What did she expect?

The facts are this: a young woman went to Rhythm & Vines. A young man there decided to grope her. She fought back. It was caught on video. And then the victim-blaming began.

(I’m linking to Newhub’s coverage of this, despite their BLOODY AUTOPLAYING VIDEOS, because their headline was one of the better ones, even if their Twitter account flubbed it).

Many will rush to object to my description of the events, because I’ve missed out the one factor that seems to have made this newsworthy: the woman in question wasn’t wearing a shirt at the time.

To them I say: poppycock.

Wearing a shirt has never been protection from assault. Wearing a full-length tracksuit or a burqa or a nun’s habit or probably even a spacesuit has never stopped men from choosing to touch women without their consent – consider Jen Brockman’s art exhibit, “What Were You Wearing?” (content note: discussion of specifics of sexual assault) which displays everything from bikinis to sports uniforms to businesswear, all worn by survivors of sexual assault, none serving as protection.

I’ve seen a lot of people condemn the young man, but add: “what did she expect?”

I can only guess: she expected to go out and have a good time. She expected grown men to be able to control where they put their hands. She expected to be treated like a human being with personal space and boundaries and the right to exist in public without harassment.

None of that should be unthinkable in New Zealand in 2018.

She probably didn’t expect a major New Zealand newspaper to publish the sneering criticisms of her made by Gable Tostee, an abusive Australian dickhead who was, at the very least, closely implicated in the death of another young woman and who has, at a minimum, acted like an unrepentant skidmark ever since avoiding any consequences for that.

But then nobody outside the Kardashian family should really have to worry about shoddy clickbait journalism before they leave the house in the morning.

What interests me in people’s responses is the line some draw, separating the assault committed against this young woman – obviously it’s terrible, he shouldn’t have done that, tut tut tut – and their own pearl-clutching disapproval of her attire, or lack of it.

“She should have covered up, though,” they say.

“She should try doing that in Dubai,” they sneer.

What did she expect, after all?

These are standard responses to any news about a woman being assaulted or harassed, especially in public. What they fail to understand – and get very indignant when you point it out – is there’s no line separating his actions and their criticism. There’s a line connecting them.

No man ever woke up one day and decided to pull a set of toxic, predatory attitudes towards women’s bodies out of thin air. No person ever had a lightbulb go off over their head and thought, “You know, actually I should just grab strangers without asking first, that sounds like fun.” We are products of our environments, and our attitudes and reflexes are products of the attitudes and messages we encounter in society. That’s basic psychology, sociology, anthropology and life.

Our attitudes to women’s public nudity (or public frivolity, or public breathing) and sexual assault boil down to some very basic principles:

  1. Women are fair game, especially if they’re acting “improperly” (drinking alcohol, wearing revealing or no clothing).
  2. Men cannot control their own actions.
  3. Therefore, women must take steps to ensure men don’t act in abusive or violent ways.

People don’t want to see it. They protest: “I’m not saying she’s to blame, but whatdidsheexpectwouldhappen?” and “Of course he shouldn’t have grabbed her, but sheshouldhavecoveredherselfupinpublic!” The condemnation is almost reflexive. “I wouldn’t have dressed like that,” they declare, as though the patriarchy will reward them with safety.

But there’s no wall insulating the criticisms levelled against this woman (or any woman). They have clear implications, and demonstrable impact on broader society. When you say, “what did she expect” or “she should have covered herself up” the obvious, only sensible meaning is: she should have expected assault and changed her behaviour – covered herself up – to avoid it. Which means in turn: it was her fault for not avoiding it.

Women hear this, every day. And as many as 91% of sexual assaults are never reported to the Police. Coincidence? Apparently.

Men hear this too. And what do we expect them to do if they’re told every day, “you don’t have to have impulse control, women should manage your behaviour for you”? If they see a guy get smacked for groping a woman and all of Facebook tells them, “well the problem is she wasn’t dressed properly”?

It would still be assault if she’d been dressed “properly”. “Properly dressed” women are assaulted every day. Because there’s always another reason why he couldn’t stop himself, and another thing she should have done to stop him.

The person responsible for assault is the person who commits assault. And this guy committed assault. And he could have stopped himself. And it is our job, as members of the society he lives in, to send that message.

And stop treating walking garbage heaps like Gable Tostee as celebrities.

When the creeper is your mate

Alex Casey and Duncan Greive at The Spinoff have written a phenomenal article about sexual creepiness and exploitation of young women, specifically by Andrew Tidball of Cheese on Toast and bFM. (Trigger warnings apply. This is a difficult read.)

It’s led to another discussion about predatory/abusive men in different cultural niches, and the responsibility particularly on other men to identify and call up their comrades on this stuff. To believe women rather than immediately assuming they’re liars. (As I said on Twitter, you’re not neutral if you refuse to believe women; quite the opposite.)

Every time we have this conversation, a little progress happens. I remember where conversations about rape culture were five years ago; we’re still fighting the fight, but it is getting easier. When it comes to calling out missing stairs (trigger warning: sexual violence) and identifying the bad apples in our various fandoms, we’re making headway.

But one difficulty I’ve noted in a thousand little ways around sexism and progressive politics in general: when you know your’re One Of The Good Guys, it can be difficult to see abuse happening right in front of you.

In the gaming crowds where I spent much of my lecture-skipping university days, some dudes were well-known as bad dudes. Creepers who literally everyone recognised as such. And other men would step in – no, you shouldn’t get a lift home with that guy; make sure we don’t leave the new girl alone with him; definitely don’t assign him a romantic role with her at the next LARP. It made me feel safe, and that’s a rare experience in nerdy circles.

Those guys looked out for you and knew who the predators were and, if they didn’t go so far as to kick the missing stairs out of the club, they didn’t excuse the creepiness or tell you it was all in your head or make you feel like they wouldn’t believe you if you had a problem with someone.

Until it was one of their mates. Because it’s really easy to say “that guy’s a predator” when he’s someone you already didn’t like. When he’s also obnoxious, dishonest or outright violent to men as well as women, it’s easy to believe the ones who say “he’s a real creep” or “I don’t feel safe around him”.

But when it was their friend who sexually coerced a woman with implied threats of violence, well. He was having a really rough time. He’s not dangerous. When it was a member of their D&D game regularly intruding on your physical space? Look, he just got mixed signals. The group clown keeps plying younger women with drinks and touching them without consent? Oh, it’s so funny, he’s just trying to flirt.

When you know in your heart you’re A Good Dude, you can be oblivious to your friends’ creeping. You tell yourself you’ve called out Bad Guys on their creepiness, you look out for your women friends – therefore the way your mates behave isn’t the same. Because they’re your mates.

This is the danger. The creepy dudes who you think are charming and affable are using your status As A Good Dude to harass and abuse other women. You’re their meat shield. They’re your mate, so they must be safe, because you wouldn’t stand for creepiness.

Believing women can’t just be about believing them when their experience aligns with yours. It has to mean reflecting, checking your instinct to say “but he’s my mate”, when the creep in question is your good friend.

And this isn’t just about geek circles and creepy dudes. We all have to be aware that our self-image, our conviction that we’re on the side of the angels, doesn’t make us immune from thinking and saying and justifying horrible oppressive or abusive stuff. When we’re against slut-shaming but say Kim Kardashian should cover up; when we’re against government policing poor people’s choices but think a sugar tax will force them to “make better choices”; when we’re totally pro-choice but think three abortions is way too many. It’s too easy to undermine our hard work trying to change the world by replicating the very awfulness we struggle against.

Being a good progressive person isn’t a one-off achievement. It’s a never-ending personal struggle. It means not just taking the easy road of criticising the despised. We have to be open to criticising ourselves – and our friends.

Deborah Russell on Jane Austen, rape culture and John Key

Great feminist minds do think alike – back in January I posted a classic quote from Pride and Prejudice which shows just how entrenched the idea of “a woman says “no” when she means “yes” to lead men on” is in our culture.

The amazing Deborah Russell has used the same quote to highlight a slightly different issue: the way men don’t even bother assuming a woman is playing games; just refusing to hear the word “no” at all.

The connection to John Key’s sexual harassment of Amanda Bailey should be obvious – but head over to Deborah’s and read the whole thing. It can’t be said enough.

The constant threat

[Content note: sexual assault, victim-blaming, Julian Assange]

With the news that Julian Assange will now be questioned in the Ecuadorean embassy in London, where he’s taken refuge since 2012 after Swedish prosecutors tried to question him over allegations he sexually assaulted two women, we’re having the same debate we’ve always had. Whether it’s Assange, or Roman Polanski, or another Super Rugby team, it’s the same thing again and again. On the one side, women, feminists and their allies, talking about the attitudes and messages which ring loud in our society: that this woman is untrustworthy, this man is being persecuted, this assault wasn’t really a crime. On the other, typically, a lot of men and their allies saying we’re overreacting, those messages don’t really exist, you’re just playing the victim.

It’s bloody exhausting on the feminists’ side, to be honest. On the one hand there’s trying to explain, simply and above all unemotionally, things which are staring us all right in the face. How else do we explain a country where Tony Veitch still gets work? Where sportsmen accused of rape get sympathetic front covers on “women’s” magazines? Where supporters of Graham Capill sincerely argued that his sexual attacks on girls under the age of 12 weren’t that bad because they didn’t meet the “biblical definition” of rape? Where a survivor is painted as a political opportunist because she criticises the government’s mishandling of her case and happens to vote Green?

Those could just be a hell of a lot of coincidences, I guess; a number of perfectly random cases where the narrative about him versus her versus whose fault was it and who should we believe stacks up identically, every time.

But time and again we see an avalanche of excuses and weasel-words and outright attacks against complainants. In the case of Assange, the complainants can’t be trusted because they’re CIA plants. Assange is only being accused because of political persecution. The ideas that help people to redefine “rape” into meaninglessness – that you can’t really withdraw consent post-penetration, or that consenting to sex one night means you must still want it the next, or that you can’t really be a victim of sexual assault if you don’t report it to the police within five minutes and act appropriately traumatized – are all getting a lot of play.

I’m tired of having this same argument over and over. But more than that, I’m tired of trying to make people see that they’re part of the problem.

On the one hand we have the horrific levels of sexual and family violence in our society. It’s estimated that one in four women in NZ will experience sexual violence or abuse in their lifetimes.

Knowing that is enough to make me, as a woman, worry for my safety. It’s not paranoia when they are out to get you, and it’s not hysteria to be aware of the stark reality of sexual violence.

But beyond the simple statistics there’s the threat.

Susan Brownmiller shocked – and continues to shock – people with her definition of rape, in Against Our Will, as “nothing more or less than a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear.”

The word “conscious” I quibble with. But “process of intimidation” keeping women “in a state of fear”? There’s something in that.

What else can we call it when every article or post or discussion about sexual violence is met with a rush of the exact same responses from a dozen quarters: that’s not really rape, that was a set-up, it’s her fault, we can’t believe her, he can’t be a rapist?

How is a woman not meant to feel intimidated, threatened, and downright unsafe, when her society makes it very, very clear that the only “just” way to deal with accusations of rape is to distrust and interrogate the victim?

There’s a concept called “microaggressions“. Microaggressions aren’t out-and-out cases of discrimination and oppression. They’re the tiny, needling things that happen every day which emphasise that you’re an outsider, a less-important human being, whether that’s because of your gender or ethnicity etc. They don’t “hurt” in the way that being physically attacked hurts, or “harm” in the way being denied housing or a vote or a job harms. But they are an ever-present reminder of the fact that if real harm were to befall you, your society wouldn’t really care, and would find ways to erase that harm from the record.

These conversations we have, about Assange or Polanski or whoever, these instances where people come together to reiterate all those lies about sexual violence, they’re an ever-present reminder that you could be raped – and it could be by someone you know, in your own home, while you were wearing your muckiest tracksuit, on video – and you would be doubted.

I say I get tired of trying to make people see how they’re part of the problem. When it gets pretty bleak, I find myself wondering if they do see it – they just don’t care. Because they don’t have to. They don’t live under the constant threat, not of real violence, but of the total disregard for your welfare or safety. And they don’t care that their behaviour drives women out of the spaces they inhabit. Some of them see it as a bonus.

I applaud the people who have been fighting in this latest round of the Assange discussion. I haven’t got the spoons to bang my head against that brick wall this time, hoping a few more flakes will shake loose.