You Do Uterus: Systemic gaslighting trivializes and erases women’s experiences

Kylie Cheung | Daily Trojan

A couple weeks ago, my favorite feminist writer Rebecca Solnit published an essay about the politics of, as she put it, “who gets to be the subject of the story.” “Whose Story (and Country) Is This?” dismantles a trove of political talking points and cultural tropes that regard the “forgotten American” as the white, male, heartland evangelical. All of it resonates with anyone who is liberal, hails from a coastal city and is subsequently told their opinions don’t matter because they are “out of touch.” But to me, the most striking portion of the essay is her discussion of prioritizations of male perspective, even in media dialogues centered around the women-led #MeToo movement.

“The follow-up story to the #MeToo upheaval has too often been: How do the consequences of men hideously mistreating women affect men’s comfort? Are men OK with what’s happening?” Solnit wrote. “There have been too many stories about men feeling less comfortable, too few about how women might be feeling more secure in offices where harassing co-workers may have been removed.”

Male comfort is, as Solnit points out, regarded as a right. But more than that, it is the default around which all systems and institutions are built, and the consequences of this have been vast.

We understand #MeToo as arising from the systemic exclusion of women from positions of power, opening the door for exploitation in myriad forms and the shielding of that exploitation behind a smokescreen of mass male complicity. Male dominance in spaces of power has resulted in authority, experience and competence being gendered male in our cultural consciousness. This dominance has created the gender wage gap and a disproportionate relationship between women and poverty; it’s commodified violence against women by denying victims of abuse platforms and assurances of safety to come forward about their experiences.

And coverage of #MeToo is also, as Solnit points out, a reflection of the extent to which male dominance is not only ingrained but also regarded as the default. The movement is changing women’s lives and fostering a consciousness of the oppression women have always been conditioned to accept as a fact of life. So, why is male comfort and some local men’s dramatized confusion about whether it’s OK to hug women soaking up so much attention?

I can’t help but think the physical exclusion of women is, in some ways, just the tip of the iceberg. Greater inclusivity of women in key roles and more influential positions makes a crucial difference, but we’re not just excluding women — we’re also excluding their authentic experiences, conditions and feelings from our collective recognition of what is valid and what isn’t through systemic gaslighting.

Our mistreatment of women’s health is rife with examples of this. Studies have shown migraines are three times more likely to affect women than men, but as articles like the 2015 Atlantic piece, “How Doctors Take Women’s Pain Less Seriously,” and the 2013 New York Times op-ed, “The Gender Gap in Pain,” argue, notions of feminine hypersensitivity and exaggeration have created systemic inequality in whose pain is taken seriously. This has made access to care an inherently gendered issue. As the Atlantic piece notes, “Women are likely to be treated less aggressively until they prove that they are as sick as male patients.”

Migraines can be debilitating; they can cause affected individuals to miss work for days at a time. The inequalities that deny women quality medical attention and care can also subsequently perpetuate gendered economic inequality.

Di Wu | Daily Trojan

The crisis of gaslighting in women’s health predictably extends to reproductive rights. In January, the complications surrounding Serena Williams’ delivery served as a reminder of the dangerous landscape around prenatal and maternal health care for black women. According to reporting from ProPublica, black women are 243 percent more likely than white women to die from pregnancy or childbirth-related causes, and it’s widely understood that racism — not some nebulous, biological attributes of race — is a driving factor. It’s critical to note how the trivialization of women’s pain and experiences is exacerbated across intersectional lines. And as in nearly all cases, women of color are still receiving the shorter end of the stick, and quite literally dying because of this.

Speaking more broadly, the landscape around abortion and reproductive health care has become increasingly dangerous as well. More than 1,050 restrictions on abortion have been enacted since 1973, and 27 percent of those restrictions were enacted between 2011 and 2016 alone. The United States has the highest maternal mortality rate in the industrialized world, and states with the most restrictions have higher mortality rates. But the conversation has remained largely limited to the technical legal status of abortion in this country — an oversimplification that erases many women’s lived experiences with being unable to access a medical service that is their human right.

Will better representation of women lead to fewer instances of our pain, oppression and experiences being trivialized? We can only hope so. But our goal has to be greater than that. In addition to creating a society where inclusivity of women is prioritized, we must also create one in which — cliche and oversimplified as it may sound — women’s feelings are prioritized, too.

I would be remiss to wrap up an academic year that has seen such sweeping change and invigorated conversation around gender without acknowledging that much of this specific column, and “You Do Uterus,” in general, stems from a place of deep frustration and outrage.

I have too many close friends and family members who have been traumatized by sexual violence for me to count on one hand, all while having to listen to men around me qualify tepid support for #MeToo with concerns about how it may purportedly hurt them. I have had far too many personal experiences being harassed, groped or otherwise mistreated to still be subjected to debates about whether rape culture does, in fact, exist. And for as long as I’ve had opinions and expressed them, I’ve been forced to either accept dismissal of my frustration as the ravings of a perennially angry “social justice warrior,” or just be silent.

Well, I am angry. Believe it or not, many women are. And it’s time for that anger to be taken seriously, and paid the attention it deserves.

Kylie Cheung is a sophomore majoring in journalism and political science. She is also the associate managing editor of the Daily Trojan. Her column,“You Do Uterus,” ran Thursdays.