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:
“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?
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
- believe that she consented just by going to his place, and
- 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
- 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.