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Jian Ghomeshi and rape culture

A lot has been written about Jian Ghomeshi in the last 5 days. 4 6 8 women have stated that Ghomeshi, a Canadian radio celebrity, sexually and physically abused them.

Many have reacted by saying: finally. Finally everyone knows now what kind of person he is. This excellent article, “Do you know about Jian” explains how and why people keep this kind of open secret about abusive men.

Many BDSM practitioners have denounced Ghomeshi’s claims that he’s being persecuted simply for being kinky. When 8 women have come forward to say they’ve been abused or harassed that means we can be pretty certain that the person is a predator, not a maligned kinkster. As sexgeek explains:

Face-punching and choking to the point of unconsciousness are absolutely some people’s kinks. But even among seasoned BDSM players, these acts are widely understood to be things you must do only with the most carefully negotiated consent, with a goodly amount of education and practice, and with the knowledge that they are highly risky. Beginner BDSM this is not. … Ghomeshi’s argument that what he does is a “mild version of Fifty Shades of Grey” does not match up with his apparent practice of engaging in very high-risk activities with women he’s just beginning to date.

Yes means yes: 1993 and 2014

California just passed a new law (that applies to most college campuses) that defines sexual assault as a lack of affirmative consent. That means consent cannot be assumed from a person’s silence or intoxication. Thomas Millar at Yes Means Yes recently posted an extensive analysis of the law. In Canada, this same basic model has defined sexual assault in federal criminal law since the early 1990s. (It gets a lot right in theory, but in practice many prosecutors, judges, and juries still rely on racist and sexist rape myths). Around the same time, Antioch College was nationally ridiculed for mandating a policy of explicit verbal consent. In 1993 the New York Times was sympathetic to the effort but cautioned:

To people used to associating sex with romance and romance with mystery, these guidelines look stifling. Each and every time? … Adolescents will always make mistakes — sometimes serious ones. Telling them what’s unacceptable, in no uncertain terms, is fine. But legislating kisses won’t save them from themselves.

More than 20 years later, I can see some real progress in the NYT’s reaction:

[The new California law] is not radical. Its underlying message is that silence does not necessarily equal consent, and that it’s better to be certain that sex is desired than to commit assault. Sexual assault is rampant on campuses, and colleges have failed to respond adequately. “Yes means yes” won’t make these problems disappear. But the new standard is worth trying.

So, twenty years from skepticism about “legislating kisses” to “this is worth trying.” As Millar writes:

This Is Not A Revolution In Practice (But I Can See It From Here)

Why do we shame victims rather than rapists?

Another disturbing case of a teen’s sexual assault that was recorded, distributed, and the victim-shaming that followed. What would it take to move from a culture of victim-blaming to perpetrator-shaming? Of course, we are happy to ostracize sex offenders when we can see them as deviant strangers, as we do with sex offender registries, and that’s not productive. But when it’s an acquaintance, a boyfriends, a fellow partygoer, we pivot 180 degrees and blame the victim. There has to be a way to change this, so that when people learn about–or even see–a rape, the default, common reaction is to criticize the rapist, not the victim. Not to see him as a monster, but to see that he harmed someone and did a bad thing. It sounds pretty simple, and yet, it’s not happening.

In these moments, I am reminded of Sarah Projansky’s work on the ubiquity of representations of rape in film and popular culture. And I think this helps us understand that these incidents, like Steubenville, are not about teenagers or social media. The ideas about rape they demonstrate are absolutely endemic to our culture. The question is: how do we burn those ideas down?

The fact that Jada, the 16-year-old victim in this case is speaking publicly is astounding. Her bravery, confidence, and clarity about what happened to her is the only encouraging thing about this terrible incident. She says:

I had no control. I didn’t tell anyone to take my clothes off and do what they did to me. … I’m just angry.

If everyone thought about rape as Jada explains it here, we’d be a long way towards solving this problem. She shouldn’t have to explain these things to us. She shouldn’t have to be brave. But we should all be angry. (edited)


Update: Important analysis from Robin Boylorn at CFC about the complications of celebrating Jada’s bravery:

While I join others in supporting and celebrating Jada’s bravery I worry that being proud of her stoicism is an improper response to the trauma she has experienced.  Jada is 16 years old and not only has she been raped, but publicly exposed, outed, mocked, teased and threatened.  Rape victims are usually afforded privacy and time in which to process the trauma.  Jada, however, has been put in a public spotlight and interrogated about an event with consequences that far exceed the immediate backlash and immaturity of peers. Perhaps instead of being proud of her for being strong we should let her be visibly devastated, distraught, shocked, and inconsolable.  Maybe instead of being impressed that blackgirls can withstand so much suffering and become role models for strength, we should be concerned about their emotional wellness, their vulnerability, their humanity.

… The problem with blackgirl strength is that it never lets up. Blackgirls don’t have the luxury of a time out or a break to breathe. The problem with blackgirl strength is that our very lives are stake and if we don’t learn to mask our pain we won’t know how to survive. The problem with blackgirl strength is that practice makes perfect and after while we have that strength, no pain, never let ‘em see you sweat ish down pat. The problem with blackgirl strength is that it doesn’t offer protection. The problem with blackgirl strength is that nobody ever tells us we don’t have to be strong and we don’t know how not to be. That is a problem.

Woody Allen and the monster myth

Dylan Farrow has published a courageous open letter in the NYT today about how Woody Allen sexually abused her as a child and how little the justice system did to address that harm.

The debate for the past few weeks about whether or not Allen deserves awards for his movies despite this highlights the problems with the idea that sexual violence is committed by monsters. It’s a comforting thought that only a terrible person would ever do such a thing, but when people who are beloved or powerful commit these acts, this assumption makes it impossible to believe the victim. The reasoning is this: abusers are evil monsters, we love Woody Allen, thus we are going to ignore or disbelieve that he’s an abuser. Of course the problem with maintaining this is that it means we need to sacrifice the needs of survivors like Farrow.

We condemn the very existence of child abuse altogether. It’s as if the crime includes being victimized by it, or responsible for bringing it into the light. We take an ontological roach spray to the whole event, either denying its status in reality altogether, or competing with one another to proclaim the most exquisite forms of torture for the perpetrators. (Warwick)

Many commentators are asking: How can we still love Woody Allen movies if we know he’s a sexual abuser? It’s a real problem that we are always asked to make this choice; to decide if someone is good or evil and to fail to see anything in between. I hope one day we will find a way to talk about and address sexual violence that doesn’t demonize abusers, but for the sake of their victims, leads towards accountability, responsibility, and reparation instead.

The impact of abstinence-only education on rape victims

Famous kidnapping survivor Elizabeth Smart speaks out against abstinence-only education:

When Smart spoke at a Johns Hopkins University panel last week, she explained one of the factors deterring her from escaping her attacker: She felt so worthless after being raped that she felt unfit to return to her society, which had communicated some hard and fast rules about premarital sexual contact.

“I remember in school one time, I had a teacher who was talking about abstinence,” Smart told the panel. “And she said, ‘Imagine you’re a stick of gum. When you engage in sex, that’s like getting chewed. And if you do that lots of times, you’re going to become an old piece of gum, and who is going to want you after that?’ Well, that’s terrible. No one should ever say that. But for me, I thought, ‘I’m that chewed-up piece of gum.’ Nobody re-chews a piece of gum. You throw it away. And that’s how easy it is to feel you no longer have worth. Your life no longer has value.”

Survivors of rape and trafficking, she said, need to be “given permission to fight back,” and that requires them “to know you are of value.”

Full video here.