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Let’s talk about sex

Let’s talk about sex

Guest Post by Emma C, Belfast Feminist Network

If this was a fluffy opinion piece for a Sunday supplement, I might make some sideways jokes about 5 minutes of pleasure, or someone’s turn to go ‘downstairs’ as a way of making light about this intimate, messy, universal experience. It’s everywhere, in ads, all of our films, television, books, plays, music. We let our culture mull it over but with little nuance. Yet we never really seem to be able to actually talk about it. For real.

We are in the midst of a wave of reignited feminism and its predicted backlash. We see every day in articles from across the world, the endless tales of rape, violence, maternal deaths, lack of access to safe abortions, persecution of sex workers and LGBTQ+ people. I’m utterly convinced that our inability to properly address sex; what it is, what it’s for, how it feels, when it works, when it doesn’t, what its value is, has kept us behind this hurdle of inequality.

Locally, we have been dealing with our very own Northern Ireland flavoured version of this worldwide phenomenon. A recent rape trial, abuse scandals, the lack of respect for LGBT people sex workers and women, all becomes fomented in policy and has maintained barriers to healthcare, equality and respect.

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Real-talking about sex has to begin. Real sex, not biology-book sex, not biblical sex, not porn sex, but real actual sex that happens between real actual humans. Most of us have an innate drive to seek sexual pleasure and some of us are more successful in that search than others. Sex is one the issues at the crux of gender and sexuality.

Imagine you are a 12-year-old girl walking home from school in your uniform, you have just begun to develop breasts. Your hormones are beginning to go haywire, meaning your emotions are everywhere and the world seems bigger and more confusing, even though adults are beginning to make more sense. Now imagine that as you are walking home, car horns beep at you regularly, when you turn to look to see who they are honking at and realise that it’s you, you see men the same age as your father and you blush a deep red as you’re not quite sure how to react. Then imagine that with every passing few months there are more comments in the street, from young men hanging around in groups, from waiters, from family friends, even from school teachers, about your slowly changing appearance.

This is the beginning of the onslaught. This unwelcome and unwarranted attention is never spoken about to the young people that experience it. This is when men, and the women, trans people and gay men that they objectify begin to learn about consent. We are being taught from a young age that it is okay to be publicly sexualised, by men; older men, younger men, men in positions of power, strangers and there is really nothing we can do about it.

Many of us will have seen the declarations from various pious lampposts around this wee country that, “ THE WAGES OF SIN ARE DEATH”, yet we know from our national stance on abortion, access to contraception, and sex work that actually if the so-called sin is a sexual one between a ‘straight’ man and another person, it’s the other person who has to bear the brunt of that particular exchange.

Consensual sex is categorically not a sin. Well, except if you are a woman (and trans person and gay man and sex worker). Then of course it is a sin. You are a slut, unlike the man, who will probably be a legend (to himself), we all know this, we understand this paradox and yet we all maintain it, despite the harm it causes. Street harassment is the thin end of the wedge of our rape culture. RAPE CULTURE, a description that so many baulk at, yet we live in a society where somehow a woman should automatically be embarrassed about having a threesome and a man can be glorified amongst his mates. According to solicitors, the shame of a threesome could lead a young woman to take a lengthy and unnecessary court case against someone to save face… whereas leaving someone crying hysterically and bleeding internally after a sexual encounter is perfectly acceptable. A top tip for any man planning a threesome: if someone starts bleeding, best to call it a day, at the very least you aren’t doing it right and at the worst you might be raping someone.
We know that what a person wears, drinks, eats, how they get home, and what previous sexual history they have should have absolutely zero to do with whether or not they get raped, yet on and on we see victim blaming from legal experts, from prurient press, from anyone quick to judge with access to a social media account.

Expecting everyone who is not a straight cis man to pay for the sin of sex is why abortion is such a controversial topic as well. It’s got little to do with little cute babies and everything to do with women and pregnant people facing the consequences. “She should have kept her legs shut” “She should have to take responsibility for her mistake” “She should have thought about that before whoring around” – all things that are frequently said in some shape or form – it’s abortion’s own form of blaming, with a human to look after for the rest of your life as punishment. This is despite the overwhelming majority of single parents being women, it’s despite the overwhelming majority of contraception and birth control being aimed at women and it’s despite the fact that sexual assault and rape are so common that they are endemic, and yet we don’t even get off the hook for that one, as apparently our bodies don’t even deserve freedom from someone else’s crime (if they are a man).

Whenever the onslaught of sexualisation begins, it teaches us – women, queer and trans folk, that our boundaries are unimportant. It undermines our trust as to everyone’s intentions, and most importantly it undermines our ability to trust our own instinct. Setting boundaries is an important life skill, yet attempts to develop this skill are thwarted from the start if we can’t even tell strangers on the street not to comment on the shape of our ‘tits’ when we are still children.

Forgotten in all of this is that sex is supposed to be pleasurable, people shouldn’t get internal lacerations from consensual sex, unless it’s something they have specifically requested. Our concept of virginity is outdated as well, why is the only important thing when a penis enters a vagina? There are so many more ways of having sex, and not just for queer people. Sex is better when it is about reciprocal pleasure, you need to be able to say to the person that you’re having sex with, ‘yes that’s working or no that’s not working, can you do it more like this?’ However we are having sex in a society that doesn’t allow space for conversations about that.

We can be on the BBC talking about murderers, about complicated political ideas, about tragedies faced by families dealing with a variety of crises, but we are unable to talk about sex openly. We can’t address it, we are too scundered, even though that embarrassment creates a void that leads to our young people being educated by the internet; by the most popular types of porn which debase women, people of colour and trans people.

Popular porn is what we are offering to our culture instead of real conversations about pleasure. Young people are divided by gender for sex education, which is largely provided for by religious organisations. It’s no coincidence that the same organisations that are against contraception and abortions, are against LGBT people and sex before marriage.

If we let these people misinform our children, our offspring will look somewhere else instead, for something that more closely reflects the real lives they live than the prim fantasies that abstinence-only, anti LGBT sex education provides.

Not only have we no adequate ways to punish and re-educate young men with monstrous ideas about what women are (less than human receptacles for sperm and babies) but we are enabling them from children to become this way.

If we want our future to be safer and happier for the next generations, then we have to make actual changes to our sex education. We have to stigmatise talking about women and others as less than human and not stigmatise women having sex. We have to teach people that there is no pleasure without consent and that consent is the lowest bar. We have to be prepared to call out ‘banter’ if it demeans anyone because of the type of sex they have. We have to stand up to the tiny minority of bigoted bullies that get their voices amplified too often.

Everyone knows someone who has been raped or sexually assaulted, everyone knows someone who has had an abortion or crisis pregnancy, we just need to learn to put on our grown-up pants and talk about these things properly and with respect before any more generations are harmed by our wilful negligence.

– Emma C

Belfast Feminist Network

 

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How can we ask women to report rape after Belfast?

How can we ask women to report rape after Belfast?

Rape is not an ordinary crime. Few people will contemplate whether or not to report being mugged because the police might not believe them. No one sees their car window smashed and thinks “I’m not sure if reporting this is wise. I was drinking last night so the police might think I said it was ok and I consented to them smashing it..”

 

The worst outcome for a rape complainant is that she is not believed. During the Belfast trial, a narrative was created that a the victim had participated in a drunken threesome and then cried rape afterwards because she was worried that “it would be talked about on social media.” The idea that any woman would subject themselves to what is entailed in making a rape complaint, simply because she regretted how she had sex or who it was with, would be laughable if it weren’t so disturbing.

 

When a woman makes a complaint to police she will usually spend hours or a day (or more than a day) literally recounting her story over and over again; following this she may be brought to a sexual assault treatment unit where trained healthcare professionals will collect forensic evidence and do a head to toe exam collecting samples from under her nails and her hair and her mouth. They will examine her genitals and take photographs. She will likely have to tell her story again to the healthcare practitioners so they know which photos to take. She will not be allowed tea or coffee in case it interferes with evidence in her mouth. Depending on where she lives, she might have to travel for 3-4 hours to get to this unit because her local hospital won’t have one. If there’s a risk of head injuries, she’ll be sent to the Beaumont first, but that has implications for evidence collection of course. If the police believe her, they may send her story to the DPP. They also might not believe her. They also might prosecute her for false reporting. They might laugh at her and snigger it was her own fault.

 

Rape myths are very common, and police and gardai are as susceptible to them as any other person you meet in the street. Of course, they are not meant to be, but we know they are. They make rape jokes too. It isn’t that long since the gardai were making rape jokes on tape in relation to Shell to Sea protestors. That wasn’t solely about animosity towards protesters, it was because they found rape funny and unless they’ve retired since 2011, they’re still employed by An Garda Siochana. The transcript of that exchange could be a twitter exchange.  

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^ Garda Rape Tape Exchange

Of course false report convictions are rare much the same way that false reports of rape are rare, but the fear of not being believed and the consequences that follow are a shadow over every victim’s decision on whether or not to report. They are rare, because women do not put themselves through the trauma of reporting because of what it entails, and the glaringly obvious fact that largely, she will not be believed.

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In the best case scenario, if the victim is believed by the Gardaí she must tell her story over and over and over and over again; then if she is believed by the DPP and then after having repeated her story over and over again, a case will be taken. Following this she will listen while her credibility is systematically picked apart by the defence counsel. She will see her knickers passed around the court. Her own credibility will be on trial. They will discuss what she likes and what sex acts she would engage in. The papers will discuss the colour of her labia in print. People on the internet will speculate on where she was in her menstrual cycle and whether the vaginal lacerations she has were from rape or not. Her text messages to friends about being raped will become a matter of public record. A newspaper will write a story in which they wonder whether the blood was from internal bleeding from vaginal injuries or from her period as the defence counsel suggested. In some cases fear of retaliation from the perpetrators will be a worry, whether that retaliation manifests as a physical threat or a threat to make life difficult, or the retaliation might manifest as the forces of privilege in society standing together to paint you as a liar. Anonymous or not, she will be stigmatised and the minutiae of every move she makes will be under scrutiny. Some of the jury will believe that if a woman was drinking, she was asking for it, and other myths, like the style of clothes being an invitation to have grope. Men who barely know the alphabet, let alone the intricacies of criminal law will call for her to be put on trial. They will call for her to be named and shamed. They say this because a lot of society thinks that if you cannot secure a conviction in a rape trial, the victim complainant has been proven to be a liar. Rape trials always mean the victim is on trial as much as the defendants. In the Belfast case, people know who the complainant is, there is no need to name her. Men will share that information. The Belfast verdict in many quarters has been seen as a victory for men. Women will simply return to secret Facebook groups and chats and informal conversations in which the words, “be careful of him” are uttered.

 

The scale of rape and sexual assault is a global health issue. If one in four people were getting mugged, we would likely examine the root cause and the members of the Oireachtas and other parliaments would probably convene a joint special committee. The media has a key role in this. They, whether they like it or not, shape the public discourse on rape and sexual assault issues. When they produce salacious gossipy reports on the case or the colour of a rape victim’s genitalia in their paper, it matters. It matters because those words are taken and repeated on twitter, with a multitude of shitty opinions attached.

 

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Most rape victims do not report to the police. Convictions do not simply require 12 members of a jury to believe you. They require the police who are questioning your demeanor, level of intoxication and consistency of details, to believe you. Your credibility must be sturdy. Impeccable in fact. It helps if you are not a poor or marginalised woman. During the Belfast trial Stuart Olding’s barrister commented, “Why did she not say no? Why did she open her mouth? Why didn’t she scream? A lot of middle class girls were downstairs, they were not going to tolerate a rape or anything like that. Why didn’t she scream the house down.” The implication being that us working class women would hear it and just go back to adjusting the hun buns and acrylic nails and drinking cans I suppose. The clear message to rape victims in this, and every other trial is “Do not report, it isn’t worth it.”

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Reporting to the police means you must be able to withstand victim blaming and questioning and trolling statements and people attempting to hunt your family down on twitter. You must be able to handle that, if you defy traditional gender roles or consume alcohol prior to your attack you are more likely to be attributed a higher rate of blame for your own rape than others. You must be able to overcome whatever obstacles are put in place by privately educated rugby playing people and people who are members of professional associations who have connections and know journalists and other important people.

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When you make a report you must be able to deal with the fact that if you were passed out on the ground unconscious and the gardai happen upon you with a strange man kissing your neck and touching you, they may initially think that it isn’t that serious until they find CCTV footage. If you were a teenager working in a low paid carer job providing care for an elderly client, their adult son might sexually assault you. If your rapist was actually convicted, he might initially walk out of the court with a suspended sentence after drugging and raping you in your sleep. If you are 6 years old and your Uncle convinces you to go to your house for biscuits and he subsequently rapes you, he might also get a suspended sentence. If you are a group of five women abused by the same person, he might get a suspended sentence too. Your rapist might even get a partially suspended sentence for sexually assaulting two women having previously finished three jail terms for rape offences. Your uncle who abused you when he was still a priest might get a suspended sentence too. If your rapist dies, the Council might try and pass a motion of condolence for him.

If the text messages from your attackers reference your crying, and imply the group nature of your attack, as if they had great craic during a drinking game, you will still not be believed. This is what society needs us to know.

 

Screenshot 2018-03-28 22.31.26When your attackers are on trial, it will be you who is made to feel like a criminal. These “talented, promising sportsmen” who all had a different version of events, who deleted text messages and met up when they usually didn’t (but *not* to get their stories straight, remember?) were always going to be found ‘not guilty.’ It didn’t matter that there was a witness testimony confirming the witness’s description. It didn’t matter the taxi driver was concerned and said she was crying. What mattered was that they were privileged men, whose victim was always going to be torn asunder on the stand. Privilege begets privilege. Don’t you always bawl your eyes out and bleed through your jeans in a taxi home after a fun night?

The question that many feminists are asking now is why would any woman who witnessed this trial report a rape? If a friend discloses rape, how do you say to her in good conscience “would you consider reporting?”

 

They don’t want us to. The system is not designed for the victim. It serves an entirely different process. The victim was painted by the barristers involved as a wanton slut who was up for anything. Paddy Jackson, one of the defendants was painted as a poor little boy whose favourite hobbies included “drawing super heroes,” whose only mistake was wanting to have fun.  

The complainant in this case did everything that victims are supposed to do, she kept her clothes, she went and made a statement. Experts confirmed vaginal injuries. She told her friends what had happened. The defence still made out that she simply regretted a consensual experience and was afraid she would be labeled a slut. They labeled her a slut anyway not to mention, does any woman in 2018 under the age of 40 really give a fuck about someone having a threesome?

I know an awful lot of victims of rape. So do you. But I have never known anyone that has seen their rapist prosecuted. There are people who are friends of friends but it is truly remarkable that given the scale of it, convictions are rare.

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We all know, as women, we are routinely not believed, but for whatever it’s worth, I believe her.

 

@stephie08

 

#ibelieveher

Ireland: Domestic Abusers Paradise

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Ireland: Domestic Abusers Paradise

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The following is a not-at-all comprehensive list of things that are not considered a crime in Ireland (if the person doing them to you is your partner or ex partner):

  • Refusing to get you medical attention when you need it
  • Deliberately embarking on a campaign of brainwashing to break you down and erode your self worth
  • Leaving you sick without food or water for more than 24 hours
  • Belittling and mocking you for your health issues
  • Stopping you from seeing your friends and/or family
  • Hacking into your accounts and spying on you
  • Trying to turn your children against you
  • Extorting money from you by coercion
  • Coming into your house without your permission
  • Going through your belongings
  • Leaving photographs of themselves in your bed
  • Sending abusive texts or emails
  • Using children to hurt/control you (by not attending to their needs when in their care, refusing to sign permission slips/passport applications/H.S.E forms etc)
  • Spreading malicious lies about you
  • Reading your texts and emails
  • Lurking round your property and looking through your back windows in the morning
  • Using jointly owned assets (property etc) as a means to control you
  • Not allowing you any money or taking all the money without your knowledge or permission
  • Sabotaging your contraception
  • Not allowing you to have an abortion if you want one
  • Neglecting the children when they are in his care
  • Not allowing you any time to yourself
  • Not allowing you to work
  • Making you keep a diary of what you do every minute of the day
  • Using their financial means and your lack of to control you
  • Deliberatley stripping you of your sense of identity
  • Threatening to take your children off you
  • Threatening to harm your children and or pets
  • Threatening to kill themselves in an effort to control you

All of the above examples I’ve taken from my own experience and those of the many women* I’ve supported after leaving abusive relationships. Many of these examples were cited in dealings with domestic abuse services and Gardai and the victim was told they had no case against the abuser. They are just some of the techniques used by abusive people to emotionally abuse others. I call it psychological torture, a brainwashing that happens over time that slowly but surely erodes the sense of self. This connection to the man’s needs creates a binding dynamic that makes it extra difficult for women to leave. Their victim’s sense of self is so eroded and they are so brainwashed into putting him first that even after leaving the most awful of relationships they are still thinking of and worried about the ‘poor’ man they’ve left. A lot of the work I do is helping women to reclaim their sense of self and to learn to put themselves and their needs first.

If you are a victim who has suffered emotional abuse constituting any of the above list (or other emotionally abusive actions), there are a few countries in the world that consider that treatment of you a crime. The U.K, France and Canada all consider emotional abuse to be a crime, as does the the U.N and domestic abuse service providers who work with abused women. Given the long term affects on the victim are the same regardless of the type of abuse perpetrated, why is it that most countries (including Ireland) only recognise the physical body as capable of being ‘abused’?

According to a U.N report on violence against women,

“Forty-three per cent of women in the 28 European Union Member States have experienced some form of psychological violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime.”

43%. That is nearly half the female population of Europe that has been a victim of a type of abuse that is considered a criminal act in several first world countries and that is every bit as harmful to the victim as physical violence.

In Ireland, domestic abuse is not even seen as a crime, as Jane Ruffino points out in her excellent piece on the subject. A woman in Ireland whose partner or ex partner is doing any of the things on the list above has no legal recourse to get him to stop. Yet the list above contains actions that are considered warning signs if you are an expert in domestic abuse. And as we know, domestic abuse often ends only when the woman is dead.

Data on domestic abuse is not even collected in Ireland. Perhaps the Irish government thinks it can put it’s head in the sand as to the scale of the problem. That Gardai were grossly under reporting domestic abuse figures came to light when the Northern Irish Police released their report detailing more than 29,000 domestic abuse incidents. When this figure was compared with 3678 incidents reported by Gardai the same year people started to question the validity of the Irish figures. Since Ireland has nearly 3 times the population of Northern Ireland our figures should’ve looked more like 87,000. But then I suppose figures like that might require some kind of action on behalf of the Irish government.

According to the U.N less than 10% of women report physical, emotional or sexual crimes against them to the Police. If we are to assume that the Irish figures should be more like 87,000 and that that is representative of the 10% who report, we would be looking at 783,000 women in Ireland currently or previously being a victim of abuse (excluding child abuse). That roughly equals one sixth of the Irish population. Add that to the one in four who have been abused as a child and you have a country with a massive abuse problem. A country that doesn’t record domestic abuse figures and has a horrific history of covering up (and enabling even) child abuse.

As the government in Ireland seems disinterested in knowing how many of it’s citizens have been abused, perhaps some monetary figures would incentivise them to care. The link between metal health and trauma has been widely reported on, and the cost of mental health problems to the Irish economy is 3 billion a year. While some mental health problems are physiological, research shows that a lot of mental health problems stem from trauma. There are potentially 783,000 women in Ireland who have or are currently a victim of domestic abuse (excluding child abuse statistics). Some of these women have children who have also been exposed to if not abuse itself then the aftermath of experiencing abuse. These women have friends, family and work colleagues who will similarly be exposed and perhaps affected. That is a lot of potential mental health issues.

If we cared about abuse (if we cared about women) we might know what the actual figure of the economic cost of domestic abuse is. I’m not an economist, so I can only talk about the human cost. The human cost of living in a country that doesn’t view someone psychologically torturing you, denying you healthcare, tricking you into getting pregnant, threatening you, stalking you, lying about you or using your children against you as a crime worth prosecuting. A country that doesn’t even bother to collect data about the abuse you are receiving. And I have to ask, what kind of country accepts this behaviour as socially and legally justifiable?

NOTE ON ACTIONS: You can write to, phone or email your TD about the Domestic Violence Bill and ask for:

  • Domestic abuse to be made a criminal act.
  • Data to be collected by the Gardai on domestic abuse.
  • Emotional abuse to be included as a crime.
  • The name to be changed to ‘Domestic Abuse’ to encompass all types of abuse, including those that aren’t physical.

*I’m speaking of women in this piece as they are the most affected by domestic abuse and I have only worked with women survivors, however men can of course be victims of abuse as well.

Won’t Someone Think Of The Rapists?

Won’t Someone Think Of The Rapists?

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Being interviewed for The Evening Standard self-confessed rapist Tom Stranger, who shot to fame when sharing a stage with the woman he raped for a T.E.D talk said, “In South of Forgiveness we speak about the ‘monster myth’ and how rape is seen as an inhuman act. I see it as part of a specific problem. It’s almost like escapism.”

I find myself constantly returning to Tom Stranger and Elva Thordis’s talk and interviews (I have not yet been able to bring myself to read the book). I find so much of it problematic as I have explored in various pieces here, hereand here. I suppose as someone who has been raped twice, both times by men I thought were my friends and both times after I had been drinking — Elva’s story strikes a cord with me. Also like Elva I’ve spent much of my adult life working to end sexual and (in my case) domestic abuse. Each time I read something new about Stranger and Elva I feel the urge to dissect it, to explore what they are really saying. And I think that is of value, given how many millions of people have been exposed to their story and the effect it is having on how we collectively think about and approach rape and rapists.

I would argue that while most people abstractly think of rape as an inhuman act — these values aren’t backed up in action. In values that play out in actuality most people actively attempt to nullify the existence of rape, by victim shaming and blaming and allowing perpetrators off the hook so readily. The essence and goal of rape culture is to normalise sexual assault against women, so in acted — upon values rape is not seen as an inhuman act and therein lies the problem. In fact rape is so normalised that it took Stranger himself 9 years and a confrontational email from his victim for him to realise he had raped someone. Rape has become so distressingly common that worldwide 1 in 3 women will be victims of male perpetrated sexual violence. Which leads us to ask the question how many men in 3 are rapists? Or men in 5? Or men in 10? We don’t know those figures, because no one is researching how many men are rapists. Rape is framed statistically through how many women will be victims — not how many men will rape.

It is hard to know exactly what Stranger means by “It’s almost like escapism.”, is he referring to rape? the term ‘rapist’? When asked by the interviewer Stefanie Marsh what did he mean by that he continued,“I think the term ‘rapist’ disallows any further analysis because it is a branding of someone as opposed to a behaviour.”

Yet ‘rapist’ does not require further analysis — it is the term we use for someone who has raped someone. That a rapist is arguing to not be branded a rapist is a bit rich. Stranger then says, “If you Google ‘Tom Stranger’ a lot of the headlines include the word ‘rapist’. I don’t know if it’s my place to question that term — it is factually correct and I’m not looking to refute it. But it’s a weaponised term. The semantics of it — it’s the grandest of sins. No one in their right mind would ever want to call themselves a rapist. I understand that. The discourse around that word almost isolates it. It is reductive to the point where it doesn’t get past the labelling. Being a rapist is unforgiveable — something beyond any kind of redemption or understanding.”

Stranger seems confused about what a weapon is, one thing a weapon is is using your strength, privilege or status to insert parts of your body into someone without their consent. Rape is a weapon, not the term rapist. Rapist in this case is simply a statement of fact. The truth cannot be weaponised when it is freely and openly admitted by the man himself. Furthermore rape is not in actuality seen as the ‘grandest of sins’ in terms how we treat men accused of or convicted of this crime. Far from it. Men routinely get away with raping women, with even those that are found out often forgiven and welcomed back into their jobs, sports clubs and communities with open arms. Some of them even receive standing ovations and awards or have dozens of people lining up to shake their hand. Even legally, rape is not seen as the ‘grandest of sins’ with only 5.7% of rapes reported to the U.K police resulting in a conviction,(and with only 15% of rapes reported that is a lot of rapists in our communities). And like Stranger himself, in some cases even self confessed rapists will serve no time in prison .

This brings us to the last of stranger’s quotes from the Standard interview, “Being a rapist is unforgiveable — something beyond any kind of redemption or understanding.”

The idea that families, friends and communities do not regularly forgive rapists couldn’t be further from the truth. In the T.E.D Q&A Stranger tells us how his own family responded to the news that he was a rapist.

“I am blessed with a loving, understanding and supportive network of friends and family, who have, for the most part, seen me as more than my actions. Primarily, the reactions I’ve received have been receptive, quiet and thoughtful.”

Stranger’s family and friends were “loving, understanding and supportive.” And that is the real problem we should all be talking about. That rapists are so readily forgiven, without having to be accountable or make reparations of any kind, rapists are accepted and shown love and support. I have worked with dozens of women who were victims of sexual and or domestic violence and I cannot think of one case where the perpetrators family and friends did not rally around them and attempt to discredit the victim. The most common societal response to men who perpetrate violence against women is to victim blame and keep on supporting the abusive man.

Imagine if the response from the family and friends of a perpetrator was to be disgusted and appalled? What if they wholeheartedly supported the victim instead of the rapist? What about the if the rapist was not allowed back into the lives of his friends and family until he had shown that he fully understood and realised the severity of what he had done and had dedicated his life to repairing the damage he had done to the woman? That would be a TRUE consequence for men to feel, that there would actually be serious repercussions from their friends and family if they hurt women. How many men do you think would rape women if they knew everyone, even their family and friends would rally around their victim?

We all have a part to play in rape culture. My bold idea is to start holding men to a higher standard. I have to wonder would Tom Stranger have raped Thordis Elva if his family and friends had done the same.

Patriarchy’s Wet Dream

View story at Medium.com

After the controversial TED talk ‘Rape and Reconciliation’ was programmed to be part of London women’s festival WOW 2017 there was outcry from survivors and individuals who felt that having a rapist at a woman’s festival was inappropriate, offensive and upsetting. In response the WOW organisers moved the event to one day outside of the festival and made it open to both WOW pass holders and the general public. Where the talk had been originally scheduled they instead held a panel discussion with the very loaded title of “Deciding Whose Story Gets Told”, where some of the people who were opposed to the talk going ahead at WOW joined those who wanted it as part of the festival. I thought the idea of ‘Deciding Whose Story Gets Told’ would be an interesting jumping off point for further exploration of this talk.

A quick breakdown of’Rape and Reconciliation’ for those who are unaware: 16 year old Elva was raped by her boyfriend Stranger who was 18 at the time, many years later she emailed him and they begin to correspond, resulting in Stranger admitting he did indeed rape Elva. They meeting in South Africa where they ‘reconcile’. They co-write a book together and rehearse for their TED talk. They are now touring the world to promote their book “South of Forgiveness”. A shorter version of this analysis is “Rapists admits to raping a minor. World Applauds”.

In the UK only 15% of rapes are reported to the police and only 5.7% of reported cases will end in a conviction. There are women who struggle to get their friends and family to believe they were raped, women who will never tell a soul, women who tell the police but aren’t taken seriously or who are told there isn’t enough evidence to prosecute, women who are silenced, women who are threatened, women who are raped as a tool of war, women who make up the 31% of UK women who have experienced sexual abuse in childhood and many more women who experience sexual violence in a range of different circumstances- and all of these women have stories that deserve to be told. However the story that the media, the book publisher Scribe, TED and Southbank have decided to tell is Elva and Stranger’s, a story of rape, forgiveness and reconciliation.

I am not suggesting that Elva not be able to tell her story, nor am I suggesting Stranger not be able to tell his either. I would however like to propose a few questions, like would they have been gifted so much publicity and so many stages if say, one or both of them had been a person of colour? We only need to look to Hollywood to see how white men accused of sexual abuse are treated very differently to black men accused of same. What if they were Muslims? What about if they were both physically unattractive? If they were in their 70’s? If they were both obese? It is hard for me to not think that the fact that they are both white, slim and attractive allows them access to stages and places that many other people would be denied. It feels likely that their white, middle class, attractive privilege gave their story a leg up when it came to  “Deciding Whose Story Gets Told”.

Elva states that by putting her story out there she hopes it will create a change of conversation around rape. She says we need to start talking to men about rape and include them in these types of conversations. I agree. It is a shame that the majority of media and festival opportunities Elva and Stranger have been given have all had primarily women audiences. As most survivors of sexual assault are women who do not need to be taught that it is men we know who are raping us. 90% of us are raped by men we know, this is not news to rape victims (1 in 3 women) nor is it (for the most part) news to the men who rape us (we don’t know how many in 3 that is, as we only ever talk about how many women get raped, not how many men will rape). We also do not need to be taught about why men rape us. We know why men rape. They rape because they feel a sense of entitlement to women’s bodies, and this sense of entitlement has been socialised into them by a culture that pictures women through a lens of largely unattainable and restrictive gender stereotypes. We know they feel that they are of a higher status than women, they do not see women as their equal – and again this is where gender stereotypes play into these ideas men have that lead them to harm women.

Given Elva and Stranger’s stated desires for the talk and the fact that this knowledge (of why men rape) is so widely available I had hoped that Stranger’s part of the TED talk would be quite different from what he offers. I’d like to see him dissecting his toxic socialisation. I’d like to see him admitting to where society failed him by teaching him to have so much entitlement and so little regard for women that he would chose to rape a woman and manage to fool himself for years into pretending it wasn’t rape. I’d like to see him placing his actions in the context of it being considered ‘normal’ male behaviour and showing it up as the awful, degrading, harmful and abnormal behaviour it is. I’d like to see him explore rape culture from the point of view of someone who drank from it’s waters. I’d like to see him challenging other men to consider what they perceive as  a ‘normal’ way to treat women, and giving men tools on how to get help for themselves or the other men in their lives.

I completely agree with Elva when she says we need to change the discourse around rape. I believe we need to be talking mostly to those who rape (as in men and boys) and we also need to be focusing on parents. They are the people who are socialising the coming generation and if they aren’t talking about consent and role modelling it for their kids then we are going to have another generation of sexual and domestic abuse ahead of us.  Parents are, I believe the way forward and the way out of the abuse against women epidemic. We need a parenting revolution, one that teaches our sons to be respectful of girls and women, to understand the many ways in which someone says ‘No’ or ‘I’m not happy/comfortable’, we need sons who are critical thinkers, who can see through the patriarchal dream the media is selling them.

How amazing would it be if Tom Stranger fully owned all his previous toxic masculinity and combined his youth work with this knowledge to prepare and deliver talks for teenage boys? And for parents so they could learn how to raise sons who will NOT rape women? There is a great opportunity in the seed of Elva and Stranger’s collaboration. I just feel disappointed that have not grabbed it and instead the primary angle we are getting is on the ‘reconciliation’ and ‘forgiveness’ aspects of their story. The idea of a cosy reconciliation with your rapist is a largely unattainable dream which will be and is denied to the majority of rape victims. I should add that for many, myself included it is also an unwanted outcome.

A dream is what is being sold here, and when you think about it it’s a patriarchal wet dream. A lovely, attractive, quiet, forgiving woman who does not rail and spit and claw at her rapist, or even try and have him arrested. Instead she meets him, forgives him and they co-write a book together. Then they go on to tour the world together as business associates promoting their book. On their website it stated initially that Stranger would be donating a portion of his profits to charity. That has changed in the last week to now read that he will be donating all profits to charity. However he will (and already has) profited in many other ways – status and celebrity, platforms and contacts. I do not know if he is financing his own way around the world on the book tour (it seems unlikely as I’d imagine they would be keen to tell us that if he was) but he will undoubtedly be offered other opportunities off the back of having raped a woman. And that is a bitter pill for many of us who are victims of rape to swallow. A white privileged man who has never had any legal consequences, profiting from raping a woman –  it’s hard to see how the real winner in this story isn’t patriarchy (served with a side order of capitalism).

 

My previous writing on the ‘Rape and Reconciliation’ talk can be found at these links:

Deconstructing the TED Talk: Here

View story at Medium.com

On the Privilege and Patriarchy in the talk: Here

On Southbank’s decision to move the event and their statement: Here

View story at Medium.com

 

Intersectional Patriarchy

Intersectional Patriarchy

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In my previous piece on the TED talk ‘Rape and Reconciliation’ I touched on the privilege aspect of Elva and Stranger’s talk. I would like to further elaborate on why this part of the talk is so problematic.

Privilege is briefly mentioned by Elva during her talk but she does not acknowledge the privilege of already being a celebrity in her home country, being white, wealthy, healthy and having the connections that come with celebrity status.

Elva describes her path to healing from the rape she experienced aged 16. This path involves contacting Stranger to start a conversation with him about what he did to her and leads to the two of them flying to South Africa to reconcile. They say in the talk that South Africa felt like the perfect place to do this work due to its history of truth and reconciliation. So we have two white people travelling to a country where white people slaughtered, raped, abused and oppressed black people (and where the healing of that is still an ongoing process)  using the suffering of people of colour as a canvas to paint their story on. This is the height of white privilege. For any white person to draw comparisons of their problems with the systemic murder and abuse of an entire race of people is despicable.

Where would people of colour have to travel to to be able to soak up the energy of a place where people of colour oppressed white people and then reconciled?

Elva knowingly takes the stage at an event that is specifically designed to spread  and amplify new ideas and then disingenuously tells us she is aware that her path to healing (via forgiveness of her rapist, co-writing a book together and going on a book tour together) isn’t for everyone.

There are a tiny amount of people who have the privileges Elva has. And I wonder how many of those who do would even want to meet the person who raped them, write a book together and go on tour?

I am not trying to silence or deny Elva as a victim her agency. And at this stage even if people wanted to silence her they could not as she has already delivered a TED talk, has a book tour scheduled and been given a huge amount of publicity.  Her story is already out there. This is not a person who has had her voice silenced.

Nor do I seek to silence the voices of those who feel that they have gained something from watching the video or reading their story. I think for many women there is a sense of relief that finally, here is a man willing to be publically accountable for his crime against a woman. And there is a sense among some women that this is a step in the right direction, the crucial involvement of men in the discourse of sexual crimes against women is finally here. And in order to hold onto that glimmer they are willing to overlook the many great problems with this particular talk, and potential harm it could (and I believe will) cause women long term.

I have come to realise that this talk is something of a Rorshach Test, where viewers can see and experience very different things. Those who defend it cannot see how it could be harmful and those who see it as harmful cannot see how others are unable to see that.

Despite Elva’s insistence that they are not holding their story up as a template they believe others should follow, it seems clear to me that a dream is essentially what is being sold here. A dream of confronting your abuser and being acknowledged and affirmed in your experience. Receiving an apology. A dream of male abusers with an openness to self-reflection and contrition. Even perhaps a dream of many men learning from and embodying Stranger’s example. A dream of men seeing themselves and their actions reflected back at them by Stranger and mending their ways. A dream of a shift in the dialogue around rape away from the victim and onto the perpetrator.

We cannot however divorce the dream presented in this telling from the patriarchy and privilege of which it is infused. For it is it’s resonance as a document and exemplification of the intersection of Privilege & Patriarchy with Rape & Reconciliation that has in my view played a large part in its success.

This is rape and reconciliation through the lens of patriarchy and desirable outcomes for the abuser:

The victim forgives her abuser

They become friends, even collaborators, business associates

The abuser suffers no legal consequences for his actions

The abuser profits from admission and remorse with a book deal, Ted talk, Speaking Tour, Brand building celebrity/Cultural capital/Prestigious platforms etc.

Viewing the story through this lens I feel it is hard to argue that beyond the possibility of his victim never contacting him at all there could be a more desirable outcome for the rapist.

As well as this the talk introduces the harmful idea of forgiveness being upheld as an ideal for victims of sexual violence. Elva has become a powerful symbol of ‘the woman who forgave her rapist’. How long before that message seeps into popular culture becoming the benchmark other victims will be held up to?

The value of this idea to a patriarchal culture should not be underestimated. The idea of the woman who forgives her rapist and not only that goes on tour with him is an almost impossibly high expectation to make of most rape victims. It is wonderful for Elva that she found such a deep level of peace with what Stranger did to her and that she was able to move on in a healthy way with her life. But for us to set this up as an ideal, or even as a possibility for other rape victims is to set most of us to fail.

The reconciliation utopia Elva and Stranger are selling us can only be accessed by those with   enough intersecting privileges; white privilege, class privilege, economic privilege, health privilege, celebrity privilege.

The requirement of so many  intersecting privileges demonstrates the remoteness of the dream being sold here from the overwhelming majority of women and rape victims/survivors who do not share them.

The essential message of the talk is a man who claims he didn’t really realise he had raped a woman finally admitting; in public that he raped a woman. This is a man who will never experience any legal consequences for his crime as it is now outside the timeframe of the statute of limitations in Iceland. Added to this, this man has and will continue to profit (financially and in status and celebrity) from his admission of rape.

Wilfully or not, Stranger has found a way to capitalise from raping a woman.

And all those who grant him a stage aid him in doing this.

 

Rape, Reconciliation and Peak Patriarchy

TED talks are supposed to offer blueprints and ideas for a more ideal world. Their tagline is ‘ideas worth spreading’. Last month a TED talk aired by a rapist and his victim, both sharing a stage. Thordis Elva and Tom Stranger’s TED talk, “Our Story of Rape and Reconciliation” already had me nervous, as we live in a world that victim blames, silences and dismisses women’s testimony about their abuse and assault and as a rape victim myself I was somewhat alarmed by the idea of Rape and Reconciliation being sold as an ‘idea worth spreading’. Not that I have a problem with reconciliation, or healing after rape and I am glad to hear that Elva has found healing in her process but her path is one that is unavailable, unwanted and potentially dangerous for many rape victims to pursue.

The scene is set by Stranger, an affable physically attractive Australian man. We hear about his life as a teenager just moved to a country (Iceland) where he doesn’t speak the language, and we hear about how vulnerable and homesick he is. Stranger cracks a joke and the audience laugh along. The set up focuses on his background, his origins, his humanity. He is established as sympathetic character within the first 2 minutes. Then Elva speaks and describes their early relationship she is a 16 year old dating Stranger who is 18. Elva goes on to recount the night Stranger raped her. When Stranger speaks again he skips over the actual rape. He tells us how he re-contextualised it and then went back to Australia shortly thereafter.

The piece is primarily about Stranger. We get a humanising origin story about him. His story is placed in the context of his wider life. We hear of his love for sport and his career as a youth worker but the primary narrative of Elva is is her role as a broken woman in the context of the rape, first of all as his girlfriend, then in the context of what he did to her and then in the context of her struggle to deal with that. We are told she has a husband and son and attends conferences on sexual violence but have no other insights into her interests or humanity. This illustrates the difference between how the two parties are presented,the aftermath of the rape is primarily framed through the eyes of the man who raped her, a man who is set up as sympathetic figure who has the audience in the palm of his hand within moments of speaking.

Stranger never speaks in specifics about the rape, we never hear his story of that night, but he talks in grand platitudes. This is one of the great parlour tricks of this talk, the rapist is granted permission to remain detached from the specific details of his crime. He doesn’t mention or acknowledge the fact that Elva had to do all the emotional labour that lead to their reconciliation, or that it should have been him seeking Elva out to apologise and make reparations to her and not her seeking him out to hold him accountable.

Elva frames her journey as a need to forgive in order to heal. That is fine if that is what works for her but this is not the case for many of us who are survivors of sexual assault. Forgiveness and healing are not the same thing. There are many women I know, including myself who have healed from their experiences but do not forgive the person who raped them. I do not forgive because the rapist never admitted they did the wrong thing, were never bought to justice of any kind and I have had no apology nor any attempt to repair or any reparations made. This is unfortunately the case for many rape victims. I do not need reconciliation or to forgive in order to heal. I do not need anything from the man who raped me in order to heal. In fact the thought of contacting the man who raped me makes me feel sick to my stomach. While I appreciate that Elva has a different journey and experience to me I am alarmed by the context of their talk — as a TED talk — ‘ideas worth spreading.’

I feel it is irresponsible of Stranger, Elva and TED to purport their very unique story of forgiveness after rape as an ‘idea worth spreading’. Especially as the talk is called “Rape and Reconciliation” and their book is titled “South of Forgiveness”.  Both are framed around the idea of needing to forgive in order to heal. This slyly introduces the idea of a “good rapist” and a “good, forgiving victim” which is dangerous in the extreme in a world that already does not believe women. Rapist are regularly forgiven by society and rarely bought to justice. The forgiving of a rapist is not news, it happens every day all around the world by families and communities that do not call the abusive person to justice or accountability. There are so little consequences for abusive men that worldwide 1 in 3 women will be physically or sexually assaulted in their lifetime. The platforming of a victim forgiving her rapist as an ‘idea worth spreading’ is in my view very dangerous. I am not suggesting that Elva not have a space to share her story, I’m concerned that TED was the chosen platform. It is not hard to imagine people judging rape victims in the future for ‘not forgiving their rapist like that woman on TED did’. While Elva does admit during the talk that her process is not something she is advocating for everyone, it is not hammered home that  most victims may never get, nor indeed want this outcome or situation. As my friend Victoria Patterson said: “It is reminiscent for me of the myriad ways in which women are expected to overcome insurmountable emotional challenges, swallow our feelings and appear to be reasonable at all costs.”

How many victims of sexual violence struggle to get the police to take them seriously or listen to them, yet so much public attention is being given to two wealthy white people who were able to travel to South Africa to spend a week discussing the rape and aftermath and who have since had years of coaching. If this IS an idea worth spreading then you will need to begin this process with a certain amount of privilege. You will need the privilege to have enough money and time to get help and therapy, the privilege to have enough money and time and perhaps help with your family to fly halfway around the world or to where ever your rapist/victim is, the privilege of not having been so destroyed by what happened to you that you cannot even support yourself, the privilege of having enough mental health/well being to be able to deal with meeting your rapist. These levels of privilege are not acknowledged by Stranger and Elva and is disingenuous of them to say they know what they did isn’t for everyone, while setting the whole thing up as aspirational and telling their story on a platform designed specifically for creating aspirational visions for the future.

That two privileged white people have received so much press coverage and were given a TED talk platform displays the selective bias of the media regarding what rape stories get told. An alternative headline for this talk could be “Man agrees (years after the fact) that he raped a woman. World Applauds”. When the talk has been framed through this man’s journey and “Gasp” accountability and ownership of “Gasp” his own actions, the media wets itself with excitement over this brave man. And there is a joy to be taken from a man owning his actions. If he truly does.

But does Stranger truly own it? Yes he does admit to having raped Elva. That is a fact. Should he be applauded for that? I can see why some people think his admission is great. As a society we have set the bar so low for men, especially for white men. They are mostly unaccountable for their actions no matter how harmful to others. This message is constantly re-enforced. Think of Woody Allen or Casey Affleck being lauded and awarded despite the allegations women have made against them. Does he deserve applause just for taking responsibility for his actions and telling the truth? Does the rapist in the courtroom who pleads guilty also deserve applause? No, it’s just the right thing to do.

During the TED talk Stranger speaks of how the family and culture he grew up with had lots of good role models of people being respectful to women. And perhaps his family were all role modelling respect to women, however I find it VERY hard to believe he was not untouched by the wider sexism that exists in Australian culture. Having grown up there I can tell you that it is a deeply misogynistic society, where men are bred on entitlement. But don’t just take my word for it. As of 2015 two women a week die at the hands of a partner or a former partner. Shocking statistics for a country with such a small population and indicative of the disposable view many men have regarding women.

But Stranger does not talk about rigid and systemic gender stereotypes, toxic masculinity or any of the other factors that no doubt contributed to his younger self thinking that he had ownership over Elva’s body. This is the great missed opportunity of the talk. We are offered a floundering ‘I didn’t even realise I had raped her’ vague pronouncement and lack of accountability with no willingness on Stranger’s part to look at or acknowledge the cultural conditioning that lead to his despicable actions.

We do not hear about Stranger’s journey of soul searching after Elva’s initial letter. We do not know if he quietly consulted lawyers to find out what his options were before contacting Elva again. He very well may not have, but I have to wonder if he considered the legal ramifications of admitting in writing to committing a rape. Did he ever consider taking himself to the Police station to confess to the crime he committed? Did his willingness to own his actions extend to actually living with the legal consequences of that?

The world has gathered round to applaud a man who, many years after the fact, due to the emotional courage and tenacity of his own victim has now admitted to raping her. And as far as we know has incurred no legal consequences for his criminal act. We expect so little from men who abuse women that we have granted this man one of the most influential stages in the world, and a book deal. It is hard to know how many more platforms will be offered to Stranger now that he has become a poster boy for a reformed rapist. This my friends is peak patriarchy. Where a self-confessed rapist actually gets rewarded, applauded and financially profits from admitting he raped a woman. Slow clap for the man at the front for admitting he’s a rapist. There is something sick and dark about so many people lapping this up as a step in the right direction.

It is of interest that Stranger does not explore his life before or after he raped Elva. We know that rape is caused by male entitlement and a feeling of ownership over women’s bodies. We know that rape is about power and control and not sex. It is an act of violence towards a woman. The mindset that creates this sense of entitlement is not something that you can turn on and off at will. While I think it is brilliant that Stranger has so clearly decided to explore this part of himself, and that he is doing it so publicly, I am interested to know what else he may have done in his life before he realised he was a rapist. What were his other encounters with women and girls like? Can he honestly say that he never crossed a line with any other woman? I would find it hard to believe as Stranger himself says he didn’t recognise what he had done as rape for many many years. Perhaps he had zero interactions with women and his sexism didn’t emerge during those years after he raped Elva. I feel there was another missed opportunity for Stranger here, for him to fully own up to any and all harm he may have caused women. As the piece stands the rape is made to sound like a one off event, an anomaly in the otherwise happy life Stranger lived. Again, I feel the idea of a nice guy who “Ooops, one day raped his girlfriend and didn’t even know he had” is a dangerous message to be sending out into the world on such a large platform. That is simply not the way sexual assault and the toxic belief system that leads to men feeling entitled to assault women works. It is NOT a one off event.

I feel there was a golden opportunity here for Stranger to fully step into the causes of male entitlement, to own up to his part in it, to talk to other men about where he now knows he went wrong and why they all need to do some serious soul searching as well. It had the potential to be one of the most amazing conversation changing pieces — a man laying bare and dissecting toxic masculinity through the lens of his own story. Owning every uncomfortable bit of it and explaining how and what brought about his change, creating a pathway and vision for future men and boys to follow.

Now THAT would be an idea worth spreading.