#AzizAnsari7: Feminism and Victimhood

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.

 

[ii] You can read Jennifer Mittelstadt’s review of her book, which offers detailed accounts of her arguments, for free on JSTOR.

[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”.

#AzizAnsari7: Unrapeable Unvictims

The following are excerpts from Flirting with Danger: Young Women’s Reflections on Sexuality and Domination, a study of 30 young women carried out by Lynn Phillips in 2000. (You can read the whole thing on Google Books; what you’ll find here is only a small sample of all its fascinating findings and keen thinking from Phillips. I cannot recommend it enough.)

I will not be passing comment, but allowing the participants’ accounts of their experiences and mental processes speak for themselves. This is designed to be a companion piece to #AzizAnsari7: Feminism and Victimhood.

NB. The sample was drawn from the student body of “a small, progressive, liberal arts college that has a reputation for providing a non-traditional, profeminist, politically and intellectually challenging learning environment. Seventy percent of the students are female, and the student body is more diverse than most private colleges in terms of race and social class.”

A note from the author, Phillips:

“To my surprise, although I had carefully steered away from any mention of violence or victimization in my description of the study, twenty-seven of the thirty women (90 percent) described at least one encounter that fit legal definitions of rape, battering, or harassment. Yet also to my surprise, only two women ever used such terms to describe a personal experience, and both of these women went on to describe other violent or coercive personal experiences that they did not consider rape or abuse.

The young women were eager to talk about the pain and mistreatment they had endured, and they were quite willing to use words like “rape,” “battering,” “victimization,” and “abuse” to describe other women’s experiences. These women expressed great concern about violence against women in general. Indeed, several offered rather eloquent analyses of gender and victimization. But when it came to naming what they had gone through personally, women tended to say things like “let’s just call it a bad night” or “things just went really badly.””

 

 

From the interviews:

 

It was violent and hurtful and really scary. But I don’t think I could ever call it rape. Let’s just say that things went badly.”

(Olivia, 22, “heterosexual,” “Caucasian”)

 

Oh, it wasn’t really rape, per se. He was just a real asshole. He was this slick, obnoxious character who was out to prove what a stud he was and how mean he could be. I wouldn’t say I was abused. He just really roughed me up to prove he was some kind of man. He was a total jerk. He is just this vicious guy and I just happened to find him attractive for some reason at the time.”

(Robin, 21, “heterosexual”; asked to describe her race(s), she wrote, “I cannot”)

 

I left home when I was fourteen. I stayed with my teacher, which was really great, but when I look back at it, it was a little weird. He was so cool, though. I mean he took me in and fed me and took care of me. I love him for what he did for me. I wasn’t in love with him. I was more just very grateful. We were like this funny couple, because he was about thirty-five and I was fourteen. He was really sensitive to the fact that I was so young. So we never, I mean, it wasn’t sexual. He was cool about that. I would just undress for him and he would masturbate, or I would jerk him off, or sometimes give him head. But he never laid a hand on me. He knew I was just young. We had to be really careful about going out and everything, because we couldn’t let anybody at school know. They would just think like it was abuse or something, and they would make me go back to my mom or to a shelter. They would have made it into something abusive or illegal. But it wasn’t, because he really protected me. If it wasn’t for him, I would have had it a lot worse.”

(Diana, 21, “bisexual,” “white”)

When Phillips asked whether she ever thought her relationship with her teacher qualified as statutory rape or sexual abuse, Diana answered,

“No. I wasn’t into the sexual part, and he knew that, which is why he never forced intercourse or anything. I think he respected that I was too young. I never really thought of myself as being coerced or anything, I just thought, “This is what I owe him. He takes care of me, and I should do this to make him happy.” If it wasn’t for him, I’d be on the street. Well, maybe that does make it a little coercive. I mean, it was sort of, do that or find somewhere else. It didn’t really occur to me that I had a lot of choice. But he was so good to me, I could never think about it as abuse.”

 

One participant, Cynthia, described an encounter with a man who forced himself on her during a date, ripped her clothes, and then left her by the side of the road. When Phillips asked what she called that experience when thinking about it to herself, she replied,

“I mostly think of it as a really bad night. If you’re asking do I think I was raped, no, I wouldn’t really call it that. I mean, I was forced, yes, and I was hurt, and things didn’t go how I wanted, but I was in the car with him. It was all really complicated. I mean, I was there, I could have chosen not to go. So no, I don’t really call it rape.”

Phillips then asked her how she would define that same experience if it had happened to a friend. Laughing, she responded,

Wow, that is so awesome! If my roommate came home and told me the exact same story had happened to her, I’d tell her, “You call the hotline, you call the police! You’re a victim! That guy raped you and you should report it!” Wow! But, I don’t know. For her it would be rape. For me it was just so complicated.

No, I don’t think of it as abuse or victimization or anything, because even though it may have looked that way with his hand over my mouth and his hurting me and all, I just don’t think I could ever call myself a victim, because I like to think I have it too much together to ever let myself be victimized like that. I went into the whole thing willingly, and even though I got hurt, I figured, well, I wanted to be a grown-up, so this just comes with the territory I guess.”

(Cynthia, 22, “bisexual,” “white”)

 

“I think maybe victimization or rape should be reserved for really bad cases of rape. To say my experience was rape maybe waters down the cases of real victims. It feels, I don’t know, kind of unfeminist. There were a lot of factors why he did what he did to me, so it’s awfully complicated to talk about. The fact that he forced me, it happened within a whole lot of other things. So I don’t think it would be fair to women who are outright attacked to call myself a victim of rape.”

(Evelyn, 21, “heterosexual,” “Caucasian”)

 

“… how can I say it’s rape when I went up there? You know, what was I expecting? It’s true I was really naive, but I feel that it doesn’t really do me any good to explain that to anybody, because it’s like nobody can really understand.”

(Robin, 21, “heterosexual”; asked to describe her race(s), she wrote, “I cannot”)

 

“I don’t think women ever want to be abused. I wouldn’t say I was abused, because I knew this guy might want to have sex. I didn’t think he was going to force it so far, but I did decide to go to his apartment. I chose to be in that situation. I didn’t like it, it was really horrible, but I just should have made a different decision.”

(Louise, 21, “hetero,” “white”)

 

“It was my own fault, in a way, because I was trying to be so grown-up and just assert myself and what I wanted. I played around, I hitchhiked, I picked up men I shouldn’t have. I look back at it now, and I think, “Just who the hell did I think I was?” I mean, I had no business getting into half the situations I was in. I just should have known better. I just should have known, you can’t play with fire without expecting to get burned.”

(Laura, 22, “bisexual,” “bi-racial/West Black Indian, white American”)

 

“I thought it was really cool and I expected we would kind of work up to things and then see what happened. I definitely didn’t expect to have sex with him, not then and there. It didn’t occur to me that he would try to force anything. It was so exciting, and we were kind of drunk and away from home and the whole thing was just so exciting. I didn’t mean to lead him on, but I see it now from his perspective, and I was all over him, and in the beginning I was into it just as much as he was. But I was thinking like, making out, not sex. But I guess I must have been sending out totally mixed signals. I can see how he would have assumed that since I brought him back to my room, and my roommate wasn’t there, and we had been fooling around, I mean it’s understandable that he would have thought we were going all the way. It went too far for me and I was getting scared. I totally tried to stop it, but he was like, “Come on, who are you kidding? You know you want it just as much as me. You know you wanted it all along.” He just didn’t take no for an answer, and we, or maybe I should say he had sex with me, because I was just laying there wishing this wasn’t happening. I look at it as a failure of communication, really. He was young and I sent him mixed signals, so of course he was going to see that as an invitation to have sex. I just should have chilled out and been much more careful about the kinds of signals I was sending out. I should have realized I might be leading him on.”

(Claudia, 21, “heterosexual,” “Caucasian”)

 

“I’ve always told myself that we really just didn’t communicate at all about what we wanted. I should have told him up front that I wasn’t planning to go home with him. But that felt kind of weird. I mean, you don’t exactly flirt with somebody and also tell them right out, you know, I don’t want to have sex at the end of this, even though I probably should have. What I think happened is that he misunderstood, or I just wasn’t clear like I should have been. So he probably thought this was just normal and maybe didn’t know I was scared. And maybe being rough and forceful is just his way of having sex. I mean, who knows, really? For me it was a terrible night and I was scared and hurt. But for him, he probably didn’t mean for it to be like that, exactly. When I pulled back, that probably hit a nerve and he just felt he should force it further. I would say that he probably didn’t mean anything by it, it’s just that we kind of didn’t connect.”

(Diana, 21, “bisexual,” “white”)

 

“I should have been more assertive. I was trying just to get out of the situation as gracefully as possible. I was just trying to make him feel like, I don’t know, like trying to make the best of it by trying to make him come as fast as possible. I sort of told him, like, “Let’s wait,” but he kept going, so I figured I’d just better try to get him off so he would stop. I don’t know, I should have been more assertive when I was trying to tell him I didn’t want to. Maybe my no wasn’t no enough.”

(Robin, 21, “heterosexual”; asked to describe her race(s), she wrote, “I cannot”)

 

“It was horrible. I mean, not just like bad sex, but really like violent. It was practically rape, had I not consented. If I hadn’t consented to him, it would have been rape.”

(Olivia, 22, “heterosexual,” “Caucasian”)

 

“I mean, I was crying and sort of pulling away, and hoping he’d notice I was upset and stop, but I didn’t exactly tell him no. I could have said, “Get the hell off me! I want to go home!” But I didn’t. I just laid there crying and hoping he’d stop. Maybe if I’d said something, who knows? Maybe things would have been different. But as it happened, I never exactly said no to him, so I really just have myself to blame.”

(Rachel, 21, “heterosexual,” “white”)

 

“It was very alienating. It was a very strange situation, and it was this weird combination of feeling turned on, but feeling repulsed and feeling in a lot of physical pain. He was really big. The intercourse was kind of rough and hard. And the other thing is, I said, “All right, fine,” because I expected him to put the condom on and then [be] inside me, but he didn’t put the condom on. It was before I could even really get back and take the wheel for a minute. But I think that was the point where I really lost control, because all of a sudden he was inside me, and I was like, “Are you going to put the condom on?” And he was like, “Don’t worry, don’t worry.” It was like, shit, you know? It’s so hard to say no and push somebody off you, especially when he’s really big, and plus, I’m in this thing. I don’t want to ruin the magic of this weird moment. So that was the point I remember thinking, “This is not going to be a good day. He’s inside me without a condom.

It was like a kind of weird violent kind of thing. I don’t feel like I could have really said no. I don’t know if I necessarily would call it rape. But I would say that he was so strong and big and on top of me and it was like he was totally in control from the get go. Sometimes I think it was rape and sometimes I don’t know if it was rape. You know, when somebody says to you, “I know nice girls like you don’t have a condom,” but I do, and then having sex with them. I don’t know, because “rape” is such a loaded word, it’s really hard. It’s really scary to think about using it in terms of your own life. I remember times when I felt like I was raped, or I let myself kind of be raped, or kind of taken, but in terms of that incident, I think I was seduced. I don’t know if I’d say I was raped. Number one, because I feel like I want to have enough faith that I have enough strength of character as a person to be able to, if I really didn’t want to, to say no. And it wasn’t that I said no.”

(Melissa, 21, “heterosexual,” “Eastern European-American Jew”)

 

“We would be having sex, again, and I wouldn’t want it, but he was my boyfriend, you know, so I never really felt like I could let him down by saying no. But a lot of the times it hurt me. He wasn’t the most considerate lover. So I would lie there underneath him, crying, while he was doing it. I didn’t feel like I could exactly say no, but I hoped that he would see me crying and just stop, I don’t know, out of guilt or concern or something, even pity. Of course he never did. He’d just keep going, and then afterward, he’d say, “Didn’t you like it?” And I would say, “Yeah, it was good.”

(Wendy, 22, “heterosexual,” “Puerto Rican/Italian”)

 

I guess it’s a hassle always stroking their egos, like you know, “Oh, you’re so great,” and “Oh, I really love what you’re doing,” you know, even when you don’t. But believe me, it’s more of a hassle not to. Because then you have to feel guilty and everything. Because then it’s like you have to take care of the fact that he might feel bad, or inadequate, or something. And it’s just easier to keep them feeling good about themselves. I think maybe the main thing is that I don’t want him to see me as a cold bitch. And if I don’t act like, “Oh, this is really good for me,” then I think men see you as a domineering bitch. So I guess it’s like, men get their needs met directly, but women need to get their needs met indirectly. I guess it sort of sucks, but it’s better than taking the chance of pissing them off. If you piss them off, even if you’re the one who’s getting hurt, you could be in even more trouble. So he could take it out on you that you’re implying he’s a bad lover, and then he could make the pain you were feeling during sex seem like nothing. Some guys just really go ballistic when their male sexual egos are bruised. I just can’t be about taking that chance.”

(Cynthia, 22, “bisexual,” “white”)

 

“I hooked up with this guy and he took me out to dinner and then we sat around talking. And I mean we hadn’t even kissed yet or anything, but he says, “Is this really all you want to do?” like I was a little kid or something. I wasn’t really too sure how I felt about him. I mean, I had just met him that afternoon, but he had taken me to dinner and everything. So I was thinking, “What must he be thinking?” And then I got thinking, “Here I am all alone in my hotel room with this guy and I don’t know a soul in this town, and if I say no and he rapes me because he thinks I led him on, well then, who’s going to believe me, and who’s even going to hear me if I dare to scream?” So I just basically gave him a blow job to satisfy him so that I wouldn’t have to have actual sex with him. I really didn’t want to have sex with him, but I felt like I had to give him something, and that just seemed like the least offensive way to go. Least offensive to me without offending him.”

(Chloe, 22, “heterosexual/bisexual,” “Caucasian”)

 

“I got into this situation where I went up to this guy’s apartment, and we were making out and things, and I didn’t want to have sex, but he did, and it was a long struggle and everything. And he did hit me and stuff, and then I was like, “Okay, fine.” I just, you know, because if I really try to fight him and then I get beat up, what am I going to say to my mother? That was like the main thing in my mind, was like, “Oh no, what if he punches me or cuts me or something? What am I going to say to my mother?” I kept seeing me really feeling different if it would have been another guy. I really wasn’t attracted to him, and I was trying to get attracted to him or like, get turned on, but I couldn’t.”

When Phillips asked the participant why she tried to make herself attracted to this man, she explained,

“I was thinking that if I can get turned on, then this will be consensual, like, a good experience. It was like I was trying to manipulate my own mind or something, so that this wouldn’t seem as bad as it really was. I mean, especially for my first experience, I wanted it to be something I wanted, not something that was forced on me. So I tried really hard to make it into something that I wanted, but I couldn’t. I just really couldn’t.”

(Robin, 21, “heterosexual”; asked to describe her race(s), she wrote, “I cannot”)

 

“I kept telling myself, just relax and try to like it. Try to think of something exciting, try to think of someone you would like to be having sex with so you can get aroused and then this won’t really be what it is. If I could just find some way to be turned on, at all, then I would know I was in it and then this wouldn’t be really like rape.”

(Jocelyn, 19, “hetero,” “mutt”)

 

“Sometimes I’ve just slept with men because I have to. They give me money, and I give them sex. It’s totally like prostitution, because I know they really have the power, that I’m being treated like an object to them, a whore that they can do what they want to. But there’s something about money that gives me a power. I would never feel okay about it if I did it for free. If they don’t give me money, then they’re in control of me. If there’s money involved, then I have some control, too. It’s like, they may fuck me, but I set the terms of how I’m going to get fucked. It may not be real power, because they can still fuck me over, but it’s mental power, which helps you control how much damage, or what kind of damage they can do to you.”

(Elaina, 22, “lesbian/bi,” “white”)

 

“It’s important to me, I guess, to present myself like I know what I want, even though I really just go along with whatever the guy is doing.”

(Wendy, 22, “heterosexual,” Puerto Rican/Italian”)

 

“I know a lot of women, like one in three, get raped in their lifetime. But I know it could never happen to me. Not that it couldn’t happen, because it could, I mean, God, it sort of has. But for me, I say it was kind of like rape. For other people, it’s rape. But for me it’s just like it was kind of like rape. Kind of like acquaintance rape, but not really that.”

(Tonya, 18, “straight,” “Jewish/white by race and religion”)

 

“I wasn’t stupid. I knew when I decided to become a slut that I would never be able to cry rape, even if I ever did get raped. I basically gave up any right to say rape, but it was worth it to me. I just wanted to be sexual, and it was worth the price. So when I was seventeen and this guy sort of, well, it would have been rape if it had happened to a “nice girl,” but when that happened, you know, I said to myself, “Well, you knew this could happen when you stepped out there. You can’t turn back the clock now.” I just felt like I was, what is it they say, paying the piper? So I just figured it came with the territory and I couldn’t ever really complain.”

(Theresa, 19, “heterosexual,” “bi-racial”)

 

Similarly, participant Laura decided that she was “not rapeable” because she “always went into things with [her] eyes wide open.

I always know exactly what I’m getting into. I chose to be sexually active, I mean very active, a long time ago. I help myself to what I want, and there are never any surprises. And so when there are surprises, like something I can’t handle, like when I get myself in over my head, I know that this is what I’ve chosen to do, that I am the one that let it happen, you know? And so, even in the times when I haven’t had any control over a situation, you know, like once it starts, I know that I always have control because I’m the one who has chosen this. Well, maybe not chosen this situation exactly, but I’ve made a choice, and nobody can take that away from me. There’s really nothing I can’t handle.”

The time when that guy sort of, like, beat me up over the condom thing, I mean, I was furious, you know? I mean nobody treats me that way. But even though it hurt a lot and everything, I mean, I didn’t really let it bother me too much. I mean, I figure, I made my bed, and I chose to lie in it [laughing]. Wow, how’s that for apropos?”

(Laura, 22, “bisexual,” “bi-racial/West Black Indian, white American”)

 

“They wouldn’t get it. I know they’d be like, “What’d you do, what’d you do?” to bring it on myself. My boyfriend doesn’t understand. He just thinks he would have fought, so I could have fought. So it comes back down on my head. Even though my girlfriends would be supportive, the other people in my life would think I had no right to say “rape” because I should have fought him more. Based on my boyfriend’s reaction, I wouldn’t expect to get support. Far from it.”

(Robin, 21, “heterosexual”; asked to describe her race(s), she wrote, “I cannot”)

 

“They would never say, “This was rape” or “This was abuse.” They’d say, “What were you doing? Why didn’t you stop him? Why do you want to make such a fuss?” It already felt like shit. Why make it worse by sticking your neck out by saying, “I was raped” if you know you’re just going to get rejected? And then why even call it that to yourself if you can’t talk about it to anyone else? That would just make you feel even worse.”

(Elaina, 22, “lesbian/bi,” “white”)

 

 

The one comment I will make is that while the young woman of the Aziz Ansari story seems to have gone through some very similar thought processes as many of these women during her “lousy romantic encounter”, she succeeded afterwards in locating some moral responsibility outside of herself. Of course we can’t know for certain, but it is entirely possible that the #MeToo discourse, and contemporary feminist conversations about affirmative consent, made it possible for her to resist the true rape/true victim, victim mentality and victim blaming narratives that led the young women of the Phillips study to blame themselves even for physically violent sexual assaults and rapes.

So when a woman like Bari Weiss of the New York Times writes that applying the MeToo hashtag to Grace’s story “trivializes” what the movement “stood for”, I do have to wonder what she thinks the aims of feminism are supposed to be. Justice for just a few powerful women, perhaps?

I would say that the progress from the mentality displayed by the young women quoted above, to that displayed by Grace, is precisely what #MeToo stood for. The movement was always supposed to reveal the prevalence of sexual misconduct, to show up the pattern so that women could identify a systemic problem and begin to combat it rather than blame themselves for it in private.

 

So to all those who like Bari Weiss, Whoopi Goldberg and Ashleigh Banfield told Grace she had only herself to blame: remember Lucretia? The Roman woman who Tarquin raped (at knife point, so the tale goes, on pain of death), who stabbed herself to wipe out the shame? Shakespeare called her Lucrece and noted that her father approved of her suicide. Remember her? Because when you tell women like Grace to turn in upon themselves to locate the problem, you reveal that we haven’t come far since 500 BC.

 

VouetLucrecePostdamMe

 

#AzizAnsari 5: Sexual Assault?

I think it’s time to talk about the definition of assault.

Let me first make it clear that my aim is neither to assert nor to deny that what Aziz Ansari did to the ‘Grace’ of the Babe article is sexual assault.

My aim is to examine some of the responses to the single use of the word ‘assault’ in that article, and perhaps clarify a thing or two.

Briefly, the relevant bits of the original Babe article: Grace is quoted saying ‘“It took a really long time for me to validate this as sexual assault”’, and ‘“I felt violated”’.

In my favourite New York Times article ever, Bari Weiss called the story an ‘insidious attempt … to criminalize awkward, gross and entitled sex’.

Kyle Smith, in his National Review article entitled ‘Feminists, Stop Bad Sex Before It Happens’, claims that Ansari’s behaviour ‘fell well short of a crime’ but that, ‘following the guidelines that have been established on campus’, the young woman mistakenly ‘channeled her bad feelings into the language of crime.’ He quotes her phrase ‘I was violated’ and states that here she is ‘implying that not merely assault but actual rape took place.’ But, he says, ‘no crime occurred. Sex willingly embarked upon by both parties, even if one party feels reluctance or disgust or shame, is not a crime.’ (I should point out here that it’s a bit of a stretch to claim that Grace’s ‘I felt violated’ is in any way intended to mean ‘I felt like actual rape took place’, when ‘to violate’ as ‘to rape’ is hardly in common contemporary usage; it is perfectly plain that she is using it in its more dominant and current sense as ‘to fail to respect’. This is a shabby little attempt on Smith’s part to smear the article with the panic-inducing taint of the false-rape-allegation myth.)

In a Guardian Opinion piece coming from a very different angle to Smith’s, Tiffany Wright also protested Grace’s use of the word assault: ‘Assault is not a feeling. Discomfort is a feeling, embarrassment and hurt and anger are all feelings, but assault has to have an objective definition because of the legal and social ramifications that come with it. When we act as though disrespect, harassment, assault and rape are all different words for the same thing, the conversation starts to lose its legitimacy.’

What was interesting, though, was that neither Wright nor any of the others actually provided that ‘objective definition’ they claimed was being trampled all over.

Now, it’s important to mention that the terms ‘assault’ and ‘sexual assault’ exist beyond their legal usages, as do countless other terms, such as ‘murder’ and ‘fraud.’ To use them is not, in fact, necessarily to engage with a legal framework of crime and punishment; it certainly doesn’t follow from the use of the word ‘assault’ that one is suggesting someone ought to be tried in a court of law. There is absolutely nothing to suggest that ‘Grace’ was accusing Ansari of a crime in any formal or legal sense. Her text message to him after the event was polite and aimed at informing rather than accusing. Read it here.

I would argue that the whole ‘exposé’ was, similarly, aimed at informing rather than punishing – but I’ll return to this. For now, let’s give the question of legal definitions some consideration. The writers above were angry she’d used the term ‘assault’ and adamant she’d used it incorrectly, but none of them actually quoted the law.

According to the United States Department of Justice,

‘sexual assault is any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient. Falling under the definition of sexual assault are sexual activities as forced sexual intercourse, forcible sodomy, child molestation, incest, fondling, and attempted rape.’

Notice that this legal definition is rather broad, embracing a number of very different behaviours; if violations of different magnitudes are being grouped under one umbrella, this isn’t Grace’s doing. Neither is it unusual in law: the acts of stealing a loaf of bread and stealing a car are both termed theft; all murders are not equally heinous, nor do they receive the same penalties. The reality is that some sexual assaults are ‘worse’ than others: it doesn’t follow that they are not all sexual assaults.

Now, is there anyone who can say that Grace gave ‘explicit consent’ to having her breast touched, to being digitally penetrated, or to receiving oral sex?

Let’s revisit her account:

‘Within moments, he was kissing her. “In a second, his hand was on my breast.” Then he was undressing her, then he undressed himself. She remembers feeling uncomfortable at how quickly things escalated.

When Ansari told her he was going to grab a condom within minutes of their first kiss, Grace voiced her hesitation explicitly. “I said something like, ‘Whoa, let’s relax for a sec, let’s chill.’” She says he then resumed kissing her, briefly performed oral sex on her, and asked her to do the same thing to him. She did, but not for long. “It was really quick. Everything was pretty much touched and done within ten minutes of hooking up, except for actual sex.”

She says Ansari began making a move on her that he repeated during their encounter. “The move he kept doing was taking his two fingers in a V-shape and putting them in my mouth, in my throat to wet his fingers, because the moment he’d stick his fingers in my throat he’d go straight for my vagina and try to finger me.” Grace called the move “the claw.”’

Now, there certainly are situations in which people are coerced into performing acts – such as ‘giving’ oral sex – but that can be harder to argue, so let’s focus here on Grace as ‘the recipient’ of ‘sexual contact or behavior’.

Is there any evidence in her account that she gave ‘explicit consent’ to any of the contact or behaviour described?

No.

Of course, there is the possibility that her account makes omissions – but none of the writers quoted above who so vociferously denied that this episode involved assault made that accusation. They were drawing their impressions and inclusions from the Babe piece, the only detailed evidence that we have to go on. Ansari declined to say more than that he thought the sexual contact had been ‘by all indications completely consensual’. He does not actually cite any instances of ‘explicit consent.’ On what grounds should we believe there was any?

(We’ll leave aside for now the fact that she actually gave a number of indications of dissent.)

I’d like to just mention the UK definition of assault while I’m here: from the Sexual Offences Act 2003, Section 3 (still current in 2018):

Sexual assault

(1) A person (A) commits an offence if—

(a) he intentionally touches another person (B),

(b) the touching is sexual,

(c) B does not consent to the touching, and

(d) A does not reasonably believe that B consents.

(2) Whether a belief is reasonable is to be determined having regard to all the circumstances, including any steps A has taken to ascertain whether B consents.

 

If Ansari’s response to the story is sincere, he believed that there was consent; but was this ‘reasonable’? Is there any evidence of his taking ‘steps’ in order ‘to ascertain whether’ Grace really did consent?

In the absence of any such effort, his ‘belief’ may not be ‘reasonable’, the sexual touching not consensual, and the term ‘assault’ potentially applicable.

But I repeat, I’m not here to argue that it was an assault and that Ansari should be charged. My point is that those writers who have accused ‘Grace’/Babe of abusing the letter of the law have cast their stones rather wide of the mark. If she had meant to accuse Ansari of sexual assault in a legal and formal sense (and I do not believe that she did), the letter of the law could actually have upheld her.

Whether any court would have actually convicted Ansari is another matter.

I find it interesting – almost amusing, nearly appalling – that both US and UK law offer definitions of sexual assault that are more progressive than those implicitly held by the three writers quoted above, two of whom at least consider their own thinking to be feminist.

 

I’ll be back soon to consider why this could be.

#AzizAnsari 4: Consent II

You know what, I just can’t get enough of all those responses to the Aziz Ansari story which, like Bari Weiss’s, deny that ‘Grace’ denied consent. They just keep yielding up more for me to get my teeth into.

“If you are hanging out naked with a man, it’s safe to assume he is going to try to have sex with you”, writes Weiss in the NYT. She defends Ansari, saying he would have had to be ‘a mind reader’ to have known the woman did not consent to penetration.

Of course Weiss’s views are not idiosyncratic: they are the dominant historical model.

It is a model in which the female body itself signifies consent. And that is rape culture.

By being born female you have consented to sex with men. (And as trans women will know, to become female-bodied or -identified after birth also qualifies as consent; trans men, meanwhile, will know that not even by becoming male-identified can they withdraw the original consent of their birth.) This consent granted by your female body can only be withdrawn through a perpetual and vocal effort. And be careful, because a number of your attempts to withdraw it will be refused: saying ‘next time’ and ‘I don’t want to feel forced’ will not be accepted. You will be cross-examined on whether you uttered the monosyllable ‘no’, regardless of whether you were asked a question that invited a yes/no answer.

And as often as not, your ‘no’ will be understood as a deferred ‘yes.’

Note that there are certain situations in which nothing you say – not even ‘no’ – can qualify as the withdrawal of your consent. For example, if you are naked. Your nudity in the presence of a man (even if you didn’t take your clothes off yourself) invalidates anything you may say. Also if you are within a man’s home: once you have stepped over that threshold you have no more right to withdraw your default consent and would have to leave again to be considered dissenting (“use a four-letter word, stand up on your two legs and walk out his door”, as Weiss puts it).

As I pointed out in my last post, there are 127 countries in which marriage legally negates your right to withdraw your consent. This is true, in practise if not in law, in many more countries: marital rape remains more difficult to prosecute than rape outside of marriage – which is already difficult enough. In the UK it is only since 1991 that consent can be withdrawn within marriage; in the US, since 1993 – although exemptions for spouses remained in some states up until 2015. Attitudes certainly haven’t changed much: Donald Trump’s lawyer and campaign spokesperson Michael Cohen declared in 2015 ‘you cannot rape your spouse.’ Such attitudes extend to rapes by unmarried partners, too: women raped or sexually assaulted by partners face even greater scepticism than the rest.

(And this in despite of the fact that almost 50% of recorded rapes in the UK are committed by a current partner – and that partner rapes are twice as likely to result in injury to the victim, too, belying the belief that such rapes are less violent – and as such perhaps less ‘real’. Figures from a UK Home Office Crime Survey.)

Which other crime or violation must victims fight so hard to dissent from? You do not have to say ‘no’ in order for it to count as stealing when someone takes your property. We do not operate on the basis that everyone has consented to murder unless they specify otherwise.

Men must unlearn this reading of consent in the very lines of the female body. And women need to stop reinforcing that reading with their reactions to stories like Grace’s.

We have to challenge this deeply engrained notion of the female body as inherently consenting. We need to fight for a paradigm in which women have by default not consented, and in which consent must be explicitly, actively, enthusiastically and continually established.