No, I will not blame it on the Muslims

A video clip emerged online this week. It shows a Muslim woman, Rose Hadid, wearing a t-shirt that says ‘I come in peace,’ being escorted, not politely, from a Donald Trump rally, after making a peaceful protest against his exclusionary policies.

This image comes to mind again and again today as I browse the news. Why? Because I see, from a mix of media outlets, complaint after complaint after complaint that ‘feminists’ and ‘LGBT campaigners’ have not spoken enough about the horrendous attacks against women in Cologne, Germany, that took place on New Years Eve. In fact, that isn’t quite right. The complaints are more specific. The complaints are, in fact, that we are not talking enough about Islam, race, and border controls in relation to the Cologne attacks. 

As you will almost certainly have seen, since it has been the lead-in to nearly all of the Cologne coverage, some of those involved in the attacks may have been asylum seekers (although at the time of writing, the Guardian had reported that no asylum seekers have been confirmed as involved in any of the sexual assaults; only crimes of vandalism and/or theft.)

The clear implication (and in many cases, the outright assertion) made in these opinion pieces, tweets, interviews, and indeed, in many casual conversations, is that feminists should be more outspoken in denouncing immigration in general and Islam in particular. I am cautious to stride into this complex and long-standing debate with anything remotely approaching a tone of presumed authority, but when I see how much racism and anti-Islamic sentiment is being pushed forward in my name, as an English, feminist, queer woman, it leaves me with such a sour taste that I feel the need to say something. 

First, the lazy claim that ‘feminists’ do not speak about the connections between Islam, race, and feminism is very clearly not true. Feminists around the world speak, march, write about these things every day. Salma Yaqoob, Rania Khan, Shireen Ahmed, Sam Ambreen, Shami Chakrabarti, Maya Goodfellow, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, Ava Vidal, Shane Thomas, and Musa Okwonga* spring to mind as people who have written about these subjects now or in the past – and as I haven’t exactly pushed the boat out looking for names to add to that list, and this list is by no means extensive, it doesn’t seem to me as if anyone claiming that ‘feminists do not speak about’ this subject is either well-informed, nor particularly adept at research. 

But, of course,  ‘talking about’ these subjects is not what they mean, and we all know it. What they mean is that these knowledgeable, thoughtful, nuanced voices are not saying what they want them to be saying. Why, they say, angrily, are there no experts on this subject who agree with me? This proves that the experts are all wrong, or brainwashed, or lying, or scared of Musim reprisals. Right? I’m reminded of climate change skeptics who complain that the majority of scientists and climatologists believe that climate change is man-made, as if this is evidence of some outrageous bias against their theories, rather than evidence that perhaps their theories are due for a reboot.  

I suspect most of the people asking this hypothetical question ignore the writers I mention because they are not drawing anti-immigration conclusions from attacks like Cologne. These feminist and/or LGBT campaigners are not concluding that we must water down the painfully weak rights that refugees already have in order to protect Western women from foreign misogyny. This is probably because they are feminists, as opposed to racists pretending to be feminists. It is not surprising that feminists or LGBT activists would focus on violence against women and LGBT people, rather than using those topics as a proxy to talk about something else. 

(Incidentally, even if these people outright admitted their complaint is that the ‘liberal left’ never talks about these things from anti-immigration, anti-Islamic perspective, it would be way off the mark. There is a constant stream of casual anti-Muslim sentiment from supposedly liberal, supposedly feminist, supposedly progressive voices – from Kate Smurthwaite, to Richard Dawkins, to Cathy Newman in the UK; from Bill Maher to Hillary Clinton to Sam Harris in America, there is an endless stream of sneering, faux-concern, dog whistle racism, generalisations and assumptions, about the supposedly inherent sexist and homophobic nature of Islam. Even the BBC, the famous UK cornerstone of Political-Correctness-Gone-Mad recently screened a huge show presented by Reggie Yates that focused for an entire episode on the “homophobia problem in the black and Asian communities.” I use this example not as a criticism of Reggie Yates – it is very far from my place to make any such criticism – but rather to show how ridiculous the assertion is that “no-one is talking about” the subject. The portrayal of Muslims in general as sexist or homophobic or both are rife in the media – and not just the famously anti-immigration right-wing papers like the Daily Express, the Daily Mail, and the Sun.

It is not new or surprising that racists use feminism or LGBT rights as a proxy for attacking other minorities. There is, of course, a very long history of using the narrative of protecting white women from sexual violence as a justification for enslaving and murdering black and brown-skinned men. But it is embarrassing – worse than embarrassing; it is disgraceful – that so many white, Western feminists and LGBT people, like myself, have sat comfortably for too long while this is done in our name. 

Two things about this framing of the issue alarm me in particular. The first is the erasure of Muslim women, and Muslim LGBT people. Second and first generation immigrants who are LGBT, refugees who are women – many of them escaping the very brutalities of Isis that get laid at the door of all Muslims. It is surely no coincidence that many of the writers I list above get forgotten when a generalisation is made about what ‘feminists’ write or speak about. Despite being tireless campaigners and spokespeople for women’s rights, in the mainstream press, black and Muslim feminists tend to be seen as Muslim first, feminist second. The concerns raised uniquely by Muslim feminists are boxed away as ‘Muslim issues’, or, perhaps, ‘Muslim women’s issues’, while concerns raised by wealthy, white women like women in boardrooms, breastfeeding in parliament, and even the line of succession in the monarchy are reported as ‘women’s issues,’ that should be important to all women, despite these issues affecting only a tiny minority of women. This allows the dangerous myth to foster in some sections of society that violence against women and girls is predominantly perpetrated against white women by black or Asian men, and, as we have seen repeatedly this can have terrible consequences both in terms of victims that do not fit this narrative being silenced or ignored or disbelieved, and in terms of the issue being exploited by the far right to stir up hatred.   

When anti-Muslim hate crime rises (in the past year, in the UK, it went up by 70 per cent), 60 per cent of the victims are women. This goes largely unseen because in this false dichotomy of ‘Muslims’ versus ‘feminists’, Muslim women are invisible; inconvenient to the narrative. 

The second alarming thing about this dichotomy is the way it makes the rights of immigrants or asylum seekers living in the UK conditional. I despise homophobia and misogyny as much as the next person, but my right to be accepted as a UK citizen is not conditional upon my dislike of bigotry, and nor should it ever be. We should not be telling the immigrant population (perhaps even less so those who seek refuge in the country) that they are welcome, but only as long as they adhere to a value system that is not even shared in full the country’s most honoured institutions, let alone by the whole population. When Prince Philip’s position is conditional upon him subscribing to values of equality for women and queer people, when MPs have to swear an oath of intersectional feminism before taking office, when our greatest educational institutions don’t boast proud and celebratory statues dedicated to slaveowners, then perhaps we can demand to know your views on gay marriage at the border controls before we let you in, but as things stand right now, the idea that it is immigrants, asylum seekers, and Muslims who are keeping the UK away from being a magically progressive utopia is, I promise you, not catching on, not because feminists and LGBT campaigners are cowed by Islam and don’t want to discuss immigration, but because it is frankly ahistorical to the point of total delusion.   

Allowing a disparity in how we measure people’s rights as citizens is profoundly dangerous. Across the Atlantic, we see how conditional rights can look. In the nation that prides itself on being the cradle of freedom, for Sandra Bland, or Tamir Rice, or Trayvon Martin, freedom is not quite the same as other people’s; you are expected to know that don’t have the right to argue with the police, that you don’t, even as a child, have the right to play with a toy gun, that you don’t have the right to walk down the street if everyone knows that some people will find your appearance frightening. You are free but only if you abide by the conditions that have been attached to your humanity. If you break those conditions, then your humanity itself is up for debate.

Muslims living in the UK, whether born here or not, should not be told they have to accept ‘liberal’ values any more forcefully than anybody else is. Immigrants should not have to prove they are twice as patriotic, twice as committed to ‘British values,’ (whatever they are), twice as hard-working as everybody else in order to be welcome. That this is already the case in practice for some first and second generation immigrants is saddening; to demand it be explicitly enforced as government policy is chilling.

And yet these demands that we treat immigrants differently, that we apply different standards to people on the basis of where they were born, is supposed to be feminist, somehow. Open-mouthed people who want to make everything into an argument against immigration stare at women and queer people who do not, and express baffled rants as to our motives. Why do we not care about the women and LGBT victims of Isis, they yell at us. Why do we not show more solidarity with them, by mocking the prophet Mohammed with cartoons, or banning hijabs, or marching against immigration?

Why indeed. Because we do not show support or solidarity with the victims of Islamic terrorism by attacking Muslims, when the people most victimised by Isis are Muslims themselves. We do not show solidarity with gay victims of terror or their families by mocking their religion – we show it by offering them asylum and working to make sure that our LGBT communities are not racist once they are here. We do not show solidarity with women who have been victims of sexual assaults by detaining women and children in centres like Yarls Wood, where rumours persist of sexual assault cover ups – we show it by providing counselling, legal aid, and good quality housing. You do not show solidarity with me, as an LGBT woman, by making the lives of people I know and care about more difficult. You will not turn us against each other, no matter how frustrated you are that not everyone shares your xenophobic interpretation of world events.

So please do not keep asking why feminists aren’t using horrific events like the attacks in Cologne to push an anti-immigration or anti-Islamic agenda. Please do not imagine, not for a moment, that you are protecting me by restricting other people’s rights in my name. It is not in our interests, as women, or as LGBT people, to make our, or anyone else’s humanity conditional. It is so easily done. It is so easily made to feel normal. And what does it look like? To you, I suppose it looks like something foreign, or from the past – a white hood, a pink triangle, a bloodied coat hanger. To me, it looks like something that I see now, that I keep remembering again, and again, and again. It looks like a leading presidential candidate’s henchmen escorting a woman, while she conducts a peaceful protest, from the premises, because of her faith, while the people around her celebrate it as ‘freedom.’

*I am not sure if the latter two identify as ‘feminist’ as such, but Musa Okwonga has written about the Cologne attacks in the New Statesman from the perspective of gender violence and misogyny and both have written about how the two issues intersect, so I’m including them on this list.  

 

Yes, another blog about rape

I really wish I wasn’t writing yet another blog post about this. I wish we were done with it already. It seems the articles, blogs, diary entries, personal testimonials, criminologists, legal experts, historians, anti rape charities and terrible, tiring, triggering explanations will never be enough. So here. Have another little piece of my energy, another little piece of my mental well being. But can you do one thing for me? Please can you at least try? Can you do that? Please at least just try to let this be about rape survivors, not about you.

It may or may not be news to Richard Dawkins and his Twitter supporters whom he is so uncritically retweeting, but the most central moment in processing your rape for many survivors is nothing to do with deciding to report or obtaining a conviction; obtaining the validation of an external legal system that yes, what happened to you should not have happened, because it happened without your consent. It is a moment that happens within you, yourself, where you first apply the dreadful, enormous, shame-associated, guilt-laden, painful word – ‘rape’ – to that terrifying, traumatic, degrading thing that happened to you.

Many, in fact most, rape survivors never report the incident. Many never tell anyone. Let that be your starting point. Rape is not an abstract concept that becomes something else if we call it something else. If you don’t report it, it didn’t magically never happen. If you don’t have a jury convinced that there is a bit less than 100% absolute absence of reasonable doubt, that doesn’t heal you.

Why, then, are so many people obsessed with the technical legalities and the best criteria for reporting or convicting, when this isn’t what defines a rape? The legal technicality is about whether the rapist will be told and made to accept that they are a rapist, and whether they will get some sort of punishment. The point feminists are making is that the important person, who should be centered in all discussions about rape, is the raped person. How do they feel about what happened to them? What do they need to feel safer in their own skin? How will they best be helped and healed? If you wade into a conversation about rape and your starting point is to tell survivors not to report things, not only are you totally telling them not to do something that statistically they most likely weren’t going to do anyway, you’re also making the conversation about something which is actually kind of besides the point.

Let’s just suppose Dawkins gets his wish and all survivors with memory lapses (which, incidentally, is a pretty common and natural response to trauma, something you’d think a scientist would be aware of) stop reporting rape. What next? You must know that isn’t the end of the matter. The nightmares, the flashbacks, the throwing up, the terrified jumping when somebody fucking sneezes or claps their hands behind you, the terror of closeness and intimacy and trust, these things don’t vanish because there’s no been smartly dressed men validating or refusing to validate what happened to you in a courtroom. Life goes on. It gets light. It gets dark. You have a bitterness in your mouth and a fist in your gut every time somebody innocently barks out the word ‘rape.’ You lie awake at night with your eyes open, staring into nothingness, wishing you could sleep. You bite at your hands or cut quietly at your wrists to try and numb it, or make sense of it. You sneak out to the toilets at work to throw up when your colleague says, ha, we totally raped them with that deal. Your partner brushes against you in the night and you shake in fear before you remember where you are. It gets light. It gets dark. It just goes on, you get older, and you get more and more tired of having to explain to people that whatever you call it, whatever words other people approve of you using, whatever you tell people and whatever you keep silent, whatever words other people understand it as, rape is always, always, always still rape.

The difference between the Richard Dawkinses and feminists isn’t that he isn’t aware of all that and feminists are. It’s that it is irrelevant to him, because those stories, those voices, aren’t what he wants to talk about it. But when you talk about rape, that is what you’re talking about, whether you like it or not. There are some people for whom rape is a subjective term, who believe there is a debate as to whether we can apply it to the above scenarios or not. Then there are people for whom it is not subjective; for whom it is painfully specific. For those people, the above scenarios are not a side consideration, or an exception to a rule. They are the entire point of the entire conversation.

And if rape survivors are not the point of your conversation about rape, then what is?

2 MINUTE RANT: Jennifer Lawrence, liberty, and victim blaming

People get so confused about what freedom means. The leaked photos of naked celebrities (including, most famously, Jennifer Lawrence) is one of those stories that exemplifies so perfectly that double standard – although it’s far from the first. Dismissing the story because it’s celebrity news, or because talking about it is publicising the existence of the pictures still further, is missing the point (and the latter verges on victim blaming).

The double standard I’m talking about of course is the unapologetically oppressive way victim blaming serves to control and restrict individual liberties, yet at the same time, those that perpetuate it so often pretend to be on the side of “freedom.”

I have free speech, cry the misogynists who like to shout at people they don’t know in the street about the shape of their bums or breasts. I have freedom of action, whine the creeps who like to grope strangers in clubs, insisting to themselves that she’s up for it even as she tries to edge away from their sad little grasping hands. I have the right to look at naked photos of Jennifer Lawrence, if I want. And if she doesn’t like it, she shouldn’t have taken them anyway. I have a right to look at them, without consequences, but she doesn’t have the right to take them in the first place, not really. Not without consequences. That is what “freedom” means, apparently.

This is just one more way that the extremely important concept of “freedom” gets hijacked by the mean and selfish, who care only for their own freedom, and not a jot from “freedom” as a concept; as a fundamental right that others, as well as themselves, are also entitled to. Only in the world of victim blaming are you entitled to hack, steal, violate, impinge upon others’ freedoms, then demand that they modify their behaviour (behaviour which impacts you in no way whatsoever) if they don’t like it. It’s just such an obvious lie.

It’s not just the prudish wankers (if you’ll excuse the pun) that ring alarm bells. There’s been a disconcerting amount of Liberal Dudes, some of them self-defined feminists, lamenting the need to be so uptight, puritanical, prudish about “nakedness.” It’s just a human body, they cry! It’s just sex! Why can’t we all chill out! Those Liberal Dudes can go sit on several pins. Feminist women are always being blamed for putting people off feminism. I say that the prevalence of Liberal Dudes is what alienates so many women from sex positive feminism. It gets associated with guys like you, blazing into discussions about consent and boundaries and privacy to bully women, sometimes by calling us outright misogynistic words like prudes or frigid, sometimes throwing around cleverer coded language like “Mary Whitehouse”, “pearl clutchers,” or “nanny state.” (Why is it always the ‘nanny’ state, a word associated with women, when the laws are overwhelmingly made by men?) You think the issue here is sex, and we can only assume that’s because you don’t know the difference between consensual sexy times and violating someone. You think when a woman says “no, I didn’t consent to this,” an acceptable response is “oh, relax, it’s just sex. Stop being so uptight. Let me liberate you.” You Liberal Dudes, you are creepy as hell. You are why sex positive feminism gets a bad name. I wonder how many of these guys would be happy for pictures of themselves fapping over the leaked photos to be posted online? I mean, it’s all just sex, right? Come on, stop being so uptight.

Here we have an impossible-to-misinterpret-unless-it-is-wilful example of the difference between sexual objectification and sex. Jennifer Lawrence expressing her own sexuality by sharing naked photos of herself with another party consensually is a sexual act. A stranger banging one out over those photos, when he knows they are not for his eyes, even after she has said “no, I didn’t consent to this”, because she’s no longer a person with rights – that’s objectification. And, in this case, potentially a sexual offence.

Some of the victim blamers are pretending that it’s okay because Lawrence is famous, or because she’s been naked, or partially naked, in films. Some of them dress up their victim blaming as moral or intellectual superiority. They don’t care about silly celebrity gossip like this (something that seems, incidentally, to be much more frequently hurled at celebrity gossip relating to female celebrities than male ones). But this isn’t just something that happens to celebrities. This is just a celebrity experiencing something that ordinary women experience all the time – from ‘revenge porn’ to the doxxing of sex workers and trans women, this entitled attitude manifesting itself through technological means is happening to lots of people, many without expensive lawyers, and it’s not going away just because you shake your head and call famous women foolish. It’s not going away until people shout back, and make it much more socially unacceptable than it is now to violate other people’s privacy and make demands on their personal freedoms this way.

To see just how ridiculously obvious the “freedom” double standard is, let’s take the victim blamers classic – the analogy of a sexual offence, and stolen property. (You know the one. Don’t drink, don’t get in a taxi, don’t walk home, don’t wear short skirts. It’s just good sense. After all, you wouldn’t leave a car door open/iPod on the table/wallet on display.) This logic says, if Jennifer Lawrence didn’t want the pictures hacked, she should never have taken them or stored them online. Okay. So, extending this same analogy, if you use online banking, it’s fair game for a hacker to post your bank details online – and for people who see that posting to use them. Right? If you access counselling or other confidential health support online, it’s fine for a hacker to sneak into your emails and publish the details online. If you shop online, expect credit card theft. If you gamble online, or watch porn online, or do, well, anything else online, then it’s perfectly acceptable for the details of all that information to one day be shared with your colleagues, family, friends, and several million strangers. Right?

Except that analogy never gets reversed this way, because we don’t believe other people have an entitlement to access your property or money or health records in the way we far too readily accept an entitlement to access women’s bodies. Remember that next time somebody tries to conflate their victim blaming “common sense advice” with freedom; remember the hypocritical, stark staringly obvious way it’s used to control behaviour. It’s the opposite of freedom, and anyone with any genuine concern for personal liberty in any meaningful way will never engage with it.

Unless, of course, they don’t really see women as people.

Quick points on the ‘degrees of rapes’ argument and why it matters


1. “But some rapes are worse than others! It’s a fact! They’re not all the same!”

“Rape is rape” does not mean every single rape in the world is identical. No-one is arguing this. In fact, the whole point is that they are all unique, and traumatic for complicated, individual reasons that go far beyond whether you know your rapist or not. Generalised distinctions don’t just get people emotional because they hurt our little feelings. They get slapped down because they are inaccurate, and painfully simplistic. Grouping together all date rapes, or all stranger rapes, and rating the ‘severity’ based on whichever label they fall into is about as helpful as grouping together all rapes by somebody in a purple jumper and all rapes by somebody in blue trainers. It is unhelpful because it’s simply not the reality of how rape happens or why it is wrong.

The knee jerk assumption that we can measure the severity of the rape by the relationship between the perpetrator and the survivor doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The history of rape as a property crime, a crime against a woman’s sexual innocence or honour, can be seen floating around us all the time like a ghost, in everything from law to public dialogue. We see it every time somebody compares getting raped to having your house burgled, or wearing a miniskirt and getting drunk to leaving a car door open.

Some stabbings are no doubt worse than others for different victims, and no two stabbings are identical. If I stabbed someone I knew, it wouldn’t hurt them less because it was a “friend stabbing” or an “after dinner stabbing.” It’s a stabbing. They’re just as stabbed whether I have dinner with them first or not. Besides, I’d never tell a stabbing victim that their stabbing wasn’t as a bad as someone else’s. Why would I? Who would that help?

The worst thing about obsessing over rape distinctions is that it stops survivors uniting and supporting each other. It ties my hope of justice to proving that your rape wasn’t as bad.

2. “But I’m objective! I’m being logical and you raised your voice, therefore I’m right.”

My favourite thing about this argument is that it’s a massive logical fallacy. Why does getting passionate about a subject make you factually incorrect? If I shout 1+1=2 at the top of my voice, angrily, that doesn’t make it suddenly equal 3.

No-one is truly objective. Everyone has skin in the game. Declaring yourself to be the objective party is not only the height of arrogance, it’s also very often a sign of lack of knowledge. Objectivity, particularly on subjects like violence against women, usually shapes itself into conclusions and opinions, with expertise and experience. Richard Dawkins is not objective about whether God exists. He is not objective about evolutionary biology. He has looked into these things as a scientist and come to conclusions. He is able to be ‘objective’ about rape because, it seems, he is not an expert.

Open your mind to this. If experts in a particular subject repeatedly tell you that you’re wrong and/or offensive, there’s a possibility that the problem doesn’t lie with their inability to understand your highly sophisticated logic, but rather with the logical premise you’re working from in the first place.

Besides, as far as logic goes, no-one ever actually says all rapes are exactly the same. No-one is saying the criminal sentencing for every single rape in the world should always be identical. Bravely knocking down a point no-one has made while ignoring the points people have made is a straw argument. This is not logical.

3. Priorities and tone

So I have a question for Dawkins fans. How come it’s okay for Dawkins to be rude, aggressive, and emotional, but if people respond, even if they respond with facts and reason, they get called hysterical?

Telling rape survivors who feel triggered because you’ve just validated silencing techniques their abusers used against them to “go away and learn how to think” is, apart from anything else, unbelievably rude. It just is. Why do it? What’s the matter with you? Dawkins fanboys always seem to be the first to have tantrums about feminists and other social justice campaigners being rude to them. I was so supportive of feminism, they cry, until you took that tone with me, and, well, if you want to push people away, then this is the right way to go about it. It’s almost as if manners aren’t applicable to everyone in the same way; as if manners are only ever demanded when playing respectability politics to control or silence people.

Dawkins and his fanboys are also very into their priorities. “Is this really the most important thing you have to think about? What about FGM? What about women’s magazines? What about babies starving? What about poverty? What about Westboro Baptist Church? What about everything else except the thing you happen to be discussing right now?”

This crap is always thrown up whenever social justice campaigners say, well, anything. Why are the likes of Dawkins given license to casually throw out cliches about rape to make a hypothetical point? Why is it okay for him to talk about trivial bollocks every day of the week without it undermining anything else he might have to say? Come now, why the double standard?

Babies are starving in the world, Dick! Why are you tweeting about different kinds of rape! Is this really the most important thing you have to think about?

4. “It was an analogy! He wasn’t focusing on rape, he was just using it to make a logical point!”

That’s not better. In fact, that’s kind of the point. He’s using rape as an analogy, to make a hypothetical point, without bothering to understand the context to what he’s saying, without bothering to be respectful to survivors, without bothering to make sure he isn’t perpetuating rape myths that actively hinder justice. Rape is just a word to him, a word like any other, that he drops into his reasoning to make a point about something else, something he actually considers important.

If you don’t want to talk about rape, if you don’t want to listen to, or even be polite to survivors, if you don’t recognise criminologists, lawyers, or sexual violence experts as more knowledgable about this subject than you, then don’t talk about it.

5. “You’re taking it out of context.”

No, actually, you are. I’m taking it in context. Here is my context.

When PETA drew analogies between the Holocaust and the meat trade, they intended it as a simple analogy. But the context to human rights abuses like the Holocaust is that the humans being abused were routinely compared to animals in order to justify it. The analogy may or may not make some logical sense, but the context renders it profoundly unpleasant.

Not everybody noticed why it was problematic at first. Some felt it but couldn’t quite articulate why. It took representatives of the Jewish community to explain that discomfort, because they are experts on the historical and current context.

Rape Crisis know more about why survivors don’t report their rapes than you do. Criminologists know more about the psychology of rape than you do. Feminist historians know more about the historical context to our laws and language than you do. They’re not ‘objective.’ They’re experts.

And rape survivors know more about how painful rape is than you do.

There is more to being an authoritative voice on the world than repeating rudimentary logic from one angle. There’s also history, and context, and just because you’re an expert in one area, like biological science, it doesn’t make you an authority on everything else.

Anyway, failing the ability to grasp all of that, there’s also such a thing as basic human decency. Not so much “go away and learn how to think”‘ as “go away and learn how to be a person.”

Saatchi gallery sale of assault paintings: separating the art from the artist?

Whenever a talented artist turns out to be a supremely terrible human being, we, the consumers of their talent, are always invited to ‘separate the person from the art.’

Sometimes it’s easy enough. You can like Wagner’s music without his anti-semitism getting in the way of the rise and fall of a particular melody. Other times it is less easy. Woody Allen, who has had to deny sexually abusing his stepdaughter Dylan Farrow, has a film advert plastered all over the tube. The title is Fading Gigolo. The tagline is: ‘the worlds oldest profession just got older.’ This feels, well, less than helpful for anyone trying to separate the person from the art, so they can carry on enjoying Allen’s films in peace. And other times, such as the newly revealed paintings on sale via Charles Saatchi’s online gallery, depicting his assault on Nigella Lawson, it is plain impossible.

So what exactly are these distinctions we so judiciously make as we choose what to look at, listen to, or purchase? Chris Brown’s assault on Rihanna prompted a tsunami of panicked debates about the so-called culture of misogyny in hiphop and R&B; I wonder if we will now see a proportionate debate about the culture of misogyny in art?

Damien Udaiyan, one of several artists who painted the assault, says his piece is supposed to be about Saatchi’s assault, but also a “comment about the art market, and how people control it.” Fair enough, although he’s selling it via Saatchi’s site for £5,870 – or, as I call it, 13 months’ rent – and the site gets a 30% commission. Perhaps that’s some other clever comment on the art market and the powerful people who control it.

In fact, artistic markets, critics, and canons alike have long treated women as objects not agents, and the market in general has long treated women as commodities or accessories to split a profit on, so perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that Charles Saatchi, both successful artist and successful capitalist, would be able to profit from the commodification of his own assault on Lawson.

What perhaps should be surprising, though – or at least noteworthy – is that there are people who would purchase these pieces, allowing Saatchi to profit from his actions; indeed, that there are actually people who want to look at those pictures at all. But perhaps they are not for looking at; perhaps they are collectors’ items, to gather dust and financial value. Perhaps they are all about business, and nothing to do with beauty. What, then, is art even for?

At some point, it is not enough to just say that we are separating the art from the person. When somebody is profiting from the art, when it is reflecting a particular world view, when it is explicitly about more than just beauty for its own sake, then at some point we must ask: what is this for? What role does art play in forming our cultural norms, in how we intellectualise beauty?

Richard Dawkins got himself into a bit of a scrap on Twitter recently for disputing whether Shakespeare’s being white and male should be taken into account when weighing up his place in the literary canon. I adore Shakespeare but of course it matters if the art we take for granted as ‘the best’ validates and reflects one dominant experience more so than all others. Art validates our humanity. It tells us who we are.

We are fooling ourselves if we believe we are always able to separate the art from the person. We are fooling ourselves if we think it’s a coincidence that Saatchi is able to profit from his attack on Lawson, that fellow artists have chosen to sell it specifically via his site, that we are meant to feel sympathy for Othello when Desdemona is killed, that we trust Woody Allen’s portrayal of humanity to be objectively truthful. What are we looking at, exactly, when we look at a picture of Lawson’s traumatised, scared face, painted and sold for £5,870? Now: what is the value of it?

 

Rape, anger, and why “forgiveness” does not mean “shut up”

Rape, anger and lectures on forgiveness

The recent story of Katja Rosenberg who forgave her rapist has triggered something in me. Not her story itself, so much as the elevation of it by others to some kind of desirable ideal. You may know who I mean. Those people who like to go on about forgiveness without having experienced anything they’ve ever needed to muster the strength to forgive.

We live in a world where people love telling rape survivors what we should or shouldn’t do – both before and after the fact. Don’t get drunk. Don’t get in taxis. Don’t have casual sex. Don’t wear miniskirts. Don’t be timid. Don’t be assertive.

Then, after: don’t be angry. Don’t you dare make other men feel uncomfortable, even for one second, about what you’ve experienced. Don’t be a feminist. Don’t bring gender into it. Don’t feel shame. Don’t feel unashamed. Don’t be put off sex. Don’t carry on being too sexually licentious. Don’t make any noise. Don’t think you can express solidarity with other women who’ve experienced this same violation in a different context. You’re supposed to be competing over whose was worse, not supporting each other.

And packed in there, often from the “well-intentioned”, no end of lectures about the joys of forgiving rapists. Maybe you’d be better off if you forgave him? It was a long time ago. Move on. You have to let the past go. Stop letting this hang over you. Just shut up. Stop being so bitter.

I am not knocking or being dismissive of forgiveness here. But that isn’t forgiveness. It’s wanting a quiet life. And too easily, it becomes rape apologism, it becomes a minimisation of what happened. Look on the bright side. Much worse rapes happen every day. Yes, for some people, that is a “bright side.” You’re lucky, he didn’t kill you. And it becomes an exertion of control. I’m trying to help. I know what’s good for you, if only you’d shut up and take it. Why are you crying?

I thought I had forgiven, seconds after it happened. That was horrific but he probably didn’t mean it. That was terrifying but at least I’m still here. That was agony but its only physical. I will pretend it didn’t happen. I will just put it out of my mind. In the years that followed, I was constantly doing all those things that people nowadays tell me would be the healthiest thing for me. I did those things naturally, to protect myself. To protect him.

I wasn’t forgiving him at all. I wanted a quiet life. I was trying to “forgive” without first recognising and allowing myself to feel the awfulness of what happened; without recognising that he chose to do what he did; without even calling it rape in my own head. That’s not forgiveness. It’s denial.

Katja Rosenberg says that it helped her to see the rapist as small, pathetic, helpless – no longer a dominating powerful force over her life. I can see how that’s empowering. I did that for years too. But sometimes this happens the opposite way around, as well. You make excuses, you apologise, you feel terrible asking for any justice because you don’t want to ruin your rapist’s life. Because you see him as a bit pathetic, or helpless, or just an ordinary lad doing what lads do. It is hard to step back from your own blurring of the lines and see him for what he is – a power-tripper, a bully, who used his body violently against you against your will to feel good about himself. To assert his masculinity, whatever that means. To put you – to put women – in our place. A rapist.

Forgiveness is beautiful but forgiveness does not mean what some of you think it means. Forgiveness does not mean shut up. Forgiveness does not mean an absence of anger, or an absence of condemnation. Forgiveness does not mean seeing his side of it or blurring the lines. Forgiveness does not mean erasure. Forgiveness does not mean a quiet life. It means the opposite. To forgive you have to first feel the full force of what it is you are forgiving.

Getting yourself to a place where you can forgive, if you want to do that, if it is right for you, like Katja Rosenberg did, that’s a tremendous thing to do. But when people tell you to “forgive” because they think you need to be less angry or less depressed or quieter or because they think you need to be more understanding about the rapist’s weaknesses or feelings, what they want is a quiet life, what they want is control, what they want is for their worlds not to be disrupted.

I say to those people, with the full spirit of healing, calmness and forgiveness in my heart: fuck you.

Victim-blaming and control – when sexism doesn’t ‘hurt men too’

If rape isn’t a gendered crime, why are women always taught that it is?

Thanks, Slate. Thanks, Cee-Lo Green. Thanks world.  Another spate of victim-blaming articles and debates in which a bunch of lovely, well-intentioned people play devil’s advocate about whether it was your fault you were raped or not. Hypothetically, you see. In the abstract. We’re debating whether women in general could prevent rape by doing x or y. Not you, dear.

The real lived experiences of victim-blaming, though, they are there too, under the surface. It was my fault. I should have done this. I shouldn’t have done that. Self-blame haunts you, but it also protects you. If it was your fault, maybe you can make sure it never happens again. Maybe you can make it something you have control over.

But you can’t. Rapes happen in all sorts of cultures, in all sorts of societies, and the only thing that even appears to consistently correlate with how common rape is in any given society is the treatment of women within that society.

When I say the way women are treated, I don’t just mean officially, but culturally. Is it generally accepted that women are a bit silly, a bit attention-seeking? That the things women care about are a bit trivial? Is it widely believed that women don’t like each other, but pretend that we do? That women lie? Do we let our boundaries get tested, do we accommodate things we’d rather not, are we made to feel guilty if we say no? Is that the culture we live in? Are those things normal? So normal we almost don’t notice them?

Not only do I believe rape itself is about control but I also believe victim-blaming is about control. It is the worst kind of benevolent sexism. The way victim-blaming plays out in practice sums up everything wrong with well-intentioned people kindly explaining to women what is best for us, for our own good. The misogyny of rape isn’t just about the physical act itself. It is about the fear of rape – and what that does to women’s freedoms.

Why is it that we are so quick to remember that men get raped too yet so slow to notice that all the tips, suggestions and instructions on how to avoid it are aimed at women?  If rape isn’t a gendered crime, why are women always taught that it is?

The problem with ‘helpful’ ideas for what women should do to avoid rape isn’t just that they implicitly victim-blame. They also exert control over women – all women. They feed into our cultural norms, into what becomes known as ‘common sense’, providing a drip drip drip of unofficial rules that we must follow, until women have a theoretical right to do all sorts of things, but that theoretical right exists alongside a tacit understanding that walking home late at night, or working in certain professions, or getting in a taxi, or being drunk at a party aren’t things we can reasonably expect to do without violence.

And the truth is, even though most men are not rapists, many perfectly nice non-rapist men still benefit from a culture where women are scared of rape.

Nice Guys who get aggressively upset when you don’t magically suck their dicks in gratitude at their Niceness are the obvious offenders. But there are other guys who benefit – really decent ones, who are just looking out for you. They mean well when they say, don’t go clubbing, don’t drink too much, don’t meet up with strangers, don’t walk home too late, don’t get in a taxi, don’t wear a dress, don’t wear heels, don’t wear things that unzip, don’t laugh, don’t flirt, don’t be timid. They wouldn’t rape you for not doing these things. That would be an offensive suggestion! But other guys – the Bad Ones – they might rape you if you don’t do what they say. So we better do what they say. Because of the threat of violence. But not from them, because they’re not violent.

They don’t have to be.

I’m not saying everyone who issues this kind of advice has the conscious intention of controlling women, or is a misogynist, or is anything other than a perfectly lovely person. What I am saying, though, is that, however well-meaning these suggestions are, the consequence for women is the same: to restrict our liberties, and restrict what we can realistically consider to be our rights.

And for those women who are raped, these ‘helpful’ suggestions make it harder. They make it harder to report anything that happens to us after we break one of these often totally contradictory rules. If we do report such incidents, these rules make it harder for us to get justice.  They make it harder for us to talk to each other and support each other about what happened to us, because we are made to feel our rapes are all different. These rules pit us against each other, and pin our hopes of justice or safety or being taken seriously on our rape being ‘worse’, and by default, other women’s being ‘better’. It stops us uniting. It makes it harder for us to name what happened to us. It makes it harder for us to say the word ‘rape.’

Victim-blaming doesn’t make me angry because it hurts my feelings, or offends me, or makes me feel guilty – even though it does. It makes me angry because it silences. It controls. And silence and control can never help address the problem of rape because they are, whether intentional or not, a direct exertion of power over women. And that, of course, is the entire problem in the first place.