The disbelieving of women

by Guest Blogger // 12 October 2013, 23:01

Cassandra1.jpeg.jpeg

October's guest blogger Joy argues that it is time for people to stop doubting women.

Earlier this year, two male television hosts from The Netherlands decided to go through simulated labour contractions to have a small inkling of what childbirth might be like. The video, which shows them writhing and screaming in agony, went viral on social media, attracting many comments from men who, it appeared, had just had the realisation that childbirth was indeed rather painful after all. The two Dutch TV hosts are not the only men to have done this. The narrative seems to pan out in a similar manner each time -- the men begin their journey happy and intrepid, sometimes even cocky, and end up wracked with pain, expressing a newfound respect for mothers. The audience is delighted, and the videos make their rounds.

Yet, one question continues to bug me -- why did these men feel the need to 'experience' it for themselves before they could acknowledge the extent of the pain of childbirth? What astounds me is that despite the well-known fact of the agony of childbirth, a common theme of doubt lingers among these men. Before undergoing the simulation, Zeno, one half of the Dutch duo, wonders, "Do you think the pain will make us scream?" Another video contains a pre-simulation quote from one of the participants -- "According to women childbirth is the worst kind of pain there is. But did you know, according to men, women exaggerate everything?"

This, I believe is the heart of the matter. Disbelief, the curse of Cassandra in Greek mythology, is a curse that has fallen on, and continues to plague women today. Represented in popular culture as either unable to fully understand or articulate her own experiences, or scheming and manipulative, or else histrionic drama queens, or simply irrational, society has been conditioned to take women's words with a pinch of salt. The default reaction to anything a woman says seems to be to disbelieve her, unless faced with incontrovertible evidence.

If you are a woman who holds and expresses strong opinions, particularly online, you'll be able to relate to this -- the unceasing demand from men for us to present them with academic studies to back up our points. Now, not for a second am I denigrating the importance of using hard evidence in an argument, or the citing of one's sources. Yet, when men are constantly asking women -- and only women -- for sources during casual conversation, and in a challenging, sneering manner at that, something else is certainly at work here, and it isn't simply a passion for academic rigour.

Nowhere is the knee-jerk disbelief of women more apparent than in the public reaction to a woman's reporting of rape or sexual abuse, particularly if the man in question is a celebrity or in a position of power. Despite all the evidence pointing towards the extreme rarity of false rape accusations, too many people automatically dismiss a victim's story when she speaks up, preferring to believe the protestations of innocence coming from the accused instead. Often, not even a guilty verdict can convince them of the victim's veracity; Ched Evans' victim has had to endure anger and threats of violence, and is called a liar by complete strangers to this day.

This habit of disbelieving women is no trivial matter, and it has to end. Not only does it deny victims justice and deter other victims from coming forward, it also enables perpetrators to get away with their crimes, and reassures other would-be perpetrators that their chances of evading punishment are high. If our words carry no weight, then it serves to reaffirm and cement the second-class status of women in society, by invalidating our experiences and dismissing our interpretations of them as exaggerated, ill-informed, or straight-out malicious lies.

And you know what? If men can only believe in the agony of childbirth by watching another man go through a mini simulation of contractions, it's a very sad state of affairs indeed.

The photo above depicts Cassandra, the Greek Goddess who was granted the gift of prophecy by Apollo. When refusing his attempts at seduction, he placed a curse on her so that nobody would believe her predictions. Thanks Wikipedia for the photo, as it is used under the creative commons license.

Comments From You

Anna // Posted 13 October 2013 at 21:29

This really needs saying - so thank you. However, I do not think it's helpful to say that childbirth is painful in this way - implying that it is always painful. Pain and perception of pain are complex processes and I did not experience childbirth as terribly painful. There was some pain but it was definitely not the worst pain I've experienced and it was in fact less painful than many period pains I had experienced up to that point - not to mention migraines. It was terrifying at times because it was so overwhelmingly powerful. Afterwards I was so awed by the experience, I couldn't wait to do it again.

I do believe that by representing childbirth as extremely painful, we are intimidating women and terrifying them - and this makes it more likely that they will experience it as painful, and more likely that it won't go well and there will be interventions which make it more painful.

Kate // Posted 14 October 2013 at 11:59

Re: Men experiencing labour, perhaps I'm an optimist but tbph I'm just happy that they gave it a go, empathy seems to be lacking in our modern age and anything that is an exercise in gaining empathy or understanding surely cannot be a bad thing. Though I'm not sure I would place the "they just don't understand label" squarely on men alone. As a prima gravida (first timer) myself a couple of years ago I too "knew" that labour would be painful, but having actually gone through labour I realised there is a big difference between knowing from 3rd party experience and birth books and understanding from personal experience. Thus why IMO a birth book can never fully prepare you for labour and birth.

So frankly (or rather francescaly) I'm actually quite pleased that the simulation happened, other social factors aside I consider it a step forward for us as women, and perhaps now more men will be able to take our word for it and it may even lead to more men becoming male-feminists.

" If our words carry no weight, then it serves to reaffirm and cement the second-class status of women in society, by invalidating our experiences and dismissing our interpretations of them as exaggerated, ill-informed, or straight-out malicious lies.

And you know what? If men can only believe in the agony of childbirth by watching another man go through a mini simulation of contractions, it's a very sad state of affairs indeed. "

Again ever the optimist here, other factors aside one has to wonder as long as men do actually gain insight and believe us does it really matter how they come to believe? Perhaps it is not a great leap or stride, but it is a step forward and IMO surely any feminist progress is worth celebrating.

The Goldfish // Posted 14 October 2013 at 12:13

I think it's a common experience of all marginalised people to not be believed. In the disabled community, it seems like all of us are having to prove our experiences - not just of limitations in order to get help such as benefits, but needs, limitations, the history of our impairments, even the work we do and the hobbies we have - all the time. Queer folk are similarly questioned, "Have you ever tried having sex with...?" etc..

It's truly amazing the statements a person can make about the fundamental facts of their life, only to be met with, "Are you sure?"

People often cite the Just World Hypothesis for why folk disbelieve rape and abuse victims, but I think it's much more to do with power, and the power of being in a position to ask - in the same way that as a grown-up, I'm allowed to interrogate a child who tells me an unlikely story, while a child will be told off for asking too many questions. I wrote a post earlier this year about how believing people, at least unless and until we have reason not to, is the most important first step in promoting social justice.

Have Your say

Latest Comments

Further Reading

Has The F-Word whet your appetite? Check out our Resources section, for listings of feminist blogs, campaigns, feminist networks in the UK, mailing lists, international and national websites and charities of interest.

Write for us!

Got something to say? Something to review? News to discuss? Well we want to hear from you! Click here for more info

  • The F-Word Feeds
  • #
  • #