Women in the Public Sphere: Gendered Responsibility -2019

CW: Violence against women/sex workers, femicide

On Tuesday the 13th of August this year, a woman was stabbed to death while at her place of work. Police described the attack as ‘terrifying carnage’ and it was initially speculated that it was perhaps linked to terrorism, which they later clarified was not the case (ABC News, 2019). The attack happened in the early afternoon and was played out quite publicly with a number of eye-witness accounts immediately releasing footage of the ‘rampage’ to social media sites. It wasn’t long before the focus shifted away from the perpetrator and onto the victim whose occupation became sensationalised and central to the discourse emerging from the attack. Michaela Dunn was a sex worker working under the decriminalised model in the state of NSW and was still not safe from misogynistic violence which ultimately took her life. This essay will explore a number of intersecting factors that have converged with Michaela’s death and will interrogate the cultural perception of such an event. I will begin with a discussion on how violence is used to enforce patriarchy and how that links to ideas of appropriating of femininity. Statistics highlighting how prevalent misogyny is within contemporary Australian society rounds out the first section. The next section will analyse the role of discourse and mass media and how the pathologisation of both perpetrator and victim have direct impacts on our cultural understandings of gender roles. An internalised tension between sexual vigilance and the right to feel safe is also discussed in regards to gendered responsibility. The final section will consider the impact of dichotomous understanding of women through the Madonna/whore complex.

In a patriarchal society which is organised in a way that give men the majority of power; they dominate, oppress and exploit (other men and) women as a way of maintaining that power, violence is often employed when there is a direct challenge to that power (Macionis & Plummer, 2012, pg. 394). Kane & Schippers have suggested that women are the gatekeepers to heterosexual activity and therefore hold a potential power over men; “men fear women’s ability to use sexual allure as a manipulative tactic to ‘unman’ them” (cited in Bareket et al, 2018, pg. 520). In this regard the stigma that is attached to sex workers makes a little more sense as sex workers directly threaten the patriarchal dominance through their awareness of their sexuality. Double standards are rampant in modern society, especially when it comes to sexuality and sexual practices between the genders. Bareket et al. argue that double standards play a specific role in line with patriarchal ideology and seek to regulate, control, and restrict women’s sexual expression and sexuality (Bareket, 2018, 2018, pp. 520-521). Violence against women is no new phenomenon but the rise in visibility has gained worldwide fame through the recent #metoo movement. The movement highlighted how prevalent misogyny and sexual violence against women really is and along the way created a community of survivors rallying for social change (Me Too, 2019). Vicious attacks on women like the one that tragically took the life of Michaela Dunn could be argued as an attempt at restoring social order to the world (Butler, 2004, pg. 34). Kimmel further argues that “Men’s violence toward women does not happen when men’s power over women is intact and unthreatened; rather, it happens when men’s power breaks down, when his entitlement to that power is threatened and insecure. Violence is restorative, retaliatory.. When that entitlement is aggrieved, they don’t just get mad; they get even” (cited in Everbach, 2018, pg. 17). The aggressive nature of these sorts of attacks place women in a particularly vulnerable position in wider society as Gilchrist et al revealed that “although women are not inherently more fearful of crime in public spaces than are men, women’s fear is strongly associated with the performance of appropriate femininity” (cited in Fanghanel & Lim, 2015, pg. 344). The discussion that followed included a number of examples of ‘flawed femininity’ including “walking home alone at night, or drinking too much alcohol” (Fanghanel & Lim, 2015, pg. 345). Sex workers may be seen as the embodiment of everything anti-feminine, the perfect example of inappropriate femininity.

Given the precarious nature of sex work in much of the globe it is difficult to obtain true figures surrounding attacks and murders of (predominately female) sex workers. Often seen as the most vulnerable in society, it has been suggested that the more labels attached to a woman, the less she is seen as a full human in the eyes of others; nobody cares much when a ‘street-based, ‘homeless’, ‘drug-addicted’, ‘trans’, ‘woman-of-colour’ goes missing, or even worse, is murdered (Fox & Wykes, 2015). The statistics around violence against women in Australia are slightly easier to gather and prove that gendered violence is a patriarchal epidemic deserving of attention and scrutiny. According to Our Watch a woman in Australia is murdered on average once a week by either a current or former partner; a third of all Australian women have experienced physical violence; a fifth of Australian women have experienced some form of sexual violence; almost 10% of Australian women have experienced violence at the hands of a stranger; and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women were experiencing violence at 3.1 times the rate of non-Indigenous women (Our Watch, 2019). When incidents such as the murder of Michaela Dunn occurs it is a stark reminder of the value that women hold in society, and that female sexuality does not hold the same respect and value as male sexuality.

In an article by news.com.au the main problem represented in the reporting is that violence and murder are a part of the job if you are working within the sex industry. The article has a number of quotes from a prominent sex worker who goes by the name of Jessie-Lee Pierce who states; “I’m not shocked by it [Michaela’s murder], but it saddens me because I think violence and murder are a part of our job” (cited in Graham, 2019). The words expressed by Jessie-Lee are an example of internalised whorephobia and highlights the gendered responsibility that women are expected to carry while navigating through society. Her words appeal to many anti-sex-work radical feminists whose ideology rests on the idea that sex workers “become the victims of regular sexual objectification, exploitation, and violence; and that, by participating in this kind of industry, sex workers become co-perpetrators of these crimes” (Miano, 2017). This perception is highly damaging as it places the blame on women working within the industry and frames it as though sex workers are responsible for any violence inflicted on them. The mass media then plays its part by exacerbating and reproducing these narratives further excusing the behaviour by men. The discourse surrounding sex work, bodily autonomy, as well as questions surrounding appropriate forms of labour always have a gendered focus and the responsibility of men is a constant silence throughout these public discussions. One of the ways that the media perpetuate the gendered nature of public sexual discourse in regards to violence is in the way that perpetrators are presented to the public. A number of scholars have argued that violent men are represented in one of two dichotomous ways; on the one hand we see media representations of vicious ‘monsters’ and ‘assholes’; and on the other we have presentations of ‘normal’ men who are facing a misunderstanding or even a full fabrication (Quadara, 2014; Fanghanel & Lim, 2015). By pathologising the perpetrator as an irrational abject figure, the concept of risk is externalised and the ‘asshole’ functions as the source of danger relieving ‘society’ of the responsibility to manage similar issues of safekeeping, public danger and security. The role of governmentality becomes apparent here as motivations behind these abject attacks are individualised and are not seen as a symptom of wider rape culture. Instead, these figures become anomalies and a scapegoat for which other (good) men publicly condemn the attack while shouting “not all men!”. The lived effects of the invisibility of these ‘normal’ men results in what we now have come to consider as rape culture, feminist writer Clementine Ford argues in her book; “[rape culture] characterises a society in which the impact of sexual violence is not only minimised but the definition of what constitutes ‘real’ sexual assault is considered up for public debate and scrutiny. It enforces and codifies the language of victim-blaming and perpetrator excusing” (Ford, 2018, pg. 293). Consider the statistics from the ABS Personal Safety survey 2016; over half a million women (553,700) experienced sexual assault by a male they knew (87%), with only 1 woman out of every 10 reporting the incident to police (ABS, 2017). Perpetrators are created through the legal discourse, that is, their performativity needs to be verified in order to be legally labelled as ‘perpetrator’. The failure of so many cases to be reported (and subsequently of those that are reported but fail to reach a conviction) truly defines the rape culture we currently live in.

It is clear through the reporting that emerged after Michaela’s murder that discourse and language are extremely telling of the gendered inequalities in wider society. In many of the articles in the days that followed much of the focus was on the ‘heroic’ men who stopped the perpetrator once he was out in the streets; “social media has been full of praise for the men, and Police Commissioner Mick Fuller said they were ‘the highest order or heroes’” (ABC News, 2019). Some within the sex worker community have spoken out about the dominance of the ‘hero’ angle in the media, suggesting that the overshadowing of Michaela’s death highlights the disposable nature of the ‘prostitute’ in society; “her job does not make her a lurid story” (McGowan, 2019). Speaking in regards to the media framing of two particular incidents in Melbourne a number of years ago Jane Gilmore argues that “women are not people in the eyes of the news, at least not the way men are. Women are tits and arse, they’re glamorous or fat, they’re wives or mothers or stupid or demanding or nagging or annoying or sweet or pretty. Men on the other hand, are fully-rounded, complex people- as long as they’re not too womanlike” (Gilmore, 2019). Simone de Beauvoir argued that society needs prostitutes as scapegoats; “the existence of a caste of ‘lost women’ makes it possible to treat ‘the virtuous woman’ with the most chivalric respect” (de Beauvoir, 1949, pg. 613). The explicitly titled; “’She was a whole person’: Michaela Dunn’s murder and its impact on Sydney’s sex workers” further alludes to the point that women within the sex industry are less-than-whole beings, with society focusing on the sexual dimension of the work as the question of morality trumps all questions surrounding rights and autonomy (McGowan, 2019; Mac & Smith, 2018, pg. 25).

For many women, an internalised tension is always in play in regards to personal safety and/or freedoms. On one hand woman believe they should have the freedom to wear/say/do what they please within public spaces without fearing for their safety, yet on the other they are equally aware of their personal obligation to be safe in public spaces. This vigilance of personal safety is extremely gendered and emerges through particular discourses which are further perpetuated through mass media. Fanghanel & Lim argue that the representation of women within the public realm as problematic stems from the 19th century construction of gendered public and private spaces (Fanghanel & Lim, 2015, pg. 342). They argue that the public domain was seen as the man’s place while the private domestic sphere was expected to be inhabited by women. The sexual vigilance women face serves to solve the ‘problem’ of women in public spaces and is an example of victim-blaming discourse, a key component to wider rape culture. At the beginning of the 20th century women were increasing their presence on the labour market and scholars have suggested that the discourse surrounding trafficking of (predominately white) women “helped to draw the literal and figurative borders of the ‘nation’, and became a way to police (especially) female and non-white sexuality more broadly” (Laite, 2017, pg. 38). The anti-trafficking discourses which began to emerge around this time put emphasis on the anti-exploitation of particular bodies within sexual labour paradigms. However as a number of scholars have suggested this perspective was carefully calculated to ignore certain intersections of work and sexual labour, specifically for women, as their unpaid labour was still crucial to the workings of the capitalist system (Laite, 2017, pg. 42). The moral panic that was created at this time helped distract the public away from the inherent exploitations built into the capitalist system and stressed the “moral over the monetary” when discussing the plight of the sexually fallen women who had ended up in the sex industry (Laite, 2017, pg. 48). For many women had consensually chosen to step into the field of sex work as a way of gaining financial freedom at a time when there were very limited (paid) employment opportunities, in line with de Beauvoir’s argument that equality is not a possibility without women’s economic freedom from men (de Beauvoir, 1949). Although the unemployment rate for women in Australia is a considerably low 5.2%, women are still seen as imposing on the public male domain and remain ‘responsible’ vigilant subjects within wider society (Australian Government, 2019).

Fanghanel & Lim have argued that the ‘safekeeping’ that women are expected to perform in their everyday lives is an extremely gendered experience and links back to the performativity of gender (Fanghanel & Lim, 2015, pg. 344). As one of Butler’s core ideas she argues that “it is important to distinguish performance from performativity: the former presumes a subject, but the latter contests the very notion of a subject” (Butler cited in Macionis & Plummer, 2012, pg. 392). In other words it is through the performance that we are constituted as subjects and that doing brings into being that which it names. For women in society are also often portrayed as a dichotomous entity embodying either the virgin or the whore (Brownmiller cited in Fanghanel & Lim, 2015, pg. 343). Stemming from psychoanalytic theory, Freud coined the term Madonna-whore complex to stipulate a hindrance that some heterosexual men face when engaging with the opposite sex (Bareket et al. 2018, pp. 519-520). Freud’s understanding of the Madonna/whore complex stems from his psychoanalytic training and disregards all social and cultural aspects arguing instead that the root causes lie in the unresolved sensual feelings towards the mother. The Madonna-whore complex speaks to the way women are expected to perform (in)appropriate femininity represented by both the Madonna (good, chaste & pure) or the whore (bad, seductive & promiscuous). These polarizing perceptions have long existed and can be traced back to the ancient Greeks which has, over time, permeated outside of the Western context (Pomeroy, 1975; Bareket, 2018, pg. 519). Coming back to the original argument presented by Fanghanel & Lim, what they suggest is that within media discourses, the types of women who are attacked are presented as not performing the right kind of femininity. In the case of Michaela Dunn she was quite literally a whore, an aspect of her life which was sensationalised throughout the media as a way of dehumanising her to the public. It highlights the way in which we organise and stratify different sexualities and reveals how society punishes or rewards certain kinds of intimacies. Mechanisms for holding accountability through governmentality are more apparent from this perspective. Pathologisation of Michaela as the ‘whore’ not performing the right kind of femininity and the condemnation from those even within her own community speaks to the way women are expected to be in society. The ‘safekeeping’ advice women are confronted with on a daily basis comes from a number of sources including other women. Coming back to the article posted on news.com.au Jessie-Lee also implies that particular websites attract “sick” clients and that advertising on higher end websites, instead of the classifieds page Michaela was advertising on, could have had a potentially different outcome (Graham, 2019). Jessie-Lee fails to condemn the behaviour of the murderer, maintaining her position that violence is a part of sex work and even ended the article with tips for other workers to “eliminate as much risk as possible” (Graham, 2019).

This essay has attempted to highlight that the way in which mass media, and increasingly social media, frames particular events and the importance of language to perceptions. Michaela Dunn’s death was overshadowed by the pathologisation of her killer, as well as the sensationalism of her job choice. Women who are sexual continue to be demonised by society, an interesting paradox given that women are socialised to recognise themselves as sexual objects yet are highly punished when they recognise and attempt to capitalise off of that very same sexuality.


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