I told my niece one time, and I stole it from I don’t remember where, “if a guy offers to buy you a drink and you say no, and he pesters you until you say okay, what he wants for his money is to find out if you can be talked out of no.”
I don’t get pictures of strangers’ genitals in my inbox, but lots of women I know do. It’s common in some dating sites and apps, and the ubiquity of the cockshot on Fetlife spawns its own breeds and strains of jokes. And the joke is that they are famously NOT HOT. I’m not talking about people trading pictures when they know each other, or are in the process of getting to know each other. I’m talking about the unsolicited stranger cockshot. If it is so famously not going to arouse the recipient (I know zero women who have ever said they were aroused by an unsolicited stranger’s cock pic), then how in the world would it be a good strategy? Why do it?
Here’s my hypothesis: What this guy [Edited: versions of this keep popping up and then going 404. Try this.] was trying to do was not to arouse the recipient or get her to react to his attractiveness. It was to see how she would react to a boundary violation.
Suppose he was just trying to show her how hot he was. Well, then, he could have asked. If he really wanted to know if she wanted to see a picture of him full-frontal nude, he could have just said, “Hi, I like your profile and you’re really hot. I have nude pics available. Not to brag, but I’m a pretty athletic guy and I think I have a nice cock. Want to see?” And if she said yes, it’s pretty likely that it’s because she actually wanted to see him naked. In addition, this approach would have the salutary effects of showing an awareness of boundaries and allowing her some say in the way the interaction unfolded. If he starts with the idea that she might be taken with his physical offering and want to have sex with him, that’s sort of an obviously superior strategy.
So why didn’t he do that? Possibly because it would not have answered the question he wanted the answer to. I think the question he wanted an answer to was “if I’m wildly inappropriate, how will you respond?”
The unsolicited cockshot is coercive from the start. By the time she thinks, “I really didn’t want to see that,” she’s already seen it. She can then:
(1) just ignore him;
(2) call him on his inappropriateness;
(3) play along and humor him.
This woman went with #2, in spectacular fashion, which didn’t go well for him. But there’s social pressure, basically from birth, to caretake men’s feelings and not make a fuss or be aggressive. I think overtly assertive responses are rare and some sort of noncommittal response to these pics are pretty common.
Note what he does after she tells him it’s unwanted. If the purpose were to show off his physical assets in the hope that she’d be interested, one would expect his reply to her reaction to be some sort of apology. But that’s not how he reacts. Instead, he tries four times to talk her out of her stated boundaries. He asks if it’s too big. He tells her to “relax.” Then he calls her “prude.” These are sort of the classic tropes used to attack women for expressing boundaries or calling out sexism: Frigid, uptight, humorless, prudish.
Now, at this point, he can’t possibly believe she’s typing one-handed. He is conscious of the rejection. Instead of going away, he tried to bully her out of it, and see if he could still pressure her into playing along. In fact, that’s what he kept trying to do, until she followed his profile to his Facebook profile, then to his mother’s profile, and threatened to expose his conduct to his mother. She was being very clear that she wanted him to go away and have no further contact with her, and he kept messenging her until she had an effective threat in hand.
(There’s an aside here about his mother and how he treats women. I tend to think there’s a difference between shame and embarrassment; I can understand being embarrassed about your mother finding out details about your sex life. But it’s clear to me that this guy would be ashamed. In other words, he knows it’s wrong, but he does it because he’s okay with doing things that are wrong and invasive and abusive to women, as long as they’re not his mom or his sister.)
What’s the purpose of this kind of deliberate boundary-testing? To find out if she can be talked out of no. That’s how the Creepy Dom picks targets. That’s how many predators pick targets. In matters of sexual assault, and also intimate partner violence (which overlap a great deal), the boundary violations start relatively small — the inappropriate picture, the “courtesy” expressed as mandate.
They don’t stay small. They escalate, slowly but surely.
First, h/t Clarisse Thorn, who brought this to my attention. Camille Paglia, the ur-concern troll of academic feminism, is apparently still writing for publication. I suppose I had assumed as much, since concern trolls of a certain kind are never really out of a job. What she purports to do here is review three books. That’s not fair. She actually reviews three books. Then she departs from reviewing and begins pontificating, ending in the sort of embarrassing faceplant that Pee Wee Herman had the comic timing to pull off with a snarky “I meant to do that.”
The books she reviews are: Dr. Staci Newmahr’s Playing On The Edge; Dr. Margot D. Weiss’s Techniques of Pleasure; and Dr. Danielle Lindemann’s Dominatrix. I’m familiar with some of this material. I read Newmahr’s book and I’ve had a few conversations with the author (I could be called biased; while we’re not buddies, I’m a supporter of her work and we have friends in common.) Weiss’s book is an adaptation of her dissertation; I have not read the book version but I tracked down the dissertation online after reading something else she wrote for academic publication. I relied heavily on both of their ethnographic accounts in writing my Domism post, one of the more linked and discussed things I’ve written specific to kinky communities. Lindemann’s book differs from the other two, as Weiss and Newmahr do participant ethnographies, while Lindemann’s observation of prodommes is as a more detached observer. I have not read it, though I might at some point.
What does Paglia think? First, she thinks that all three books try to hard too fit a certain theoretical mold to the observations, and it takes some of the life out of the writing. Second, she thinks everything to come out of Foucault, especially Butler, is awful. Third, she thinks that She Knows Better, in fact, she knows what It’s All About.
It’s tempting to dismiss everything Paglia says because she’s such a shit sandwich as a person and a scholar, with a side salad of sour grapes and green envy dressing. But she’s quite bright. I think it’s her curse to be able to see bullshit clearly because it’s all she is capable of. Her critiques, that these books try to cram their observations into an ideological framework necessary to get academic credit but that doesn’t either fit well or do justice to the descriptive integrity the subjects deserve, is not wrong — while I think that’s less true of Newmahr, there are places where the attempt to fit sadomasochism into an academic model of serious leisure seemed … constraining? Certainly only part of the story. With Weiss, I felt this was even more a good criticism. To be fair to Weiss, I read it in dissertation form, where grounding the observations in the theory can be expected to take precedence, and the book version might be a bit different. I can’t speak to Lindemann’s.
Of course Paglia hates Butler and Foucault and post-structuralist thinking blah blah they wouldn’t let her sit at their lunch table. She acknowledges herself that she’s been grinding that axe so long she’s running out of metal.
It’s when Paglia stops saying what a thing isn’t and starts trying to say what it is that she fails — always fails, inevitably fails. I know best (as do most of us) that someone’s full of shit when they’re on about something I know about. And when she’s on about BDSM, she’s full of shit. Here’s how she starts:
“Once confined to the murky shadows of the sexual underworld, sadomasochism and its recreational correlate, bondage and domination, have emerged into startling visibility and mainstream acceptance”
Emphasis mine. Those are her opening lines. So, she’s telling us right away that she does not have a grasp of the basic terminology. She goes on to make far more interesting incorrect assertions. For example, she describes what she wrote in Sexual Personae, her first book:
My conclusion, after wide reading in anthropology and psychology, was that sadomasochism is an archaic ritual form that descends from prehistoric nature cults and that erupts in sophisticated “late” phases of culture, when a civilization has become too large and diffuse and is starting to weaken or decline. I state in Sexual Personae that “sex is a far darker power than feminism has admitted,” and that its “primitive urges” have never been fully tamed: “My theory is that whenever sexual freedom is sought or achieved, sadomasochism will not be far behind.”
Again, emphasis mine. This contains an actual idea. If one were to immerse one’s self among actual BDSMers, and observe or participate in their actual play, and make cross-cultural comparisons and come to this conclusion — well, I might or might not agree with it, but it certainly would be an interesting idea. How does Paglia come to this conclusion? Not, she insists, by starting with a bunch of deliberately obscure shit written by frogs like Lacan and Derrida, which is her persistent critique of academic feminism and her problem with the three books she reviews. She says:
“In researching sadomasochism, I did not begin with a priori assumptions or with the desire to placate academic moguls. I let the evidence suggest the theories.”
So where did she play, and with whom? (I mean, details, people! I know some of these folks. Tell me enough that I can put a face to the pseudonyms by shaking the gossip tree!) Seriously, folks, communities and the kinksters in them differ, certain venues and organizations have a culture and reputation of their own, and lots of us — a large majority — do what we do only in private. Are her informants bedroom players or the public club scenesters? Older and hetish or younger and queerish? Older and queerish? East Coast or West Coast? Old guard influenced or not? “I speak simply as a student of sexuality: I have had no direct contact of any kind with sadomasochism”.
Come again, Camille? Am I to understand that everything you’ve concluded about us … no, let me personalize it. Everything you’ve concluded about ME and how I practice MY sexuality and what it means to ME, you’ve concluded without actually talking to any of us, or watching us do what it is that we do? Can I possibly have that right? Yes, that’s what she says. And she goes on for five paragraphs — interesting paragraphs — about cultural representations of BDSM from the 1700s to the recent past.
Let me use an analogy here. I loved the Gary Oldman version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (some LeCarre fans did not). I like spy fiction as a genre well enough. I also have more than a passing familiarity with the journalistic and historical writing on the subject. Now, one can look at some of the fiction and say, “that’s pretty accurate.” The Good Shepherd is almost a biography of James Jesus Angleton, and from what I know about Angleton (a good working familiarity), gets the sense of it. Some of the fiction is accurate in many respects (LeCarre), some of the fiction is wildly fanciful (the Bond subgenre), but none of it is a substitute for the real thing. If you want to learn about spying in the Cold War, you read Trento’s book CIA: A Secret History, from Angleton’s actual papers, and Legacy of Ashes, which is all from internal histories, and maybe Peter Wright’s controversial MI-5 memoir Spycatcher. Because they are not fiction. Because they report the actual things done by the actual spies.
But these books are not perfect! They are biased (especially Wright, who accuses a former head of MI-5 of working for the Soviets). They are controversial. They are only pieces of the puzzle and can’t hope to represent the whole of the intelligence community through the whole of the period! And that”s life. Nonfiction is imperfect. But it’s nonfiction. Fiction is fiction.
Art is an interesting mirror through with to view the human condition. The possibilities for mining it are endless. But it can only tell us so much. And the farther the artist from the subject, the more it tells us about the artist and the viewer and the human condition; and the less about the subject.
In the art and literature of BDSM, our cultural footprint, the problem of representation is huge! These people whose work symbolizes us, supposedly, are they even a member of the group they purport to represent? To be fair, some are. Love them or hate them, Madonna and Mapplethorpe were clear that their representations were internal. But others like Anne Rice and E.L. James present us without saying that they are presenting themselves (or possibly while saying they are not and lying like rugs).
When we look past the individual artist to the more directly commercial work, like, say, advertising, the vision presented is meant to serve a particular goal, which skews the presentation hopelessly. So how does a world of symbols allow someone to understand my sexuality without fitting me into an a priori construct? It doesn’t. It just doesn’t. In that sense, Paglia has a lot in common with Evolutionary Psychology. She postulates an underlying truth, that we don’t have access to, but which she asserts she can access through “rigorous” analysis of the phenomena that it supposedly gives rise to. She ends by asserting (though she’s an atheist herself) the importance of the religous or spiritual quest. Well, the project of divining the meaning of a sexual practice solely from how it is presented, often by people who don’t engage in it, that sounds like a religious quest to me. It’s an act of misplaced faith.
The substance of Paglia’s analysis is that what we do … let me personalize it again, for added dudgeon: that what I do is the reassertion of some older tribal norm. If so, then what one would expect is that the ways it expressed itself would be widely varied, but the things we look for in it would be fairly uniform. Instead, my observation is that the opposite is true. We are not a monolith.*** We have people bringing a panoply of wants and needs to the table, trying to extract different things from BDSM, and if anything, the thing that is contrained is the superficial aspect: that we have social norms within a subculture about how people look a certain way and how they symbolize these practices, a common universe of imagery that brings us together when we are in fact very diverse in how we structure our relationships, which kinds of the whole universe of BDSM practices appeal to us and move us, and what we seek to get out of it. Now, there’s a lot of theorizing to be done about why that is, but Paglia can’t do it because she’s just as attached to smooshing the observations into a model (Biological! But also, religious! And pre-industrial and tribal! Like alternative spiritual beliefs for people who are ostensibly materialist in metaphysics!) as the people she decries. Look, both “blah blah late capitalist form of leisure consumerism purchasing quasi marginal edgy hobby” and “spiritual experience vision quest search for meaning woo” is a valid observation of some of us, sometimes. Neither is THE explanation, and people who think it is, have missed a lot.
I’m in part indebted to the estimable sex work writer Calico Lane for helping me fill out my thinking on this in a facebook thread.
*Steel Magnolia reference. I am not ashamed of that.
**I am borrowing this phrase from both disability and sex work activists. While I don’t think it’s a complete analysis and it’s hard to accept it as a rule, it is IMO a powerful lens through which to review outside critique.
***Again, I’m indebted to sex worker activists for the phrase.
So a US Army NCO in charge of a sexual assault prevention program has been suspended and is being investigated for sexually abusive conduct. No name has been released, but the conduct is being investigated as a criminal matter, and involves “pandering” and abuse of a subordinate. This comes just days after the Air Force officer in charge of the entire branch’s sexual assault prevention program, Lt. Col. Jeff Krusinski, was arrested for sexually assaulting a woman in a parking lot.
There are several ways to read this. One, of course, is that since the US armed forces have such pervasive problems with rape, rape reporting and rape prosecution, it isn’t particularly noteworthy. If you assume that the armed forces are basically a pack of rapists and rape-apologists, then it even a completely random selection of people to staff anti-rape positions would end up with a lot of rapists and rape apologists. Weighing against that is that psychologist Stephanie McWhorter, studying US Navy entrants in 2009, found rates of undetected rapists and repeat rapists not too different from a similar study of a civilian population. (As an aside, I hope someone on Senator Gillibrand’s staff has a well-thumbed copy of this. It would seem to me to be an indispensable piece of information in dealing with sexual assault in the armed forces.)
Another way to read this is that the people in sexual assault prevention positions get there because many commanders are rape apologists and they want to put people who share their attitudes in positions to control antirape work within the armed forces. That is supported somewhat by the history of commanders reversing jury convictions for sexual assault (see the end of the first linked article, which recounts in brief the stories both about Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin in Aviano, Italy, and Lt. Gen. Susan Helms, whose appointment to Space Command is being held up by Sen. McCaskill for just this reason.)
There’s a third way to read this, and perhaps I’m being uncharacteristically charitable to the brass by saying it’s plausible, but it’s a real problem. Anyone who has read a spy novel knows that the safest place for a mole is to be tasked with finding the mole. This isn’t just in fiction. Remember Robert Hanssen? In the 1980s, he gave the KGB the names of three of its agents that the FBI had flipped; two were executed. He was then tasked with figuring out where the leak came from; he was supposed to find himself. His spy career lasted 22 years.
To bring this from the realm of spy versus spy back to sexual assault, one thing that those of us who write about and work on sexual assault issues in kinky communities discuss is that some of the predators seek to clothe themselves in as much “social proof” as possible. Some of this is just the prosaic stuff of being a joiner and a presenter and having lots of friends. As M. Lunas at Disrupting Dinner Parties recently wrote, looking at data from one anonymous database of allegations of consent violations among Fetlife accountholders (the tool I wrote about here, all caveats apply), that paid supporters appeared to be significantly overrepresented among those with complaints against them. This is itself evidence that can mean a lot of things; but it is a piece of the overall puzzle. I’ve talked at some length about scene reputation and social proof and the predators’ use of it in the There’s A War On series, particularly Part 3.
But more than just general social proof, the folks who have a pattern and practice of various kinds of predatory conduct might specifically seek to portray themselves as the biggest opponents of the predators. We’ve seen that before. See also the long cautionary tale epitomized by this person.
It’s a grim and mistrustful thing to say, but when someone says, “I really want to guard the henhouse,” it is necessary to evaluate whether they’re the fox. To the extent that’s what is at work, I can’t particularly fault the armed forces, because it’s a social reality that catches us unaware in so many aspects of human life.
Interviewer Chris Cuomo basically says he’s about to be a creep, and then does it anyway, knowing it’s creepy. This isn’t just because he’s a nasty guy. If it were, I probably wouldn’t write a post about it. It’s a larger social phenomenon. Actually, like so many things, it’s several, and they intersect.
The Scarlet A
If we’re looking for stories about women whose sexual behavior violated social strictures and who paid a terrible price for it, we could probably go back forever. Certainly, there’s no shortage of cultural tentpoles. Think about the “great books” of the 19th century — Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, The Scarlet Letter. (Hawthorne particularly pushed back, making Prynne essentially a paragon, but that’s a longer conversation …)
Since these are fictional, the label is always at least factually accurate. In reality, people tend to have incomplete and misleading information about each other’s sexual behavior. As such, we don’t really sanction violation of sexual norms.
There’s sort of two ways a culture can go when it has sanctions for a thing that it has only an indirect ability to observe. One is to try to find a way to investigate, estimate, screen – to figure it out. When working as they should, which never seems to be the case for whole sections of their populations, that’s what criminal justice systems are supposed to do. The other thing, though, is to turn the causation around: to decide when to apply the label, and then simply presume that the underlying facts are true. Like an old Stalinist show-trial, the accusations are not based on fact, the tail wags the dog, the function of the accusation is social instruction and reaffirmation of a community condemnation. (I’m cribbing Tony Judt’s Postwar here, which I recommend.)
There are a few books out there that examine the social construct of slut as it exists in US adolescent life. Among the better known are Leora Tenenbaum’s Slut! Growing Up Female With A Bad Reputation, and Emily White’s Fast Girls. I have read reviews and discussions of a lot of this stuff, though both of those books are still on my to-read list. This review of Fast Girls gives a sense of the point I need it for here. As I understand it, the anthropological and sociological work that has been done, though mostly qualitative, shows that the label “slut” isn’t really related to actual sexual behavior, i.e. it isn’t applied to the most sexually active girl or the one with the most partners, but rather is based on a lot of other things: came into a school system late and therefore lacked an existing base of support, physically matured early, spoke up often, refused to recognize the primacy of a popular clique, etc.
So basically, it’s what gender theorist Judith Butler and others would call an “abject identity.” I’ve written about sluthood as an abject identity , along with the male adolescent abject identity “fag”, before:
C.J. Pascoe explained this dynamic with respect to “fag” in her ethnography of high school masculinity, Dude, You’re A Fag, which I raved about here. I quoted her as follows:
“Examining masculinity using Butler’s theory of interactional accomplishment of gender indicates that the ‘fag’ position is an ‘abject’ position and, as such, is a ‘threatening specter’ constituting contemporary American adolescent masculinity at River High.”
[Dude You're A Fag p. 14.]
In Dude, You’re A Fag, the boys police each other’s masculinity by the ever-present weapon of “fag” — it gets assigned to any boy who steps out of rigid, approved gender performance. Likewise, “slut” is an abject identity constantly held over women’s heads and assigned if they express sexuality or engage in sexual behavior outside a narrow, approved norm. (Patriarchy being what it is, there’s no “right” way for women to behave, because in avoiding the “slut” label, women are always threatened with the “prude” abject identity; there is not safe middle ground between the two, and that’s not accidental.)
The threatening specters of abject identities are a form of blackmail.
(Bold italics above are new emphasis for this post.)
Since “slut” is an abject identity, it is immune from factual refutation. It is not meant to label actual behavior. It is meant to make an example, pour encourager les autres.
Some of this theory is dense, and I’m neither really a scholar of Foucault nor Butler. However, Butler, consciously applying Foucault, talks in Gender Trouble about the “abject” as a process by which a whole is divided, tenuously so and in need of constant policing; that by a process of first “expulsion” and then “repulsion,” some are made the “other.” This idea is typically called the “constitutive other” – that the identity of what is inside is constituted by what isn’t, by the “other.” What Butler means by an “abject” identity is one that is part of the “constitutive other,” not just outside the mainstream but rather a failed identity, one the avoidance of which is definitional to the hegemonic norm. See generally Gender Trouble at pp. 77-78, 133-34.
In reading Pascoe’s take on this and in thinking about how these identities work in talking about abject identities and applying them, I keep coming back to this idea of abject identity as threatening specter; that its boundaries are not inherently stable, but are just a bunch of social conventions that have stability only through constant policing that involves pinning labels to people to send a terrifying message. That’s how I think we should understand the allegation, apparently supported thinly or not at all, that Amanda Knox was in some sense promiscuous or slutty: not even as untrue (in the sense that mathematicians will sometimes call something “so bad it’s not even wrong”), but as having no bearing on the underlying facts, an allegation leveled at a woman because there is a desire to take her down for some reason, and having no connection to actual sexual behavior. The imagined construct of the sexual promiscuity is applied because of the label, by the label, rather than the label applying to the behavior.
D is for Deviant
There’s another aspect of this, and it’s easiest viewed through the lens of “abject identity.” That’s the construct of the “sexual deviant.” Deviance itself is a perfectly useful term. In math and engineering it has technical meaning and generally describes measures of distribution. In sociology the meaning is inherently more political, but it’s a broad concept and not an epithet. “Sexual deviance” however, doesn’t really exist as a means to describe the distribution of human sexual behavior, more and less common. It exists to proscribe and to discipline.
Let’s start with this: sexual normality and sexual deviancy are not assertions about what people do. They are political claims about what people “should” do. Homosexuality was characterized as a mental illness in the Diagnostic Statistical Manual until 1973, at which point the governing body that issues it, the American Psychiatric Association, decided they were wrong about that, but hung onto an escape clause, “ego-dystonic homosexuality,” which meant it was still a mental illness if you were not happy about it. Let’s contrast this with diagnoses in physical illness. “Normal” in the physical body isn’t completely objective and apolitical either as anyone who deals with disability or trans or aging issues will usually concede. But there isn’t this kind of blank slate. We knew in the 1940s that a lot of people had same sex partners, but people — learned professionals! — continued to be guided by their preferences rather than the facts on the ground in determining what was “normal” for decades, until after Stonewall when this became untenable within the political environment of the profession. Physical normality is not completely, but is much more, moored to objectively determinable physical standards. Whether someone has an infection is a hypothesis testable by, for example, temperature and white blood cell count. In turn, while there may be some variation in “normal”, these baselines are real baselines, and not simply “what we think they should be.” Doctors are pretty unlikely to just agree that people with Type AB blood don’t exist because it becomes politically desirable to hold that view.
So “normal” is what the people with the power to define “normal” say it is. This boundary is maintained only by constant policing.
In the clip, Chris Cuomo accuses Amanda Knox of being a “sexual deviant.” He doesn’t say he’s accusing her. But she says she’s not, and he says, basically, that it must come from somewhere. And she clarifies that it doesn’t come from witnesses or evidence in the record, just the prosecution’s unsupported theory. And he keeps asking if she really is a sexual deviant who just can’t admit it. That’s accusing.
And that’s what you’d expect from an abject identity: it gets attached to someone who the accusers are out to get for some other reason, not derived inductively from the available information. Once it’s said, the labeling conveys a kind of “truth” such that those who want the label to attach view it as applying even when no support is available. It cannot be refuted, in their minds, by evidence. That’s how “slut” works, too.
This idea of the “sexual deviant” interacts extensively with but isn’t coextensive with gender and the construct of the “slut”. “Sexual deviant” as an abject identity for “sexual minorities”, to the extent the latter term has utility as an umbrella, which I think it does. I think that one of the principal ways that “sexual deviant” interacts with social position in gender, gender expression, sexual orientation, race and class is that being on the disempowered end of any of these axes makes the label much more likely to apply. An educated, affluent het married white middle-aged male who also does BDSM (I know this for sure) is in a position to make statements about his sexual practice and sexual identity, and still enforce boundaries, and he faces risks of labeling, but only so far. The queerer, the less gender-conforming, the less educated and less affluent, the less white one is, the more likely labels and social sanctions are to follow, or even anticipate, any disclosure.
The Injunction To Speak
And for those of us who are kinky, we live with a Foucaultian injunction not to remain silent but to speak. There is a sense of mainstream entitlement that sexuality is not private but public: but unequally so; for the mainstream, the demand is only to declare one’s self conforming, as religious dissenters have been required to do in some times and places, whatever the underlying facts. However, for the nonconforming, sexuality is a matter of public concern, the be brought into discussion so that it may then be scrutinized and subject to discipline.
Once they learn of our status, whether voluntarily or not — and whether true or not — the mere specter of it gives them the right to examine all the details. The way Cuomo doubles and triples down on the demand for details is precisely the product of the demand that the alleged deviants offer themselves up for examination and public judgment. It reminds me not long ago of a poll where CNN actually asked a mock jury if now-convicted murdered Jody Arias was a “sexual deviant.” In fact, the mock jury was pretty emphatic that she was not — a good thing, since the “evidence” for that proposition amounted to things as banal as the purchase of lubricant. But this only underscores how divorced from any objective understanding of “deviant” the abject identity of the “sexual deviant” is. CNN asks, in all seriousness, if a person — a woman, not to put too fine a point on it — can be labelled a sexual deviant for purchasing a product so widely used that it can be found in just about every pharmacy in America. The label does not derive its meaning from evidence of conduct. The label is attached for reasons having to do with the exercise of social power, and then looks for or invents justification, whether in facts, or “facts.”
In a way, this isn’t Chris Cuomo’s fault – though it god damned sure isn’t Knox’s either. Cuomo knows the questions are creepy, he knows he’s being a jerk, and that is his fault. I don’t know whether he thought he had to ask because the viewers demand answers, or if he thought it would draw eyeballs and sell ads, or if he even distinguishes between those two things. But I do believe he at least thought he was asking a question. He was even wrong about that, and that isn’t his fault. The way “sexual deviant” works, there is no question. Merely to apply the term to someone, however qualified, is to apply a label; either to point the finger, or to brandish it as a threat.
Gabba gabba We accept you We accept you One Of Us
They say sticks and stones can break your bones but words can break your spirit. Abject identities have power, and they are hard to deal with because they have power in more than one way. They have power in the way that they get inside their target’s head and, even when consciously rejected, graft themselves onto self-definition. In that sense, they are a “free your mind …” problem. But they have the other kind of power, too — the kind where a high school full or jerks, or a hiring committee full of jerks, or a break room full of jerks, or a holiday gathering full of jerks, can take action based on them. Freeing your mind won’t keep you from getting fired or beaten up.
And this crossfire of power makes any way to deal with the labeling highly imperfect. To reduce the power of the labels to damage the self, adopting it is a valid and sometimes a brilliant strategy. Take Slutwalk. Many have said, but I’ll attribute it to Jaclyn Friedman because I think she was first, that Slutwalk is “I Am Spartacus,” that by volunteering to take on the label, the participants are dividing it and conquering it, refusing to let it be focused on anyone who gets singled out. But the powerful critique of Slutwalk is the one mounted by women of color. The best expression of it I’ve seen is from the letter to the Toronto Slutwalk from a lengthy and impressive list of folks, which I’ll quote briefly but which I recommend reading in full:
As Black women, we do not have the privilege or the space to call ourselves “slut” without validating the already historically entrenched ideology and recurring messages about what and who the Black woman is. We don’t have the privilege to play on destructive representations burned in our collective minds, on our bodies and souls for generations. … It is tied to institutionalized ideology about our bodies as sexualized objects of property, as spectacles of sexuality and deviant sexual desire. It is tied to notions about our clothed or unclothed bodies as unable to be raped whether on the auction block, in the fields or on living room television screens. The perception and wholesale acceptance of speculations about what the Black woman wants, what she needs and what she deserves has truly, long crossed the boundaries of her mode of dress. … Black women in the U.S. have worked tirelessly since the 19th century colored women’s clubs to rid society of the sexist/racist vernacular of slut, jezebel, hottentot, mammy, mule, sapphire; to build our sense of selves and redefine what women who look like us represent. Although we vehemently support a woman’s right to wear whatever she wants anytime, anywhere, within the context of a “SlutWalk” we don’t have the privilege to walk through the streets of New York City, Detroit, D.C., Atlanta, Chicago, Miami, L.A. etc., either half-naked or fully clothed self-identifying as “sluts” and think that this will make women safer in our communities an hour later, a month later, or a year later. Moreover, we are careful not to set a precedent for our young girls by giving them the message that we can self-identify as “sluts” when we’re still working to annihilate the word “ho”, which deriving from the word “hooker” or “whore”, as in “Jezebel whore” was meant to dehumanize. Lastly, we do not want to encourage our young men, our Black fathers, sons and brothers to reinforce Black women’s identities as “sluts” by normalizing the term on t-shirts, buttons, flyers and pamphlets.
That’s not the only critique in that letter, and I can’t say it’s a representative example of all critiques, but one point that it powerfully illustrates is that pushing back at an abject identity by reclaiming it isn’t a cost-free tactic — and often, it isn’t a tactic where the costs are shared equally. Often, it looks like a good idea to those with the most space for resistance, and a terribly risky one to people with less. In my generation, some het guys pushed back against the abject identity “fag” by more or less openly inviting questions about our sexual orientation. And as callow teenagers, we probably thought we were all so witty and fucking brave. And as a middle-aged man, it looks a lot messier. Did I really make space for other guys who were easier targets? Or did the bigots I deliberately pissed off just make life that much harder for some other kid who had fewer tools to fight back? I’m not trying to answer that question, just noting how different things can look from different positions. When Kathleen Hanna performed with “slut” written on her body, did she make things better or worse? Probably both, by turns.
I don’t know how to wrap this up neatly. The abject identity of the “sexual deviant” hurts a lot of people, and because of my social position on a lot of axes, me just about least. There are times when I use the position I’m in to push back in ways that I think will make room for others who can’t easily do so. And there are ways of pushing back that I think may feel good for me but won’t work out well for others. Amanda Knox, who isn’t even one of us, may be one of those people who has to live in the crossfire of a fight over terms. So when I talk about who I am, regular readers may have noticed that unlike some kinky people I tend not to use “pervert” and “deviant”. That’s why.
[Content Note for rape and kidnapping, and general rape culture.]
They look just like everybody else.
It’s not an easy thing to keep in your head. Disney movies have taught us that villains look like villains.* But in real life, they look like everybody else.
Once they get caught, and we see a mugshot and they look like they were up all night drinking and then groped a stranger in a parking lot and were driven off by force, it’s easy to see them for what they are. But in the office, before Jeff Krusinski got arrested, he looked like a normal person. Someone gave him the job of heading up sexual assault prevention for the Air Force. In hindsight, it seems like a cruel joke, or a deliberate effort to put the fox in charge of the henhouse. Rather like putting a pedophile in charge of a program for troubled children. And given the massive issues the US armed forces have with sexual assault, it’s not absurd to think there are plenty of people who are more or less outright pro-rape. But just like the proportion of the population that are actually rapists is limited, the proportion of the population that can think both “that guy’s a rapist” and “I’m okay with that” is limited. I don’t have anything quantitative to point to for the size of that population, but experience teaches me that when people are determined to make excuses for a rapist, they first deny he’s** a rapist. Even the rapists don’t say they’re rapists.
Men’s power advocates (the guys who call themselves “men’s rights activists”, which is not a little like calling one’s self a “white rights activist”) get all wound about the term “rape culture,” making really facile arguments like we can’t have a rape culture if rape is a crime. But if you have a crime that perpetrators routinely get away with, where people defend even those duly convicted, then isn’t it a crime the culture offers a lot of support to? I think we’d all agree that we have a culture of corruption in politics, even though every once in a while one of the scoundrels gets hauled off in handcuffs. It’s illegal, but it’s common, it’s both decried and laughed at and to way too large an extent tolerated. Rape culture is like corruption culture: we all know it happens, it’s a crime, it’s sometimes prosecuted; but efforts to stop it are ineffective and lots of people who know about it find ways to make believe it isn’t what it i,s or convince themselves that the people who do it are justified; especially when it’s their friend. Read more…
There’s a petition to the White House to require that consent be taught in public school sex education. Sometimes a petition can ask for something sensible but mess it up by including problematic wording; I include the full language here:
Make Consent a Mandatory Part of Sex-Ed in Public Schools.
There seems to be a huge misunderstanding concerning what consent is when it comes to sex. And yet — when discussed with teenagers — the idea that “unless someone says ‘yes’, it’s not consent,” is easily accepted. It’s not a hard conversation: Unless you get a “Yes,” assume “No.” Uncomfortable, maybe, but difficult? Hardly.
Please make the line between a clear “Yes” and anything else — whether it be someone drunk, asleep, or otherwise unable to say “No” — something schools must cover in health or sex ed.
If STI information and methods of contraception are standard fare, consent should be, too.
That’s it. For most regular readers of this blog, there’s nothing to dislike about that. But one might ask, what good would it do? That’s a serious question, and it deserves a serious answer.
Here’s the root of the question: are rapists confused about consent, or do they know what they are doing is rape? Well, my view based on the research is that they know they are raping, at least the vast majority of them. Some of the most widely referenced and linked posts in this blog’s history are on just this subject. Some of those review the research of Dr. David Lisak and others about who the rapists are and how they operate, which I refer to as Predator Theory:
Meet The Predators
And one post discussing communication analysis and its implications for claims that rapists just misunderstand:
Long story short, there is a percentage of the population who are rapists because they like to rape, they are very bad people and they are not making mistakes. They plan to rape, they plan to rape is ways that won’t get them punished, so they rape victims who have the least ability to do anything about it and use tactics, like intoxication instead of violence, that make it tough to prosecute or even get people to see what happened as rape.
So we’re having this national moment after Steubenville, and I’ve already said that this wasn’t some confused and horny guy, but rather a decision that it would be awesome to subject the drunk girl to a series of sexualized humiliations.
Recently, the amazing Zerlina Maxwell went on Sean Hannity’s show and said that we should tell men not to rape, and what she got for trying to have a serious conversation was a series of racist and misogynist threats and mockery. But because Zerlina Maxwell is amazing, she reacted by completing the thought that the right wing tried to shut down, writing for Ebony. I’d prefer folks read it there, but short version of her five ways is as follows:
1. Teach young men about legal consent
2. Teach young men to see women’s humanity, instead of seeing them as sexual objects for male pleasure
3. Teach young men how to express healthy masculinity4. Teach young men to believe women and girls who come forward5. Teach males about bystander intervention
If you read this blog, it’s likely you already picked up on the Torrington, CT story. There’s a longer treatment here. There are similarities — football players, rape and online bullying of the victim(s). But there are critical differences. First, both of the girls here are just 13 years of age; and second, this is coming out after the Steubenville trial and national conversation.
Some things will be different. I think it is less likely that the defense will try to drag the victims through the mud. Mostly, as a legal matter it won’t do them much good. In Connecticut, it’s a Class B felony for a person more than three years older to have intercourse with a person between thirteen and sixteen; the story says the players were 18 and 17; the 18 year olds I would think will be charged as adults, and the 17 year olds may (I don’t know Connecticut juvenile procedure well enough to discuss the possibilities intelligently). But the ages alone make out Class B felonies; to not go to prison, they’ll need to raise a reasonable doubt as to the fact of intercourse, which is a lot tougher than raising a reasonable doubt as to consent.
In terms of basic moral expectations, too, one would think this case presents an extremely low bar. Don’t have sex with a thirteen year old. Even if she jumps up and down and says she wants to. Because she’s thirteen. We have statutory rape laws for a reason, and while maturity varies, there is no viable alternative to having a numerical limit, so that’s what we have. There’s number, when in doubt, it’s on the older person to verify, with absolutely no tolerance for error, and so it should be.
I say this presents a low bar, and there’s nothing to talk about, but then people make excuses for Roman Polanski. Samantha Geimer was 13 also. And she didn’t jump up and down and say she wanted it; even though he got her alone at Jack Nicholson’s house and plied her with booze and a quaalude, she still said no. And he forced her. And even after all that, people who appear otherwise sensible say utterly ridiculous things in his defense. So there’s no depth of victim blaming some people won’t stoop to, if the rapist is important enough to them.
Still, I confess, I am a grim and qualified optimist, and I believe what Dr. King said, that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” The next time always happens; until it doesn’t, and maybe the way this one is handled will be just a little less sickening to watch than the last.