Soraya Chemaly Discusses Sexism, Violence, and Gender in Seattle

by Natalie Barry

Soraya Chemaly is an award-winning author and media critic whose writing appears regularly in national and international media. She speaks frequently on topics related to inclusivity, free speech, sexualized violence, data and technology. She is the director of the Women’s Media Center Speech Project and organizer of the Safety and Free Speech Coalition, an international civil society network dedicated to expanding women’s civic and political participation. She will speak on her new book, Rage Becomes Her, at Benaroya Hall’s Illsley Ball Nordstrom Recital Hall Jan. 31 at 7:30 p.m. through Seattle Arts & Lectures. Soraya spoke with the South Seattle Emerald about her book, gender, body politics, street harassment, toxic masculinity, and feminism.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Natalie Barry: In your book you delve into the process by which girls learn to mask, deflect, and internalize their anger on behalf of their safety and their success. What do you see as some of the biggest disparities between how boys are taught to deal with and process anger, and how girls are?

Soraya Chemaly: I think that there are lots of behavioral norms that are gendered that we don’t really think about. They particularly come out in the way that we teach children to think about space and their control over space. Little boys are given a lot more leeway to range farther away from adults, to explore the environment around them, and to think of ways to control the environment around them. That becomes relevant emotionally because anger is often associated with controlling both the people and the environment around you. Girls on the other hand, even starting in infancy are encouraged to think more in terms of vulnerability than of risk and exploration. They are encouraged to stay closer to their homebase and their adults. They’re also treated more sympathetically if they hurt themselves; this is called the skinned knee effect. We don’t really think of that in terms of emotional regulation, but it becomes salient to the way we interpret powerful feelings because we divide our emotions up in the way that I described.

Sadness is associated with girls and femininity, and anger is associated with boys and masculinity. Anger is similarly all tied up in this idea of control, and sadness on the other hand is more tied up in resignation. So, one of the issues with girls is that when they are assertive, when they are aggressive, when they are angry, it’s seen as transgressive because I think control is implied in those things. The assertiveness and the aggression and the anger, imply that you believe that you have the right to control your environment, or the right to control parameters of your experiences; and that’s kind of reserved for boys.

We also see it in our politeness norms. Girls are really socialized to put others first, and we encourage them to do that by encouraging them to think of others, to be empathetic, to use their nice voices, to say please, to say thank you even if they don’t feel grateful. All of those kinds of “be a nice person” is really “be a nice girl.” Whereas boys, they get different messages, and so they behave differently. They are not expected, all the studies show, to regulate themselves in the same ways.

That would be the third thing that I would bring up; that is, this expectation of self regulation. There are lots of interesting studies that have been done on preschool preparedness for example, and they really show the degree to which our expectations shape behavior. In the U.S. for example, people don’t expect boys to be able to control themselves, where there is every indication that children of all genders can control themselves equally, and just aren’t really expected to. That also affects the way we think about anger. If a girl is frustrated or angry or irritated, teachers and coaches and parents hold them to a different standard for suppressing that, deflecting it, or using their words. Eventually, that becomes an internalized behavior.

This is where intersectionality is so important, we see that young girls of color, particularly

Black girls, are really penalized for acting in ways that in boys are seen as something that they cannot help. Or even, a sign of potential leadership. The disruptiveness, the creativity and the rambunctiousness; all words that we associate with boys. It is all a tangled knot, and we see that in adulthood too with leadership. We see that in men, anger, even if its unsettling to people, confirms their ideas about male power and authority. Even for Black men, whose anger is seen as criminal, even though it’s much more likely to be penalized and criminalized, it’s still a form of power.

NB: What role does race play in early childhood socialization, and how does that complicate the picture about processing anger?

SC: I think we see this at every stage of life. In adults we see the stereotypes of angry Black women everyday. You see it with Kamala Harris, we saw it with Michelle Obama, you see it with Serena Williams. These stereotypes affect the lives of Black girls and women everyday through school, where rates of disciplining, suspension, and expulsion for Black girls are much much higher than for their white peers. Depending on the state, anywhere between 5 and 11 times higher. This is a policing of emotional display, or a policing of a perceived failure on the part of the girls to behave in stereotypical ways, and not to conform to those stereotypical behaviors. I think it’s happening all the time.

I kind of write about it in the way that Professor Aída Hurtado writes about these sort of flavors of ethnicity that become wrapped up in these stereotypes. For young Hispanic girls on the verge of puberty, they’re sexualized very quickly, so they become much more likely to be disciplined in a school environment where their righteous indignation or even their assertive communication is policed. What we’ve seen in studies of Asian women, and women I interviewed for the book, is this expectation that they be silent and passive, and not have any strong feelings or opinions. They’re expected to smile and keep it to themselves. There is this stereotype of the sad Asian woman, which again is often sexualized. We have so many examples all the time of how these stereotypes that are all different but uniformly used to minimize and silence.

NB: Your book fleshes out the connections between the objectification of female bodies and how women see themselves. Besides the immediate consequences of being objectified, what do you understand as the worst long-term impacts of being seen/understood as an object to male satisfaction and pleasure?

SC: There are so many. One of the more interesting things that I found while I was researching, was the quality of self objectification and the degree to which some girls and women, lose the ability to recognize physiological changes in their own bodies. So they lose the ability for example, to count their own heartbeats accurately, or to feel a racing adrenaline fueled physiological response.

If you can’t feel, recognize, and name those physiological responses, you also can’t connect them to the emotion that they’re related to. We have physiological responses to anger, to fear, to joy, and being able to name those and understand our emotions is critical to being healthy and happy and safe; they’re adaptive in the evolutionary sense. Losing that ability because you’ve been socialized to think of yourself as a tool for others, or an object for others pleasure or desire, is pretty insidious as a cultural fact. Some of the research on this idea of a cosmetic panopticon, is super interesting, because all women self-objectify to some degree. The difference comes in the degree of what’s called self surveillance. Some women don’t have high levels of self surveillance, and some have excessively high levels of self surveillance. This I thought was interesting because it impairs your cognitive ability. It disrupts your ability, for example, to achieve the kind of flow that is necessary for deep thinking or creative excellence.

NB: How does expressing anger outwardly help to mitigate the effect some of these long-term effects?

SC: I think there are several steps. One is, recognizing the anger, literally saying, “Oh that’s what that was, I was angry” which a lot of women do hours, days, weeks, even years later. They will look back at something and say, “Why didn’t I realize, in that moment, how angry I was?” So, the first step is being able to acknowledge the anger and to name it as anger. We all improvise and think about how to respond because it is so contextual. There are places where you are safe responding in anger and others where you simply are not safe. We make those decisions very quickly.

I found also the difference between a fight and flight response, and a tend and befriend response (which I wrote about in the book) came as an epiphany to me. Of course, it makes so much sense. I think being able to express anger is critically important, but I also think that it is contextual. One of the reasons I wrote the book is so that we could think, socially, more broadly about how anger is expressed, because we tend to think of anger in this extremely narrow way that is calibrated to the explosive rage of men. That’s not what I am talking about. We express anger in all kinds of ways that we don’t even think about. Sometimes it’s passive aggression, sometimes it’s very very poor health. The anger manifests itself, but if we can’t name it, label it, and give it meaning, we don’t even know its there. That doesn’t mean it’s not there, it just means that it has no efficacy or power for us. It can’t be talked about, it can’t be addressed, your problems can’t be treated seriously. There can be no steps taken to solve those problems.

NB: Will you connect the dots regarding the ways street harassment reinforces the threat of rape in the public sphere and controls or relegates other aspects of women’s everyday lives?

SC: I think first of all we should clarify how broad the experience of street harassment really is. It can range from everything from someone who stares in an uncomfortable way to one who “compliments” a person, or says something violent and threatening, or follows a woman. There’s such a broad spectrum of tactics, but what studies have shown is that most women are aware of several things when they are harassed. One is, they are made aware of their femininity. They’re made aware of their vulnerability. They’re made to feel that the public space doesn’t belong to them, they cannot be safe in this place.

Lots of street harassment, is about the dominance and the control of public space. Very often, men are performing for other men, and they’re displaying a certain kind of masculinity. For example, trans and LGBTQ people are harassed at high rates, and what that says to me is that it really isn’t just about sex or sexuality. But rather about asserting a sort of, heteropatriarchal dominance over these spaces. It’s about power.

Studies show that women think about the potential of greater violence escalating depending on how they respond. That level of hypervigilance, and suppression of emotion that often comes with encountering fear and anger and having to just shut it down, is so unhealthy. A lot of women develop PTSD from a lifetime of stress that is related to this kind of objectification and humility in public space. I think all of that is part of street harassment.

I have interviewed many women about their street harassment experiences. It’s often the case that I’ll interview a white woman who herself volunteers that she feels that she is harassed mainly by Black men or Hispanic men without thinking about the implications of that. Because the intersection of race, ethnicity, class, citizenship is so dense, the experience on the street for certain women reflects that. Certain women are encountering those men on the street, but what they don’t think about is that the affluent Americans with full citizenship, the white man, is perpetrating intense levels of harassment, but at scale. They are doing it in media, online, product development, throughout our culture. They’re able to do it under the cover of legitimacy and credibility and power and dominance. Those are not different. Malevolent people are going to assert dominance where they can, and that’s a scaled version of the same dynamic.

NB: You discuss the ways in which as humans we release hormones when we exhibit anger and aggression, along with how those can escalate and reaffirm itself. What is toxic masculinity, which movements has it come to represent, and how does that relate to the topics in your book?

SC: The thing about toxic masculinity, is that it’s not just harmful to women but it’s actively harmful to men too. That has to do with the social construction of gender roles, and its closely tied to ideas about masculinity and violence, masculinity and stoicisms, masculinity and aggression. The idea that to be “real men” you have to be dominant. Not just dominant, but particularly so in terms of women or men who are feminized. Boys are held to stricter standards of gender than girls are and that comes from being in a dominant position in society.

You have to keep those roles quite binary and rigid in gender, but if you are not the dominant class in terms of gender, it’s OK to emulate boys. You’re emulating the powerful and the dominant and the positive. But that doesn’t work the other way around, for boys it’s weakness, and it’s often punished by fathers and by coaches, by men that boys want to emulate, and then by children themselves.

So much about childhood bullying is about the enforcement of heteropatriarchal standards. When people talk about bullying and you really ask them to break it down, what you see is the policing of gender in primary school, and then also policing of sexuality. A little boy who is a feminist, is not being bullied because he might actually be gay, hes being bullied because he’s acting like a “girl” and he’s breaking the rules about what he should be as a boy.

All of the studies that show the interaction between behavior and the production of hormones, show that behavior drives hormonal production. It’s a two way street. Men who nurture babies or children experience drops in testosterone. Men and women who exhibit aggressive, dominant, violent behaviors, get spikes in testosterone.

The question that researchers are asking, and I describe some of these studies in the book, is what if the way we socialize “boys to be boys,” has this effect on their hormones, and then it becomes an iterative process of more and more aggression and aggressive behavior. Even what we talked about before, which is allowing girls to take more risks as infants or toddlers or young girls. Letting them fall and dust themselves off, letting them be loud and funny and disruptive in the same way, that has an affect on our hormones. Our hormones then in turn have an effect on our behavior. I think it is really important to disrupt those ideas that it’s all a one way street, and that boys are naturally more aggressive because they have more testosterone.

NB: While reading the book, I found myself doing a lot of self reflection about my own experiences with pervasive misogyny and sexism throughout my life. What was writing this book like for you, and how was it to draw on so many personal experiences? Did the experience of writing a book about owning your own anger solidify anything for you about that process?

SC: I wrote this book at breakneck speed, I wrote it between September and December of last year. I will say that literally the minute I started writing, it was like a spigot, because I had been writing about these issues for a long time. What the book proposal process did for me because of my excellent agent, was allow me to distill it through this filter. Once I had come up with the outline, it was like I had tunnel vision.

Having said that, I will say that, writing over the years takes a toll. This kind of writing is really visceral. I write so much about sexualized violence, I got to the point where I was experiencing real secondary trauma. It creeps up on you if you’re not thinking about it or are not aware of it. Then I really had to take a step back and take care of myself. I think also the process of writing really helped me process my own anger about my experiences with misogyny and sexism and racism.

I remember one time in particular I was reading a study about hypervigilance and street harassment and assault, and the quality of disassociation. I read it, and became struck that I had dissociated before. I hadn’t had the language to describe my experience until then. It was very clearly a disassociation with my own body. When you grow up learning that your body is a source of danger, the only reasonable psychological response is disassociation. I grew up in a country where street harassment is constant and endemic, and even if you are a strong, physically active girl, and I definitely was those things, puberty brought the awareness that I couldn’t escape from men’s responses to me. When you are harassed constantly, disassociation makes sense because it’s the only way to maintain any sense of security or sense of self.

I can honestly say that I wrote this book because I thought, I just don’t any more women or girls to go though this shit.

Featured Image: Soraya Chemaly speaks at Benaroya Hall on Jan. 31. (Courtesy photo by Karen Sayre)