate in this system of regulation to, in the ways we socially sanction women who deviate from proper female sexuality. Terms like “slut” and “whore” are used to degrade women who don’t protect themselves, sex workers are considered victims regardless of their situation and agency and clothing and drinking choices are all questioned in rape cases.

I would call this a panoptic system of power, but does not simply involve this disciplining and regulation. Because the threat of sexual violence is real, and sexual violence is not a “punishment” but rather torture. While Foucault historically places his theories in a way that implies today that we are beyond this public and physically violent forms of regulation by the state, we are not. The system of regulation in which women (and those considered sexually deviant) reside in is enforced by physical, sexual, violence against the women’s body. Realizing that this system of power and regulation in place, does not necessarily give me the means to combat it. Sometimes I wish that I could rebel against the system by drinking as much as I want, wearing whatever I want, talking to whoever I want and walking wherever I want. Of course, I should be able to do all these things without being punished, but in this system of power, the regulation can be more than just social sanction, but in fact physical violence. And I can’t be sure which one I’ll get.

One Comment leave one →
  1. November 2, 2009 4:16 PM

    Great post! (Although Copenhagen isn’t in Norway, but your point is well taken anyway.) However, I would like to add that although Norway is extremely liberal in almost every facet of its policies, I sometimes get the impression that the government is far ahead of its population. My husband is from Norway, from a small town in the South West, and never have I been subjected to more assumptions about what I should and should not do with my body/life than when visiting and talking with his friends. The general consensus seems to be that this silly little PhD I’m working on is not, in fact, what will make me happy with my life. No, rather having kids and moving to said small Norwegian town is what is going to make me happy. All of the people I’ve met there subscribe to incredibly conservative gender roles, although, of course, I have not met everyone in Norway and as a result am generalizing.

    I guess I’m saying that I think there is something of a disconnect between official Norwegian policy and the thoughts/behaviors/ beliefs of the population in some cases. It seems that the government leads in innovation and the population must catch up, whereas here in the US, the government is always behind the liberalizing curve.

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