Friday, 14 December 2012

The lowest common denominator

(TW for discussions of rape)

Sexism has had quite the run over the past few days. For example, there’s been FHM’s lad-to-lad exhortation to not wear your “victim’s” socks,

Virgin Media’s “rape or present” Christmas advertising campaign,

and ruminations by Australian Zoo readers on which half of a woman’s body can be dehumanised more.
Because the top can make you a sandwich but the bottom won't answer back! What wit.

Plus, Michigan’s abortion super bill passed, the global labour gender gap has increased since the financial crisis, and Republican opposition means like the USA’s new secretary of state will probably be John Kerry and definitely not  Susan Rice*. Add this to the normal background noise of oppression that goes on- largely unreported- everywhere else in the world and it’s not looking like we feminists will have the war over by Christmas, so to speak.

Perhaps the most explosive debate that’s been going on over the last two weeks, however, is the spectacular and continuing fail of ostensible feminist allies “The Good Men Project” over some utterly disastrous rape articles. I’ll be the first to admit I don’t know a huge amount about the GMP- I’d been to the website a few times prior to the incident but I don’t remember reading anything particularly insightful or particularly offensive at any point, so I assumed they were a mediocre incarnation of a potentially good idea and decided to continue life as normal. Apparently in doing so I missed some grand decay into one-step-above-legit-MRA-craziness but hey, I’m a development student, I only have a limited amount of time available for watching the self-conscious cogitations of white western men. Anyway, what brought the GMP crashing back into my consciousness, and into full-blown notoriety, was this article from Alyssa Royce on her nice guy rapist friend.

For those who haven’t heard about the case and don’t want to wade through the article itself, I’ll summarise: Alyssa Royce’s friend was flirting with a woman at a party. She passed out in the same room as him, and so he raped her. According to the article, this is a very insightful case of how complicated the real world is and how those complications can tragically lead to wonderful men raping women. We are told that because before she was unconscious, said woman was “[walking] like a fuck and [talking] like a fuck”** and therefore all valid logical inference pointed towards fucking, and this poor nice logical guy is for some reason exempted from also processing “flirtation partner is now unconscious” and making the logical inference to, uh, not fucking. Or, rather, he’s not, because in the moments when the article isn’t excusing rape it’s blathering on about “I know it’s rape guys, it’s totally not OK, but no this guy is so nice so here are more reasons no not justifications or excuses why would I do that Rape Is Bad but seriously NICE GUY OH GOSH”, but.. well, yes. If it walks like an excuse and it talks like an excuse, it’s probably an excuse.

The article is horrible on several levels, but it’s followed by something that people have taken even more offense to: ananonymous piece by an actual rapist about how having a party lifestyle justifies a bit of rape (presented here with Jill Filipovic's excellent commentary). He was once drunk at a party and took a kiss from a woman as a sign to push her up against a wall in full view of the rest of the party and rape her. He also believes he has been raped at parties, which is presented as an additional complicating factor in how we should view his own raping. Again, this is all against a backdrop of “goodness, isn’t the world so darn confusing, how will we ever get consent at all?” which initially seems to be played completely straight by GMP as well, although they’ve since stressed that clearly this guy has some deep psychological issues that it’s probably best for them to distance themselves from. Both articles have since been accompanied by editorial responses justifying the decision to publish these in the name of good intellectual discussion, because these are clearly the insights we need in order to combat rape and rape culture. If we don’t understand how confusing the world is for these poor rapists, how will we ever be able to give them the love and support and easily obtained consensual sex they need to stop raping?

I’m not going to wade in any further on the actual cases presented here, besides hoping that both (especially Royce’s nice guy friend, admittedly the other one is a little less well-described) seem far too insultingly clear-cut to be the catalysts for a frank discussion about the apparent deep complexities of rape and consent. If any friend of mine, no matter how close or nice (and regardless of gender!) told me they’d had sex with a sleeping stranger, I would be deeply, deeply angry with them, because there is absolutely no excuse for what a fucked up thing that is to do***. And yes, I would also be deeply angry at culture, but not in the way GMP seem to want me to be. I would be deeply, deeply frustrated not at the tragic lack of discussion about rape and consent and why rapists rape, but at the fact these discussions do exist, and it’s their very existence that stops us from being able to enshrine some of these super simple facts and actually getting on to discussing some real grey areas.

If you want to read well informed, rigorously researched, interesting articles about the composition and mindset of rapists, they exist. They’re out there. The original studies are admittedly shut off in academic journals which aren’t universally accessible, but they’ve then been reported on by other people and that means pretty much all facts are out there in free form for anybody with five minutes and an internet connection. The question “why do men rape” has been asked, and people have already spent significant amounts of time and energy trying to answer this question as thoroughly and insightfully as possible. This is the point at which we were at when GMP decided to present “my friend raped a woman once” as an aspect of the discussion which we should take seriously. Royce’s response to being told by other women that she was missing a lot of really fundamental facts was to suggest that the existence of said facts has stifled debate and atomistic anecdotal posturing is therefore justified in rekindling that.

But this isn’t what research is for. Yes, having rigorous studies which state that a tiny number of men carry out a large number of rapes does stifle potential lay speculation about a large number of men all occasionally raping, or a rape-amount pyramid dependent on wealth and social status, or a top secret sect of twenty four men and a non-binary identified person with a penis who co-ordinate global sexual assault from a hidden base on Easter Island. It also lets us move forward from having to endlessly debate that point. Want to have a productive discussion about rape and consent? Here’s the facts, let’s take it from here! Said facts are almost certainly missing some nuances- from a development perspective, what jumps out at me is that discussing who rapes in the USA may not be directly applicable to who rapes elsewhere, particularly in conflict zones- and it is important that findings are demonstrated to be repeatable and generalisable, so the existence of a few academic studies certainly doesn’t mean closing the door on a subject forever. However, they do have important implications for where we take our rape and consent discussion next.

For example: we know from facts that consent is actually not this enormous complicated nebulous issue that poor men are on the wrong side of misunderstandings about all the time, because to the vast majority of everybody these things are already utterly crystal clear. Evidence: 94% of men are not rapists. So why are we still pretending that it is hard and stressful and oh maybe we know somebody who was once confused by it and accidentally raped, poor thing- pretending that this is a point that a debate should start from!- when the majority of people this actually protects are serial rapists, whose behaviour we generalise at the expense of our own moral integrity? That is a discussion worth having, but we only get there when we actually use the knowledge we already have to inform where we’re going, instead of just wandering around in little discursive circles all the time and pretending it’s for the sake of debate.

It is, I suppose, an unfortunate byproduct of how much brilliant feminism goes on in blogs and open online communities, that for every discussion we’re constantly open to the noisy, stupid opinions of the lowest common denominator. Sometimes it’s high level stuff like the protracted GMP fail, more usually it’s comments and responses from people who seem utterly devoted to their opinions on subjects on which they know nothing and are committed to learning nothing about.

For one tiny example among millions: A good friend of mine wrote a fantastic letter to FHM and Bauer News Media about their little victim socks “joke”, whose comment section was entirely co-opted by some very concerned gentleman who insisted that a call for a magazine to respect the ethical reasons for not publishing damaging offensive jokes about men having victims was equivalent to us asking for legal censorship on all jokes that could be construed as offensive by any person ever- painting a picture of a dystopian future where the price of women not being assaulted would be the non-existence of “Family Guy”.

Discussing the things that might actually have been interesting about the letter was therefore subsumed by beating our collective heads against the immovable wall of this guy’s ignorance. None of us learned anything, because the “debate” was beneath the level where anything interesting could be learned. There’s actually a word used by some of the race blogs I follow, whose owners are also too often trapped going around in circles with the obnoxiously ignorant (including, unfortunately, some white feminists), which describes these sorts of people perfectly: “basic”. People who are not on the right level to be debating topics, and who are completely unwilling to get there. Unfortunately, the more open we are to everyone’s “opinions”, the more we run the risk of simply rehashing the most basic of debates with the most basic of people. In doing so, we leave less time and energy for actual progression to non-basic topics.

I’m aware that this might sound horribly elitist, and that’s not my intention at all. One of the most vital points of feminism is in changing and diversifying the voices we hear in our societies, and providing platforms for people to speak is the most important part of this. We also live in a world where intellectual capital is not equally accessible to all people, and where women are far more likely to underestimate and undervalue their own expertise than men are, meaning that the terms of participation for these platforms can’t be academic or elitist in nature and still meaningfully achieve their goals. But listening to more voices is not the same as legitimising everyone, and it’s an insult to the entire concept to suggest that the voice of an unrepentant rapist needs as much (or more!) of our time as rape victims, or women who can’t leave their houses after dark for fear of rape, or even of repentant rapists. It’s impossible to cut out nonsense entirely of course, or even for any one person or group of people to objectively say what is and isn’t listening to. But at the very least, trying to provoke or lead a debate about rape or any other feminist topic carries with it a responsibility about knowing the point of having that debate- what came before and what it teaches us, and what gaps in our knowledge we still need to explore. Similarly, participating requires having insights and being willing to be educated when our own knowledge is incomplete.

This requires creating the right spaces, making information accessible and readable to as many people as possible, and these are definitely areas to work on. It may also involve denying access to debate for people who have proven themselves utterly unwilling to learn. However, it does not involve saying controversial, incorrect things and then stating that “provoking discussion” justifies their existence. Doing that, as GMP have proved, just leaves us stuck in the realms of the lowest common denominator, and that’s not a discussion that’s truly worth our time.

(P.S. For a better discussion of the actual case, this is amazing. That is all.)


*Just to clarify, feminism doesn’t mean I automatically support all female candidacies above all male ones, but all else being equal I do think putting people who aren’t white men into visible political positions (especially ones with such international weight) sends out a much better signal than business as usual. China, take note.

**I’ve made you scroll all the way down here just to meditate some more on how horribly regressive and objectifying that statement is. “It” is not a “fuck”. She is a woman. Good grief. Anyway, yes, carry on.

***Related: George Galloway just won a sexist of the year award for calling previously discussed scuzzbucket Julian Assange’s use of this tactic “bad sexual etiquette”- even beating Assange himself, apparently.