My brilliant friend Tong Qiu very pertinently asked, after reading my last piece, whether my analysis changed if we spoke of moral agency rather than agency simple. I suppose that really my use of ‘agency’ was already bleeding into ‘moral agency’ in places: a person’s capacity to act in respect of ideas about right and wrong, and their moral responsibility for those actions. But her question helped me to clarify my thinking – to realise that the difference between agency and moral agency is, in fact, precisely what is at stake.
To tell Grace that it was “safe to assume” Ansari would behave as he did (my beloved Bari Weiss, obviously) is to reduce Ansari’s human and moral agency to that of inanimate things like water and earthquakes. And isn’t that interesting: the same people who so passionately condemn Grace for (supposedly) painting women as “incapable of agency” by holding Ansari morally responsible for his actions (yep, Weiss again), don’t appear to give a monkey’s about the erasure of male moral agency.
It’s the old ‘boys will be boys’ / ‘any red-blooded male would’ discourse,[i] and I’ve already cited Justin Myers (a man!) on it: “we say things like “he lost his cool” when they kill, or “he misread the signals” when they coerce; we put it down to a force of nature.”
The agency of natural forces cannot be condemned. We can fight to stop or redirect water’s agency with physical force but we cannot ask that it should hold itself in check. By framing male violence and sexual aggression as lamentable but inevitable in this way we allow it the same freedom and impunity as the agency of water.
Whereas to frame the same male behaviours as abuse, as sexual harassment, sexual assault, and rape, is to invoke male moral agency, and male moral responsibility – and as such it is to demand that male agency should check itself.
A resistance to speaking of women as the victims of male sexual aggression, then, may be a resistance to the curbing of male sexual licence.
But, I hear you say, we do as a society speak of women as the victims of male sexual aggression: we have laws that condemn rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment! Everyone agrees that rape is a heinous crime: it’s hardly as though anyone thinks men should have the right to rape women without consequence.
Oh, certainly. There are few who would deny that rape is a heinous crime. But what sort of act tends to get validated as rape? The kind that is very easily identifiable as criminal in that it demonstrates elements of other kinds of (non-sexual) crime: physical violence, physical restraint, threat of physical harm, use of a weapon, drugging. Aberrant acts occurring outside the realm of the ‘normal’, outside of the social, and not on a daily basis. Acts perpetrated by individuals (ideally strangers to the victim) who can clearly be labelled aberrant: bad guys. Acts perpetrated against individuals who can clearly be labelled good girls: entirely unsuspecting, entirely defenceless, entirely blameless. Thus we condemn only what we already condemn: the existing structures are validated and nothing need be changed.
It’s when anyone suggests that rape – or sexual assault –is not something that occurs outside of what society condones, but within its most celebrated structures, that the conservatives begin their baying. It’s when we speak of rape occurring on a daily basis, perpetrated by the average and the respected man (most frequently someone known to the victim) against the average and not-entirely-defenceless woman, within and facilitated by our institutions and traditions – it’s when we speak of a rape culture, whether or not we use that term – that we encounter resistance. As, for instance, when we speak Grace as the victim of Ansari’s sexual misconduct. Because now we are condemning what is condoned: we are condemning the existing structures, we are calling for change.
You can see, then, how useful it might be to set up what could be called a true rape and a corresponding true victim standard, and to fight to keep these categories pure. (We could speak of true sexual assault discourse as well but that wouldn’t be very elegant, so I’m going to be using this idea of the true rape discourse to refer to the same structure of standards and arguments being applied with respect to lesser sexual crimes.)
The victim mentality discourse is frequently brought into play to do this policing. It has two arms: I can shame you as pathetic, or I can accuse you of employing victimhood dishonestly and cynically as a weapon; or, like Bari Weiss, I can hit you quite illogically with both arms simultaneously. We see this discourse trotted out on numerous special occasions: when there’s a push for legal reform – consider the Indian government resisting a proposal to criminalise marital rape on the grounds that it would prove “an easy tool for harassing the husbands” – or when custom is threatened, as it has been recently by the #MeToo movement.
But oh you Bari Weisses, lamenting that Grace, or #MeToo, or feminism generally is dragging women backwards in time: the notion that feminism encourages women to embrace a false or shameful victimhood is not new! It’s been a favourite of New Right politics since the 1990s, and women who call themselves feminists have been swelling the chorus just as long: take, for instance, Camille Paglia’s resistance to the movement against date rape.
It isn’t limited to anti-feminist rhetoric, either: people of colour – especially black people in the USA – and Jews also commonly get accused of playing the victim. Alyson M. Cole has analysed the rise of this discourse on the American right in the early 1990s and argues that “by investing victimhood with new meanings and rendering it a badge of shame, anti-victimism has made it extremely difficult to address pervasive forms of social injustice that advantage some by subordinating others”.[ii]
It can be a very effective strategy: you say you are the victim of a wrong I have done you; I say you are just wallowing in, and/or cynically employing, an illegitimate victimhood, by which I simultaneously deny that I have done any wrong, accuse you of dishonesty or manipulation, and shame you for complaining by casting your criticisms as whining. And by encouraging the idea that you, and people like you, enjoy and profit from this wallowing in (false) victimhood, I smear and undermine or make suspect all criticisms like yours.
This strategy bleeds into another that is equally useful. Having argued that I cannot be held morally responsible for your grievance because you are affected by a victim mentality, I can further strengthen my defence by suggesting that in fact you are responsible for what happened. Dismissing your complaints as mere whining, I can imply that if you have suffered in some way, it is your fault for not being strong enough. That you ought to have made it clearer or fought harder if you didn’t want it: aren’t you woman enough to stand up for yourself? You teased or provoked me; I can’t be held responsible for what I did, considering. I merely behaved as any man would, which you ought to have expected; it didn’t go how you wanted so now you’re crying, but if you went in eyes-open how am I to blame?
This is, of course, the strategy now known as victim blaming; it too serves to police and maintain the purity of the true victim standard – and thus to limit what can be deemed a true rape. And by placing responsibility on the woman it further undermines the cases both for male moral responsibility and for any collective responsibility of the social order.
It’s hardly surprising that conservative men, and avowedly conservative women their handmaidens, would use these strategies to undermine the criticisms and demands of feminism – nor is it very difficult to identify when this is happening.
But resistance to framing women as the victims of patriarchal injustice also comes from people – for example, women like Bari Weiss – who do identify the existence of a gendered inequality in society and claim to want it gone.
Most of the women who criticised ‘Grace’ (or the Babe article in which she gave her account) openly acknowledged that scenarios like the one Grace described are common: “I too have had lousy romantic encounters, as has every adult woman I know,” wrote Bari Weiss. But they made it clear that, while unpleasant, such interactions fall into the category “bad sex” – to be avoided by greater vigilance/assertiveness on the part of women, or simply to be borne – and should be kept absolutely distinct from sexual assault and other behaviours for which perpetrators can be held morally or criminally responsible.
In short, they are quite clearly attributing responsibility to the individual woman and defending the true rape and true victim standards which so conveniently serve conservatism – while simultaneously claiming they call for change rather than for conserving things as they are. So what’s going on here?
In my last post I explored the common misconception that a victim is someone who has no agency. This thinking cuts both ways: she must have had no option to act at any point to qualify as a victim; if she does qualify, that means she must be without agency – and, these days especially, to be without agency is shameful.
I dismissed this whole model as simply and demonstrably untrue – using the parallel of burglary to show that the label ‘victim’ has nothing to do with either the choices or the mentality of the person it describes – but the fact remains that this idea has a powerful hold on and influence over our minds. It goes far beyond a misconception of terminology: it has to do with the ways in which our minds respond to our environments.
Because the scenario described by Grace is one they recognise as commonplace, to accept that it constituted not just “bad sex” but a case of sexual misconduct of which Grace was the victim would require them to accept that male sexual misconduct is common rather than aberrant.
The idea that male sexual misconduct is not rare – not something perpetrated by aberrant males, monsters outside of the social structure, bad guys we can easily distinguish from the good – but something everyday, embedded in and facilitated by the social structure, perpetrated by ordinary males we know and love – is not a happy idea. A woman entertaining this idea confronts the possibility of a world in which the men she knows and likes or loves may well be capable – or already guilty – of sexual conduct that is harmful to women: and not because like overfond lion cubs they cannot help hurting us, but because they do not know or care enough not to hurt us, and the social order endorses their hurting us.
She confronts the possibility of a world that is hostile to or weighted against her; an order in which she has less power than she’d like to have. She confronts the condition of prey.
Prey can hide, run, even fight back, to a certain extent, against the force that threatens it – but not control that force, not neutralise the threat, not render its environment benign. Which is to say that it has agency, but is still vulnerable to the agency of other, hostile entities.
Very few people actually like to feel like prey. It isn’t dignifying: our cultural codes glorify the lion more than the gazelle (though we do enjoy the aesthetic of that leggy creature in flight…). Neither is it particularly relaxing.
One way of escaping the unpleasant psychological situation of prey is to recast it in one’s own mind. At the general level, it feels better to say to myself, “the majority of men are safe to me as long as I’m careful not to confuse or mislead or provoke them,” than to say “many men don’t really care whether women actually want it; some even find female reluctance arousing, and plenty of others think it’s just normal – which means my reluctance may be ignored or overridden.”
Of a specific encounter it may feel better to say, “it was horrible but it was a misunderstanding – it wouldn’t have happened if I’d been clearer, or more careful”, than to say, “this man[iii] I thought I liked thought it was OK to go ahead even though I said I didn’t want him to.” It may be a whole lot less horrifying to say to myself, “I didn’t try hard enough to convince him I didn’t want it” than to say “my attempt to refuse failed; it was overridden.”
To have one’s “no” violated – that is, one’s autonomy – causes immense psychological distress. We prefer to believe our “no” wasn’t loud enough, wasn’t heard – which means it wasn’t violated. (This is also why we often do not assert our “no” more stridently: because the risk of having it definitively violated is too great, the cost too high. So autonomy goes into retreat: we lower standards, drop boundaries, teach ourselves to expect less and demand less and prohibit less in order that our wishes should never be contravened.)
If my autonomy has been violated once, through no fault of my own, it could be violated again, at any time; instead I tell myself “it was my fault, I should/shouldn’t have done X.” Thus, “he violated me,” which leaves me feeling vulnerable, becomes “I didn’t play him right,” which leaves intact my sense that I am master of my own destiny.
And this determination to see myself as not-violated, not-victim, and my environment as not-hostile, is served by a set of standards that legitimise only extreme and aberrant acts as violations: by what could be called a true rape and a true victim discourse… He didn’t violate me because a real violation is something much more violent. I’m not a victim because a real victim is entirely choiceless, entirely innocent – whereas I chose him, but failed to manage him.
(If you don’t recognise this psychological process and think I’m talking rubbish, click here for a companion piece: quotations from young women reflecting on their experiences of “bad sex.” It seems that, contrary to fearmongering opinion, women are actually extremely reluctant to label their experiences as rape or sexual assault, even when they meet the legal definitions of those crimes.)
By locating the problem in herself rather than in the outside world, a woman can maintain feelings of her power, her mastery of the environment, her safety, her inviolability and dignity in the eyes of others – just as long as she doesn’t let herself down.
This strategy also allows her to maintain positive feelings about the world and the people around her: she doesn’t have to see her environment as hostile, she doesn’t have to see the men around her as contemptuous of women, as uncaring or dangerous or culpable towards them – which may be a vision too depressing to bear.
In short, this recasting is a coping mechanism. And, personally, I believe that all coping mechanisms deserve respect; they are, after all, assertions of agency.
Yes, there may also be an element of laziness or cowardice: it could be easier to say “I wasn’t assertive enough”, or “I led him on”, than to decide that there is something wrong with the world around me. It is easier to adapt my own behaviour (or expectations) than to begin the enormous work of transforming the world around me. By claiming the responsibility for a minor error, I relieve myself of one that would be much weightier: the responsibility to address a massive wrong in society. It’s still a coping mechanism.
The problem is that this privatised individual coping mechanism happens very neatly to serve the interests of a conservative patriarchal ideology.
If women attribute all but the most aberrant or heinous instances of “bad sex” to their own errors in judgment or failures of assertion, they will identify no pattern, no problem in the social order, and will not call for change. They carry out, in the privacy of their own minds and apparently of their own volitions, the continual policing of rape definitions upon which patriarchal ideology depends.
[i] By way of a random sample, take the once-famous Spur Posse case, and one father’s defence of a son arrested for a sex crime: “Nothing my boy did was anything that any red-blooded American boy wouldn’t do at his age. . . . Those girls around my son are giving it away.” And the mother: “Those girls are trash.” In New Zealand, more recently, cricketer Scott Kuggeleijn’s defence against a charge of rape used this strategy: his lawyer Philip Morgan argued that if we were to ask 100 other men if they would have tried again after being told “no” twice, they would all say yes. Morgan also argued that because she didn’t say “no” the third time she had consented (although she never said yes), AND that when she said “no” she hadn’t really meant it. He suggested that it had only been a “light-hearted no”, that she might have been “saying no but not meaning no”. He suggested she hadn’t said it in the right tone of voice. In a nutshell, this lawyer is actually arguing that it wasn’t rape because she didn’t employ the word “no” a third time, but that even if she had said “no” it wouldn’t have been good enough to communicate dissent so it still wouldn’t have been rape. There is an appalling lack of logical coherence here, yet Kuggeleijn was found not guilty. Recall my previous post on the perverse and conservative insistence on that monosyllable “no”, as though the female body were consenting by default and women obliged to keep up a constant and vociferous declaration of dissent if they don’t want to be penetrated. The Kuggeleijn defence is a neatly packaged example of the way that women are castigated for thinking we can dissent without using this one word, and then castigated for thinking that this one word should be sufficient when we do use it.
I’d just like to mention while we’re here that Kuggeleijn, who did admit to being “pretty persistent,” was selected for the New Zealand team just one month after his acquittal. Selector Gavin Larsen said he had “been incredibly impressed with Scott and the way he [had] handled himself” throughout the trial. Just in case anyone was worried about the damage done to this poor young man’s career.
[iii] While we are likely to do the same recasting-as-misunderstanding if the person who has steamrolled over our dissent is a woman, the fact remains that the overwhelming majority of such experiences involve a man and a woman – and that gender roles and power structures facilitate these happenings. So I am systematically referring to the other as male in this heteronormative fashion because to refer to them as a genderless “person” would be to obscure the gendered nature of a phenomenon endemic in heterosex. And no, “endemic in heterosex” does not mean “present in every single heterosexual encounter”.