Steubenville, CNN and the language of rape

Steubenville rape case rally - Anonymous

Last week I wrote a piece about Steubenville, victim blaming and rape culture for Indy Voices. I thought I’d cross-post since it’s likely to appeal to this blog’s audience:

‘Who is to blame for sexual assault?’ The language of rape

It’s a seemingly very simple question – and yet it generates heated debate any time rape hits the news.

When a guru claimed that an Indian student was partially responsible for being raped and murdered, his comments were reviled as backward and repulsive; no doubt there will be a similar reaction to police telling a Swiss tourist who was gang raped in India that she must bear some responsibilityfor the attack. Yet however strong the backlash, these opinions are pervasive – not just in India, but also in the West. In every high-profile rape case, there seem to be a crowd of people rushing to find anyone to blame but the perpetrator, be it the victim or society at large.

Who suffers as the result of sexual assault? A slightly less simple question, whose answer is even more widely contested than that of the first. The victim? The community? The attackers?

Over the last few months, the name of a small town in Ohio has become synonymous with a rape case which gained infamy after video footage of the incident was distributed online. Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond, two teenage football players from Steubenville, were convicted on Sunday of raping a 16-year-old girl at a series of parties in August. The case has been steeped in controversy since it began, and the trial and its outcome have been the subject of international scrutiny…

Read the whole thing here.

Image: marsmet523 on Flickr.

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Reddit discusses rape, and the importance of ‘yes means yes’

Content warning: rape. Links include detailed accounts of sexual violence and rape apology.

Earlier, while reading through a thread on Reddit, I was struggling to think how I would articulate my reaction. The thread in question begins with an invitation for perpetrators of sexual abuse to share their experiences:

Reddit’s had a few threads about sexual assault victims, but are there any redditors from the other side of the story? What were your motivations? Do you regret it?

The question had received thousands of responses – some of them extremely disturbing or upsetting. I have deliberately said that before adding a link, as the content could be triggering even for those who have not experienced sexual assault. The discussion can be found here.

I have added a few thoughts below, but rather than write a long and in-depth analysis, after reading around I have decided instead to refer you to an insightful and very well-written post by Miriam of Brute ReasonInside the Mind of a Serial Rapist. She has managed to put into words very effectively much of what I was thinking.

The one conclusion I successfully drew from reading some of the responses is that we urgently need to review the manner in which young people are taught about sex. This is something I am sure I’ll come back to in a later post, because it’s something I feel very strongly about. The sex education I received was minimal until the age of about 15, and was largely technical. When the subject came up, we were firmly told that we had the power to make decisions about sex and our bodies; armed with the maxim ‘no means no’, we were taught that we should never feel pressured into sex.

At the time I felt that this was a positive message, but I have since come to think that it is deeply flawed. I now firmly believe that rather than ‘no means no’, we should be teaching young people that ‘yes means yes’. The former places all of the responsibility on the potential victim rather than the perpetrator. Several responses I read on Reddit appeared to take the stance that someone who had physically abused another person was absolved of responsibility because they were not asked to stop. This is, of course, highly problematic, as a girl (as victims are usually, though not exclusively, female) may be afraid to actively stop someone who assumes that they are willing, or may feel pressured to continue. In order to remove the weight of responsibility from the victim – and to avoid victim-blaming – it is imperative that we move away from the mentality that someone is inviting a sexual encounter unless they explicitly say otherwise or put up a fight.

The Daniel Tosh ‘rape joke’ controversy: a threat to freedom of speech? Don’t be ridiculous

Content note: rape; rape humour.

Daniel Tosh rape joke controversy - Beckie Smith

As happens all too often (sigh), I’ve decided to weigh in on a topic that I’d planned to leave to the other thousands of feminists out there on the internet: namely, the Daniel Tosh rape joke debate. I may be late to the blog party, but I’m fairly convinced I can still add something of value to the discussion.

Daniel Tosh, he of Tosh.0 fame, is an American comedian and “professional sayer of stupid shit” who caused a massice media hoo-ha a couple of weeks ago by telling his audience that it would be hilarious if a female heckler who objected to his particular brand of rape-joke humour was gang raped. The below is from a blog entry written by the woman in question, describing Tosh’s response to her heckle that “rape jokes are never funny”:

After I called out to him, Tosh paused for a moment. Then, he says, “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by like, 5 guys right now? Like right now? What if a bunch of guys just raped her…”

The response was predictably divided: feminists and the unfunny damning the statement braced glaringly on one side, and staunch pro-freedom of speech activists and liberally-minded comedians on the other. At least, that’s how some respondents have outlined the scenario. As ever, the response has been branded an overreaction by women of a certain delicate disposition. Criticism of Tosh and his maverick merry-making shenanigans has been called an attempt to quash free speech and impose strict limitations on the material available to comedians.

My attitude isn’t pro-censorship; I don’t think that comedy should necessarily be limited to topics which carry no risk of offending someone. Tosh actually made a similar point in a tweet after the event:

Daniel Tosh rape joke controversy backlash tweet - Beckie Smith

Yes, you can, Tosh. But that doesn’t mean you should.

While the argument that no topic should be exempt from ridicule is valid, it’s a lazy and essentially irrelevant defence in this case. Intelligent comedy often derives some of its value from its power to address controversial subjects. A comedian who can make an audience wince with a well-penned one-liner can also make them think. This is what separates the cruel from the insightful.

I don’t tend to enjoy most jokes about cancer, HIV, infant death and similarly upsetting tragedies, but I can’t help feeling that discussing them in the same breath as jokes about sexual abuse is misguided and unhelpful. Here are three reasons why:

#1: lack of comedic value

For a good comedian, a heckler, while irritating, can be a fantastic opportunity to show just how quick they can be. Their retorts can become highlights of the show. So for Tosh, the interjection was a chance to demonstrate his razor wit and improv skills.

Tosh’s statement was categorically not funny. It had no intrinsic or contextual comedic value: no element of irony, satire, wry social comedy or even plain old slapstick. Because of this, it seems putting down the heckler came before entertaining the audience.

#2: prevalence of rape

This part of the argument is almost painfully simple to understand. A hostile reaction to a casual reference to rape is often dismissed as over-sensitivity on the part of the listener.

For starters, I would argue that to take offence is a perfectly justified reaction in this particular scenario. Tosh’s comment was mean-spirited and misogynistic even before we arrive at the complexities behind the debate. But for many people, a hostile reaction isn’t one of offence, but a very real and powerful pain.

Rape statistics are difficult to pin down, as a high proportion go unreported, and of those that are, many don’t progress to prosecution. According to the Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault, in 1998 an estimated one in every six women in America had experienced an attempted or completed rape; some bodies suggest that the current figures are much higher. An estimated 60% of rapes go unreported – this figure rises to 95% among college students, who make up a not-inconsiderable proportion of Tosh’s target demographic.

These alarmingly high figures demonstrate that the likelihood of encountering people on a day-to-day basis who have suffered a sexual attack is high. In any given group, there’s no way of knowing whether anyone has a history of sexual abuse. Because of this, I tend to operate on the principle that it’s better to avoid flippant references to a topics that might unwittingly cause considerable harm to anyone present. Simply put, there’s very little personal sacrifice involved in not making rape jokes. Weighed against the considerable emotional pain an ill-timed comment could inflict, this tiny effort seems to me to be a no-brainer.

In the context of the Daniel Tosh debate, statistically, there’s a high probability that one or more members of his audience will have been the victim of sexual abuse at some point in their lives.

Rape humour, except in the very rare cases when it is handled with great dexterity, is a brand that exploits people’s pain for laughs. That’s a pretty shitty thing to do.

Culture Map Austin published a response from a comedian called Curtis Luciani, who tries to persuade a male audience of the serious implications of using rape as the subject of humour, and why it must be tackled with great skill. Its refreshing to read a frank and eloquent (if you think it’s crude, stick with it) male response which attempts to build a kind of empathy with the pain and humiliation suffered by sexual abuse victims when rape is handled insensitively:

People have wounds, and those wounds are painful. That doesn’t have shit to do with the weak concept of “taking offense.” If someone talks about Texas being a shitty state, I might “take offense” at that. Fine, whatever. All of us who like comedy are generally in agreement with the idea that “taking offense” is lame, and a comedian should be willing to “offend” whenever he or she wants to.

But causing pain is quite a different fucking matter. Your job as a comedian is to take us through pain, transcend pain, transform pain. And if you don’t get that, you are a fucking bully, and I’ve got zero time for bullies.

#3: rape as a source of shame and humiliation

Tosh’s intention was to humiliate his heckler by making the audience laugh at the idea of them suffering in a particularly violent manner. And it sounds like he succeeded:

I should probably add that having to basically flee while Tosh was enthusing about how hilarious it would be if I was gang-raped in that small, claustrophic room was pretty viscerally terrifying and threatening all the same, even if the actual scenario was unlikely to take place. The suggestion of it is violent enough and was meant to put me in my place.

Tosh achieved his aim of subduing his attacker by creating a hostile environment in which to humiliate and shame her.

You know what else is used as a tool to shame and subdue women? Rape. It robs the victim of dignity, power, and self-esteem. It’s a weapon used to overpower and humiliate women (and men), to force them into submission. This is what differentiates sexual abuse from other controversial topics. There’s an element of not only victimhood but victimisation which is absent from narratives of disease or other ill-fortune. It entails intended and deliberate harm, whose psychological consequences are overwhelming and incalculable – to the extent that women are ashamed to admit to something about which there is no earthly reason why they should feel ashamed.

Rape culture is propped up by wide and indiscriminate ‘slut shaming’ everywhere – from the criticism of under-dressed clubbers to judgemental tabloid columns. The whole victim-blaming narrative hinges on the fact that blame is often apportioned, at least in part, to the victim of sexual attack. Just look at the Twitter furore surrounding the Ched Evans rape case.

It’s because of this that it’s particularly important to handle the subject of rape with a great deal of sensitivity. When much of the discussion surrounding a subject is already incredibly damaging, comedians, if they opt to wade into such territory, must aim to challenge and not to enforce these narratives.

In the face of all this, ‘free speech’ seems a pretty weak defence – and a self-defeating one at that. Using violence, the threat of violence or even flippant references to the same to silence criticism is an attempt to deny them an opinion or a response. Surely that is a greater attack on freedom of speech than criticising someone’s comedy? Any attempt to reverse the roles of victim and oppressor to paint Tosh as the marginalised party falls rather flat. I don’t buy the idea that comedians are exempt from all social convention and accountability. They, like anyone else, must consider the impact of their words. Because otherwise, Curtis Luciani is right. You are a bully. And there’s not much that’s funny about that.

Image: redfriday on Flickr

‘Blaming the victim – as usual’: a response

‘Victim-blaming’ is a phrase that has become widely used over the past few months, both within and outside of feminist literature. The fact that more and more people are speaking out against this attitude is undeniably positive; but the ease with which  the phrase has been integrated into feminist discourse is an indicator of the sheer scale of the problem, and that is deeply worrying. The tendency to blame the victim – to suggest that it is in some way the fault of rape victims that they were abused, or that women ‘invite’ sexual abuse through their behaviour, appearance or attire – is both widespread and deeply abhorrent. The defence of Ched Evans – who was convicted of rape and is therefore guilty under the law – and the outpouring of vitriol on Twitter against his nineteen-year-old victim demonstrate that this is no minor issue.

And yet, I am uncomfortable with how the ‘victim-blaming’ rhetoric has been used in some circles in recent months.

The F-Word published an article about a month ago in which Elin and Hennie Weiss criticised a travel guide issued Canadian government and aimed at female travellers, which advises women to carry a photograph of a man or wear a wedding ring in order to deter unwanted ‘admirers’:

This safe-travel guide is quite reminiscent of attempts to keep women safe by blaming the victim and making the woman the one who is supposed to deter men from aggressively pursuing her. Instead of the government actually targeting the men who act inappropriately against women, women should be able to take care of it themselves, simply by printing a photograph of a man and purchasing a fake wedding ring. Simple as that.

The authors argue that by publishing the guide, the Canadian government is excusing the behaviour of men who might harass women by placing the responsibility to avoid such attention on the victim. I have not read the travel guide, so I am unable to comment too critically on its content. There can be no doubt that if the book were indeed claiming that pretending to have a male partner would guarantee female travellers safety in every situation, it would be misleading and wrong; and the idea of having to call upon the image of  a male protector to deter unwanted advances is a little nauseating. But as a technique which is effective in some situations, frankly it may prove to be useful advice.

In this article, one of the authors uses her own experience of being subject to sexual harassment in a busy street while travelling with her sister to illustrate the point that such advice is not always effective. I am not arguing with this. Some men will behave in an intimidating or abusive manner towards women regardless of what they are wearing, how they act or where the encounter takes place. But this story highlights the problem of arguing using anecdotal evidence. I am not for a second suggesting that the story is untrue, or that the scenario could have been prevented had either the author or her sister acted in a different way; but one cannot extrapolate from one incident (even from many) that all situations are the same. The authors are right to say that in many cases, there is little that the target of abuse or harassment can do to prevent it. But it would be enough to deter some men; and if wearing a wedding ring or carrying a photograph of a man will give some women an easy exit from uncomfortable situations, then providing the information can only benefit the reader. It’s not going to help in every situation – but if it will help in some, then I’m all for it.

Similarly, the argument that pretending to be married, or not walking alone through certain areas, or booking a taxi home on a late night will not protect women from all perpetrators of rape or sexual abuse is one that I have seen used to argue against campaigns which aim to raise awareness of dangers to women. Feminist writers often cite the statistic that women are far more likely to be raped by someone they know than by a stranger – but surely this does not mean that we should not try to protect women from all kinds of rape? They are separate issues. Taking particular measures to protect oneself in one situation may not be helpful in another; but this does not make it any less valid.

Of course governments should be doing everything they can to educate all of their citizens about proper conduct, and deterring men from behaving in a violent or threatening manner towards women. But suggesting that the Canadian government should work to change the behaviour of some men in foreign countries instead of advising their own citizens is completely illogical. Simply put, it is completely unfeasible. Perhaps they should lobby foreign governments for harsher punishments for sexual harassment or better education about respect for women. But realistically, one government’s influence over another’s criminal justice systems is severely limited, let alone small-town ignorance and the attitudes of what I would like to think is an unpleasant minority. And so they must do what they can to protect their own citizens.

Yes, in an ideal world, advice such as this would be rendered completely unnecessary. But it is an indisputable fact that there are certain situations in which it is statistically more likely that women will be subject to some form of harassment or abuse. I am opening myself up to criticism here by suggesting that walking alone at night in an area in which a high number of rapes occur on a regular basis constitutes unwise behaviour. I am not for a second suggesting that a woman would be to blame if she were attacked; but that does not change the fact that it is unwise. That should not be the case – of course every woman should be afforded the right to walk wherever she damn well pleases without fearing for her safety – but it is. And yes, this should be challenged – but women should have the freedom to choose. This may sound like somewhat of a contradiction, as it’s one of the main arguments used against such warnings. But surely in order for a decision to be considered freely made it must be informed. In light of this, we should be making every effort to protect women. However unsavoury it may feel, this must sometimes include making women aware of the dangers they may be faced with in given circumstances, as well as tackling the root cause.

That these two ideas are somehow mutually exclusive seems a bizarre notion to me. Of course we should be doing more to challenge those whose behaviour harms women, whether deliberately or through ignorance. But I do not think that directing criticism at those who advise women to take measures to protect themselves is helpful. I would argue that this is a misdirection of the righteous anger at victim-blaming which is rife our society. Surely a more constructive and helpful approach would be to challenge these notions while still supporting women – we should be taking a holistic approach which aims to support women in every way possible, rather than fighting one corner or the other.