The sinister link between emotional labour and rape culture

“There is this very deep fear that if we are not using those skills to keep the men that are harassing us comfortable and happy, it could end really really badly."
Denouncing rape culture at an event in Vancouver. (Chase Carter/Flickr)

The social expectation that women and girls will quietly attend to the well-being of others can have dire consequences, says author Gemma Hartley.

It call comes down to something called "emotional labour" —  a term that's gained traction in recent years and refers to the work of attending to the needs and comforts of the people around you.

"It really feeds into a more sinister side of the patriarchy and of rape culture, where we are using these skills of emotional labour to survive," Hartley, author of Fed Up: Emotional Labor, Women, and the Way Forward, told Tapestry host Mary Hynes.

Some of the work is domestic: cleaning, buying groceries, planning and cooking meals, scheduling appointments for children, etc. Some of it is relational: maintaining communication with extended family, sending birthday cards, tending to bruised egos.

Hartley defines emotional labour as "constant and exhausting work that is largely invisible." And it's work that mainly falls to women. Hartley says in heterosexual couples, women do the lion's share of emotional labour when both partners have full-time jobs and even when the woman is the primary earner.

We know a woman is not going to make a fuss because she's been taught not to- Gemma Hartley

Hartley also wrote a piece about emotional labour in Harper's Bazaar in 2017 which went viral and, according to her website, has been viewed more than two billion times.

Hartley says the uneven distribution of emotional labour is the result of social conditioning, the different expectations placed on boys and girls.

"Growing up, women who had brothers noticed they didn't have to take on the same chores that they did. They weren't expected to live up to the same level of cleanliness that they were. They didn't have to notice when their room was dirty, someone was always there to remind them. And then if they didn't do that great of a job, that's OK, mom's going to come up behind them and clean up. We learn these roles really really young."

Some people dismiss emotional labour as inconsequential or perfectionistic, but Hartley argues it is important, skilful work.

"What so many people get wrong about emotional labour is that it's just control freak stuff. And it's not. It's really carefully done work that women are paying attention to what the needs are in their lives, in the lives of those around them, and then they are making really smart, conscious choices as to how they should run their homes and run their lives."

The sinister link between emotional labour and rape culture

But that work goes beyond domestic life. When women are catcalled by strangers, for example, they are thrust into a situation where they must immediately decide how respond.

A sign against sexual harassment, made to look like a municipal sign, in New York City. (Steven D'Souza/CBC)

"Are you going to say something? Are you going to be quiet? Smile? Keep walking? Because if you make the wrong choice it could mean your life," said Hartley.

Women know a 'wrong' response could provoke a catcaller to escalate, she says.

"There is this very deep fear that if we are not using those skills to keep the men that are harassing us comfortable and happy, it could end really really badly. And we've seen it play out over and over again," Hartley said.

That decision - to accommodate or placate a harasser in order to stay safe, or to call out the demeaning behaviour - is a form of emotional labour.

Hartley also argues that the social expectation that women will quietly attend to the well-being of others can embolden would-be harassers.

"We know a woman is not going to make a fuss because she's been taught not to, and so men can push that boundary, and push it a little further, and push it into harassment."

Most men simply don't understand how much time and effort women put into assessing their safety on a day-to-day basis, she says. 

"Men don't live with the fear of dying when they walk down the street. And women do," she said.

"There is this very big gap in the understanding of what it means to move through the world as a woman and what that requires in terms of emotion work."

Fed Up: the moment that changed everything for Gemma Hartley

Hartley says for most of her life, she suffered from the expectations of emotional labour placed on women, but lacked an analysis of what exactly was going on.

For thirteen years, she managed her household, taking care of her husband, Rob, and their three kids, despite the fact that she and Rob both had jobs.

I did not sign up for another child to delegate tasks to.-  Gemma Hartley

She was frustrated with Rob's lack of domestic initiative, but wasn't able to voice her irritation without sounding like a 'nag.'

"I felt invisible, like my work did not matter, that so much of my life was not only not shared by my partner, but not seen. And that is a really lonely place to be living."

Rob is a well-intentioned guy, she says, but would often respond to her complaints by saying she should just tell him what needed to be done … which frustrated her even more.

Gemma Hartley says her husband Rob feels he has a closer connection to their children now that he takes more initiative in organizing their lives. (Submitted by Gemma Hartley)

"What if a man had to come home from work and ask his partner to do everything? Like she will not get up off the couch watching TV unless you ask her to do that … unless you ask her to do the dishes, ask her to bathe the kids, ask her to make dinner, ask her to go to the store, ask her, 'are we out of this? … what do we need? … what needs to be done here?'"

Hartley says while women's rights are improving and barriers to equality are falling, the needle hasn't moved on emotional labour.

In her marriage, that started to change the day she tripped over a blue storage bin that Rob had left on the ground. 

"I'd been tripping over it for days. And I am really short and I can't reach the spot in our closet where that needs to be put away. And my husband can. He can do it no problem. He could have lifted it up and it would have been nothing. And I was just sitting there thinking, 'how is this my job to ask him to put away this thing that is so obviously in the way, which he got out?" 

Angrily, she grabbed a chair and struggled to lift the box into the closet.

"My husband came in and said, 'you know, if you want me to put that away, all you have to do is ask.'"

That's sparked the meltdown that changed everything.

"I did not sign up for another child to delegate tasks to. I need someone who's here, living this life with me. And not living off of me and my efforts."

Rob has worked to address the disparity, but after years of settling into their respective roles, there's no quick fix. Regular adjustments have to be made.

"It doesn't have to be a fight," Hartley said. "

"And the more often we bring up these little things and not make them into this big fight, the more we can move forward." 

Rob says sharing more of the emotional labour has brought him an unexpected feeling of fulfillment.

He tells his wife that taking on more responsibility for their kids makes him feel more connected to their lives.


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