What the Stanford Prison Experiment tells us about rape culture in elite American institutions.

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Over 40 years ago there was a classic, but infamous, study on the psychological effects of becoming a prisoner or prison guard. The research was conducted at Stanford; now infamous for the recent Brock Turner rape case. The study was led by Professor Philip Zimbardo and used Stanford students.

There is a movie about the experiment which has just been released, but I haven’t seen it yet so I can’t comment on it here.

The study is infamous because of how quickly the Stanford students adapted to the roles of prisoner and prison guard, including using psychological harassment and psychological torture. This included Zimbardo in his role as superintendent letting the abuse happen (essentially an active bystander). The study had to be stopped after six days because of this.

This study is much critiqued; particularly in terms of its participant recruitment, its methodological approach and its ethics. It would be almost impossible to replicate the same study nowadays, though there have been similar studies. While they tend to cast doubt on the generality of Zimbardo’s results, they don’t actually disprove the results themselves.

Similarly – although the study is critiqued as noted above – it’s a set text across a range of undergraduate disciplines. It may not tell us a lot about how general populations respond to extreme peer pressure, but it does illustrate one particular population very well. Which may explain why so many academics were at odds with its implications.

It tells us about male Stanford academics and male Stanford students at that time. How they responded to peer pressure concerning psychological violence and cruelty.

It illustrates that male students and academics at a privileged academic institution, presumably from privileged backgrounds, found it remarkably easy to transition into non-consensual sado-masochistic roles. There has been a concerted effort since the study to imply that the recruited students were particularly prone to sado-masochism. I think that quite misses the point; the study only ceased when a graduate female student objected to it continuing.

Perhaps a better question to have asked is why particular populations, such as privileged male students and academics, are especially prone to peer cultures that enable non-consensual behaviours? They’re not the only ones, but here I think the Stanford Prison Experiment could still teach us difficult lessons about what we consider to be evil or appalling actions.

Hannah Arendt, in Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, points out that those who do things we consider evil or appalling (like rape) are not always those we consider to be evil (like privileged students). That sometimes makes it difficult for some people to judge them as perpetrators (like the judge in the Brock Turner trial). It’s only by recognising that these actions are ‘banal’, relying on a cliched type of peer pressure (the type of claims made by Brock Turner’s father), that we can begin the process of destroying the cultures they are supporting.

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Oh Micky you’re so fine…: Observing a female sex harasser as a male feminist

On Friday night I went to the Donkey pub in Leicester with my partner Gavin. Our friend Carol was singing with a soul band collective, brilliantly. Actually the Donkey is a great live music venue; mostly for jazz, folk and blues. It tends to get a slightly older crowd who don’t get too drunk. It’s a nice venue to hear music where the audience are appreciative, but never too rowdy.

Friday was no exception. It was a great evening, except for one person. There was this small, quite pretty woman, aged about 25/30. She was with a group of other women who were celebrating a birthday, but she kept breaking away from them and wandering through the crowd. When she did this she invariably bumped into people. She gave the initial impression of being quite drunk, which I don’t think was actually the case (I’ll explain why in a minute). When she did bump into people she would smile and apologize. But she went much further. She would touch them. She would stroke them. Very often, her hand would linger.

Watching her, I began to realise there was a pattern to the people she was mostly bumping into. She occasionally bumped into women or couples. Then, her hand would just briefly tap them on the shoulder in apology and she would move on. But mostly she was bumping into men who were standing on their own. They were doing nothing to solicit her behaviour. In fact, given the clientèle of the Donkey as I mentioned, there wasn’t a single man she approached in this way that didn’t seem uncomfortable with her behaviour. Most of them recoiled, but she had already moved on. Watching her I realized, despite her gender and appearance, I was observing a classic sex harasser at work.

At one point I found myself outside on my own in the smokers’ space (the last stage of a PhD will do that to you). She had found her way out there. She came up to me, said something inane and went to stroke my face. My response was pretty emphatic. I said quite loudly “I don’t want you to do that!” Her demeanour completely changed. She straightened up and, started saying “What’s you’re problem? Enjoy the night!” She then went back into her previous behaviour, smiling and gurning at everyone as if it was something I had done. I could see this guy across from me nodding sympathetically at me, clearly she had done the same to him, but I could also see two women stare at me.

I realized a couple of things quickly. Firstly, that she wasn’t as drunk as she initially seemed. Secondly, that she had a practised spiel to cover herself for her behaviour. This spiel made it incredibly difficult for the type of men who come to the Donkey to challenge her behaviour. I imagine that the gendered way in which we frame sex harassment would make it difficult for cis-gendered hetero-identified men to challenge anyway. Men who act like this are sex harassers and sex pests; women are simply being leery or making themselves vulnerable (which is not to deny that that may be the case).

One of the men she had bumped into early in the night had very clearly, but politely, said no to her. By the end of the evening he was quite drunk (probably the only person in the Donkey who I saw who was inebriated). As Gavin and I were leaving I saw her with her hands around him. He really wasn’t in a state to say yes or no by then. But most people, seeing them, would have probably read her as the vulnerable party.

I have to admit I was still having misgivings about how I was reading the situation, because he was quite a large guy and she was a small woman, so I mentioned my feelings to Gavin. He told me that he been watching her all night and had felt exactly the same as I had. She was clearly a predator. I wonder if a man had been acting like that, in the same type of bar, would he have been asked to leave? Would his friends have not noticed? Probably not. The sad truth is that men often act like that. But as sad a truth is that women do also. As indeed do lesbian, gay, trans*, et cetera, individuals. Framing harassment as a predominantly hetero-male cis-gendered act doesn’t protect the vulnerable; it only emboldens others in their own behaviours.

What does Jughead teach us about asexual activism?

Excerpt from Jughead No. 4. Courtesy Archie Comics. Art by Erica Henderson.
Excerpt from Jughead No. 4. Courtesy Archie Comics. Art by Erica Henderson.

The most popular teen comic series for girls in America has an asexual character. So?

Well, what matters is that Jughead isn’t a damaged savant genius (think Big Bang Theory) nor is he a repressed virgin (of whatever orientation other than asexual) waiting for (you can guess the rest of the narrative).

He is a typical teenager; the thing most teenage narratives cannot cope with.

It seems so normal, but the third window is actually deeply radical because it’s so normalising – a boy who identifies as asexual and a boy who identifies as gay chatting about their respective sexual/romantic relationships (I do think being asexual doesn’t preclude being romantic).

If you actually had a trans* boy and a straight boy in the same window, it would be like the Four Horseboys of the Masculine Apocalypse. The rules of teenage school narrative would collapse (except for Teen Wolf, which I think would accommodate it).

It’s important to recognise that this didn’t just happen by accident. Over 15 years asexual activists, such as AVEN, have campaigned for the increasing visibility, public awareness of, and, tolerance towards asexuals.

With is striking is how successful they have been as a sexual and gendered social movement.

Chips Zdarsky talked about Jughead’s asexuality  during an interview with ComicBook.com. He made it clear that he wasn’t making Jughead asexual for any personal identity politics issue. He was doing it because asexuality was on his radar and he felt it was very much on the radar of his target audience, particularly at the moment.

Putting it on the radar is actually quite a big achievement, which has taken a fair number of people significant time and effort.

Let’s not be fooled; there are intersectionally ways in which asexuality may be more easily ‘mainstreamed’ than other minority sexual and gendered identities. But Jughead teaches us that asexual activism is certainly getting some things right about the process of mobilising and organising around mainstream visibility and awareness.

It might seem very little… Two boys walking down a school corridor, chatting as if it’s everyday… But it’s a lot.

 

Considering pro-ana as a sexual and gender youth subculture

I had the very great privilege to co-author a chapter with my supervisor, Professor Mary Jane Kehily, for the collection  Children, Sexuality and Sexualization recently published by Palgrave:

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Our chapter was on Reappraising Youth Subcultures And The Impact Upon Young People’s Sexual Cultures: Links And Legacies In Studies Of Girlhood. This was doubly funky because Mary Jane is pretty much a world expert in this area.

It also gave me a chance to explore with her some ideas that I’m beginning to tentatively consider for post-doctoral research, around the ana-mia movements (largely on-line communities of mostly girls and young women  who identify as anorexic, bulimic or vacillate between those identities).

This is something that I feel personally invested in because, during the final year of my BA, I chose to let myself myself become dangerously thin for a number of reasons. The pressures of aiming for a high result; choosing to drink rather than eat (very common with male anorexics); relationship issues; feeling that I had lost control of other aspects of my life but being able to control what I ate, and, wanting to punish myself unconsciously for the growing realisation that I had a bipolar condition. It is only in recent years that I’ve realised that I had used my relationship with food in this way.

So, attempting to look at the ana-mia movements from a non-pathological point of view was something that was really important to me. The following is an extract from what Mary Jane and I wrote:

The pro-ana movement, largely accessed online, has been written about as a subculture mostly from within the field of social psychology (Giles, 2006; Pascoe, 2007; Sheppird, 2007; Casilli, 2010). It should be noted that the term ‘subculture’ is used uncritically in most of this literature to denote a group of young people who have a shared social characteristic. This is further complicated by the fact that anorexics aren’t necessarily deviant or delinquent figures of the type that characterized Chicago School research into youth cultures and particularly street gangs. Nor are they necessarily oppositional or resistant types such as the Birmingham CCCS choose to explore, largely focusing on the interaction of race and class in a post-war, post-Empire Britain. Nor are the practices of anorexia expressed by pro-ana advocates analogous to a euphoric hedonism that merited the explosion of research into global club cultures in the late 1980s (Thornton, 1995). And yet, the pro-ana movement contains traces of all three of these shifts in subcultural theory.

Anorexics who engage with the pro-ana movement are both identifiable, however anonymously, and involved in collective problem-solving –  key characteristic for Chicago School theorists in defining subculture discussed above. Moreover, the questions raised by pro-ana and its members are not isolated from larger questions concerning body image, advertising, the fashion industry, the pressure of aspiration, the pressure to be normal/perfect, the role of parenting and so on; different in specifics but not in type from the large representational issues CCCS sought to explore for two decades.

‘Anas’ believe themselves to occupy a higher moral ground within the pro-ana community, defining themselves as against those with other forms of eating distress. Such a belief is frequently reinforced on a casual basis in postings on the sites. ‘Mia’ is commonly constructed as an easy option or a fallback position for failed anas:

“I always found something pure about ana, but mia I think would be easier: but then again they both leave messy emotional scars.”

“When I was mia I intentionally switched to ana because mia is so disgusting: Just look at all the anas who have a slip and end up asking mias for advise (sic) on how to purge. “(Giles, 2006)

It is within the context of what Sara Thornton has termed ‘the sub-cultural capital’ or ‘taste cultures’ for young people in Britain (Thornton, 1995), that pro-ana as a sexual and gender youth subculture comes into view. Building on the work of Bourdieu (1984) on taste and distinction, Thornton views subcultural capital as the signifying discourses of ‘cool’ young people in subcultures apply to key subcultural practices (in her research, dance music) to distinguish the cool from the uncool, the authentic from the fake, the subcultural from mass culture. As Thornton notes, these distinctions are arbitrary, which is not to say that they are without meaning. They are part of what we now recognize as the performative nature of identity (Butler, 1993).

Some of my best friends are white privileged straight men: Ellen DeGeneres defends Matt Damon

What is it about some white celebrity lesbians that they feel the need to defend white privileged celebrity straight men when they say things that are simply homophobic about gay, bisexual or queer men?

First of all, you have Jodie Foster defending Mel Gibson on any number of occasions. Given Foster’s own ambiguous relationship to the LGBT+ community (this is the woman who made The Silence of the Lambs after all) that’s perhaps not so surprising, if disappointing.

But now you have Ellen DeGeneres having Matt Damon appear on her show to justify (not defend) his remarks that actors should preserve an air of “mystery” in their private lives. This was in relation to a Guardian interview where homosexuality and gay actors had come up. Damon claimed, and DeGeneres supported him, that his words were taken out of context by the Internet to suggest that gay, bi and queer actors should stay in the closet.

Let’s be clear. Matt Damon does not preserve an air of mystery in relation to his own life when talking to the media. He discusses his politics, his sex life, his relationship with his wife, his relationship with Ben Affleck (he endlessly discusses his heterosexual bromance to tell us it’s not a physical relationship); in fact, Matt Damon never stops talking about heterosexual Matt Damon. ‘Mystery’ has been code for nearly 5 decades for the closet as any first-year sex and gender undergraduate could tell Matt Damon.

But what has changed over the last five decades is that some actors have come out in Hollywood. Not many, but a few. Yet DeGeneres didn’t challenge Damon for telling these brave pioneers that they should preserve their ‘mystery’. Instead, she made jokes about his and Ben Affleck’s heterosexual relationship that actually bordered on homophobic in itself. The clip is here

It was difficult to work out which was more offensive – Matt Damon’s use of the word ‘mystery’ or Ellen DeGeneres defence of him.

Why I think Class War are Shite

While I was in Portugal at a conference somebody told me that people were rioting in the East End. They said that they had attacked an establishment because of what it represented.

I assumed they meant the Jack the Ripper museum in Brick Lane which, after initially pretending that it was somehow presenting the histories of the women who were victims, has increasingly glamorised and condoned the Ripper as a serial killer in order to increase footfall.

But no. A group of hard left-wing academics (most of whom work in the most elitist privileged institutions in London ) and their trustifarian friends decided that the best way to challenge gentrification was to attack two guys who were trying to run a small business:

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Jane Jacobs would be so proud…