When my grandmother was born in 1880 in Finland to an unmarried indentured dairymaid named Marie, the men of the Finnish Lutheran Church knew exactly what to do.
First, Marie was ostracized for 40 days. As with all new mothers, married or not, she was deemed morally unclean. To prevent spread of the contagion of sin inherent in a woman’s act of sexual congress, touching her was forbidden.
Christians, you may recall, were born of sin.
Next, Marie was forced to stand before the congregation in the 800-seat church to confess to bearing a child out of wedlock and to be publicly shamed. Though destitute, she also was required to pay a coin to the priest to obtain absolution.
But my grandmother’s father was not required to stand beside Marie to share public punishment. Why? Because it was women who committed the sin. It was all on them. Why? Because theirs was the God-ordained burden of guarding male virtue.
Men, these clerics evidently wished us to understand, are far weaker creatures than they pretend to be. So men cannot be held accountable for the consequences of satisfying their sexual desires.
A century later in a newsroom where I was a manager, one day a young female photographer lodged a complaint. A 50-ish staffer, a genial, well-liked religious family man, had fondled her buttocks while pretending to help her up a ladder during a photo shoot.
Confronted, he had a ready, well-worn answer: The photographer’s jeans were too tight. “She asked for it,” he explained.
Which meant he was perfectly entitled to give it to her.
And now there’s federal appeals court judge Alex Kozinski of the 9th Circuit in San Francisco, who resigned after 15 female law clerks accused him of sexual improprieties. He’s most likely to be remembered for writing a memo to court colleagues suggesting that instead of establishing a gender bias task force, they enact a rule prohibiting female attorneys from wearing push-up bras.
Must we really encase women’s bodies in burkas, gentlemen? Hello?
The world is filled with men who don’t need to dehumanize females to keep their own self-respect. Yet half a century into the women’s liberation movement, even they sometimes struggle to understand how to be “manly” under the changed rules of engagement.
Everything about the patriarchal mindset shouts that men are so fearful of women that they must subjugate, silence and infantilize them. Denigration of women is a worldwide cultural norm, a deeply ingrained default setting for both sexes. A typical manifestation? The New York Times poll in which both sexes said their gender were the safer drivers but both said they’d rather men drive.
Little wonder patriarchy’s insidious blame game can thrive.
Millennia of gender role brainwashing has done its work. Women readily accept responsibility when they’re sexually or professionally humiliated. But women are not just socialized to feel powerless. They have in fact been powerless, thanks to male control of the levers of power that really matter — in Congress, state legislatures and business.
Well-paid professional women are blowing the whistle on sexual predators in the workplace. They can afford to, unlike poorly paid women, who cannot. They, and their abusers, are unknown and un-newsworthy, but their name is legion.
Like Wonder Woman, females through the ages have been credited with power they don’t always fully comprehend. Women can unman even men who are masters of the universe — though not of their bodies.
How else to explain the daily dishonor roll of “powerful” men professionally ruined because they could not summon the power to accord women the same human respect they give men? Were these predators the confident, masculine powerhouses they impersonate, their sexual encounters obviously would not be so sordid and pitiful, nor have to be forced upon unwilling participants.
Looking at you, Donald Trump.
Even in Sweden
But what’s happening in those famously gender-enlightened Nordic lands? Even in Sweden, the nation that’s “‘best in class’ on gender equality,” according to journalist Jenny Nordberg, tens of thousands of “brutal” sexual harassment complaints have been made public since the #MeToo dam broke.
In the workplace, Swedish males are “cold, correct and asexual on the surface,” Nordberg writes in the New York Times. “But give a Swedish man a drink or two after work, and you’ll be surprised how quickly many of them will take out their various frustrations in the form of lewd behavior against women, only to seamlessly go back to voicing egalitarian ideals the next day.”
Here’s the striking thing about the women who endured sexual degradation at the hands of American luminaries in film, business, media, Congress, law: every one of them blamed themselves for having failed to prevent, or report, the attacks. Priests of a century ago surely would applaud these women’s willingness to shoulder blame that belongs to their abusers.
Worse yet, many of the women seem to have accepted the predator’s definition of who they are: nobody.
So, despite the risk of seeming to blame the victim, we must ask: What’s the matter with women? Where is their sense of self-worth?
A friend who knows more about this than I do says blaming oneself for failing to prevent something bad is a common coping mechanism of assault victims because it’s a more powerful response than accepting that they’re helpless.
I have another view: Long taught that they’re second-class, blameworthy beings, many women have come to believe it.
Solveig Torvik lives in Winthrop.