I've written about what I perceive to be some of the problems of sexual assault and the law before, but I haven't talked a whole lot about the media. Now we've got a trio of stories to discuss: the acquittal of two NYPD cops charged with sexual assault, the alleged sexual assault by Dominique Strass-Kahn, the Director of the IMF, and the news that my former Guhvahna, Arnold Schwarzenegger had an affair with a member of his household staff.
First, the acquittal. As I'm sure some readers of my this blog, two police officers allegedly, while bringing a drunk woman back to her apartment, sexually assaulted her while she was incapacitated. They were acquitted last Thursday. I don't think I need to rehash the story, except to note a few things: there was videotaped surveillance of the officers returning to her apartment after leaving and there wasn't any DNA evidence. I think those two facts speak to an interesting intersection of the difficulties of prosecuting a sexual assault case where the victim was drunk (in this to incapacitation) and what is called in legal circles the "CSI effect." In a sentence, the CSI effect is the tendency of criminal juries to demand high-tech forensic evidence and analyses in prosecution criminal cases. While the actual effects of the "CSI effect" are hotly debated within the legal and academic community, I wonder if this isn't anecdotal evidence of it. Here we have a sexual assault victim who is unable to remember much of the encounter, which is obviously not uncommon in sexual assault cases where the victim has been drinking are/or using other substances. We also have a perpetrator (according to the secretly taped phone call) using a condom, which if used effectively, would prevent the collection of semen samples using a SAFE kit (popularly called "rape kits"). So we have juries that are disinclined to believe circumstantial evidence such as the surveillance videos (even though as a legal matter, circumstantial evidence is equal to eyewitness evidence), no CSI type evidence, and a victim who in all likelihood does not remember everything.
Now scoot on over to the alleged assault by Dominique Strauss-Kahn of a maid in his hotel room in New York City. Legally, I don't think this is as interesting a case, as it more closely conforms to traditional expectations of sexual assault: a man assaulting a woman, with DNA evidence. No alcohol involved, which would lead to victim-blaming or a more clear "defense," such as in the NYC cop case. Something that I should be added are the racial issues involved, which don't seem to have been brought up in US media as much: the victim is reportedly Guinean and obviously Mr. Strauss-Kahn is white.
I'd like to contrast this to the Schwarzenegger news we've heard and note again the ethnicities involved. The woman with whom Mr. Schwarzenegger had an affair with was also of color and also a woman under his employ. I bring this up because both these two men engaged in relationships with people with whom they had an unequal power relationship, and though Arnold's relationship has been reported as consensual, I think, as a general matter, that things become much more murky when it involves relationships between employers and employees. But the coverage of Schwarzenegger's story is mostly centering on the affair, the divorce, the effect it would have had on politics, etc., etc., and not the sexual dynamics inherent in an unequal relationship like that.
I think crimes involving sex remain some of the most strangely covered events in our media. If there's a mugging, you don't blame the victims for have the audacity to be mugged. If there's a murder, you don't blame the victim for what they were wearing, doing, or where they were at night. If there's a murder and it involves people of different races/ethnicities, you bet it will be discussed heavily in the popular media, but if there's a sexual assault, the likelihood is much less, such as in the case of Dominique Strauss-Kahn. Is it because of our society's inability to accept sexuality and yet be fascinated by sex in the popular consciousness? Is it our unwillingness to accept a lot of the racialized aspects of crime and sex crimes in general? I don't know, but it's all food for thought.
Firstly, it's been a while since I posted. I can't say I really have a good reason, other than that I've been busy with all the usual work and life.
Secondly…well, a lot of ink has already been spilled about Julian Assange and the allegations of sexual assault. People have far better than I made the point that one can separate his wikileaks project and whatever stance one takes on them from the allegations of sexual assault.
What I'd like to briefly talk about is how the so-called majority man view this.
This case is not unlike some of the other sexual assault cases that the media has highlighted over the years. As I've written about in the past, one of the problems with discussing sexual assault with men is that the only major media depictions of sexual assault are when (let's use the term very generally) "celebrities" are accused of it. This leads to a lot of problems when discussing the issue with men. Bring up Kobe Bryant in that context, and a man will ask, "Doesn't that woman have something to gain by accusing him of sexual assault?"
It's a difficult question to deal with. On the one hand, our automatic (and quite correct) response is to give credence to any allegations made by a victim of sexual assault. However, at times, that instinct leads us to deny the possibility that a false allegation could ever be made. This leads to problems building credibility with men. Statistics show that false allegations for rape/sexual assault are not made with any greater frequency than for other crimes. There's a host of reasons why a woman would not make a false claim, from the lack of rape shield laws in many states, permitting attorneys in Court to probe their sexual past to the publicity (either on a local or national scale) and the difficulties that publicity brings.
When you have someone like a Kobe or a Roethlisberger, people with power or money, from a purely objective and rational perspective, one would think that the likelihood of a false allegation would be higher with them, because the women could stand to gain money. When you do this kind of education, I think you have to admit that: "Sure, the gains could be higher," but on the other hand, you also have to tell men, "But the costs are higher too," due to the increased publicity and scrutiny. (Of course, one cannot discuss either of those men without noting that the allegations seems to have been borne out, with Kobe Bryant pretty much admitting to facts that are rape, and with Roethlisberger's behavior being pretty much following the textbook Lisak-Miller definitions of the behavior of a serial rapist.)
You have to discuss these issues in all their nuances with men, or lose credibility.
As the media depicted Kobe Bryant or Ben Roethlisberger, we have now a man in the spotlight for sexual assault who is someone with power or money. Unfortunately, we see a lot of people on the left unable to separate the two issues: the fact that Assange has a certain power and there are people opposed to it, and the allegations that he committed sexual assault. And just like any other of these celebrities, perhaps these women have something more to gain by making an accusation against Assange than they would against a regular Joe, but also the costs are far higher. The facts alleged sound like sexual assault within my humble and not-expert reading of the relevant law, and it's unfortunate that many on the left have chosen to distort those facts in order to defend Assange based on his political activities.
But enough about Assange. What this incident unfortunately teaches men, is that sexual assault cases are like Assange's, or like Bryant's or Roethlisberger. These types of cases are, after all, the only ones we see on TV and in the media. However, it's simply not true. Their cases are so far removed from the norm that to say that 99.9% of cases are not like theirs would be understating the fact. Sexual assault cases do not involve grand politics on the world stage; they do not involve celebrities; they do not involve professional athletes. The overwhelming majority of sexual assaults and rapes are perpetrated by "normal" people, without all these confounding issues of politics or money that seem to frequently confuse both the less-educated majority man who we would like to bring in to the movement, as well as much better educated progressive pundits who we would otherwise think we would be our allies on sexual assault.
Talking to men about sexual assaults is probably one of the more difficult tasks of the male feminists. It's difficult in ways that really highlight the differences in strategies and tactics in bringing feminism to women and bringing it to men.
One of the central differences in this: talking to an oppressor is different than talking to the oppressed. The oppressed (women) are open to your arguments. They understand first-hand that they exist in a system that discriminates, from subtle forms of discrimination to brutal violence. While it would be incorrect to generalize and say that women are low-hanging fruit when it comes to feminism, they're certainly lower than men.
Men are the oppressor in this system. We are privileged. We see neither the forest nor the trees of this system. Feminism appears to us to be an ideology designed to weaken and change the traditional privileges and bonds of power we have exercised. We are skeptical. We are not easily won over. We are not low-hanging fruit.
When I was in college at a liberal arts school in New England, we had a program for all incoming first-year students about sexual education. It covered relationships, consent, assault and things of that nature. Students were divided into three or four groups and they all went through a program of two parts at different times during their orientation program. The first was a big ol' set of speakers where hundreds of students were talked to in a big auditorium. In the second part, that big group broke up into small, same-sex discussion groups of maybe 20-40 (though people were told that they could join with whatever group they identified with).
During the second part, there were student facilitators who ran a little program, held a discussion group and answered questions. I was one of those facilitators for several years and did maybe a dozen of those groups.
So, let's set the scene here. You have 20-40 18 year old men, all of whom are required to be present. So you know that you have a pretty mixed bag: there's probably some gay and queer men there, there's probably some out-and-out chauvinists, there's all sorts of people in between, but most of all, they're all probably a bit scared and generally speaking, pretty ignorant when it comes to formal education about sexuality and sexual assault. You're getting young men who may have had comprehensive sex education to those who had abstinence only to those who just had nothing at all.
When we facilitators got together to prepare for these types of groups, we tried to agree on strategies to deal with questions and guide discussions. A couple of those principles were pretty obvious: stay away from legal stuff. We had some handouts that simply contained the language of our State sexual assault and rape statutes, but it wasn't our place to be lawyers and take hypothetical questions from men in the group. There was almost always one would-be litigator who really wanted to parse the definitions, and that's not what the purpose of these groups was for.
One of those principles we agreed to guide our discussion was to be painfully honest with the group, and explain every issue thoroughly and explores its subtleties. This wasn't necessarily easy, and it might cause a bit of controversy among feminists.
For instance, when talking about consent, we first would cover the legality of it all. But the questions would quickly come and we'd have to wade into the nitty gritties of reality. "If me and my girlfriend, who have had sex before, go to dinner, have some wine and go home and have sex, is that rape?" "If I meet a girl at a party, and we both get drunk and have sex, is that rape?" We explained these types of issues to men in terms of risk, because the legality is all pretty clear. If either of the parties believes that they did not consent, then it was rape. The former situation obviously has far less risk than the latter.
Talking about these issues with nuance is necessary to impress upon young men that healthy, consensual sex is complicated and it takes a bit of work. The popular perception of feminism is that it is radical and deals in absolutes. The stereotype of the feminist is that they would simply answer that both of those situations are rape, without recognizing any nuance.
Let's talk about another example from these discussion groups before concluding. In these groups, invariably, someone would bring up an example of a "false rape allegation" from popular media. When I was doing this it was usually the Kobe Bryan case or the Duke Lacrosse case, but now I'd imagine it might be Ben Roethlisberger.
Now this is another example of any area of male feminist discussions where you have to be painfully truthful with the young non-feminist male. They would ask us, "Aren't these examples of false rape allegations? Can't this happen to me? Doesn't a woman have a lot to gain by this?"
Now, there's a lot of ways to start talking about this. You can take one of the specific incidents and start discussing it. Say the Kobe Bryant case (I had his post-settlement statement taped to a binder), where Kobe eventually says, "Although I truly believe this encounter between us was consensual, I recognize now that she did not and does not view this incident the same way I did." That's obviously a point pretty ripe for discussion. If I think I have consensual sex with someone, and the other party "does not view the incident the same way," then that means she does not view it as consensual. And that's rape.
You can also take the tact by discussing what's actually involved in a woman making a report of rape to law enforcement: rape kits, reliving a traumatic experience, slut-shaming if it goes public, the lack of rape shield laws in some jurisdictions, etc., etc., and show that women have a lot to lose by making those kinds of allegations. And of course, there's always the wry observation that if a woman made a rape allegation against me, or anyone else in the room, it's not because of our deep pockets or all the money she might gain out of it.
Now, there's some things I would not say in this situation, and this is really the crux of my thesis here: being painfully honest with these kinds of men. I would not say that it's impossible for a woman to make a false accusation. I would stress that for the crime of rape and/or sexual assault, false accusations are made at no greater rate than any other crime. I would stress that in any situation any of us might encounter, the most responsible and healthiest course of action is to believe any person who comes to us claiming to have been a victim, so that we can help them get help. But I would not flat out deny that false accusations are impossible.
Is there a possibility that some men will take that admission as permission to assume false accusations or justify pro-rape behavior? Yes, but I would say that those men probably were going to anyway, and what I said did not do much. I think, however, that far more likely, is that I buttress my own credibility in talking to men by being painfully truthful and acknowledging the nuances of issues, rather than taking absolutist stances on issues. In buttressing male feminists' credibility, we can better reach those men who are open to what we talk we about, and hopefully gain some converts, or at least make some young men think.
In popular media, violence against women is something you see a lot. It might be in the news, but it's also in feminist discussions. But you don't see it covered from a feminist perspective in the news, and when feminists discuss it, it's usually not from the non-perpetrator male perspective.
Not that I have a lot of experience as an activist, but I was at a conference once in Boston called EngageMen about getting men involved in movements to reduce violence against women. There was a great speaker there who talked about using the common experiences of men to talk about violence against women. When he talked about getting men involved in violence against women, he said not to use the common experiences of victims (women in this context), but to use the experiences of non-perpetrator men to talk about it:
Have you ever walked down a street at night, and seen a woman walking towards on your side of the street? Before she reaches you, however, she crosses the street, to get on the other side? Why does she do that? What does she think and assume about you? How does that make you feel?
These are questions men don't get asked a lot, but it's something most men can relate to. Yes, we've been in that situation. The woman crosses because she fears us. She fears that she might be attacked by us.
How does that make you feel is usually the interesting question for a group of men. Confused? Sad? All these things, but I frequently hear is angry. At whom? The woman? Society? Rapists who make her fear?
This is an example of what you might call recasting a traditional feminist issue from a masculine perspective. There's a lot written about rape and sexual assault in the media and feminism generally, but a lot of it is from a woman's perspective. It might talk about women fearing walking alone at night, or what the woman wore, or where she went, or how much she drank. These are experiences that don't resonate as well with a man because it's not experiences men share from our position of privilege. Men aren't afraid to walk at night. That's our privilege. Generally, we don't have to worry about drinking too much, at least not in terms of becoming victims of sexual assault.
But we have been in that position, where we see that woman crossing the street because she fears us. That's an experience we share, that's a commonality between men and it's something that can be used as a starting point into a discussion on sexual assault.