Tuesday, January 16, 2018

This aggressive sexual culture is sadly banal

The Aziz Ansari bad, coercive date account makes me really sad. Not even specifically in the larger context of the deluge of allegations and revelations about famous, powerful men who – not surprisingly, but sadly – have abused power. While men are, willingly or unwillingly, consciously or unconsciously, the beneficiaries of patriarchy and sexism, it’s not surprising that celebrities may leverage male privilege on a disproportionate scale: if sexism and patriarchy has made men feel entitled and immune, it follows that more powerful, wealthy, famous men may feel even more entitled and immune. 

Image of statement from babe.net

It’s because, more so than other publicized accounts of sexual misconduct, it feels so sadly mundane.

For many people, the shock of what is often being referred to as the #metoo movement isn’t specifically the nature of the revelations and allegations themselves, it’s simply that they’re actually, finally being disclosed, and that harassment, assault, abuse of power, and rape are being revealed and discussed openly.

It’s that no matter how much any of us – women of varying intersecting social positions and identities and levels of privilege – were taught to internalize guilt and shame and socialized to take undue responsibility for things done to us, slowly but surely we’re unlearning internalized misogyny and toxic gender norms and discovering that mistreatment and pain and close calls aren’t due to our shortcomings and failures. That the amount we’ve been taught to be vigilant and safeguard ourselves from inevitable sexual attack has normalized the expectation that sexual violence is inevitable.

And what’s the alternative – abandon vigilance? Just because sexual violence and harassment shouldn’t be ubiquitous, ever-looming threats doesn’t change the practical, immediate, safety and well-being concerns for women’s physical and emotional survival.

In a post in late 2016 called the continuum of consent I finally articulated my thoughts on what I might now, wryly, also call consent relativism. I was thinking about how I had learned to feel lucky I’d never been raped. So many experience I’d had, I decided were Not That Bad. In that post, I grappled with realizing, in hindsight, what events I understood to be consensual, as in not blatantly and completely forcible and non-consensual, were not that consensual at all based on an ever-expanding, feminist definition that pivots around the revolutionary notion of consent as enthusiastic and continuous.

In writing that post, I tried to understand why we’re so afraid to risk presenting an experience as Yes, That Bad and why our minds work so relentlessly to rationalize horrific predatory behaviour (something I dug into in this post).

As I was thinking about my own gut reactions to the Ansari story, I came across this post by Katie Anthony on katykatikate, aptly titled “not that bad,” that so perfectly encapsulated and enlightened my complicated feelings about how we characterize, understand, and file away these kind of encounters:
“I have had my fair share of what I'd call 'crappy dates.' And what I call crappy dates looks an awful lot like what Grace calls sexual assault. It's like we went on the same dates, wrote down the same details, and told two very different stories.”
“And yes, guys, what Grace described is totally normal for a woman. This is a normal sex encounter. The women that you're seeing scoff at her? They aren't scoffing because they think a guy would never do that. They're scoffing because they believe every single word she said. They don't have to imagine it either.” 
 “What I'm realizing now, after reading Grace's story and the responses to it, is that when I shrink my own pain, I also shrink my empathy for women who feel the same pain and feel it full-size. I resent Grace for talking about her hookup as if it's an assault. I'm mad at her for talking about it at all.”
As Anthony so astutely synthesizes elsewhere in the post and I’ll paraphrase here: bad, presumptive, non-communicative, heteronormative sex needs to be analyzed in the context of sexism, patriarchy, gender norms, and our sad, aggressive, masculinist sexual culture that exalts men’s needs and tramples on women’s.

I can think of so many experiences that were bad dates in my more formative years of dating guys outside those I grew up with and trusted, because my fear of embarrassing the man, looking inexperienced, or escalating an uncomfortable situation made me inclined to comply and get through it.

I think of how this conversation wasn’t on my radar in 2004, 2005, or 2006. How two girlfriends drove to a house where I was on a bad, weird date and showed up after getting my text SOS. How, daring to let my guard down once, I was once almost dragged away from a party by a stranger when vigilant and loving friends, male and female, physically intervened (you know who you are – thank you). How for a long time I was more embarrassed about this situation than being enraged by a potential close call with date rape.

In 2005, I only knew “no means no” and that was about it. I was a fairly empowered young person with a lot of access to education and access to the reinforcement of good self-esteem, but I didn’t know consent should be explicitly given, and could be withdrawn.

Still, my mind knows others have experienced worse, and tries to file these under Not That Bad.

Women’s experiences of heterosexual sex that is aggressive, uncomfortable, dismissive of needs, non-communicative and that privileges men’s expectation and desires may be what women know as simply, regular sex, particularly while dating/ hooking up or at the start of a relationship. To men, this may just be sex. This is a problem and it is unacceptable. Men have defined the terms for too long.

As I was writing this my partner, who is a man, looked over my shoulder and said he felt exhausted by what I was writing, but also said he recognized and understood that it wasn’t his place to be exhausted. In other words, this topic, while exhausting, is not his exhausting everyday reality, an exhausting reality that disproportionately affects women depending on race, class, ability, and other intersecting identities and privileges or lack of privileges that impact safety, wellness, and access to supports.

I said, yes – having this self-awareness on this topic is not the arena for men to strive for bonus points and extras and leverage their feminism for social capital and praise, but rather we should expect men to participate in such a way that to support, champion, self-analyze, and make strides of sincere and dedicated allyship gets them up to zero.

A solid baseline. Strive to show up, and be there.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Fearing for men’s feelings: Aggression, abuse, and embarrassment

Image via qz.com

That men would ever show women their penis and/or masturbate in front of them as an act of power and sexual aggression is not something I remember having to discover.

I don’t recall getting to discover or learn this fact because I was five-years-old when a boy showed me his penis on the playground at daycare. I remember, even then, already, even with other kids around, even knowing nothing about gender and power, feeling embarrassed and uncomfortable. How did I know to feel this way?

Meanwhile, in this same era, I recall getting admonished by a daycare worker for saying the word penis.

Meanwhile, in this same era, I recall daycare workers passing off boys being inappropriate and invasive towards girls as “childhood curiosity.” Well, at the time I didn’t understand. Later, that’s how I learned they explained it.

That men and boys would do this to women and girls isn’t something we usually get to discover, in a shocking or alarming way, because this insidious dynamic simply becomes known, slowly and quietly, through daily actions, aggressions big and small, and immersion in a culture informed by patriarchy, victim-blaming, and veneration for men’s feelings.

No matter what happens, no matter what they do, you are not to sexually embarrass the man. At five-years-old, having barely learned anything about gender and sex and power, I knew to be embarrassed that a kid was running around showing his penis to other kids, notably girls, on the playground. Our culture had already taught me that. This indoctrination, of knowing to be afraid to embarrass men, doesn’t go away easily.

In response to the admitted revelations of Louis C.K.’s abusive behaviour, feminist writer Clementine Ford succinctly summed up the experience of women assessing and trying to prevent escalation in threatening situations in a series of tweets, and then in this article:

“Women are taught from such a young age to preserve men's egos, particularly when it comes to sex.

A lot is said about women going along with certain behaviours out of shock or fear. These are both true statements. Sometimes we can't believe that what's happening is happening (such as a man suddenly masturbating in front of us). Other times we are genuinely fearful for our safety and so plan our response according to what will prove less harmful to us (how do I stop this man suddenly masturbating in front of me from escalating his behaviour and physically harming me).
Women might unwillingly stay in rooms with men committing egregious or sordid acts of abuse for reasons related to their own shock or fear, but one reason we definitely stay in those rooms is to preserve the male ego. We have spent our whole lives learning not to embarrass men, and our education has been so effective that not even them repeatedly embarrassing us seems to be able to shake those lessons off.

C.K.’s admitted actions get to the horrifying reality of this issue: that men think they can get away with abuse and aggression while women have been socialized to
1) fear for their safety for good reason,
2) immediately assess threatening scenarios to attempt to calculate the safest (for their bodies, for their minds, for their careers) way out or way through the situation while,
3) working through disbelief, self-doubt, and ingrained fear of embarrassing the perpetrator.

Wondering why a woman wouldn’t leave, “walk away” or “fight back” shows a lack of understanding of how deeply ingrained socialization under patriarchy is, how often women are forced to do a million, split-second calculations in their minds to figure out the best way to endure an abusive or harassing situation, and how terrified we were taught to be of embarrassing men, let along exposing actual abuse and misconduct against a powerful person amidst the expected reaction of shaming, victim-blaming, and doubt.

Most women have a private list of instances in which they've assessed the situation and, whether consciously or not, made decisions based on being afraid to embarrass a man.

And while we’re considering the gravity of actions and grappling with whether or not something was “that bad,” it’s crucial that we not hierarchalize sexual misconduct and gender-based harassment. I know, in my own mind, there is an automatic process that occurs, in which I attempt to understand or assess the severity of something. It's part of how we process and understand what is happening.

But I’ve come to believe that there is a line that is crossed when a person takes advantage of power, privilege, and position to hurt, intimidate, or abuse women. Whether they cross it by “a little” or “a lot” doesn’t matter. Abuse of power is abuse of power. 

C.K. felt both physically safe as well as socially entitled to act in a sexually inappropriate manner towards women (and women colleagues). It doesn't matter if his abuse didn't have physical contact.

And while it’s disappointing to many people, especially men, who enjoyed and admired Louis C.K., to discover this icon definitely did these inappropriate and abusive actions towards women, and women colleagues he met through professional situations, I urge them to resist prioritizing their disappointment, their sense of loss over a male public figure, over considering the women who endured these experiences, and who endure experiences like this every day, for one second.

Your sense of loss is simply unimportant compared to the reinforcement of the fact that women have one more example of power abuse and sexual misconduct to add to the list.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

When talking hurts

Personal disclosure is necessary, but can still disadvantage us.

By disclosing we help each other and we make it OK to talk. But stigma can’t be solved by disclosure alone. It’s unrealistic to believe there aren’t still personal risks to disclosure, no matter how much we want it to be otherwise. It can still disadvantage us. “Us” being the nebulous, diverse, extremely varying body of people affected by mental health issues. Or depending on how you prefer to frame it, the mentally ill. 

The hardest thing to convey about mental illness is that illness, like health, is a continuum. It is not a binary state – well or not, ill or not. How do we compare health? How do we compare and evaluate sickness? What does it meant to be diagnosed? Is “diagnosis” a static state? We know that a lack of diagnosis does not mean a lack of illness.

I’ve been fairly fortunate and feel privileged to have not experienced as much stigma or discrimination as others have related to their mental illness. I know there are a variety of intsercting reasons for this. I have always been pretty open with my struggles and have attempted, at least, to be frank and offer disclosure slightly ahead of the curve of increasing social acceptance and mainstream discourse of mental health issues. A friend, someone I really admire when it comes to her disclosure about mental illness, called me a pioneer once. That meant a lot to me. Still, I find myself holding back a lot of the time. I find myself unable to disclose or share with the frankness of some in my network, some whose disclosure I admire, and empathize with, and have received real and tangible comfort from. Because the stigma is very, very real.

And while I hesitate to align myself in a facile way with the new wave of discourse on “what it’s like to be high functioning” or brand myself as someone who “you wouldn’t believe is ill!” because the last thing I want is to promote and perpetuate a dichotomy: a dichotomy between those who experience illness but not so much stigma, and those who, because of the nature and severity of their experiences and/or various intersecting ways they are marginalized, truly bear the brunt of societal stigma. The fact that people have been surprised when I disclosed I experienced illness was intended to be read, by me, as some sort of compliment. I get the intention, and appreciate how you see me, but it’s a weird experience.

But we cannot hierarchialize levels of “functioning” among ourselves, which can serve to compound the stigma for those who are, at times, “low functioning,” whatever that means.

We’ve all been there. Illness is fluid.

How do we, who experience illness, show compassion and allyship with those who also experience illness but experience levels and impacts of stigma in different ways?

I’m thinking about this because I recently felt extreme and upsetting discrimination as a result of bureaucratic, institutional stigma. The kind of stigma we justify and protect because “well, that’s just the way it is, the way it has to be!” Within our mechanisms of evaluating and understanding health and risk, we have not erased mental illness stigma. We have not found a way to bring nuance into rubrics and standardized forms. Without delving too deep into an experience that was truly triggering (a phrase I don’t use lightly), I did an insurance related interview and disclosed my experiences with mental illness.

I disclosed because my illnesses – depression and anxiety – are well documented within the medical industrial complex. I’ve lived more than half my life somewhere on the continuum – being treated, not being treated, feeling ill, feeling well, feeling like my illnesses are latent or in remission. How do you answer yes or no questions about mental illness and treatment? What is “being treated?”

When was your last episode?

How frequent are your episodes?

Have you ever had suicidal thoughts?

Plus complete disclosure on medications, frequency, dosages, etc.

Once you’ve been sick, are you always just post-sickness? A mental illness survivor? Do I ever get to reset, or will my medical history haunt me forever? 

How come we often don’t see mental illness as on par with physical illness when it comes to support and access to care, yet we conflate it with physical health when convenient?

I disclosed I have a prescription – primarily used for insomnia these days – that I use infrequently. It takes me about a year to use 20. Doesn’t matter – that means I’m medicated.

I disclosed that, after almost two years without daily medication, I asked my doc to try a new prescription. I went so far as to fill it a few months after getting the prescription, and ultimately decided not to use it. I’m very, very pro medication and think it can be a great help. It has been for me at various times. But it didn’t feel right for me now. Yet I disclosed. I tried to convey the nuance. But there is no room for nuance when it comes to standardized evaluations of sickness or health, so it counted against me. As did the mere two months of free, sporadic, university counselling centre counselling sessions that I undertook before I finished my latest academic program.

Undertaking medication and or counselling should be viewed as indicative of healing. Of trying. Of taking action. Of wellness! Yet for this purpose, disclosing meant I was sick. And within this institutionalized framework of assessing my health, it was allowed, it was OK, it was even legislated, to stigmatize me. So I was declined this insurance. Even though my illnesses are (gratefully) not affecting my ability to work and participate. Because being anywhere on that illness spectrum made me risky, even though, we know that mental health is a fluid, every changing state, something we all, with or without diagnoses, need to work at and maintain. There is no 100 per cent mentally healthy person to compare ourselves to, is there?

It hurt because I’ve been so fortunate to almost never, in almost 30 years, feel dehumanized because of my mental illness. I’ve had friends and bosses and coworkers and professors who saw me as a whole person, a dynamic, strong, resilient, motivated person. I’ve been so privileged to go through stretches where my illnesses have not needed to be a part of my identity in any public, social way – where they were under the radar. Not concealed, just not relevant. My illnesses have very, very rarely affected my motivation, concentration, and ability to work and complete my post-secondary education. 

I know I am fortunate. Still, sometimes they affect various aspects of my life. Sometimes I have no energy at all. Could it be the staggeringly challenging and frequently forgotten-about physical symptoms of depression? Or my anemia and vitamin deficiency? Or a long history of simply being really busy and doing a lot of stuff and exhausting my body? Who knows?!

We have to talk about mental health. I, like many of you, feel a responsibility to disclose, especially if sharing the knowledge of my experiences, my ebb and flow, and my various recoveries, helps someone feel less alone and more hopeful. We need to remember that many among us feel they cannot disclose and share. 

When encouraging people to talk, we need to remember that talking can hurt. It can hurt some of us more than others. But not talking is not the solution.

And if we ask people to talk, we have to be prepared to listen.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Women online: Sexist harassment is not inevitable

The first in a series of posts about different facets of feminist activism online, the disturbing pitfalls of being a woman on the Internet, and how being online has reinforced to many the work that still needs to be done.

We all know how dismally toxic the Internet and social media can be for women. What worries me is how banal this knowledge has become. This knowledge is so self-evident, so widely known, so relatively undisputed (save for the self-appointed, mansplaining Devil’s Advocates among us who are likely to downplay or deny) that the harassment of women begins to feel naturalized. Even though sexism and misogyny are systemic, structural, and deeply engrained, and need to be acknowledged and recognized as such, it is extremely dangerous to begin to see the tormenting of women in virtual spaces as inevitable   or worse still, a necessary byproduct of being a woman online that women have to accept and cope with if they want to participate.

It is so bad that we have all kinds of comparative mechanisms for evaluating gendered harassment and sexist attacks   “it’s not that bad, ” “it’s not as bad as _______,” “it’s not like what________ experienced.” What level of online abuse and harassment and/or threats based on gender is acceptable?

As women, our expectations can become so low that we feel grateful to have evaded online abuse, rather than feeling that getting to
1. exist, 2. participate online and (if applicable) 3. present ourselves as feminists without being attacked is a basic entitlement.

Of course, these pitfalls can affect women through online channels regardless of how much they put themselves out there online. It’s not just the most social media active and outspoken people   women who have any online presence, or who must use social media for their work, or who simply have an email address, can be targets.

The ease and inextricability of digital communications gives an enormous amount of 24/7 access to strangers and public figures and have emboldened many with an enormous sense of entitlement to this access.

I often refer to discussion of this topic as “women online” because as many woman identified or otherwise socially marginalized people know, just being online, taking up virtual space and existing, let alone using platforms for feminist messages, can be dangerous. By being online, we rebel and claim space for our thoughts, voices, and lives. And not everyone wants us to be in these spaces. We need to be, because:

  • Activism and campaigns that occur online and through digital platforms in virtual spaces are meaningful forms of tackling current issues and contributing to feminist projects.
  • There is great potential for online spaces and communities to be an important frontier for women’s rights and feminism due to the ability to self-publish and access discourse directly, but
  • Like the broader, non-virtual world, the Internet can be a dismal, toxic hellscape for women’s voices.

Trolling. Personal insults. Misogyny. Rape threats. Death threats. This toxic hellscape can be a reality for any woman or marginalized person, not necessarily those who identify as feminists or are doing overtly feminist work online.

Not surprisingly, the issue of online hostility and harassment of women and other marginalized people has only intensified as online platforms have become increasingly employed in social justice and activist work.

The sexism that percolates in the non-virtual world often translates into virtual spheres as unfettered and anonymous access to harass and abuse women. The argument that actions in virtual realms are less significant or meaningful than in the so called “real world” is often used to dismiss the abuse that occurs there. What happens to women online matters and has real effects, not least of all because of the fact that online harassment and abuse often contain real, offline threats. With rapid and increasing integration of digital technologies and platforms into every aspect of our lives, it’s unrealistic to expect women – or anyone – to be able to ignore what occurs there.

It strikes me what gargantuan expectations we have for women’s resilience in an increasingly hostile climate where the sexist status quo is critiqued but remains resistant to radical upheaval. How could we possibly expect women to ignore and not feel threatened and terrified by misogynist abuse, and rape and death threats?

Male privilege can be an incredible shield to feeling truly threatened by cruel comments and attacks.

I believe that online dialogue and activism are powerful ways to provoke cultural norms and beliefs to change and evolve. I know for myself, my feminist consciousness really arose in the age of blogs and Internet content because I felt able to learn more about different experiences and issues I wouldn’t otherwise have access too. For me, online writing and using Twitter and Facebook to discuss feminist issues and concern is interwoven with my experience of feminist activism. But our cultural contributions are hampered by toxic, sexist online spaces.

I’m reminded today of a status I posted two years ago while working as a web and social media editor and comment moderator:

“Today in the wild world of news website comment moderation: Moderator is accused of being a woman because someone’s comment supposedly wasn’t posted.”

(The actual comment was much cruder).

We can’t accept the toxic hellscape. When I feel discouraged, I think of this quote from a great, feminist friend who told me this after some disappointing experience online that I can’t even remember:

“Remember that the Internet is a Mad Max-esque place. And you are Imperator Furiosa.”

Thursday, October 13, 2016

The continuum of consent

Not unlike most weeks, this last week there’s been a lot of discussion about sexual assault, consent, and male entitlement to women’s bodies in the wake of the Trump Tapes. Of course, few people are surprised that Donald Trump would boast about touching and kissing women without their willing participation (and if its a rich, powerful, famous man initiating outside of a mutually agreed upon relationship, or in a semi-public context, could any reciprocity really be called willing?) What’s sad is our lack of surprise. Trump’s repeated degradation and outright contempt for women is not new. What frightens me is normalizing these low expectations. I am sad that I’m not shocked about how deep this (rich, privileged, white) man’s sense of entitlement and disregard for women’s personhood goes. I want to believe that Trump is an extreme outlier, a caricature of outlandish misogyny, but I know thats not true.

I was five-years-old the first time someone – another child, a boy – touched my body invasively. I won’t say where it happened or the context, in order to protect those involved because, of course, as a girl and a woman I’ve been socialized to feel bad about other people making bad decisions and I struggle to hold people rightfully accountable. The point is, at least one adult knew about it and minimized and dismissed it, because “children are curious.”

They are, but they also need to be told to keep their goddamn hands to themselves.

That was the first of many implicit and accidental lessons I was taught about my general lack of bodily autonomy. It was the first of many lessons on the fact that I couldn’t truly expect boys to leave it – my body – alone.

It’s taken a long time – my life thus far – to slowly understand what I call the continuum of consent. For several years as I became more engaged in feminist and anti-violence advocacy it dawned on me that I was “lucky” I’d never been raped. I remember thinking, wow, how lucky am I to have made it to 25 or 27 or now, 29, without having been raped. Then I realized how sad it was to live in a culture in which sexual violence is so pervasive, and feels so inevitable, that I felt I was fortunate to have enjoyed a relative absence of sexual violence. As if I had gained access to something extra, something special, as opposed to the bare minimum of what I should expect and deserve as a human person.

As I started to really dig into my experiences socialized female within this culture, I started to realize there was a lot more to it – that women’s experiences around consent and non-consent were more complex than two camps – those who have been raped and those who have not been raped.

The continuum of consent. Whether or not a woman has experienced rape, she’s absolutely had experiences that range from completely consensual to non-consensual. Once I started to imagine consent around sexual contact as a continuum, I realized how many of my sexual experiences hadn’t been completely consensual after all.

I think of all the times a man has touched me without my permission, and I have ignored, deflected, or wriggled out of the situation rather than confront. Sometimes, it’s been because confrontation hasn’t been physically safe. Sometimes, it’d been because the power dynamics of the situation made it unsafe or threatening. Other times, it’s been because I simply didn’t want to embarrass the man. How did I learn to value a man’s potential embarrassment over my bodily autonomy? Where did that come from?

I’ve beat myself up over missed opportunities to call out sexist behaviour and unwanted attention. Sometimes I am able – I’ve felt able to resist, to call out the situation when it’s been more than warranted. There are other times I felt the only course of action was to simply endure. I’ve felt sad and enraged afterward, but the deck is stacked against women trying to confront. It’s OK, even socially sanctioned, for our bodily autonomy to be invaded and disrespected, but not OK to resist it vocally. Don’t we all just have to learn to take a joke, after all?

It takes a long time to unlearn what is so readily and purposefully taught socially. It has taken a long time for me to learn, to really understand, that you can consent to one thing and not another. That consent can have conditions. That consent can be withdrawn. How did we learn that sexual violence is our fault? How did we learn to be ashamed of what other people have done to us? And how did we learn not to talk about it?

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

What we mean when we say rape culture

There's no such thing as rape culture. Rape is illegal, prosecutable under law, and everyone hates rapists!

Yeaaaah OK so no one who calls out, and lives under the threat of, rape culture has suggested that, universally, rape is formally, openly condoned and accepted. If we say rape is normalized, we don’t mean that society isn’t upset about it or that individual people don’t challenge or condemn it. We mean that male physical and sexual aggression feels socially inevitable because it has always happened and seems to keep happening. We worry about how to report it, how to support victims, and how to punish or deter perpetrators because the idea of it not happening again seems wholly unlikely. 

We are so used to it, we are unable to defamiliarize rape and remember that it exists within a cultural framework that sustains its continuation.

Related links:

Here Is The Powerful Letter The Stanford Victim Read Aloud To Her Attacker

Stanford rape case: Sex offender's dad says 6 months is too harsh for '20 minutes of action'

Because the Onion's satirization of the case is on point: 

College Basketball Star Heroically Overcomes Tragic Rape He Committed

Those who ignorantly deny the world as it is and claim that rape culture is a fabrication are usually so stupefied by the embeddedness of this culture that it’s invisible to them. The same people who deny that a culture is flawed and problematic are usually those benefitting the most from that status quo. The people who insert themselves into arguments decrying feminism and claiming sexism isn’t so bad, really, are usually the most privileged, most immune, and the least likely to become victims. Like any social ill that disproportionately affects a marginalized group that people dont care that much about anyway, society throws up its hands.

Which begs the question – where does an incessant need to argue against the existence of something a person hasn’t experienced come from? What causes some boys and men to be adamant that a phenomenon they have no lenses through which to glimpse firsthand couldn’t possibly exist. Because it doesn’t happen to them. If it doesn’t happen to them, it can’t be real. Because patriarchy.

If I say, according to my embodied experiences and knowledges as a woman in the world, that rape culture exists and is interwoven in a given society, culture or space (physical or virtual), I am not saying that everyone, or even anyone specifically, is openly, self-consciously promoting sexual assault and/or boasting about it (although, lets face it, those things actually do happen in certain instances, notably when perpetrators or bystanders have bragged about or even shared photos of women being assaulted). Its about naming and describing a larger, amorphous, invisible, systemic structure of sexism and denigration of women that guides and informs society. Its a byproduct of societies that are undeniably patriarchal and sexist.

You didn’t personally marginalize or devalue a woman on the basis of her gender or treat her with explicit, self-conscious bias? Congratulations. Sexism still exists. It’s crucial that people – especially those with male privilege – learn to see outside themselves and the bigger picture. 

Society is still sexist – that doesn’t mean I’m saying that you, Individual Man, are sexist. Be calm.

This article by Rebecca Blakey of GUTS really strikes at the heart of defining this nebulous idea that women find themselves having to explain over and over again:

“Rape culture is an environment in which rape is presumed to be inevitable and certain people are taught to fear rape and certain people are not. Rape persists because rape is related to the universal devaluing of people and behaviour deemed to be feminine. Rape persists because we ceaselessly conceive of rape as related to our conceptions of what is strange, or alien, to humanity. Rape persists because the language we ascribe to sex facilitates the weaponization of sex into rape.”

Do we live in societies in which rape is construed as a constant risk/possibility, in which women are taught they have to be safe and learn to avoid risk and protect themselves, and in which people, even people whose own child would do this, deny and downplay the trauma and seriousness of the offence? Do we grill and analyze victims/complainants and hold them accountable for something that was outside their control? Do we deny that certain coercive interactions weren’t really rape because there wasn’t a physical injury or it didn’t unfold according to a predetermined script of what constitutes legitimate assault? These realities are all symptoms of rape culture.

So no, no one is claiming that rape is openly sanctioned and permitted and that we don’t loathe rapists. But no sexist, racist, patriarchal, oppressive social structure or system acknowledges itself as such. No one admits “yes, we treat a certain group poorly and systemically marginalize them because we are indeed, racist. Racism is, indeed, the lens that guides us.” Rather, they know (read: believe) a certain group to be inferior and their lives to matter less.

If you argue that sexual assault stats “aren’t that bad” and lots of rapists do receive punishment, and you personally dislike rape and think it’s bad – you’re still operating within the ideological framework that rape is inevitable, a.k.a., you are operating within the reality of rape culture. Even if you claim to not blame victims, and not hold women as responsible for rape avoidance, you’re still accepting that rape happens and cannot be eradicated. We are so unfamiliar with the idea of world without sexual assault that having it happen less than it could or less than somewhere else feels like something to gloat about. 

Look how good we are. Look how we are raping women less than we could be.

It strikes me that the people claiming rape culture doesnt exist don’t usually argue that rape doesnt happen. Sure, the statistics and news stories and (few) arrests are there. The research to convey that sexual assaults are underreported – it’s all there. So why the resistance to acknowledging that our” society treats women, their bodies, and their sexualities in a way that blames victims for their assaults while finding insidious ways to explain and excuse male behaviour? Once again, because patriarchy. 

Rapists (especially economically privileged, white men) rape and often get away with. Because of all the systems that make it hard for victims to report, let alone pursue the unforgiving and traumatizing legal/court system, and all the systems that make it especially easy for men to bounce back. No one is more resilient against lasting repercussions than a privileged, heterosexual, cisgender, white man.

Rape culture shows us that the problem isn’t that there are a tonne of “sociopaths” running around, and that only strange, aberrant, messed up men would be so sick and misguided to commit assault. No. The problem is that otherwise normal guys do it, because they grew up and grew into their toxic masculinity, the flames fanned by rape culture, and they think they can have what they want, when they want it. 

Because if he is anything like Brock Turner, whose father evidently thinks raping an unconscious woman is a pretty minor college faux pas, he’s probably used to getting his way and feeling invincible. Because, explicitly or implicitly, he’s been taught that respecting a woman’s personal and bodily autonomy is not a priority. More of an inconvenience.

Until we begin to worry about the future of a survivor as much as the future of a convicted perpetrator, rape culture reigns.

Rape culture is felt – deeply felt – and its toxic symptoms are experienced daily by the woman identified among us. It is not the place of men to claim women are just imagining it while doing nothing to improve the world around them. Take a step back. Listen. Learn.

Friday, March 25, 2016

The law, the courts do not operate outside patriarchy

Regardless of whether or not you think Jian Ghomeshi is guilty of sexual assault and violent behaviour towards women, and whether or not you think the witnesses’ testimonies were “credible” or “consistent” or “trustworthy,” as defined by the law, it’s necessary to reconsider how we imagine and discuss the law, the courts, and justice.


Former Canadian Radio Star Jian Ghomeshi Acquitted of All Charges in Sex Assault Trial

Jian Ghomeshi acquitted on basis of ‘inconsistencies’ and ‘deception

None of us, except the women and Ghomeshi, know exactly what happened in the situations described. I wasn’t in the courtroom, and so, like most of us, I don’t know precisely how every aspect of the proceedings unfolded. Criticizing the structure and manner of sexual assault trials is not the same as claiming that we shouldn’t presume innocence until guilt can be determined beyond a reasonable doubt. And of course, an acquittal doesn’t mean that nothing wrong – or criminal – actually happened.

So, sure, based on the existing structure in place, in which the complainants bear the burden of proving and defending their allegations while the accused can choose to remain silent and avoid having to create and defend a “credible,” “consistent,” “trustworthy” story, I suppose the proceedings unfolded in a manner that supports the way criminal justice is administered. In the judge’s mind, there was obviously reasonable doubt and not enough evidence to convict.

I’m not going to analyze the witnesses’ testimonies and the ensuing criticism or deconstruct the judge’s written decision. An excellent and detailed response to individual sections of the decision and overall analysis of this issue can be found in Michelle Keep’s article here.

All I can say is that I believe the survivors. I also believe we have extensive research and knowledge on the traumatic psychological effects of sexual assault, abuse, and rape in a potently sexist society that is incredibly unforgiving to survivors at every stage of the process. There is lots of work that supports the challenges for people to recollect sequences of events, duration of time, and precise details during periods of stress and trauma, not least of all after more than 10 years have passed.

Combine this with the many strategies survivors take – and have always undertaken – to survive. There are strategies survivors may subconsciously undertake to not only get through the moment or event, but to reconstruct it in their minds, to remember it less painfully, to pretend it happened differently.

Many women want very badly to believe a rape was consensual.

Read the illustrated story “Trigger Warning: Breakfast” here.

We socialize women to behave in certain ways in order to cope with the persistent likelihood of sexual violence, to even be friendly or benevolent to the abuser in order to neutralize or better endure the situation, and then in turn we condemn them for acting in an “odd” manner – a manner not befitting a “victim.”

We know this. But this knowledge doesn’t make it very far in the logic of the courts. Why is that? Why does everything we know about how society has always treated women and how women have adapted to survive have little impact on how we administer justice?

The core issue: people defend the integrity, neutrality, and sanctity of the court of law as though it is not historically bound up in the same sexist superstructures that have shaped human existence and gender relations. 

The law has a conception of how crimes should be reported, victims should behave, and how memories should be recollected. Correspondence between survivors and completely justifiable and psychologically normal anger, frustration, and bitterness is deemed as conspiratorial rather than an indication of support and solidarity while enduring immense stress. Women continue to be maligned and discredited if they dare to be bitter.

The criminal justice system does not exist in some alternate dimension of reality in which society has not been shaped by male supremacy, sexism, and misogyny. We do not enter the court and step into a neutral, benevolent state where patriarchal attitudes and deeply entrenched stereotypes and prejudices fade away and evaluation of testimony operates apart from biases about how women do and should behave.

Yes, read the decision. Recognize that the proceedings unfolded how they were designed to occur, and that the presumption of innocence remains intact. Also recognize that the justice system and the law’s antagonism towards marginalized groups and sexual assault survivors remains intact. The Ghomeshi verdict is a good time to consider how privilege factors into strident defences of the law and social structures. It’s often those least impacted or disadvantaged by an event or social ill who feel most compelled to weigh in critically. If this is you, I encourage you to consider if your opinion needs to be expressed today.

The system doesn’t need your defence, but there are many survivors and women reliving trauma, abuse, and harassment during this trial and verdict, who could really use your support and careful listening.