#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 6: Denying Female Agency

In my last post I considered whether the interaction that ‘Grace’ of the Babe article described could hypothetically meet the legal definition of sexual assault that her detractors asserted so stridently it didn’t – while failing to provide that definition and not appearing to be very familiar with it at all.

What emerged is that this legal definition – which in the UK and USA boils down to sexual contact without consent – could very well have applied if ‘Grace’ was telling the truth: it was the concept and need for proof of consent that was really at stake, not the definition of sexual assault per se.[i]

This time I’ll be asking why, if these critics didn’t even have a concrete definition of sexual assault (or a reliable picture of what ‘Grace’ and Ansari got up to on the night), they all got so hot under the collar about her using that term (as opposed to just ‘“bad sex”’, which is what Bari Weiss wants her to call it). I suspect that what motivates the heated response isn’t really the pedant’s desire to safeguard a definition: I believe that theirs are emotional reactions to the perceived emotional, ideological and practical ramifications of an unknown 23-year-old woman daring to say of an evening with a modestly famous comedian who calls himself a feminist, “It took a really long time for me to validate this as sexual assault”’.

The objections to Grace’s applying this term to Ansari’s behaviour seem to boil down to the following propositions:

“It didn’t count because it wasn’t bad enough

“It didn’t count because you should have expected it (and got out sooner)”

“It didn’t count because you didn’t fight back (hard enough)”

“You shouldn’t call it assault because that’s denying female agency”

Each of these propositions (which frequently get made in combination) conceals a cluster or clusters of emotions; the tireless or pedantic reader may consult this companion piece for comments on the first three, but it’s the last and least transparent that really sticks out, and which in fact riddles a great many feminist conversations these days.

Let me lay a small sample before you – all highlighting my own:

Bari Weiss:

“The single most distressing thing to me about this story is that the only person with any agency in the story seems to be Aziz Ansari. The woman is merely acted upon.”

She declares the story ‘arguably the worst thing that has happened to the #MeToo movement since it began in October. It transforms what ought to be a movement for women’s empowerment into an emblem for female helplessness.’

She concludes her piece by warning of this ‘insidious attempt by some women to criminalize awkward, gross and entitled sex’ which ‘takes women back to the days of smelling salts and fainting couches. That’s somewhere I, for one, don’t want to go.’

Compare Ella Whelan speaking on BBC Radio 4 The Moral Maze episode ‘Moral Complicity’ 18.10.17, not on the Aziz Ansari story but on the whole #MeToo movement:

“I think it tells us a lot about the very negative view that some people have of women and women’s agency today – the celebration of victimhood that’s come out of the Weinstein scandal – the panic on Twitter, the sharing of the MeToo hashtag […] What it’s doing is something very damaging to women, it’s making us out to be damsels in distress, it’s dragging us back to the Victorian notion of the helpless woman that needs to be saved by the Twitter hashtag – and I just don’t see any good in it.”

(The parallels between Weiss’s and Whelan’s arguments are striking, though one laments that #AzizAnsari is damaging the glory of #MeToo, and the other that #MeToo is damaging the glory of modern womanhood. Check Whelan out: she’s a vociferous anti-feminist.)

Back to the Ansari story, we have Tiffany Wright:

“Maybe this is callous to say, but labeling every unpleasant sexual encounter an assault infantilizes women. I’ve been a victim, I understand how coercion and power dynamics work, but I also believe in female agency, and I feel insulted by the direction this discussion has taken.” (Tweet sent January 14th)

“in the months following Harvey Weinstein’s fall, I have seen many well-meaning people echo the supposedly feminist rule that consent can only be given when sober, never while intoxicated. I am well aware that alcohol can be a form of coercion and a contributor to assault, and that people who are too drunk to know what they’re doing shouldn’t be taken advantage of. “I’ve been assaulted while drunk, [but] I’ve also had drunk sex I fully agreed to,” I said in the thread. “Feminism means allowing women the agency to tell the difference,” instead of treating them like children who need to be coddled with arbitrary standards for acceptable intimacy.” (From her Guardian Opinion piece, citing her own tweets.)

Compare a friend of mine, Anonymous 1, still on Aziz Ansari and why it wasn’t assault:

“I guess at this point I am thinking of my own experiences. I have allowed bad sex to happen to me. I have also had sexual encounters that I would classify as assault because there was no space for me to allow anything. I believe there is a difference, and conflating the two is to diminish the seriousness of the latter and deny female agency.”

And then another friend of mine, Anonymous 2, on why campaigning to end the international sex trade is damaging to women:

“To say cash invalidates consent is to deny women agency.”

This last may seem like an odd one out, but I was struck by its similarity to Anonymous 1’s phrase, as well as the fact that it makes the identical error in definition that Wright does.

This may be a good moment to establish what, precisely, ‘agency’ is.

2 [ mass noun ] action or intervention producing a particular effect: canals carved by the agency of running water.

But, in philosophical terms, human agency is commonly distinguished from the agency of something like water by the fact that it is intentional: our mental states produce intentions, we make decisions to act in certain ways. This doesn’t mean, however, that the intentions and decisions behind agency are always fully conscious or thoroughly reasoned. Often, the concept of human agency refers to the capacity to act and produce effect, rather than to particular instances of action and effect as in the dictionary definition involving water. It’s important to note that agency isn’t the same as choice, neither is it free will. And it isn’t, as Wright or Anonymous 2 seem to think, the capacity and the right “to tell the difference” between consent and dissent, or between anything else for that matter. That would be something like discernment, or moral judgment, or moral autonomy.

There’s also a little confusion or slippage going on with the word ‘deny.’ Is the problem that we are actually depriving women of agency, or only that we are speaking as if they never had any? Say if we called what Ansari did a sexual assault, or criminalised the men who buy and sell women’s bodies: is the problem that this would be depriving women of their capacity to act, or that it would be treating them as if they had no capacity to act in the first place? Much of the time the phrase ‘denying female agency’ seems to be levelling both accusations at the same time, which doesn’t make much sense. Bari Weiss seems to be particularly confused on this front: recognising and lamenting that socially speaking women have less power than men, while also castigating ‘Grace’ for having wielded less power than Ansari, or perhaps even more than that for having made public her experience of feeling powerless.

But I digress: a number of voices are crying out that calling Ansari’s behaviour assault is damaging to female agency; that the entire #MeToo campaign is damaging to female agency; that fighting to end demand for prostitution is denying female agency; that feminism itself denies female agency. Victim mentality. Taking us back. Infantilising. Damsels in distress.

But how, exactly? Let’s try to reconstruct the logic of that argument – because, funnily enough, none of them have built a clear, step-by-step case.

Part of it seems to be that we struggle to reconcile our idea of agency with our idea of victimhood. But why? What is a victim, actually, and why do so many people perceive the term as a badge of shame signifying utter uselessness?

noun
a person harmed, injured, or killed as a result of a crime, accident, or other event or action: victims of domestic violence | earthquake victims.

The fact is that ‘victim’ in its primary sense classifies a person in respect of the agency of someone or something else. It doesn’t pertain to the agency of the victim at all. It has nothing to do with the choices they’ve made, contrary to what Weiss, Wright and my friend Anonymous 1 seem to suggest. Neither the legal definition of sexual assault nor the term ‘victim’ dictate that a person must have been choiceless either prior to or during the event: only that they didn’t choose or consent to that sexual touching. The term ‘sexual assault’ says no more about the implied victim than that they did not give their consent to the sexual touching.

Neither does the term ‘victim’ in its primary sense describe a person’s mentality, attitudes or feelings. That would be another, secondary sense of the word:

  • a person who has come to feel helpless and passive in the face of misfortune or ill-treatment: I saw myself as a victim | [ as modifier ] : a victim mentality.

There is absolutely nothing which dictates that this feeling or mentality must be present when we use the term ‘victim’ in the first sense: neither in the mind of the person using the term, nor in the mind of the person to whom it is applied.

And, funnily enough, no one is bemoaning the terrible agency-denying use of the label ‘victim’ to describe people harmed by earthquakes, or even those harmed by human acts such as murder or fraud. In fact, no one seems to get at all upset about the use of that term unless it is applied to those harmed by offences that are sexual or gendered (perpetrated by men against women) in nature.

To speak of an offence is to imply the existence of both a victim and an offender, but it is to describe the choices and actions of the offender, rather than those of the victim.

A concrete example: a person has committed burglary by entering a home uninvited with the intention of stealing/committing damage/causing bodily harm, whether the door was locked or not (the victim’s choice), and whether the inhabitants chose to fight or not (the victim’s choice). The inhabitants may exercise their agency to the full, choose to repel the burglar with the utmost of assertive pluck, and yet the burglar remains a burglar and her actions may be tried as burglary. And these courageous inhabitants who have successfully repelled the burglar, or restrained her until the police arrive, remain the victims of a burglary.

The label ‘victim’ describes neither the agency nor the feelings of said victim.

A victim may be active or passive; conscious or unconscious; brave or cowardly; deserving or undeserving; sweet and innocent or deplorable in every way.

Long story short: victimhood and agency are not mutually exclusive.

But we already knew this. We know that when someone tells us “I have been the victim of a burglary,” they are not saying “I am helpless. I am by nature a victim of burglary. I will always and forever be getting burgled because there are lots of nasty burglars and I have no agency. Oh, and everyone else who lives in a house is also by nature a helpless victim of burglary who has no agency.”

We understand that to say “I have been the victim of a burglary” may signify nothing more melodramatic than, “Someone broke into my house and stole stuff. They did something wrong that harmed me. I hold them accountable for it. I’m also going to get an alarm system so it’s less likely to happen again.”

So why is it that when a woman says “I have been the victim of a man’s sexual aggression” so many of us seem to panic and hear her say “I am helpless. I am by nature a victim of male sexual aggression. That’s because all women are by nature helpless victims of male sexual aggression”?

Perhaps because it isn’t really women that Weiss and Whelan and the rest are defending when they bluster about movements that “deny female agency”.

Because to speak of a sexual misconduct and its victim, rather than of “bad sex,” is to declare that the woman was entitled not to have experienced what she experienced: that she had the right to expect it would not happen, and to have behaved accordingly. It is to hold the man in question responsible as a perpetrator; it is to say, “he ought not to have done that, and other men ought not to do that in future.” It is a statement about male rather than female behaviours and mentalities: a criticism of them.

It is, if anything, an attack on male agency.

And why we can so little bear this, I’ll say next time.

 

 

 

[i] To disqualify her use of the term one would have to

  1. believe that she consented just by going to his place, and
  2. believe that the words ‘next time’ and ‘I don’t want to feel forced’, as well as her repeatedly moving his hand away from her genitals and retreating from him bodily, were not enough to withdraw that consent; or
  3. prove that she was lying about having said and done the above-mentioned.

Personally I don’t believe that a. and b. can leave anyone with a reasonable belief that the other person wants to have sex, but plenty do. Kyle Smith writes of ‘sex willingly embarked upon by both parties’ (even though no sex was actually had at all, which says a lot about how much attention he paid to Grace’s account); television host and former prosecutor Sunny Hostin pronounced that ‘she went willingly back to his apartment, they did engage in sexual activity consensually, and then somewhere along the lines she decided that she had had enough and wanted to go home.’ They do not offer to substantiate their assumptions of willingness, which does nothing to dispel my suspicion that their assertions are unfounded and more emotional than rational.

And I’d just like to reiterate for the umpteenth time that using such a term does not signify that one wants to have the perpetrator tried for the offence in court.  

 

#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.

Julie Bindel on The Pimping of Prostitution

A review of a Bristol Festival of Ideas Event on 14th March 2018

The sex trade is rape culture, said Julie Bindel on Wednesday night in Waterstones. It involves people (mostly men) having sex with other people (mostly women) who do not want to have sex with them. To legalise it is to sanction and normalise men desiring sex with women who do not desire them.

Normalising, or indeed eroticising sex with people who don’t want sex: that’s rape culture.

I had never heard it put like that before. There are passionate and persuasive arguments being made on both sides of the abolish/legalise debate, all claiming to be more progressive and humane than the rest; one casts about in the dark trying to get at the truth. But when I heard Bindel’s simple and devastating argument it was as though she had hit the switch of a particularly stark and unforgiving light. …

Read the rest on the Festival of Ideas blog

Making History, Learning Admiration: An Interview with Dr Naomi Paxton

At the International Women’s Day event orchestrated by Bristol Women’s Voice on Saturday 3rd March, I had the splendid luck to get an interview with suffrage historian (and actress, and comedian, and activist) Dr Naomi Paxton. I was interviewing her for Bristol Women’s Voice, of course, but it felt like a stroke of personal good fortune.

You see, the month of February had seen me delving into women’s suffrage history for a project with the National Trust (and learning more about it in that three-week period than I had in my entire life up to that point, History A level notwithstanding) and I had questions that felt urgent. How was it that I had come out of my Modern History A level with more admiration for David Lloyd George and his welfare reforms than for the women who fought so hard for the vote – for the right to have more say in the welfare of the nation?

So I told Paxton that I was concerned, as an educator as well as a feminist, with how we can better teach the admiration of these women – without it being shouted down as propaganda, which is an accusation that has already been levelled at the National Trust for their ‘Women and Power’ exhibition. She asked me with a shrewd gleam if it hadn’t been propaganda that had led me to admire Lloyd George. Of course I knew that really, but it was so good to have it from the historian’s mouth: we are subjected constantly to a stream of patriarchal propaganda from multiple directions, but this is so normalised as to appear neutral. To teach the admiration of suffragists and suffragettes, in this context, qualifies as resistance or redress.

Let alone admiration, her schooling hadn’t covered women’s suffrage at all. “I did the Tudors, and then I changed schools and did the Tudors again – so I knew quite a lot about the Tudors but nothing about women’s suffrage.” She discovered that history through theatre: through the discovery of suffrage plays. When I asked if she thought it ought to be taught in schools she said, rather generously I thought, that she was sure “every historian is clamouring for their bit of history,” but added that “as a latecomer to this whole story I would have loved to have learned it earlier, yes, and I would love to have learned more.”

This is a big part of the problem, I realised, as I listened to her speak: what we do tend to learn about the suffrage movement is so selective that it creates a partial and distorted image. We tend to learn about the WSPU, or Suffragettes, who were not the largest but only the most militant suffrage society – “perhaps because it’s the most voyeuristically pleasing to find out about” – but we rarely get to see “the wider picture”: it started long before 1903, and it wasn’t all militant campaigning, even for the militant societies. Neither do we get to see what Paxton calls “the wider point”: that “it was never all about a vote – it was about equal pay and better rape conviction rates and anti-vivisection”… and parental rights for women, better conditions for workers, and any number of reforms to “wider society”.

“Without being conspiracy theorists about it,” says Paxton, “I think there’s a sense that people want to consign it to a neat package.” To focus on the vote alone, and on the dramatic clashes between state and suffragettes, is “to consign the suffrage movement to a part of history that feels very ‘done’ … and that allows you to steer attention away from the other subjects that are still relevant and problematic now.”

Yes: when you consider that the fight for women’s suffrage was a fight for better conditions for working class women, for single mothers, for children, for married women, for widows, for prostitutes, for women of all professions, for entry into professions from which women were excluded, not to mention animal welfare and all kinds of social reform – and when you look at the extraordinary opposition to the movement – then it becomes harder to deny the great urgency behind the campaign, or to consign its significance to the past. “Those things are all still very relevant now, and maybe that’s not the best advertisement for our society and how far we’ve moved. Yes women have got the vote, but actually have all these other things moved forward? Do we have equal representation, do we have equal pay, do we have an end to violence against women and girls, do we have equality of opportunity for all? No. That’s hugely problematic, and obviously posting up those things is hugely important.”

Indeed. I had imagined that I couldn’t possibly feel my feminist convictions more intensely – until I began looking into this history and realised what a deprivation it had been not to have known about it before. As Paxton puts it, once you begin investigating one aspect of women’s history you end up asking yourself “‘why am I not learning about women inventors, why am I not learning about women explorers, why are the only women here painted to be very much extraordinary rather than ordinary – why are we not learning about women more widely in our history?’”

Which is why all this noise about the centenary of votes for some women is absolutely vital.

“This year’s really exciting because it gives us a chance to talk about the diversity of the campaign,” says Paxton. Especially now that the film Suffragette has been “done” (“a lot of the major issues have been dealt with: forceful feeding, militancy, and Emily Wilding Davison – tick”), we have the opportunity to explore “the stories that are less violent, or less extraordinary, and that relate more to how people live their lives now. These are the stories that say, ‘Why might you get involved, why might I have got involved? Are you involved in activism; what would make you become involved in activism – and if you did, how would that manifest in your day-to-day life, within your social circles, within your family circles?’ Those are the things that are really important, I think, about learning suffrage history.”

This gives me the occasion to ask her about her own activism: how it manifests in her life – and how much it can change anyone’s day-to-day.

“Oh, hugely,” she says without a moment’s hesitation. Paxton is on the steering committee for a lobbying group called 50:50 Parliament (for which she also actively campaigns); she’s a trustee for a group called Not Buying It, which campaigns against sexualised images of women in the media; she has been involved in London’s Reclaim the Night, in Bechdel Theatre and with Women@Rada (working on gender equality in the field of performance); she’s an associate artist of Scary Little Girls, a feminist production hub; she performs feminist comedy in character as ‘Ada Campe,’ and at present she is working as Research Assistant at Parliament with the Vote 100 team and others on a joint project called ‘What Difference Did the War Make? World War One and Votes for Women’, which you can take a look at online.

Parliament’s Vote 100 project will culminate in a fascinating exhibition this summer called ‘Voice and Vote’, exploring at “how women have interacted with politics and politicians on the Parliamentary estate throughout the past two centuries”. The exhibition will demonstrate, for instance, how the spaces to which women were confined (thrillingly named ‘The Ventilator’, ‘The Cage’, and ‘The Tomb’) created physical as well as symbolic obstacles to their participation in politics. It also looks at how women’s participation in Parliamentarian spaces has changed them. Some online exhibitions from the project are already available: have a look!

The team have also been involved with putting together a ‘MOOC’ (Massive Open Online Course) called ‘Beyond the Ballot: Women’s Rights and Suffrage from 1866 to Today.’ (You can take it for free! I for one am certainly joining the 11,000 who have signed up.) There has been a lot of positive feedback from learners already.

Paxton concludes this list of things she’s doing for the cause of women’s rights and representation with a sincere “and one can do more; but I absolutely try to use my powers for good.”

Trying to imagine how exactly one could do more, I ask her what she might say to women interested in getting into activism, or just setting out: where can they start?

“Oh, well, welcome!” she says, as if really pleased. “Thanks, come and join, and you can start wherever you are. Part of it is finding your own language and articulating your thoughts and your experiences and your ideas; you don’t necessarily have to be the most articulate or have the most knowledge, but find out where you are and work within what you know – and then just try to find out more about the things that you are interested in. Really it’s about becoming articulate in your own way and expressing your ideas and not being intimidated. If there’s a campaign that you don’t see, perhaps start it, or talk about it.

Go to WoW festivals. (I’ve been to so many of them and they’re hugely exciting.) Look at websites. Read books. Research history: if that’s family history, that’s great; if that’s suffrage history, that’s great; if that’s the history of the last five years that you can read on blogs online then do that. Yes, welcome, and start from where you are: there’s no gold standard to be met. It’s about feeling that you have something to contribute – and if that’s three minutes a month, then that’s three minutes more than there were before. Everybody’s voice is important, everyone should have equality of opportunity to participate in creating change for the future – and in representing people who are not always represented. So if you don’t hear your voice there, get it there somehow.”

Before we parted ways I couldn’t refrain from asking her what had come out of the research project: what difference did the war make? This was one of the questions that had a personal urgency for me. That it was the war rather than the campaign which secured votes for women (that the Suffragettes needn’t have bothered making all that unladylike fuss, in short) was the truism repeated by my A level teacher, the same I’ve heard repeated by so many others since then, as though all their teachers had repeated it too… I confessed to Paxton that I felt the argument of the war was used to dismiss the intelligence, the courage and importance of the women’s political campaigning.

“Exactly, yes,” she said, “and it’s really not the case that they got it because they worked hard in the war. It’s just not true.” Politicians at the time stated clearly that “it wasn’t a reward for war work” but a right that ought to be extended to women anyway. And it certainly was no reward, “because some of the women who were most heavily involved in some of the heaviest war work were not enfranchised by the war” – the majority of the Munitionettes and women who worked in the Auxiliary Corps, for instance, were under 30.

There were a number of complex factors, she says, but of crucial importance were the fact that the franchise had to be revised anyway for the men who had been excluded from it by the war (fighting away from home so long they didn’t meet the property qualification); the change in Prime Minister from anti-suffrage Asquith to relatively sympathetic Lloyd George; and – last in this list but certainly not least – the continued campaigning of every single suffrage society other than the WSPU. A deputation of more than 80 women from 33 suffrage societies pushed to have the matter tabled at the 1917 Speakers Conference which was held to discuss the franchise, and which afterwards made recommendations to Parliament. Then it was down to the Commons to decide, and when it came to it Lloyd George did not send out the government whips to push MPs to vote for women’s suffrage. In short, as Paxton puts it, “it could very easily not have happened.”

So there was nothing inevitable about women getting the vote: it had had to be fought for; the fight had mattered. And it matters to us, to know that now: it reveals how much those women shaped our world – teaching us to admire them – and it reminds us how much power we have to shape it for those who will come after us. Which teaches us to admire each other and ourselves.

Having thus soothed my heart, which had so wanted a historian to tell me I could take pride in the world-shaping powers of those women, Paxton left me with this parting advice:

“Read Suffrage newspapers! If you want to find out more, if you want to learn what happened in your area, you want to know a little bit more about the diversity of the campaign – and you have access to the internet – read the suffrage newspapers because they will just open up a whole world. … If you read just one issue you will realise how diverse and representative the campaign was. They are reporting about all the things that happen across the UK, they are reporting about working class women, about women in other countries, they’re reporting about what’s happening in parliament… you’ll see.” She flatly denies the frequently-levelled accusation that the movement was not inclusive. “People want to find fault: ‘where are the men, where are the working class women?’ And they are there, they are absolutely there,” she says.

“And do the MOOC, because it’s free!”

 

 

You can read the suffrage newspapers for free, on Google Newspapers: it has Votes For Women – initially the WSPU newspaper, later was taken over by the United Suffragists – The Common Cause, the NUWSS newspaper, and The Vote, the Women’s Freedom League paper, listed under the title The Globe.

Find out more about Paxton’s comedy as well as her research, and enjoy her highly readable blog, at http://www.naomipaxton.co.uk/.

On Admiring Women: IWD 2018

Despite the attack of the Beast from the East, women of all descriptions (and some men!) flocked to Bristol City Hall on Saturday 3rd March to partake in the International Women’s Day events orchestrated by Bristol Women’s Voice.

Sadly there were a handful of scheduled speakers who couldn’t get to us across the snow-bound country, including well-known suffrage historian Elizabeth Crawford and the women who were to lead the African Voice Forum Discussion –but the wonderful thing is that there were so many brilliant women on the programme that it easily took the hit.

I’m relatively new to Bristol, didn’t know anyone at the event and had sort of expected to spend the day weaving between the impenetrable faces of strangers; only it wasn’t like that at all. We collected in the foyer where Burning Brass, a collective of women drummers and horn players were very successfully turning even ‘Hit the Road, Jack’ into a rousing feminist anthem, and smiles of complicity met me whichever way I looked. I’m not generally given to waxing lyrical about ‘good vibes’, but I will say that a palpable atmosphere of cheerful co-operation seemed to unite the many women of diverse backgrounds and generations. I had been greeted at the entrance by a girl young enough to be my daughter and then fell into conversation with a woman old enough to be my grandmother: this felt precious. And the speakers were approachable in a way I hadn’t expected: suffrage historian, activist and comedian Dr Naomi Paxton granted me such a warm and stirring interview (read it here!) that I was left feeling like I’d been given a pep talk.

With all the will in the world I couldn’t wrangle being in three places at once but I did manage to take in a workshop on domestic abuse awareness by brilliant Bristol charity Next Link; some of Elizabeth Crawford’s talk on suffrage propaganda – read by Paxton; a panel on The Women Who Built Bristol by Jane Duffus; a talk on modern slavery and human trafficking from Unseen; a discussion on the concept of ‘Honour’ with the young people of Integrate UK (who work with other young people on issues around FGM and honour-based violence); and a final panel on fighting gender-based violence in Bristol.

One highlight I’d like to share is Next Link’s simple brainstorming activity on the possible ‘losses’ and ‘gains’ of leaving an abusive relationship, which provides a powerful rebuttal to the judgmental – and common – question ‘why didn’t she leave?’ The list of losses that we drew up together in the workshop was painfully long with items such as ‘the person you love’, ‘your home’, and ‘dreams’. The list of gains, though equally long, featured benefits that would have to be hard-won: ‘recovering mental health’, ‘self-esteem’, ‘new friends,’ ‘a healthy relationship one day.’ As someone who has had to leave the man I love to escape his escalating violence – the hardest thing I’ve ever done – and who met with painful incomprehension and judgment from those who thought it should be easy, it was balm to my heart to witness Next Link raising awareness of what is an all-too-common reality.

I didn’t get to attend the Wonderful Women Awards ceremony (BWV celebrating Bristol women who have been nominated for their contributions to the community), but as I sat, an eager beaver in the front row of the final panel of the day, with Charlotte Gage of Bristol Zero Tolerance (working against gender-based violence), Melissa Blackburn, CEO of Unchosen (working against modern slavery) and Alex Raikes of SARI (working against racist and now gender-based hate crime) – as well as Cheryl Morgan (who runs trans awareness courses) in the front row beside me – I was handing out the awards inside my own head. I had heard so many women speak that day about the work they were doing to make change and improve lives: hard-headed and warm-hearted women; women fighting, women leading. It seemed suddenly as though women were the ones turning the machinery of the world: driving it forwards.

That’s why we need International Women’s Day, I realise, and Women’s History Month, and as much noise as possible about the centenary of votes for (some) women, not to mention noise about the work that women are doing now across so many fields. We need to draw attention to the achievements of women, not as some kind of back-patting exercise but as remedial education. We are learning machines, we humans, collecting great banks of data and storing countless connections; but the dominant culture that most of us learn in does not teach us to associate women with courage, with hard-headed organising, with authority, with leadership. We’re deprived of the histories, of the news stories, even of the films and fictions that would teach us to connect the idea of ‘woman’ with the idea of ‘greatness.’

But just a day like this Saturday goes some way to redressing the deficit. So do books like The Women Who Built Bristol by Jane Duffus, which offers an A-Z of ‘250 inspiring women, three sheroic dogs and one heartbroken barmaid from Easton’ who had an impact on Bristol between 1184 and 2018. (In fact, reading books by women writers only is a good idea: I’ve been doing that for two years and it has had an enormous impact on the way I see the world.)

During the panel on The Women Who Built Bristol Duffus asked her panellists, who were also contributors to the book, what it meant to them to have these histories collected in print. I listened to Dr Naomi Paxton and Dr Finn Mackay agree that it was inspiring and that we can learn a lot from the strategies of the women activists who have gone before us. All true. But for me the book and their clear voices ringing out from the stage had, like all the events that day, one greater significance: they were lessons in admiring women.