No, don’t worry, I’m not going political (not any more than I ever am). I found this story via my Google Alerts and although it really had nothing to do with the actual subject I was looking for, I found it interesting. (The age of the article shows you how long I’ve been sitting on this post.)
It’s a question I’ve often had internal debates about. Who is considered an authority? And this ties into the back-and-forth over my last post.
Just because one is a man doesn’t mean one is automatically incapable of empathy or understanding of women’s issues. I recognize that. On the other hand, this article reminds me of my feelings as a girl.
I’d read articles (often in my mom’s Reader’s Digest) written by male doctors on the subject of women’s health. They never seemed credible to me. For instance, over and over again they’d describe menstrual cramps as a “mild discomfort” — that is, if they bothered to acknowledge the cramps were physical symptoms and not psychosomatic.
My own cramps felt like someone yanked my uterus out of my body (stretching it to a distance of about 3 feet it seemed), then pulled it down to my knees and squeezed it as hard as they could over and over and over in nauseating waves. This was usually enough to make me lose my lunch — and be unable to eat or drink anything for the rest of the day, even water. The family doctor laughed at my request for morphine and suggested OTC Advil instead. Needless to say, Advil failed as real pain relief, though if I took at right as my cramping started, I was able to function at a very basic level. (On the other hand, my sister did indeed only feel a mild discomfort and I hated her for it.)
When a 10 year old girl knows more about the realities of menstration than a doctor (an “authority”), it doesn’t bode well for instilling the proper respect and awe for such authority. Still, it illustrates what I’ve wondered since a young age. It’s not just the old boys-against-girls thing (most everyone likes to play for their own team), but how much authority does someone have when they speak only from their academic knowledge? And what defines “academic” vs. “experience”?
Some authority is easy to define. Two people write a book for escorts. One is a CPA, one is a former escort. Who has more authority? Although most people’s knee-jerk reaction is probably the same, it really depends on the topic under discussion. Or maybe the perspective in which the books are written makes the difference because there are at least two basic perspectives of escort work: escort and client (there are a couple more I can think of, but that’s not important right now). Or maybe I’m being really generous.
Or how about someone who writes about sex work? They’ve never done any sex work themselves, yet they’ve spent years researching and talking to a variety of sex workers all over the world and even lived with a few for brief periods of time. They come as close to the experience as they can without doing it. Some say their remove from the subject makes them more credible than someone who is living it. Does their extensive research make them more more of an authority than a girl who, ten years ago, danced for a few months in a peep show in San Francisco?
But what if their research is tainted with their own personal biases and beliefs about sex work? Are they an authority then? Do their vicarious experiences and reporting count for nothing? Does the researcher’s authority depend on how they use their information and expertise? Are they authorities only if they sway to one side or another on a particular issue? Is popular perception, shaped by mainstream media, truly the only conferrer of “authority”?
back to politicians
The above article about Obama vs. Hillary on women’s rights issues raises questions. Sure, Hillary has done a lot of speaking on women’s rights. But some of the things she’s spoken about — sexual trafficking, AIDS and rape — are things she’s never experienced herself. So is she any more of an authority than Obama? She’s been researching these issues longer, but since the experiences of Third World women are not theirs, are either of them an authority? Does speaking extensively on a subject make you an authority? Fieldwork? Research? Charity work? Simply being a spokesperson?
Don’t know. This isn’t a post about answers. Just questions that have been swirling around in my head for a very long time. And yes, most of those questions are self-directed.