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What A Witch Hunt Actually Is

May 9, 2012

Lately, when I’ve suggested that rape survivors should have places to say, “so and so raped me,” and to name the name of the assailant, some people have used the phrase “witch hunt.”  This is offensive, and it is a poor metaphor.  I’ll tell you why:  there are three components of a witch hunt, in historical practice, that do not fit an environment of public transparency.

(1) It’s all made up.  

(2) Confessions are extracted by torture.

(3) The result is execution.

Let’s look at a historical case, the North Berwick Witch Trials.  James VI, who later succeeded Queen Elizabeth as James I of England but who was then the Scottish king, sailed to Denmark to marry.  The weather was bad — really bad, and the fleet had to shelter in Norway and wait it out.  The Danish admiral blamed witchcraft, and there were witch hunts in both Denmark and Scotland.

More than a hundred suspected witches were rounded up.  One of them, Agnes Sampson, was personally questioned under torture by the King.  She was kept without sleep for prolonged periods and tormented with a device called a “witch’s bridle,” which forces metal spikes into the cheeks and tongue.

Sampson confessed to over fifty counts, and was strangled, then burned.  There were more than seventy people implicated, I don’t know how many executed.  Estimates I’ve seen of European witch hunts put the total number of those executed over thirty thousand for the core period of witch hunts, from the mid-1400s to the mid-1700s.

First, neither Agnes Sampson, nor any of the dozens of indicted coconspirators, cause the storms that forced the King’s ship into a Norwegian harbor.  Storms are not the result of black magic; there were no “real witches” to find.

You can’t say that about rapists, and you can’t say that about rape.  Or, you can say it, but it’s ridiculous, and you won’t be saying it here.  The problem of rape in BDSM communities is not a natural phenomena like weather top which we simply assign a blameworthy cause.  It is a problem of bad actors doing bad things.

Second, I have yet to see anyone advocate the procuring of rapists’ confessions by physical torture.  In fact, my position is that all physical torment should be entirely consensual and the recipient’s limits respected.  I think I’ve been quite clear on that.

Third, I have yet to see anyone advocate execution as a punishment for rape in BDSM communities.  I have not seen that, and I have not taken that position.  I am not the government, I don’t have the power or the inclination to sentence people to lethal injection or electrocution or to be hanged by the neck until dead.

When people talk about the consequences of someone saying, “so and so raped me,” let’s be realistic.  They’re not going to go to prison, except in the most unusual circumstances, for the reasons I covered at length in There’s A War On Part 4: Just Us.  Realistically, what might happen is that some party promoters will decide that person is not welcome and some people they know may decide they don’t want to be friendly with that person anymore.  And my observation is that even that is usually only a very partial effect.

So that’s nothing at all like confession under torture followed by burning at the stake.

(Anyone planning to deploy the term “lynching” outside its historical context will be banned for racism.  You have been warned.)

This use of “witch hunt” to describe a process of social transparency is misplaced.  At best, it represents a failure to think though the meaning of the rather shopworn phrase.  At worst, it is a conscious rhetorical attack, trying to enlist the image of broken limbs and burned corpses to churn up sympathy for the wrong side.  It’s bullshit, and I plan on liberally linking this post when people say “witch hunt.”

13 Comments leave one →
  1. May 9, 2012 10:02 am

    You are absolutely correct that a victim pointing out an assailant is not a witch hunt in the classical “we are going to hunt, torture and kill a witch” definition of a witch hunt.

    It doesn’t even fit the other definition, which is a little more tame: “the searching out and deliberate harassment of those (as political opponents) with unpopular views ”

    The McCarthy investigations into supposed communism in our ranks was rightly called a witch hunt under the second definition. It involved investigations into people to try and find that one thing that could be labeled as communist so then the person could be labelled as such.

    So even that is not an accurate description of a victim pointing out a rapist.

    My personal opinion is that it might do you a disservice to nitpick the definition of what an actual witch hunt is. It might be better to focus on the general meaning of what a witch hunt implies (i.e. going after someone who has done nothing wrong) and say that a rapist does not fit the category of someone who has not done something wrong and as such a victim of rape would not be performing a witch hunt of any form by exposing the rapist.

    You don’t want the discussion about sexual violence to turn into an argument over if someone is using the technically correct phrase.

    But that is my two cents, take it or leave it.

    • Xzenu permalink
      May 9, 2012 4:00 pm

      Yes, please do not confuse “etymology” with “meaning”. When people say witch hunt they mean, well, according to anyway, something like:

      “An investigation carried out ostensibly to uncover subversive activities but actually used to harass and undermine those with differing views.”

      In an online context: Some guy doesn’t like what Thomas write on his blog, so he retaliate by creating a female sockpuppet account to accuse Thomas of rape or child-sex-abuse.

      By the way, this happened a few years ago on a feminist forum I was on. Some radical feminist who really hated BDSM got furious with me for saying that BDSM isn’t inherently abusive. She demanded that the administrator would ban me, and when the administrator refused she (the extremist) got furious with her (the administrator) as well… and retaliated by posting false accusations elsewhere, claiming that the administrator is a pedophile. I think she also implied that the feminist forum was a front for a child porn ring, but I don’t remember her exact words.

      • May 9, 2012 4:54 pm

        And you lost your job and your kids and went to jail? And you got sued and had to pay six figure defense costs? And …

        And people took it for what it was worth, made up bullshit by a ranting asshole?

        See, transparency doesn’t cause any of us to check our critical faculties. We all consider the available information and make up our own minds.

      • Xzenu permalink
        May 10, 2012 9:50 am

        Yo mean “she”, not “you”, right? Like I said, this smear-campaign was against the female administrator, not against me. No, it didn’t go to court. But she did feel very violated, and rightly so.

        There’s a lot of people there who believe what they read or hear. And rightly so: People should trust one another.

        Thomas, in your posts you have argued that people should listen and trust and respect when people say they have been sexually abused. That’s a worthy cause. But now you are turning it around, claiming that people should instead dismiss accusations as being “made up bullshit by […] ranting asshole[s]”.

        You seem to assume that an accusation is always:
        a) either true or false.
        b) the true and the false are always easy to tell apart.

        In reality, it’s not that simple.

        More openness about abuse is a good idea. I have already linked your posts to some people, and will keep sending more people here. But opening up for anonymous campaigns against people who are not given equal anonymity, that’s an awful idea.

  2. May 9, 2012 10:33 am

    Interesting how the term ‘witch hunt,’ which obviously refers to a misogynist practice, is being employed in the defense of rapists…

  3. May 9, 2012 11:05 am

    +1 for what Asher said, I was also going to comment that the reason that term bothers me so intensely is that the ‘witch-hunting’ is about systematic violence towards women. For similar reasons that it makes me rage-y when rape apologists compare those who wish to allow survivors to speak to a, ‘lynch mob’ its not appropriate, its deeply connected to intensely racist violence and its misleading and horrific especially when one considers the vulnerability of poc as targets of sexual violence.

  4. May 9, 2012 10:15 pm

    As I understand it, the specific use of “witch hunt” when people talk about these drives for openness is along the lines of “There are evil people in our community and we cannot rest until we have rounded them up and publicly punished them.” A social phenomenon that ends to see innocent people rounded up along with any who are guilty of the alleged evil-doing. This is more closely associated with “moral panic” than other types of “witch hunt”. An example is the vigilante justice that some people sought to mete out to suspected paedophiles (including at least one case of a paediatrician being targeted, because the “paed-” prefix was all the people understood) in the early 2000s in the UK.

    It seems as though people in BDSM (want to) believe there are only a few “bad apples”, but that the zealous campaigners will see villains/witches/abusers everywhere, and won’t stop until they have “arrested” and punished enough “suspects” to satisfy the lust for vengeful justice. The assumption appears to be that at the slightest whiff of broken boundaries/consent, that a Dom will be found guilty without proof or trial of being a rapist and abuser.

    I don’t think I’ve got that message from any of the people actually campaigning on the issue, and in light of some of the other posts in the series, I wonder how much of it is wilful misunderstanding of the suggestions.

    The reason I find for saying that openness isn’t any kind of “witch hunt” as that term is used as a current English idiom, is that openness means that it isn’t a case of there being a single story that is the sole basis for assessing a person’s character or moral standing. There’s the possibility to hold off judgement unless a pattern of behaviour emerges; or unless the person shows themselves unwilling or unable to take on board the advice and education offered by peers. Openness means having a multitude of data and allowing people to draw their own conclusions from it, it is not about “kangaroo courts” and “he said/she said” (more, “he said/she said, and she said, and she said, and she said, and she said…”).

  5. tsunshinelove permalink
    May 13, 2012 1:41 pm

    “Openness means having a multitude of data & allowing people to draw their own conclusions from it…” Yes, this.

    I’m a huge fan of giving people enough rope to hang themselves, publicly. And that’s what we lose when we allow our main place of congregation to silence any accusatory opinions or stories. If everyone is allowed to speak up, patterns will emerge.

    Sure, there will be sock puppets, trolls and liars; there always are. But the solution is not to silence the rest of the user base, some of whom may be able to point out and even demonstrate such sockpuppetry to be “made up bullshit by a ranting asshole”.

    The system as is allows abusers to cover their tracks and leaves victims feeling silenced and marginalized. FetLife’s TOU protects abusers. Period. I quit hanging out on the site years ago for exactly this reason. I used to be a heavy user until I started seeing how the very structure protected and supported bullies. It’s nauseating, and I can’t bear to be around it.

  6. Dominique Millette permalink
    May 20, 2012 12:10 am

    Thank you for this post. We need more of this type of clarification.


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