In which I get a little het up

When I was 16, we had a distant relative, aged 12, living with us in a foster situation. She’d lived with us on and off throughout my childhood and I considered her as much a little sister as anything else. I will always remember the day we were playing some variety of horsey or another – and she looked at me and drawled, “Well what do you think really I’m trying to do here?”

I can be pretty slow on the uptake but not that slow, because in the next second the game was over, she was banned from my room and I made very damn careful to distance myself from her.

According to an article doing the rounds as the more culturally aware partner my gut reaction helped me avoid an unpleasant situation called not rape – she seemed have definite ideas about what she wanted to happen next, but I had the relative experience to know that what was going through her head was wrong, wrong wrong. I still worry about her today – I am now aware (and unsurprised) that abuse at the hands of her stepfather was a strong component of her upbringing, and likely why we were fostering her. I suppose she was seeking to recreate a part of what her life experience told her was normality with someone she loved and trusted. I only wish I had had the knowledge at that age to do more than simply protect her and myself in the situation. That is a burden I’ve carried for 24 years now.

Rape and not-rape are exceedingly hot topics at the moment, thanks in large part to one Julian Assange.

The debate has centred over the impression (on the part of some)  that the allegations against Assange’s actions were relatively “minor”, and have only resulted in serious impact as a result of Sweden’s particular legislation around matters sexual.

The situation has been described by those viewing Assange as a maligned victim as a honeytrap, with the women involved being partially or outright subverted former Wikileaks supporters now working to bring the organisation down. These people respond to arguments to the contrary by describing their opponents as “feminist dykes” and worse.

On the other side, Assange is seen as a malignant villain. The women are seeking justice, and those seeing things a different way are being fairly consistently described as rape apologists

The charges against Assange have leaked, but I’m suspecting this won’t change anybody’s views in the least, in fact just provide new fodder to each side.

So what’s my position?

I’m not a laywer, so I can’t offer a legal definition of rape, particularly not in Sweden. That being said, I very strongly believe no means no, and that includes stop means stop and yes-with-the-condition-of-protection means no as soon as that protection fails. As far as the Interpol red notice, I personally think people are overreacting to its significance – it was one of 5000 issued last year, which in bureaucratic terms makes it a fairly minor legal instrument.

My personal reaction to Assange is that he is creepy as all get out. He comes across as extremely narcissistic and quite capable of transgressing appropriate (and, depending on country, legal) boundaries. I do not think this because Assange is male and all males are potential rapists. I think this because of observed qualities from the information I have to hand, and relating them to my own experience of abusers of various sorts. I’ll fully admit this transcript of his trying to browbeat a 19 year old student into a relationship (when he was 33) strongly colours this impression.

The women absolutely deserve to have the fullest attention of the law to their concerns. I have no way of knowing what “really” happened, or what their motivations are, but I actually wish *every* rape allegation was treated with the due process this one was.
The above being said, I absolutely think there are people who are politically interested in damaging the cause of open government via this case, and I think they’re very happy with the entrenched argument that has developed around the person of Julian Assange. Why do I think this? Because not every rape is treated so seriously.  Naomi Wolf has received flak recently due to an innapropriate penchant for satire, but elsewhere she suggests we should in fact be appalled at the number of other horrific sexual crimes that are glossed over while this one receives an almost-unique level of legal attention.

So what conclusions can I personally draw?

Firstly, I want to get rape treated as seriously everywhere as it is here. I become highly indignant when I hear the notion that men cannot control their sexual urges – it’s simply not true. Don’t ever act to sweep it under the carpet, because you then  tar me with the same brush. I don’t need to escape accountability for my actions, and the only special cases I can see are people who are genuinely mentally incapacitated in every area of their lives.

Secondly, I think whoever the hell is advising Assange (no one? the voices?) should tell him to walk away from Wikileaks and now. He is no longer, nor will he in the reasonable future be, a viable spokesperson. Open government is the coming debate of our times, and we can’t afford to have such an important discussion derailed by one person’s need to be the centre of everybody’s attention. If I can follow Naomi with a cheap shot, people who look like a grown up Draco Malfoy just don’t invite credibility.

Thirdly, I want the people who are impassioned about this cause to STOP WITH THE NAME CALLING and engage with each other.

I got offered a “slap down” on twitter when I suggested calling people rape apologists (or feminist dykes, or whatever) is the new equivalent of Godwin’s Law and let me tell you I’m still wild. Language has a violence too, and I think it’s a very unhealthy sign if we’re throwing around language constructed to say “do (X) or else”  when we’re trying to bring about an end to sexual violence. Coercion is at the centre of the problem, and if we think we can use it to effect real change, we’re wrong.

At the end of the day, we discuss for two reasons: To help transform our understanding of a situation with the possible advantage others may learn alongside us, or to get something off our own chests. Self-expression is fine, and if that’s what you need ad hominem arguments, which render your opponents irrelevant because they’re just sillies (or arseholes), are super awesome. Like I say, it’s fine… but I don’t believe it will in the least help the cause of sexually harmed women, men and children worldwide.

It’s scarier, and riskier to explore our own values and ask for and accept criticism, but in the long run it’s just a better strategy for internet discourse. It’s okay to be angry – I know I am – but let’s remember that dehumanising, devaluing and debasing is at the heart of the rape ethic. Speak from your anger – but speak also from a place where every human being is worthy of respect and compassion. So long as we accept rhetoric that denies that fact, we provide a framework of language that ultimately empowers rape.

I’ll let Belinda Carlisle sign off.

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About seanmurgatroyd
Library (Shared blog): http://diligentroom.wordpress.com/ Personal including infoculture, book reviews: http://diligentroom.wordpress.com/ Music: http://seanfishmusic.wordpress.com/ Last.fm band page: http://www.last.fm/music/Seanfish @seanfish

2 Responses to In which I get a little het up

  1. I’d have to agree with a lot of what you are saying, though I’ll just make a couple of comments.

    I have come to the conclusion that Twitter is not the place to try and engage any sort of meaningful debate. The format is just two short to make a full and accurate point. Twitter is great for one liners and throw away comments, but those are so easily misunderstood. Which I think is why you got your “slap down”. Your 140 character tweet did not make the point you wanted. Mainly because you didn’t get across that you were also including the “feminist dykes” labels as well.

    I think I agree with you on your substantive point regarding language, but not this particular example. If you see someone acting in a particular way, in this case being a rape apologist and you want to call them on it but don’t actually want to label it because you fear it may be seen as name calling, then surely that is helping to bury the problem?

    • seanmurgatroyd says:

      Hmmm. I really think you could better amend yourself to saying that a tweet is not the place for meaningful debate – but that doesn’t apply to a conversation on twitter. The person I was debating with and myself in fact were readily able to find terms of agreement and do a little work on the topic from there – including establishing that while my original comment addressed the use of the term “rape apologists”, it also applied to anyone else at all who used labelling

      Still on language – you’ve performed a nice little linguistic jump from “acting in a particular way” to “being a rape apologist” in your second par – going from describing the action to labelling the person. What I’m very much trying to say here is that you’ve just undermined your ability to engage in further debate (with our hypothetical apologist) the minute you do so.

      Using the “I feel/I see” language seems like a formalistic trick, but I really believe it works.

      I would say “Maybe I’m reading you wrong, but you seem to be suggesting rape is ok sometimes here. What am I missing?” That’s 32 characters short of 140, and doesn’t put the person in a box they’ll feel a need to come out from agressively.

      The person will either respond by (a) clarifying their position for you (and potentially themselves) or (b) saying “Yes, rape is sometimes perfectly ok”.

      If (b) occurs… you’ve confirmed they’re a troll. Label them what you like – but don’t bother trying to engage, because you’re wasting your energy.

      If (a) occurs, you’ve possibly got a reason to talk to them further.

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