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Posts Tagged ‘Rape and Rape Culture’

The decision from the Ghomeshi trial (read the full decision here) has generated a lot of discussion over the past five days. Some of the reaction has been in favour of the decision, while others have been critical.

In this post, I am not going to comment on the decision itself (although I do have several things to say about it, none of which are that I think Ghomeshi should have been found guilty given the way our current legal system works). Instead, I want to focus on the blurring of the lines that occurs in reaction feminist criticisms of the trial, the decision, the legal system, or responses to sexual assault survivors. I think in each of these cases it is important to keep the target of the criticism firmly in mind if you are going to respond to the criticism reasonably.

It seems to me that several targets of criticism and several alternative responses to sexual assault have been suggested in media responses to the trial. Once could criticize:

  1. a. The decision itself
  2. a. The criminal courts
  3. a. The legal system more generally
  4. a. The effects of one of the above on complainants bringing a case
  5. a. The effects of one of the above on possible future complainants

One could also discuss alternative ways to address sexual assault that have nothing to do with the criminal courts or the legal system. For example:

  1. b. Non-legal responses to sexual assault
  2. b. Ways to support survivors of sexual assault
  3. b. Social norms and changes to social norms

More could be added to the above lists, I am sure. But even with these brief lists, we can see the conflation of the targets of criticism and the contexts of discussion in some responses. For example:

Q: What I find very interesting though is how on the one hand you’ve heard people saying two contradictory things at once. You’ve been hearing “believe women,” #believewomen even, we’ve reduced it to that. On the other hand, everyone will agree of course you’re innocent until proven guilty. I don’t know how we structure a system that believes women on the one hand and also presumes that the accused is innocent.

A: If your friend comes to you and says ‘I was sexually assaulted,’ you believe your friend. But you also use your sense of scrutiny for everything else you do in life and sometimes you have questions. When it comes to a criminal trial, you have to dig down when there are those questions because someone else’s life is at stake and someone else’s liberty is on the line. I have a problem with the #believewomen movement. I get it. But it just makes no sense in the criminal justice context. We can support women who say they have been sexually assaulted. We can have resources available. But when it comes to a criminal trial, to #believe everything a woman says, says “Let’s just throw out the trial and convict the guy.” We would be using some sort of different justice system where no one gets a fair trial because the woman said this happened and that’ll be it. That would be a major setback. There are countries throughout the world who are desperate for our system of justice and there are people who have been convicted of things that they didn’t do. And one case that jumps out is that Neil Bantleman, the Canadian convicted overseas in Indonesia of sexually assaulting a child. The general consensus is the gentleman probably didn’t do it and did not receive a fair trial. The quality of the evidence is horrendous. But if it was #believekids that’s exactly what you get. Which is, “You’re convicted, the kid said it.” That’s full stop. We cannot regress to that justice system. We just can’t. (Source: The National Post emphasis added)

These two things are not at all contradictory because they are not being said about the same targets. The idea that everyone should be innocent until proven guilty is an idea that applies at the level of 2. a. the criminal courts, and possibly to other areas of 3. a. the legal system (but not all areas of the legal system). In contrast, the #believewomen movement is not about the criminal courts or about the legal system, it arises from rape crisis centres and discussions of 2. b. how to support sexual assault survivors. It has no direct application to other contexts. To conflate the targets of criticism, the context of discussion, and suggested responses is to create a straw person argument.

The idea that we should believe women when they tell us about their experience of sexual assault comes from rape crisis centres. The idea behind the movement is that the criminal justice system is currently set up to encourage defense lawyers to show that complainants are not credible and the defense will do this whether or not the complainants are telling the truth (this occurs in other criminal defenses, as well, not just in cases of sexual assault). The response “believe women” is meant to support complainants outside the courtroom as they have their credibility shredded inside the courtroom. It is meant to say that even though their credibility is being called into question, there are still some who believe them.

I have never read any feminist legal scholar or any feminist scholar of any discipline who suggested that the criminal courts should make any criminal decision on the basis of a blind faith in a woman’s testimony. To suggest that this is what the movement is about it to distort the argument and conflate the context of application for the suggestion. It is to misunderstand what #believewomen is about; it is not an analysis of the movement.

In addition, this particular misunderstanding and distortion of the movement serves to make feminists seem irrational. Kathryn Wells is right in the above quote that if what feminist were saying is that courts should never question a woman’s testimony this would create injustice, it would infantilize women, and it would undermine the criminal court system. But this is not what is suggested. The fact that people accept this interpretation goes to show the extent to which people are willing to create a caricature of feminist arguments rather than engaging them.

In contrast, some feminists have criticized the criminal courts and the evidentiary standards. But this is a separate criticism from the claim that we should blindly believe women.

Below the fold there are some more places to read or watch things about the trial.

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In any given news cycle there is likely to be a story about someone who said something or told some joke that is described as “offending” some persons. Earlier this summer there was the “rape joke” told by Daniel Tosh. This week Pam Palmater wrote about a racist joke in an Royal Canadian Legion newsletter.

Usually after such occasions the person or organization issues an apology “for offendingthe group or individual in question (or in the case Palmater describes, fails to apologize at all since “only one” person was offended).

I'm Sorry

I’m Sorry

In fact, this response is so common that Wikipedia even has an entry on it titled “The Non-Apology.” The Wikipedia article focus mainly on the apology as lacking the requisite contrition or admission that something was wrong. I think that is right, but I also want to focus on something else: the “I’m sorry I offended you” line misses one important target group for the apology.

You see, I am not so worried about those who were “offended.” Sure, it sucks to have to live in a culture that is basically a mine field waiting to explode with “humour” that reinforces one’s lesser status. But at least those who were offended recognize what was wrong with the statement. I am also worried (perhaps more worried) about those who were not offended.  As Palmater writes:

 Racism against Indigenous peoples in Canada is so ingrained that some in society can’t even identify it when they see it. (Source)

Those in the group who were not offended are the ones who really concern me because they are so blind to racism, sexism, ableism, heterosexism, etc. that they were not even able to be offended by the alleged humour. So in addition to apologizing to those groups who were “offended” by the racist/sexist/etc. “joke” I think there should also be an apology to those who were not offended.

Perhaps something along the lines of:

I am sorry my hackneyed attempt at humour reinforced ideas of racial (gender, class, etc.) superiority among those who were not offended by the alleged “joke.” I am sorry that what I said perpetuated and reinforced your privileged blindness to the racism (sexism, classism, heterosexism, etc.) so prevalent in this society…

Because in addition to hurting those who are offended and reinforcing their lesser status in a given culture, such “jokes” also have the harmful effect of reinforcing arrogance and ignorance among those who failed to see what was wrong with the “offensive” “joke” in the first place.

 

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[Trigger Warning for non-consensual touching]

Normally I enjoy reading the Oatmeal, but this recent comic is full of problems.

The Oatmeal: Minor Differences: Part 2

"Minor Differences: Part 2" In the first panel we se a man hugging his "ladyfriend." She responds warmly. In the second panel, we see a man hugging his "manfriend." The man responds in shock and horror.

So, first of all the joke of the comic obviously relies on homophobia and assumed heterosexuality for it to be funny. We are supposed to realize that no heterosexual man would approach another man in this way.

It assumes heterosexuality because I would wager that homosexual male couples do approach each other in this way, and get the reaction the “ladyfriend” is giving in this comic (the only person whom I would allow to hug me from behind is my partner).

But the comic is also an assertion of male power over women. One of the manifestations of power is being able to access others in a variety of ways. Marilyn Frye writes in the chapter “Some Reflections on Separatism and Power” from The Politics of Reality:

Differences of power are always manifested in asymmetrical access… Total power is unconditional access; total powerlessness is being unconditionally accessible. The creation and manipulation of power is constituted of the manipulation and control of access.

Frye provides a number of examples of how power allows differential access, and we can think about how different kinds of power grant different kinds of access. For example, in business environments bosses have access to employee emails and can track employee activity online whereas employees do not have similar access to their bosses’ use of the internet.

In this comic, we see that the man has access to a woman physically and he expects her to react in a welcoming manner. When he tries the same method of gaining access to a man, however, he does not expect a warm welcoming reaction. So the man expects to have access to his “ladyfriends” in a way he does not expect to have access to his “manfriends.”

This is actually really troubling. There are many reasons that a person might not want to be “surprised” with “a hug from behind.” For many rape or assault survivors this could be really triggering. Even for those who have not experienced an assault, but nevertheless fear one, it could also be traumatic. Furthermore, reaching around to hug someone from behind puts the onus on them to reject your advances rather than taking on the responsibility of seeking consent to the activity.

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Today the blog, Feminist Philosophers, reported on an article from the Guardian, that describes how one police officer who specializes in sexual crimes became a victim of sexual assault and the ways in which his perspectives changed as a result of the experience. First I will quote some of his experience, with a few brief comments; then I want to say a few words about why I think this article is philosophically interesting.

This police officer’s experience began as a casual brunch with friends where he was having a good time, and decided to stay to talk with some people at the pub after his original group of friends decided they had enough fun for the day. There was nothing particularly intimidating about his assailant when they first met:

I can’t remember when I first noticed the guy who ended up assaulting me, but he stood out from the rest of the group – he was more extrovert, a bit larger than life. But he didn’t do or say anything that made me feel uncomfortable – or that gave the slightest suggestion of what he would be capable of doing a few hours later.
Source
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Often, when a woman is raped, people question her perceptions of the situation. These critics suggest that she somehow should have known that the situation was dangerous and should have avoided the situation. But, as this article describes, rapists are often difficult to identify. Even a police officer, who has extensive training in sexual assault and its prevention, was unable to identify any suspicious behaviour on the part of the to-be-assailant. The problem with suggesting that women should have been able to identify that the situation they were in was dangerous is that in many cases the dangerous situation looks and feels exactly like any other non-dangerous situation. It is impossible to identify the danger.

My next memory is at about six or seven the following morning. I woke up in a bed and that guy was raping me. My first thought was: “What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” The second thought was fear, channelled into self-preservation: I jumped out of bed and grabbed my clothes from the floor. It didn’t occur to me to arrest him. It did not even cross my mind that I was a detective. My only thought was my personal safety. He didn’t try to stop me. We didn’t say a word to each other.
Source.

Again, this description highlights some of the problems with many typical responses to rape victims. Critics often questions the behaviour of rape victims after the assault. They have some idea in their minds about what a “real” rape victim would do after the assault, and doubt the credibility of the victim when her behaviour does not conform to the idealization they imagine (for example, in the Assange case, some people have doubted the allegations because one of the victims continued with a party she had planned in his honour). I find the police officer’s description interesting because it shows how in actual situations our reactions often do not conform to idealized expectations. It is difficult to think of our self as a victim and many of us might resist doing so.

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[Trigger Warning: I am writing about rape again, and I will be snarky, sarcastic and otherwise more emotive in my writing than average]

If there is one thing that could be said for Penny Arcade’s handling of the criticisms of “The 6th Slave” comic, it is that they did begin a serious discussion of rape culture that is probably reaching a wider part of gaming culture than “ever before” (*hyperbole*). More non-feminist gamers are hearing this discussion than would ever hear of similar discussions of rape culture that occur in feminist gaming forums, on feminist gaming blogs, and non-gaming feminist blogs.

When I read the Debacle Timeline, I am struck by how many genuinely thoughtful posts have been created discussing the whole affair. Many of them don’t really seem to understand what feminists are trying to express by the concept of “rape culture,” but many of them do make an honest attempt. Some posts show serious reflection, and a change of mind. They also inspired the creation of Team Respect, who are pretty willing to patiently describe the aspects of rape culture to those asking about it at xkcd forums. It might be true that the debacle also started a flame-war in the blog comments, over e-mail and on twitter. But many of the actual blog posts linked through the Debacle Timeline are pretty thoughtful, for the most part.

Perhaps that is something good to come out of the whole affair. It is true many did not listen. But some did. Many have been saying they never considered such things before, and now they see differently. So congratulations to Kirby Bits for speaking her mind. And congratulations to Penny Arcade for bringing discussions of rape culture to a wider gaming audience. Too bad it had to happen in such an ugly way that probably hurt many rape victims and threatened many others along the way.

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I began my series of posts on meta-issues associate with discussions of rape culture here. I assume that discussion in what I write here.

As a quick summary: in that post I suggested that there are two ways to understand rape: either as an individual crime committed by “rotten apples,” or as a systemic crime that is akin to terrorism or hate crimes where rape has effects on both the direct target (victim) and an indirect target (other members of the group) beyond the direct targets of the crime. ETA: On the systemic view, rape is akin to terrorism, but it is not the same as terrorism. One important difference between rape and terrorism is that terrorists usually have an explicit message, demand, or political point. In the case of rape, there need not be an explicit message, and though there is a demand made of the direct target (the victim) there might not be an explicit demand made of the primary target (women as a group). In that post I argued that rape culture cannot be perceived if rape is viewed as an individual crime. It is only when rape is considered a systemic crime that rape culture can be perceived.

In order to perceive rape culture, one has to first believe that rape is facilitated or made more effective by a number of our cultural institutions. If one accepts that view, then rape culture involves any aspect of a culture that a) makes it easier to get away with raping women, b) makes women more vulnerable to rape or denies the effects rape has on all women not only those who are actually raped, c) makes rape more effective at curtailing the freedom of rape victims, or d) makes rape more effective by curtailing the freedom of all women.

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There are many excellent introductory descriptions of rape culture available on the internet. For example: Wikipedia, Shakesville, Yes Means Yes, and Finally, a Feminism 101 blog all have good descriptions (note: the Shakesville post begins with a quote that addresses what I intend to explain in this post, but does not go into detail). They provide an introductory level understanding of rape culture. This post is not introductory; instead of rehashing the basics, I engage some of the different kinds of assumptions that lie behind descriptions of rape culture.

In each of the descriptions of rape culture that I link above, there are rich examples of “rape culture in action.” But each example also contains an implicit shared assumption that is not made explicit, and understanding this assumption is essential to understanding what feminists mean by rape culture.

The assumption that is shared among these descriptions is that rape is systemic, or in other words, rape is akin to terrorism or hate crimes. This understanding contrasts with the understanding of rape as a crime that one individual commits against another.

Note: If this entry is to long, you can just read the summary in part 3.

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