Tuesday, June 18, 2013

I'll Be Watching You: NSA Surveillance and the Male Gaze

I would give readers a quick 101 on the NSA surveillance scandal before I go on to make my point, but the fact is, I’ve got no facts. I saw the headlines, heard the occasional bits of cocktail party buzz, and saw a flurry of blog posts—which I skimmed at best, or skipped altogether—crop up in my RSS feed. And then, I shrugged.

Apathy doesn’t seem like the greatest reason to tune out of something that, intellectually and politically speaking, enrages me—or at least should enrage me, if rage were a rational response that arose upon provocation of our most deeply held beliefs. But there it is: In a country whose founding principles include freedom of expression, learning that the government is—what, reading our e-mails? listening to our phone conversations?—this citizen’s response is meh.

The longer this story has remained in the news, the more bizarre my apathy seemed to me. Until it didn’t. I began to wonder if the reason the NSA activities didn’t upset me more on a visceral level, as opposed to an intellectual one, was that my default assumption of day-to-day experience was that I was being watched. Watched by Big Brother? Not so much. But being watched, observed, surveyed, seen? Yes. Welcome to what it’s like to be a woman, gentlemen.

Consider the headline of this excellent piece by Laurie Penny in New Statesman, spurred by the NSA revelations: If you live in a surveillance state for long enough, you create a censor in your head. It’s an incisive, uncomfortable truth, and it’s made all the more uncomfortable when coupled with one of my favorite passages from John Berger’s Ways of Seeing:

A woman must continually watch herself. … Whilst she is walking across a room or weeping at the death of her father, she can scarcely avoid envisaging herself walking or weeping. From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually. … Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object—and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.

To conflate Penny and Berger: If you spend a lifetime housing your internal surveyor, you might not be terribly surprised when you find that there are external surveyors you hadn’t considered. Not that women walk through our days consciously considering that men might be looking at us. In fact, that’s part of the point: Being seen becomes such a default part of the way you operate that it ceases to be something you need to be actively aware of.

Not that the cold slap of Hey, baby is ever so far away as to keep women truly unaware of the public dynamic surrounding gender. In urban areas (and plenty of non-urban areas too), we deal with street harassment so frequently that it begins to feel difficult to overestimate just how much we’re actually being observed by passersby. The triumphant joke of the tinfoil-hat crowd rings frightfully true in the light of the NSA activities—just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they’re not after you—is yesterday’s news to women. Am I actually being looked at—specifically by men, and specifically as a woman—every time I leave my house? Probably not. But the expectation or possibility of being seen has been there as long as I can remember. And the minute I think I’ve slipped out of the observation zone—by wearing a dowdy outfit that conceals my body, or simply by being in my own world for a moment—there’s a catcall there to remind me that even if I’m not paranoid, that doesn’t mean they’re...not after me (I hope!). But there, watching.

I’m trying to think of how I’d process the news that our “for the people, by the people” government can invade our privacy anytime it damn well pleases, if I hadn’t ever internalized the sensation of being observed. I imagine I’d be more surprised, for starters, but I also wonder if I’m asking the wrong question here. As humans, we love little more than to watch each other in a variety of ways (is TV anything other than controlled people-watching?). Men are observed too—differently than women are, but it’s not like men are entirely unaware that they’re being seen by others. Here I turn to Robin James, Ph.D., associate professor of philosophy at UNC Charlotte: “I’m thinking that (properly masculine, i.e. white, etc.) men experience surveillance in profoundly enabling ways,” she wrote to me when I asked her to expand on a Twitter exchange we had. “[B]eing watched by someone who you know is your equal (that is, you watch them, they watch you in return) is what reaffirms both of your statuses as equals, as subjects, etc. If your gaze isn’t returned in kind, that means you’re not considered an equal, that you’re not seen as a real member of society.”
All emphasis there is mine, and for a reason: The point isn’t that women don’t observe men, or that men don’t observe one another, but that the quality of the gaze is different. I don’t walk down the street and feel like I have less cultural weight than my male peers. But when you’re 12—the age I was when I heard my first catcall from an adult man, and my young age here is hardly unusual—you do have less cultural weight, you do have less power. You learn early on to associate being observed for your femininity with powerlessness, and that's not an easy mind-set to shed. (Which is exactly why street harassment has long been an effective tool of oppression, but that’s another story.) Broad strokes here: Men don’t have that experience. Rather, they didn’t until it came out that the National Security Agency—a greater power than virtually every man in the country—could watch you whenever they pleased.

Here are a few of the things that may result for women from objectification, whether it comes from others or internally as a result of being objectified by others: Depression. Limiting one’s social presence. Temporarily lowered cognitive functioning. (Of course, there are also suggestions that self-objectification may boost some women’s well-being. Another day, another post.) When I look at these effects and compare them with where I’m at intellectually about the NSA privacy invasions—a shrinking of oneself versus righteous outward anger—I’m troubled. Would I feel more righteous anger if I hadn’t learned to absorb, possibly to my personal detriment, the effects of objectification and tacitly accepted surveillance as something that just happens? And more importantly: Has the collective energy of women been siphoned into this realm, leaving us less energy for, as they say, leaning in?

I’m not saying that just because women might be used to being watched by men means that we’re inherently blasé about being watched by governmental bodies; in fact, I’m guessing some women are more outraged than they would be if they were male, even if they’re not directly connecting that outrage with womanhood. (Also, I don’t believe the male gaze to be wholly responsible for my indifferent reaction here; it’s just the one that’s relevant.) Let's also not forget that 56% of Americans deem phone surveillance as an acceptable counterterrorism measure. And I’m certainly not saying that we shouldn’t be concerned about the NSA revelations; we should. But not only are women more used to being watched, we also have a worldwide history of dealing with our governments jumping in where they don’t belong. It feels invasive whether that space is our phone line or our uterus. It just might not feel all that surprising.


  1. I was just at a meeting on genomic data, and privacy was of course a big component of this. One of the scientists was part of a team that had recently demonstrated that you could be personally identified from data that's already public, with just a few variants on the Y chromosome and your place of birth. Anyway, we had a really interesting discussion about what bothered people about the release of genomic data. Turns out it's not so much that the data is out there. I've had total strangers share their genomes with me on 23 and me. What bothers people is not the sharing of data it is what corporations and agencies are allowed to do to us with it. So the upshot is we are probably more likely to get meaningful protection from misuse of our data by regulatory targeting of the application of the data, not by just trying to slam down an (always crackable) wall and keep everything "private". Privacy is a pretty nebulous concept in the law anyway. The cat's out of the bag and far down the block when it comes to privacy. You haven't been able to disappear in this country and re-emerge with a new identity for decades now thanks to the combination of Social Security numbers and computers -- unless you simply don't ever want to hold a job. Target can tell from your cash register receipts if you're pregnant, before you even find out. It's hard to get worked up about the NSA when our banks, grocery stores, doctors, Facebook, etc. are all maintaining databases on us and trying to target us in various ways because of it.

  2. I am a woman and I don't have this feeling of constantly being watched. When I am outside - I watch people too, and I assume anyone is free to look at me when I am in public, just like I am free to look at anyone. I don't see the problem.

    However, I do not go through life assuming somebody is reading my emails, listening to my phone calls and reading my private messages, other than the intended audience. I do agree, however, that I also lack the genuine indignation over this. On intellectual level I am pissed off. But really, it does not enrage me emotionally because deep down I don't think anything of mine is actually getting flagged and reviewed by anyone. So, I don't feel personally violated, and I am ashamed to say, that lessens my indignation. Which is deplorable. I should be able to be equally enraged on behalf of my neighbor or colleague as I would be on my own behalf. It upsets me that I am not.

  3. You were the first person I saw to make this connection -- and, instantly, I thought it was genius. A perfect point. Which illuminates so much.

    We can't grasp reality without understanding how we perceive reality. And women are taught to do that differently at a very basic level. Your observations, which are so true, explain so much. They helped me see the NSA situation more clearly.

  4. Oh, and I love that book by John Berger. I read it in the Seventies when scales fell off my eyes. Around the same time, I read a novel by Thomas Berger called "Regiment of Women" which portrays a future world in which men occupy the social place of women. The story opens with a young man struggling to change his ruined pantyhose in a semi-public place under the mocking gaze of a female truck-driver. The two books, by two Bergers, changed my thinking.