The problem of gender-neutral language

In September 2014, a mobile phone app was launched in response to the growing number of sexual assaults on university campuses in the U.S. The app, Good2Go, was available as a free download on iPhone and Android devices. The app was developed on the understanding that drug and alcohol use often precedes acts of sexual assault on campuses and can blur or obscure the issue of consensual sex. Good2Go’s twin objectives were to help clarify the language of consent for young adults and to help users evaluate their level of sobriety prior to engagement in sexual activity. There was a great deal of media scrutiny and public outrage following the launch of the app. Within two weeks, Apple pulled Good2Go from its app list. The rationale behind the decision remains unclear, but it is generally understood the decision was based on concerns about the appropriateness of the explicit language used on the app which apparently ran counter to Apple’s guidelines.

The Good2Go app was created by Lee Ann Allman. During discussions with her university-aged children, Allman was concerned to discover that they were confused about issues surrounding sex and consent, particularly when alcohol or drugs were involved. She designed the app specifically for young adults with the aim of providing a readily available free mobile phone download for users to access in order to gauge their intoxication levels before consenting to sexual activity. Although the app has been withdrawn, the Good2Go website remains and provides information about the rationale behind the development of the original app and outlines plans for the development of a future app for specific use in educational settings.

I’m driven to write about Good2Go because I am also concerned about language use. In this instance, however, I’m not concerned about the choice of explicit language on a now defunct app. I’m concerned about the website’s pedantic use of gender-neutral language; it carefully uses terms like “young people”, “young adults”, and “users”.

 The gender-neutral language used on the Good2Go website is breathtaking in its failure to reflect the reality of rape and sexual assault. An uncritical and unreflective reading of the website would leave the reader without any appreciation of the statistically supported facts that sexually violent crimes are overwhelmingly committed by male perpetrators and that male perpetrators overwhelmingly target female victims. Globally, the statistics surrounding reported cases of sexual violence are unequivocal: males commit almost all rapes and sexual assaults; females under 25 years represent the largest group of victims; and, more specifically, girls in the 10-14 year age group have the highest victimisation rates. Girls and women do not generally rape or sexually assault men. Insisting on the use of gender-neutral language masks this reality.

 I’m deeply concerned about representations of rape and sexual assault that fail to acknowledge this gender bias. Any failure to overtly acknowledge this bias contributes to the cultural silencing that continues to accompany acts of sexual violence against girls and women. Any contribution to the cultural silencing of sexual violence exacerbates issues of shame and this impacts directly on the victims themselves by perpetuating self-silencing practices.

 If, as the Good2Go website claims, the organisation is concerned to develop an app that educates young people about issues surrounding consensual sex, and if it aims to help young people ‘understand the importance in asking for and receiving affirmative consent before and throughout any sexual activity’, then it must first acknowledge that girls and women represent the largest group of victims. Until it does so, it will continue to obscure questions of responsibility.

It happens all the time …

A (life) story.

A young Australian woman joins a free social media site via an iPhone app. The site claims its primary purpose is to connect people; it’s a site for people to meet new people – to make friends. After joining, almost immediately, the young woman receives messages containing requests from men to meet and have sex. She refuses. She’s not looking for sex. She simply wants to make new friends. One man persists. She continues to refuse. The man becomes angry. He threatens her. In a message he tells her: I’ll find you and rape you. The young woman is terrified this will happen. She feels she can’t tell her parents; since she was young, they’ve cautioned her about the Internet and warned her against joining sites like this one. She worries they’ll be angry with her. She sits silently with her worry and fear, day after day. Finally, the fear is too much and she seeks help sideways – from a relative. The relative contacts the mother.

The mother is horrified her daughter has had such a frightening experience.   She rings her daughter. The mother tells her daughter she isn’t angry with her. She tells her that she loves her and is worried that she’s placed herself in a position of vulnerability by joining the site. She suggests the daughter close the account and delete the app. The daughter agrees to do this. The mother reassures her daughter that she can talk to her any time if she’s feeling frightened or worried about something. The daughter sounds less fearful at the end of the conversation. They meet the next day to talk about it further.

***

 The young woman’s older sister, now living in a European city, is talking with her mother on the phone two days later. Towards the end of their conversation, the mother finds herself spilling out the details of her sister’s story. The mother had not intended to do this; she hadn’t wanted to worry her far away daughter. The mother knows the sisters have always been close, remain close, the older protective of the younger, despite the distance now separating them. As the mother unfolds the story of her sister’s experience, the daughter listens quietly. She tells her mother that it’s terrible, and she feels upset for her sister. But she also tells her mother that it’s not the first time she’s heard that kind of story. It happens all the time, she tells her mother. She says that just about every one of her girlfriends has experienced something of that nature on social media. It’s pretty normal, she says in a resigned voice.

The mother is simultaneously taken aback by her older daughter’s response and overwhelmed by thoughts that arrive unbidden, memories that erupt, feelings that surface. She feels a sense of mild panic set in. She travels at speed back and forward in time. She remembers. She relives. She processes. Her imagination goes into overdrive. She sees words pulsing menacingly on electronic screens: Meet me; Have sex; Find you; Rape you. She sees the faces of young women illuminated by the light from the screens. She sees hands reaching out to keyboards and keypads, fingers tapping at flat letters in gestures of defence. She sees hundreds of words escaping screens, floating into virtual air. She sees phrases drifting in the ether, sentences unleashed and untethered. She sees thousands of young women defending themselves against insults and threats in a virtual world.

Then, out of this imagining, she hears the echo of resignation in her daughter’s words. She feels the imperceptible shrug of her daughter’s shoulders. She gasps. Her imaginings and her daughters’ experiences have wrestled their way into sharp focus: this generation of girls and women, her daughters’ generation, are experiencing expressions of masculinity that are the-same-but-different to her own experience as a young woman. In terms of gender navigation, the virtual forum, its there-but-not-there nature, surely places different demands on young women, quite different to her own generation.

She reflects on her navigation of masculinity in the 1970s: wolf whistles and insults from carloads of skinny youths as she walked along footpaths; lewd comments thrown up at her from European workmen digging holes in the ground; the ever-present male gaze casting its eye the length of her body on buses and trains, stripping her of clothing and dignity. The attention was unprovoked, unwanted and intrusive. She never understood why boys and men assumed she would be flattered by their vulgar suggestions and sexually objectifying eye. Her reactions to them ran the spectrum of emotion: from feelings of boredom, to vulnerability, to rage. When she was young, she was confronted by these behaviours so often that they also seemed pretty normal, to be expected, anticipated, endured. She had self-consciously navigated her way through the miasma of masculine predictability using strategies of stealth and avoidance, by donning a carapace and shutting herself off from the comments and jeers, by maintaining a line of sight that closed off her peripheral vision. But she had never experienced propositions and abusive threats quite so explicit and quite so full of bruised and raging entitlement. And certainly not on screens. Her adolescence pre-dated the era of personal computers.

She knew her responses to the expressions of masculinity in her youth had shaped her identity in particular ways. But she understood, now she had a comparison through her daughters experiences, that, as an adolescent and young woman she could deploy her avoidance strategies against the flesh and blood presence of the boys in cars, the workers lurking in holes in the ground, or the men travelling on public transport. Her daughters’ experiences in an online world seemed far more concerning to her. The virtual nature of the medium distresses her; she wonders how many boys and men would be tempted to fire off abusive and violent retributive threats of rape if they were face-to-face with the girls and women their comments are aimed at. She is deeply upset by the apparent ease with which violent and abusive words can be hurled at young girls and women at the touch of a keypad. The “write it and forget it” attitude, the “vent and send” culture enrages her.

She wonders if any of the boys and men, hunched over their keypad weapons composing unreasonable demands and violent responses, ever catch sight of their own faces in the screens of their laptops and smart phones. If they do, she wonders whether they pause to consider if the demands and threats fired from the barrel of their fingertips are in any way harmful, or whether they perceive them simply as pretty normal.

What begins to dawn on her, as she paces the ground of her distress and rage, is the multiple exposures that must take place in order for such behaviour to become normalised. As a woman in her 50s, she cannot imagine negotiating this sort of violent and vile abuse on a daily or regular basis. While her own experiences as an adolescent and young woman also eventually became normalised, she cannot imagine what this sort of abuse must be doing to the current generation of young women, how it must be shaping their identities and their behaviours.

The woman understands conceptually and experientially that Western culture sexually objectifies girls and women; she sees this daily in her work and she’s experienced this in her own life. She also understands that multiple exposures to behaviours can lead to the normalisation of those behaviours. Every cell in her body however, is telling her that continually defending yourself against threatening behaviour is not normal. She cannot imagine how it must be to negotiate this sort of abuse on a daily or regular basis. She is ashamed to be part of a culture that has allowed such expressions of masculinity to be reframed as pretty normal and for girls and young women to be absorbing the burden of this.

***

 The woman-mother is incensed and feels the need to take action. She contacts the local police department. The police officer she speaks with – a quietly spoken woman – affirms her concern, tells her that making threats of this nature is a serious and criminal offence. She asks if her daughter has any evidence of the online exchange. The woman tells her that all communication was through the site and she had advised her daughter to close the account; there is no evidence of the exchange. The police officer tells her that, without tangible proof of the threat, she’s very sorry, but there is nothing the police can do.

The woman doesn’t feel dispirited; she knows there is more she can do, every inch of her body tells her and propels her on. She contacts the Department of Consumer Protection in the city she lives. She’s directed by the disembodied male voice on the end of the phone to find out where the social media site is based and to proceed from there. She’s told that if the site is located offshore, she can take it up with the country in which it’s based. The person she dealt with, a man, had a professional but empathic tone in his voice.

Her research takes her, via Google, across the world to the social media’s parent company in San Francisco. The website tells her it is a huge global organisation: it owns several other popular social media companies. The site is slick and youthful. It has a brash confidence about it. The woman wants to shatter that confidence. She wants the organisation to accept direct responsibility for what has happened to her daughter. More broadly, she wants someone to acknowledge and accept responsibility for the masculine violence that’s apparently being regularly enacted in cyber worlds daily and has embedded itself in gendered behavioural responses. She knows that social media is out of control, one look at a newspaper confirms this; it’s grown to become not just a means of connecting people but also an easily accessible means of exploitation, a virtual means of eroding people’s vulnerabilities, with those doing the exploiting hiding behind the glossy veneer of now almost universal and culturally accepted communication practice. She questions where personal ethics sits amongst all this, where respect and dignity and humanity sit in people’s lives. She doubts whether much attention is given to it. She knows that women are inevitably carrying the burden of this. She’s had enough.

The woman contacts the U.S. equivalent of Consumer Protection – the Better Business Bureau – in California. Through an email, she explains her daughter’s story and lodges an official complaint against the parent company. The complaint will be posted publicly on the bureau’s website. The bureau will then lodge a formal complaint with the parent company. Partially satisfied, the woman also contacts the California District Attorney’s Office and lodges an official complaint with them. She contacts the public broadcasting corporation in her own country, suggesting they run a story investigating the incidence and impact of threatening behaviour against young women on social media sites. She does all this with the energy of a she-animal protecting her young.

But during the process of writing formal complaints and thinking deeply about the impact of social media and gendered responses to it, the woman sees that her interest and concern is not restricted to young women. She suspects that her daughter’s experience will be reflected in the lives of women of all ages and she wants to know about those stories too, those of young women and those of older women. She wants to hear the stories of women in all stages of life who have experienced threatening behaviour in their everyday lives on social media sites.

***

 With this new direction and broader focus, the woman enters the virtual world herself. She writes. She initiates the first story. She then takes her hands from the keyboard, catches a glimpse of her face in the screen, lengthens her spine, takes a breath, and waits.