How to reinforce stereotypes in the classroom…

Context: a discussion of personal injury cases in a tort law class…

Student:  Wasn’t P v. Q the one where the victim’s sexual performance was affected?
Lecturer:  No, P v. Q was an infection.  And anyway, the victim was a woman.

…laughter all round, except not from me.

At the time, I took the lecturer to be implying one of two things:  (a) only men have (or do?) ‘sexual performance’ so if the victim was a woman there could have been no effect on sexual performance, or (b)  women also have/do ‘sexual performance’ but even if it was affected it wouldn’t count as an injury.

Help me out, here: is there a way to understand this such that it doesn’t reinforce some pretty scary stereotypes about women and sex?

12 thoughts on “How to reinforce stereotypes in the classroom…

  1. Apparently, the professor was using “sexual performance” as a euphemism for “penis size”? Maybe the lecturer watches too many Viagra ads on TV?

  2. I don’t know – I think the student was probably using ‘sexual performance’ as a euphemism (maybe for ‘ability to have an erection’ rather than ‘penis size’) and he was asking a serious question about a particular case he must have had in mind.

    BUT the lecturer was making a joke, and it made me wonder what had to be presupposed for it to be thought amusing. It was really clear he thought it was an amusing remark, and for it to (try to) be funny, he must have thought there’s something rather ridiculous about the idea of women’s sexual performance being damaged.

    It wouldn’t surprise me if the law did see injury to a man’s ability to be sexually aroused as more deserving of compensation than injury to a woman’s ability to be sexually aroused. Anyone know if this is the case?

  3. I think you’re right: it’s meant to be funny to think of women as performing sexually. And gosh darn it, it is: I mean, we just lie there, right?

  4. No wonder people have historically had so much trouble conceiving of lesbianism: two women just lying there doesn’t sound much like sex, and what else would they do?

  5. The pernicious thing about this example is that here, as in so many similar situations, a feminist is hard-pressed to figure out how to respond so as to point out the sexism. “Where’s your sense of humor!” people will say. It is as if you can’t draw attention to the problem without becoming a you-know-what (B-word). Ideally, one would be clever enough to come out with another wisecrack that would underscore the issue, but of course, these are situations where one fumes rather than feeling clever. :-(

  6. True, Calypso. I wonder if we could make up a series of fairly all-purpose retorts. (OK, bad pun.)

    Somehow, “Hey, not everyone of us fakes it” comes to mind, but I don’t know if I could say that. Sometimes it works if one raises one’s hand and asks with exaggerated seriousness and puzzlement, “Could we just revisit the idea that women don’t perform sexually.”

  7. A long-winded retort to the humour defence:
    `Actually, psychologists have shown that racist humour does an even better job of making racism socially acceptable than racist comments. Trying to turn this into a joke really isn’t the right way to go.’

  8. What about a simple request for clarification? “I’m confused. Why does being a women mean sexual performance can’t be an issue?”

  9. Noumena, do you have a source? I’d like to check on what they think are the relevant variables, if any. Is Chris Rock’s effect as bad as that of a racist? Why would this generalize to sexism? Does the prior attitude of the audience matter? Etc.

  10. I like jj’s exaggerated seriousness and puzzlement together with Jender’s request for clarification – I think that probably is the only way to respond to jokes (or ‘jokes’). Perhaps a sort of earnest I’d-really-like-to-get-the-joke-but-you’re-gonna-have-to-help-me-out approach would push the joker to articulate what’s behind it, which would be much better than the feminist doing the articulation on their behalf and letting them deny it.
    Gosh darn, it’s hard, though. You’ve got be so quick at seeing what claims the joke depends on, and so confident to respond assertively.

  11. Well, maybe not. A puzzled request for clarification is pretty all-purpose. The more I think about it, the more I like it as a general way of dealing with offensive comments.

  12. This is really interesting in terms of how personal injury claims often make sexist assumptions about how an injury has “affected” a party. The place to look for further information would be “Kemp and Kemp” which is a practitioner text that details the usual awards for personal injury claims. Men and women are separately detailed.

    I haven’t researched whether there is a difference in how sexual performance is treated across the gender divide in personal injury claims. However, their are a number of other disparities that I have noticed. Women’s facial injuries are usually treated as more serious and there is a significant difference in how infertility is compensated across the gender divide. I can’t help wondering if this is because of stereotyping that assumes that women’s looks and ability to have children is more important, whereas men are not so “damaged” by such injuries.

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