Where Logic Meets Love

Protection by Discrimination: Not a Solution for Bullying

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Pin It Now!
Protection by Discrimination: Not a Solution for Bullying | Faith Permeating Life

The other night at dinner, Mike mentioned that the NFL is investigating whether some prospects were asked by scouts about their sexual orientation. This is against the rules, and we wondered why anyone would care enough to try to get this information out of someone.

"Maybe they're worried that if they put a gay player on the team, they'll get picked on," Mike suggested.

I sighed and buried my face in my hands.

This is not a new argument. This kind of logic has backed everything from Don't Ask Don't Tell to trying to keep students from coming out of the closet. A similar logic was involved in keeping women off submarines and out of combat until recently -- as a way of "protecting" them.

The argument boils down to this: "I need to discriminate against you so you won't be bullied."

Let's look at a few of the problems with this argument.

Hypothetical Consequences

In many cases, these arguments are made not on actual evidence but on hypotheses stemming from fear. Plenty of people predicted dire consequences for the military when Don't Ask Don't Tell was lifted. Soldiers would be "distracted" from their duties by issues of sexual orientation; gay soldiers would face discrimination from their peers (which apparently is worse than systemic discrimination from the government). Once the policy was finally repealed, however, the negative consequences failed to materialize, and if anything the repeat has been a net positive for the military. Ditto with lifting the ban on women in submarines.

There are already plenty of students who choose to stay in the closet while in school because of either real or hypothetical negative consequences of being an openly gay student. When a student makes the decision to come out, however, then they are making a choice to express their true and whole identity regardless of the consequences. It is not the school administration's responsibility to "protect" the student by trying to put them back in the closet -- forbidding them from talking about their sexual orientation or from bringing a same-sex date to a school dance -- regardless of what supposed consequences the administrators think might occur. And as our culture becomes more and more accepting, particularly younger generations, the consequences that those of an older generation envision happening are less and less likely to match reality.

Who's the Bully Here?

One story that has stuck with me is about a male high school student who wore a dress to prom. The principal attempted to prevent him from doing so and the school secretary forced him to change partway through the dance, all in the name of supposedly preventing discrimination against the student. Yet not a single person at the dance discriminated against the student -- except these administrators.

I know there is no clear agreement on what exactly constitutes "bullying," and I'm not interested in having the argument about whether using one's administrative power to prevent a student's gender expression or disclosure of sexual orientation technically constitutes bullying. But I do think there's something very wrong when someone in power attempts to single out a person or group in a minority and subject them to special (i.e., discriminatory) treatment, and especially to do it in the name of preventing hypothetical negative consequences. This robs the individual of control of their own life and places that control with the people in power.

Remember the Little Rock Nine, the black students who came to symbolize the racial integration of schools? They suffered terrible harassment as a result of attending a previously all-white school. Yet those who fought for desegregation of schools knew that it was better to have the choice to attend a better school, even if it meant facing one-on-one bullying, than to be given no choice at all and forced into a discriminatory system of separate and inferior schools. "Protection" in the form of discrimination is patronizing, oppressive, and no better than those who bully through taunting or violence.


In response to news of a sexual assault, our culture is quick to tell people -- particularly women -- what they should and should not do to avoid being sexually assaulted, and very, very slow to tell anyone not to sexually assault others. This is known as victim-blaming -- placing the responsibility for crime prevention on those being victimized rather than those committing the crime. We do this for some crimes more than others (as this robbery analogy makes clear).

In cases where someone is being harassed, whether a gay student, a female soldier, or someone else, immediately focusing on what we can do about those being harassed -- e.g., prevent students from talking about sexual orientation, keep women out of certain military positions -- is a form of victim-blaming. It is predicated on the assumption that bullying would go away if we just removed the bully's targets from the situation. This type of "solution" avoids dealing with more complex questions like, "Why do people bully others? What are the rewards and consequences in place for those who bully? How can we prevent people from bullying others?"

This approach also tends to focus on demographic categories like gender, sexual orientation, and gender identity. It ignores the fact that people get bullied for all kinds of reasons and about all kinds of things -- for being overweight, for being disabled, for being overly enthusiastic about academics, or (in my case) for no apparent reason other than being assigned a lunch seat next to a person looking for someone nearby to mock and torment. When we acknowledge that there are not always straightforward attributes for which a person is bullied, it becomes clearer that people don't "cause" themselves to be bullied in some way that is easily addressed by a discriminatory policy. The problem lies with those who choose to bully, just as the blame for rape lies with those who rape and the blame for robbery lies with those who rob.

Perpetuating Discriminatory Narratives

Children are not born inherently racist, sexist, ableist, or homophobic. They learn from those around them about which attributes are "good" and which are "bad," about what behaviors are acceptable and which they'll be reprimanded for. For example, I was in a public bathroom line yesterday behind two women, one of whom was telling the other about how they'd recently painted her son's bedroom the same blue as the bathroom walls. She added that her son had wanted pink, so she'd said, "We'll let Mom make this decision," adding to her friend, "He just doesn't understand why that's not appropriate."

When we codify discrimination into policy and law, even as a means of "protecting" minority groups, we send a clear message about what falls within the bounds of "right" behavior. A boy in a dress might be unusual and, yes, some might tease him, but if he is confident in his decision and most people act as if it's not a big deal, then by and large it won't be one. But when those in positions of power declare that his attire is not allowed and must be changed, that reinforces, rather than silences, those who want to draw negative attention to the unusualness of his decision. When women are legally barred from certain positions, it reinforces cultural narratives about women being inferior or less capable than men. When students are shushed about their sexual orientation, it perpetuates the idea that sexual orientation can be shameful and should be secretive rather than a simple fact about a person's identity.

I believe that in many cases, the idea that a policy "is for X group's protection from harassment" is a politically correct excuse given by those who are simply uncomfortable by others' differences. As such, it should be soundly demolished as illogical and deeply problematic so as to no longer be a legitimate shield behind which to hide one's own discomfort and prejudice.

Those who are truly concerned about harassment need not to discriminate against those who are harassed but to take a strict stance on those who harass others. If someone is being bullied, the question to ask is not "What is it about them that is causing them to be bullied and how can we change/hide that about them?" The more pressing question is "How can we communicate that this bullying is unacceptable and ensure consequences for those who bully?"

Where else have you seen this faulty argument about protective discrimination made?


  1. Wow, this is a really good post. It reminds me of some blog post I read once about how girls shouldn't ever be allowed to play sports with boys, for their "protection." (And also because we have to teach boys not to hit a girl and they'll never be able to understand that the way you should act in sports is different than normal interactions... wut?)

    And it made me SO ANGRY! Like, "we're protecting women by not letting them do things they want to do." If that's your "protection" then NO THANKS! I think the individual girl (or her parents, if she's really little) should decide if she can handle it or not, based on HER OWN INDIVIDUAL SITUATION.

    Somewhat related: Last year I wrote a post called So I guess you can be racist and blame it on the audience about how movie companies say they don't want to make a movie starring black characters because the audience won't like it as much, so it won't make money. Blaming their own biases on the supposedly-racist general public and perpetuating discrimination against black actors. (And I've also heard things like "I know women are totally qualified to do what men do, but our country shouldn't have a woman president because then the OTHER COUNTRIES won't take us seriously." Yeah...)

    1. Yes, those are great examples. The first is a good example of how patronizing it is to try to protect other people -- if a girl wanted to play on a sports team with guys, it's unlikely she would go into that situation completely oblivious to the fact that she might potentially get hurt (just like any athlete in any situation). And the second is another example of people using lame excuses and blaming others for their own prejudices.

  2. As a shy child, I sometimes experienced discrimination from teachers, Girl Scout leaders, camp counselors, etc. who would assign me a non-speaking role in a play, tell me to sit out an activity, move me to the back of the group before something exciting happened, or otherwise "protect" me from being visible or exposed to stimulation. There were a few times I appreciated this, but typically they were misunderstanding my needs: I'm much braver when I have a role to play than if I'm speaking ad lib to an audience. I wasn't skittish of everything--I would have liked to meet a horse up close instead of being held back. Sometimes I need to try things to see that I can, too, do them and nobody will laugh at me.

    Last night I read a recent issue of my high school's newspaper that my parents had sent me. There's now a Gay-Straight Alliance that meets at the school! But an article about the winter formal touted it as "when the girls ask the guys"--in my day (22 years ago) guys did at least 75% of the asking, but it was not uncommon or frowned upon for girls to ask guys to the prom or on dates in general, so there was no need for a dance with this rule turned around--sounds like a step backward to me. No mention of whether boys can wear dresses to Snow Ball or same-sex couples can attend. (In my day there were sex-specific dress codes and tickets were sold only to mixed-sex couples.) Another interesting thing I noticed in the paper was an ad for a "youth ministry center" event where you wear pink and pay $5 to play dodge-ball for a cash prize while listening to live amateur Christian rock. Is it just for girls? Nothing but the word "pink" implied so, and I wonder if it is now okay in that town for boys to wear pink, which would be progress. It seemed that there might be some vague connection to breast cancer awareness? Unclear. (But the idea that the thing for teens to do on a Friday night is go to a noisy space, get objects thrown at them, and be recruited for Jeezus is familiar to me, though unappealing. My partner, raised in a different culture, found it hilarious: "People PAY to play dodge-ball?!?")

    1. Oh, good grief--I came back to see if there were any new comments, and I realized that in my second paragraph above, I just rambled on without getting to my points:

      When I was in high school, there was far too much homophobia in town for anyone to attempt a GLBT group at the school (or anywhere), but I heard that in more liberal parts of the country schools were arguing that if a GLBT group held announced meetings, they'd be setting themselves up for persecution--as if the school would then be unable to do anything about people attacking the meeting! Classic example of the kind of thing you're talking about.

      If you need a "girls ask guys" dance, that implies girls aren't "allowed" to ask guys to the other dances. Maybe you should do something about that culture instead of set rules for the event that only further enshrine bias against same-sex couples.

      I've also thought of another, older example of protection by discrimination in that town: Tangled up in the story of Ruth Brown is the story of how the West Side Community Center came to be. This is a place in the most low-income corner of town that has activities for kids and families. I had vaguely assumed it was founded by people in the area who wanted to have these activities within walking distance for the kids. In fact, it was founded to prevent African-American youth groups from meeting in the YWCA; there's a long and interesting story, but one of the arguments put forth by the oh-so-caring white pillars of the community was that they wanted to give the poor dear colored children their own building so they wouldn't have to come to one where they weren't allowed to use the restrooms! (The building they so generously donated was a cheap little shack.)

    2. These are all great examples of what I'm talking about. I hadn't thought about how adults try to "protect" shy children, but you're right -- I think sometimes adults jump in too often trying to save their children the embarrassment of having to say they're too shy, or too scared, or too whatever to do something, but in doing so they don't let the child make a choice about which things they actually want to do.

      The "girl ask guy" dance thing is interesting, because we had those "Turnabout" dances every year I was in high school, but since I almost never got asked to a dance I also asked all my dates to the Homecoming dances and Prom. Now that my sister is at that high school, she's gone to all the dances in groups of friends, and there's less emphasis on coupling up, which may also make it easier for same-sex couples to attend dances together.

      You touched on the issue of heteronormativity a bit, which is something I want to write about soon. Mike asked me the other day if heteronormativity is always bad -- as in, is something inherently bad by being heteronormative -- and I want to dig into this because I think it requires a complex explanation and has a lot of parallels to gender issues (e.g., a movie failing the Bechdel test doesn't make it an inherently bad movie, but the fact that so many movies fail the Bechdel test is something to be concerned about).

  3. I talked with my parents last night and mentioned the Snow Ball "rule" change. My mother said her Little Sister attended Snow Ball, and it is still the case that tickets are sold only in pairs and you must register your date. (If your date attends a different school or is not in school, there's additional paperwork.) She wasn't sure if the tickets are sold only to girls or if a same-sex couple has ever tried to attend. At any rate, you can't go stag or in a group; you have to have exactly one date, at least for ticketing purposes. I thought this was stupid in high school, and I still do!

    You have a great point about the Bechdel test. As I choose books to read to my son, I've been noticing that a lot of books have all or mostly females as important characters, which makes me feel better about the books with all or mostly males (like The Hobbit). But this seems to be less true of movies. In fact, often when a movie is based on a book about females, a hetero love plot is added!

    One thing that bugs me about the Bechdel test is that a lot of movies with a very strong female character fail it. For example, the last movie I saw was Run Lola Run. Lola is a strong and active character who is on a very equal footing in conversations with her boyfriend and stands up for herself in conversation with her father, but the only other female character is her father's mistress, the two women meet only because of her father, and due to the urgency of the situation there is very little dialogue between them. Is that really such a problem? Maybe I'm seeing it from a heteronormative perspective? In that particular film, there is almost as little dialogue between men.

    1. What I like about the Bechdel test is that it has a clear-cut yes/no answer. It can be difficult to decide whether a character constitutes a "strong female," but it's easy to say whether or not a female character talks to another female character about something other than a man. What this reveals is that even in movies that do have "strong female characters," those characters are often the token woman on a team of men, or else the plot revolves around their romantic relationship(s).

      Your example of Run Lola Run is an illustration of what I mean about looking at larger patterns. The fact that it fails the Bechdel test doesn't make it a bad movie or mean that it's not "feminist" or whatever. If most movies did not fail the Bechdel test and this one happened to, it wouldn't mean much because there would be very good reasons, as you explain, that it did. But the Bechdel test is important for what it tells us about movies (and other media) as a whole, and how those reflect cultural ideas about gender.

    2. Yes, I see your point. Certainly I can name very few movies that don't contain two men who talk to each other about something other than a woman, and I can name many many movies that have one female character who is excellent as a character (gets to do stuff, is respected, is a fully "real" person) but is part of a cast: the tough one, the nerdy one, the crazy one, and the female one! (It's also common to have the "ethnic" one.) Sometimes a woman doubles as one of the other parts, but often it's like being female is her defining trait. As an overall problem in cinema, definitely, I see it. A while back I found myself in tears explaining to my partner why Annie is such an important film to many of us who were little girls in the 1980s: It shows a bunch of little girls working together to save the day, and you just don't see that very often!

      I think one reason I like many films that have one female main character among men is that it's a relateable situation for me: I have often been the only female with some guys, and that's usually okay with me. But--to tie back to your original topic here--my mom discouraged me from attending a 70% male university because she feared I would face discrimination and disrespect. Based on talking with alumnae, I think that might have been the case 20+ years earlier, but my experience in the 1990s was that nearly all male classmates and professors were interested in hearing a female point of view on issues where gender makes a difference, and that nobody discouraged active engagement in class or activities based on gender. If anything, there were advantages to being in the minority because I was more "special" so people were more likely to remember me. So I'm glad I didn't go to an all-female college and believe that my success there was a result of being protected from men; whether true or not, I don't think that would have been helpful to me in returning to the real world.

    3. But--to tie back to your original topic here--my mom discouraged me from attending a 70% male university because she feared I would face discrimination and disrespect.
      This is interesting to me as someone who was forcefully pushed toward STEM fields in order to "help the gender balance." I'm not sure if people just didn't consider what the day-to-day experience of being in a male-dominated field would be like for me (because they were more focused on large-scale notions about gender ratios), or if they thought I was the type of person who could handle that without too much trouble.

      On a related note, you may enjoy this book I recently finished, The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart. It's a YA book that resonated strongly with my memories of high school, particularly its depictions of the different options a girl has for "fitting in" with a group of guys.

    4. Jessica- wow, that's really interesting to read about you being "forcefully pushed toward STEM fields". I've always been totally awesome at math and science, and constantly had adults telling me "this is great, we need more girls in math and science." And after like the 50th time, I really hated hearing that- as if I was just there because I felt an obligation to my gender, as if femaleness was something I had heroically overcome in order to excel at math, as if I was in a separate category that deserved extra awards. I always disagreed with "we need more girls in math and science"- instead, I think we should just encourage everybody to pursue what they're good at/ what they want. I imagined that attitude might result in pressure on girls to go into STEM when they didn't want to, but I never heard of it happening in real life. So wow, thanks for posting about your experiences.

      (Did you see my post from a few weeks ago, Scenes from the Life of a Female Math Nerd? I wrote about this sort of thing.)

    5. @perfectnumber628: I shared your post on my blog's Facebook page with a note that it reminded me of my post on being pushed toward a STEM field, but with a glimpse of what it might have been like if I'd actually gone in that direction for college. There's really no winning, is there? It seems either you're a girl interested in math or science and discouraged from it through discrimination, or you're not interested in it but pushed toward it because of vague things about gender ratios, or you're interested in it, encouraged to pursue it, and then treated as special or different. Obviously that doesn't capture everyone's experience, but it's frustrating to think of all the ways our culture can screw up by trying to "fix" gender issues, instead of simply encouraging everyone to pursue the things they're interested in.

    6. My mom's fears certainly were based in her own experience as a biology major who went on to get a doctorate in molecular botany: She did undergrad at a women's college where she felt "allowed to be smart" for the first time in science, compared to her high school where she was treated as kind of weird. Then she went to grad school at a big state university with mostly male professors, in the 1960s. I can believe that her tales of sexism are not exaggerated--but a lot changed in my lifetime.


Your thoughts matter, so join in the conversation! Disagreements are welcome, but please stay respectful and open-minded with your comments.

I reply to almost all comments, so check back here soon!

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...