On Strauss-Kahn and “Scandals”

This is not going to be an exhaustive post on the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case. There are a number of things to say about the charges and the reactions to them from various national and international quarters—not to mention the fact that the case has sparked some awareness about the sexual assault risks faced by hotel staff as a class. There are some good pieces out there on these aspects of the case and more, but here I want to talk about something that may seem minor—but really isn’t.

Unless you’ve been avoiding all forms of news media for the past month, you know that the Strauss Kahn case broke a mere two days before reports of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s marital infidelity surfaced in the Los Angeles Times. Both have been big stories here in the U.S., and as you’ve probably noticed (again, unless you’ve been living under a rock since early May) reporters, pundits, and all manner of media commentators have often spoken of them in the same breath. Usually it’s in an offhand way, as a convenient transition between the two stories or simply a reminder that two “sex scandals” are making headlines these days. And there have been some think pieces too (see here for the New York Times’s contribution and here for that of the L.A. Times) , that link them under a “men who take advantage” framework. But these remarks, casual and deliberate, do the work of erasing a crucial fact about the two stories: one of them is not like the other. In a really, really important sense.

Bear with me. I know you be may thinking, “This does not seem like that big of a deal. What’s important is that Strauss-Kahn’s alleged victim get justice, and that if he’s guilty, Strauss Kahn’s enormous power and privilege doesn’t prevent that justice.” And you’d be right. That is what matters most. (You may also be thinking that the Schwarzenegger story raises troubling questions about power and inequality in ostensibly consensual sexual relationships, as Gregory Rodriguez does in one of the pieces linked above. You’d be right there too.  That discussion is outside the scope of this post, but I welcome  comments.) But how we talk about the case matters, too—and it tells us a lot about how sexual assault is perceived. Here’s what I’m saying: these two stories are profoundly different, and when we join them together under the sign of the salacious, we say (whether we mean to or not) that rape is a scandal rather than a (violent) crime. Now, I know it’s not semantically incorrect to call the Strauss-Kahn case a “scandal.” One meaning of the word, after all, is “damage to reputation; rumour or general comment inurious to reputation.” and that’s certainly true here: Strauss-Kahn’s reputation has been irrevocably damaged, and there has cetainly been plenty of “general comment” accomplishing that.

But notice what the term scandal directs our attention toward: the accused’s reputation or honor. The story of the scandal is the story of a fall from grace, or a “rise” into infamy. When we talk about a scandal, that’s what we’re talking about. That’s why the term can also mean “malicious gossip.” (These definitions are from the Oxford English Dictionary, by the way.) In other words, a scandal is “dirt” on someone or something—it’s sensational, perhaps even salacious. We use it frequently to describe stories that arouse what the Supreme Court likes to call our “prurient interest.” There can even be a kind of lewd or perverse pleasure in observing the scandal. So that’s why it’s a term w so often used to describe infidelity, illicit liaisons, and births that we have (thankfully) stopped calling “illegitimate.” And you know what? Rape doesn’t belong in this category. A case of sexual assault is not a dirty story, it’s an act of violence and hostility. It’s not about sexual mores, any more than aggravated assault is an offense against politeness. We wouldn’t group the latter with failure to return a dinner invitation or other etiquette violations, and we shouldn’t subsume sexual assault under the same rubric as the Schwarzenegger/Shriver divorce.

And this matters, I believe, because being accurate about what rape is matters. When we think of it as a scandal, as gossip—in a culture where “gossip” is big business, revolving mostly around celebrity excesses and exploits—we minimize it. We excuse those who don’t take it seriously. We make victim-blaming questions (What was she wearing? How much did she drink? Why did she go there alone?) seem relevant. It’s not that we need to be correct for the sake of etymology, or for the sake of “correctness” itself. It’s that the terms we use both reveal and reinforce common perceptions. The way we talk about sexual assault tells us a lot about what we think it is and how seriously we take it. And the references I hear to the Strauss-Kahn case that place it alongside stories like Schwarzenegger’s remind me that too often we still minimize it, just as too often we doubt and disparage survivors.

Violence & Passion: Not Synonymous

With Valentine’s Day almost upon us, I want to highlight this action by Hollaback! D.C. (If you don’t already know about the expanding anti-street harassment Hollaback! movement, check it out.) Hollaback! D.C. is calligng attention to a Valentine-themed gimmick called “Crimes of Passion” meant to boost attendance at the National Museum of Crime & Punishment. The promotion is mostly a guided tour for couples, but as a bonus, visitors will also get to view

special exhibit boards placed throughout explaining various crimes of passion, many of which took place in the D.C. metropolitan area.

It’s not really clear what these exhibit boards will showcase, but most of us already know what the term “crime of passion” often describes: violence (including  murder) perpetrated by a victim’s current or former romantic partner. As Hollaback! D.C. points out, the museum’s cute and coy advertising copy is making light of something that isn’t.

I know that museums, like most knowledge and cultural institutions these days, are struggling with reduced budgets and pressure to be more accessible and relevant. I’m sure that the National Museum of Crime & Punishment needs to get more visitors in the door, and holiday-themed specials are a good way to do that. And to its credit, after Hollaback! D.C’s efforts received some local coverage, the museum made a statement addressing it and claiming that it would have “information” about intimate partner violence available during the event. On the event’s promotional page, they’ve provided the number for the National Domestic Violence Hotline and links to local and national anti-violence organizations. Which is all well and good, but ends up seeming like a bit of a mixed message at best (and lip service at worst). I’m sure it’s true that museum staff believe that “domestic violence is not a crime of passion but a pervasive social illness” — but  that statement doesn’t negate the fact that promoting an exhibit that capitalizes on the perceived link between violence and love (i.e., “passion”) directly undermines that message. As Hollaback! D.C. explains, the key features of these kinds of crimes are power and control, not passion or romance.

Look, this museum didn’t invent the practice of romanticizing intimate partner violence. The term “crime of passion” isn’t new, and these ideas are still very much with us (see, for example, the Eminem/Rihanna hit “Love the Way You Lie,” which Ashley discussed on this blog last year). This marketing gimmick isn’t the core problem — the fact that “crime of passion” is still very much a part of our lexicon is. But capitalizing on this perverse misunderstanding of violence helps contribute to what the museum itself calls “a pervasive social illness.” It’d be nice if they’d rethink this issue more deeply and go beyond pairing the promotion with a boilerplate advisory about domestic violence. Tomorrow is the event’s last day, but this is the second year they’ve promoted “Crimes of Passion,” so it’s definitely still worth speaking up about. Consider signing Hollaback! D.C.’s petition or contacting the museum directly.

H.R.3: Recap & Reflections

Hello there, dear readers! I’m back after an extended holiday hiatus and excited to be contributing to the SAFER blog again. There is no shortage of stuff that I hope to write about, but thought I would kick off my return with a short recap of the action concerning H.R. 3 (The “No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act”) and some thoughts. Sarah made a quick mention of this last week when news of the bill’s language about rape first broke. Since then, lots more folks have been talking about it, and the bill’s sponsors eventually realized how bad they were starting to look.  And in response, decided that maybe they should not be in the business of  instituting a rape typology and deciding which rapes are worthy of public  support. (And, to any supporters of the bill’s original language who cried  “I  support rape victims!” I do precisely mean “public support.” Public  support in this bill takes the form of public sector funding for women terminating pregnancies resulting from rape, when they can’t otherwise afford to.)

But I’m getting a bit ahead of myself. To recap: In late January, House Reupublicans introduced a bill to further restrict the ways in which federal funding can be used toward abortion. (The Hyde Amendment has prohibited federal funding for abortion since 1976, so this bill is an attempt to go beyond Hyde’s provisions.) The bill included some exceptions to its proposed restrictions –for women whose lives are endangered by pregnancy or who are the victims of rape or incest. These are all pretty standard categories in the public discourse on abortion and reproductive rights. Except H.R.3 was very specific about those latter two exceptions. Here’s the original text from the bill:

if the pregnancy occurred because the pregnant female was the subject of an act of forcible rape or, if a minor, an act of incest

Public outrage about this has been all over the internet and other media, so I don’t think I need to present a detailed critique here. But it’s pretty clear that this language identifies what the bill’s sponsors think is “legitimately” rape.

So, moving on: like I said, public outrage. Lots of folks pointing out exactly what this language excluded (18 year-old incest victim? Sorry. Raped while drugged and unconscious, but without physical force? Too bad. 13 year-old impregnated by your 30 year-old “boyfriend”? Statutory rape doesn’t count.). And some pretty fantastic actions sprang, like the #dearjohn Twitter campaign, petitions from MoveOn and EMILY’s List. And lots of folks writing and talking (loudly) about it–even the Daily Show. And so last Thursday the bill’s author, Chris Smith of New Jersey, announced through a spokesperson that the bill would adopt the language of the Hyde Amendment, under which women who are victims of rape (not just the “forcible” kind) or incest (including those over 18) are eligible for federally subsidized abortion.

So, that’s the recap. What’s good is that people have been talking about how problematic it is to restrict the definition of rape in an arbitrary, ill-informed way. As Nick Baumann pointed out in his coverage in Mother Jones, “forcible rape” isn’t even a term in the federal criminal code. Plenty of lawmakers, journalists, and regular citizens-on-the-internet were very vocal about the ways in which the vagueness of the language would present major obstacles for determining if and when the exception could be applied — not to mention the fact that framing it as something applicable only in the case of a certain kind of “legitimate” assault is incredibly callous. I have to say that I was glad to hear those sentiments expressed, everywhere from feminist blogs to large progressive media outlets to late-night television. As horrifying (to borrow Sarah’s term) as this attempt to codify a wrongheaded definition of rape was, it was pretty inspiring to see opposition mount so quickly, from lots of different venues. And while I’m no fan of H.R.3 otherwise, it was gratifying to see these voices actually being heard by the bill’s sponsors.

So that’s the good news, from where I sit. It is undermined, however, by that nagging feeling that we’ve heard all this before. And that, certainly, we’re going to keep hearing it. I’m cynical enough to think that the sponsors of H.R.3 were motivated strictly by negative press and shifting public opinion, rather than by a change in their underlying beliefs about sexual assault. (Though I’m hopeful enough to think that some national attention to these issues can ultimately change public discourse, over time.) And to be honest, the bill’s language struck me as a tamer, more polite version of South Dakota state senator Bill Napoli’s famous definition of the acceptable abortion: one sought by a “brutally raped,” “sodomized,” young woman (actually, he calls her a “girl”) who “planned on saving her virginity until marriage”. Like H.R.3,  Napoli wasn’t directly addressing sexual assault — yet  he managed to hit on the most harmful stereotypes about it: that somehow “real” rape is violent, and that only certain victims are really victimized. These beliefs continue to have a lot power; that’s why the logic underpinning them ends up in places like H.R.3. And that’s what really needs to change — not only the laws we make, but the ideas that rationalize and justify them. Assertions (implicit and explicit) about some survivors being more deserving of support than others don’t help anyone. They certainly won’t somehow make the many, many assaults that lack an arbitrary level of “force” go away or become less frequent. I just hope other efforts by policymakers (at all levels) to discredit or ignore them will meet the kind of resistance we saw with H.R.3.

Pleasure (see: the radical possibilities of*)

I don’t know about y’all, but I found Erin’s post about enthusiastic consent so inspiring. I’ve been thinking a lot about the power of pleasure in the days since, and I wanted to add some thoughts to the excellent ideas in Erin’s post (and in the fabulous comic by Maisha). I particularly appreciated Erin’s assertion, toward the end of her post, that “we can build a culture that values knowing what you want and having the mind to ask if it’s also what your partner wants.” While I definitely think that framing anti-violence work as something that combats harm  is important, I really love the notion of creating better and more just social norms around sex and sexuality. (You might call the former “critique” and the latter “positive knowledge.” They have different functions, but can work toward overlapping goals.) Part of the logic that accompanies victim-blaming is the belief that sex is something to be “obtained” from someone. Thus, the contention that someone’s outfit/intoxication/etc. “allowed” someone else to assault him/her. In this logic, the victim becomes the gatekeeper for a thing that is being pursued. Which, you’ll notice, makes sexuality into some kind of possession separate from the bodies which actually engage in sexual experiences. Pretty alienating, if you ask me.

If sex is understood as fundamentally an activity of mutuality, then it becomes pretty clear that consent is not just about the absence of “no.” Indeed, it becomes clear that coercion, manipulation, and deception are absolutely inimical to sex and sexuality properly understood. I can’t help but think that if this is our prevailing definition, then we can start to elevate pleasure to its rightful place in discussions about healthy sexuality and safety. Those two–health and safety–shouldn’t be just about keeping the bad at bay. Our notions of sexual health and safety should encompass, and prioritize, the experience of the good in all its forms. Pleasure has been with us a long time (the first instance of the word being used to refer to specifically sexual pleasure, according to the Oxford English Dictionary? 1450!).  Even when certain sexual identities and experiences are pathologized and marginalized, pleasure reminds us that oppressive norms and laws can’t dictate what feels good or right. Privileging pleasure encourages us to acknowledge and understand our needs and desires and recognize others as desiring subjects. If that’s the place we’re operating from, enthusiastic consent is not only the right thing to do, it’s the natural and intuitive thing to do.

Writing this has reminded me of a great interview with radical health practitioner Pa’ti Garcia in the most recent issue of the magazine make/shift. At the end of the interview, she asks,

It’s a luxury to feel good? No. How can that be a luxury?

* On a tangentially-related note, Johanna Fateman of the band Le Tigre recently published a really great review of Sara Marcus’s new book on Riot Grrrl, Girls to the Front. I haven’t picked up the book yet, but I plan to, as  it sounds fascinating.

Marshall update & Yes Means Yes

My blogging muscles are not in great shape today so this will be a short post, but there are a couple of things I want to share. Last week I posted about efforts by student journalists at Marshall University to gather accurate crime data from their campus police department. That campus newspaper, the Parthenon, has since published a couple of follow-up pieces about the case that sparked their investigation and about the ensuing discovery of problematic practices in the security office. In one story, the Parthenon publishes details from the crime report about the alleged sexual assault — the information reporters originally requested but didn’t get from campus police. According to the report, a male and female victim reported an assault by three men; after several weeks of investigation, the MU Director of Public Safety halted the investigation, citing insufficient evidence. Interestingly, the Parthenon notes that it obtained this report not from campus police but from the Office of University Communications.

Later in the week, the Parthenon ran another piece about the larger story that’s come out of their work — that story being the discovery of inconsistencies  in MU’s crime reporting and the possible Clery Act violations. It turns out that MU failed to released its 2009 crime report by the deadline of October 1, something that Director Terry chalks up to confusion about when the deadline was. The local Charleston Gazette-Mail has also followed up on the story,  speaking to several faculty members who claimed never to have seen annual crime reports from previous years. I certainly hope that the  full details about these failures to properly make crime data available come to light, so that MU can implement better procedures. Timely annual publication of crime statistics is a key provision of the Clery Act, and “confusion” about when and how to make these reports available to the campus community is a pretty serious matter.

On a more positive note, I’ve just discovered that the very talented Jaclyn Friedman, editor of the Yes Means Yes collection, has started writing a column on healthy sexuality and sexual violence prevention at Amplify Your Voice.  I’ve been an admirer of Jaclyn’s work for years, and I’m sure she’ll have some fantastic things to say in this column. Check out her excellent post on “asking for it” to start!

Marshall University under investigation by U.S. Dept of Education

Student journalists at Marshall University in West Virginia have uncovered a troubling practice at their school’s campus security office. Last Thursday, while investigating rumors of a sexual assault, reporters from the Parthenon contacted the MU police department to obtain campus crime logs. What they ended up being given over the course of that day were two different crime logs — only one of which contained the record of the alleged assault. The student paper’s website has a great story detailing when and by whom the staffers were shown these differing logs and raising questions about the implications of this practice. The Parthenon reporters were particularly unsettled by the fact that they read of the assault in the local Charleston Gazette (which apparently had no trouble accessing the complete crime log), and yet couldn’t verify the information with campus police. As the Parthenon relates:

The Parthenon had been unable to obtain any information on the allegations, despite a story published by the Charleston Gazette on Thursday that a report of sexual assault was obtained from the Marshall University Police Department’s crime log.

From what the Parthenon and the Gazette have pieced together, it appears that the MU security office has been keeping two separate crime logs: one containing what they are legally bound to include under the Clery Act, and another with other records. What’s odd is that the Parthenon reporters were given the latter when they first approached MU police for information on the alleged assault. When they could find no record of the incident in this log, they went back and were given a different log, this time in a binder with “Clery Act” written on it. Now, keeping records in this manner is not necessarily a violation of the Clery Act, as the Gazette notes, but it seems clear that something’s not right. It seems to me that because this system appears to be obfuscating the information that the Act mandates be made public, there’s definitely a violation of the spirit, if not the letter, of the Clery Act. And that’s a huge problem.  Even if the system that MU police are using were not problematic, clearly it’s not being carried out properly. According to the Parthenon report

A Parthenon reporter who asked to review the crime log on multiple occasions during the semester was not given the Clery Act binder.

This could be happening simply to due improper training of security staff, not a deliberate attempt to keep some crime information under wraps, but that doesn’t make it less of a red flag.

Marshall officials are insisting that they have acted within the law. As Jonathan Kassa of Security on Campus told the Gazette, it’s difficult to know at this point whether the University has violated the Clery Act. The school is now under investigation by the U.S. Department of Education, so I’ll definitely be watching to see what comes out of that process. Kassa is completely right when he  notes that “Considerable questions remain, and students deserve a straightforward answer.” And that’s really the bottom line. The staffers at the Parthenon have done their campus community a great service by bringing this to light, and they should be commended for their diligence and commitment. With luck, the end result will be that MU students become better informed, MU officials improve their efforts when it comes to campus safety, and other students will be inspired to look more closely at their own campuses and hold administrators accountable when needed. But that’s going to require full cooperation from MU police and officials, and I hope students let their administrators know that’s what they expect.

For more information about the Clery Act and why it matters, check out SAFER’s Activist Resource Center (this page is a good place to start), as well as Security on Campus.

Sex as a weapon

So, I  didn’t really pay much attention when this story about a less-than-bright right wing celebrity trying to play some kind of prank on CNN popped up at the beginning of last week. I don’t watch much cable news , so the words “CNN,” “stunt,” and “conservative activist” didn’t perk up my ears. But then I came across a couple of pieces about the incident at Salon over the weekend and learned that (to my mind, at least) the real story is less about the fact that the prankster, James O’Keefe, failed at a rather ludicrous attempt to embarrass CNN, than that his method for this attempt was to use sex as a weapon against the reporter representing CNN.

In a nutshell, the story is that Abbie Boudreau was the lead reporter on a documentary on the “young conservative movement” which CNN was producing (it aired this past weekend). O’Keefe, most famous for undercover videos that contributed to the disbanding of ACORN (which were later found to be heavily edited by a California investigation that also found no evidence of wrongdoing by the group) is apparently some kind of leading light in this movement, and CNN reached out to O’Keefe because they wanted to film a music video he was set to appear in. He and his team were reluctant to agree, but O’Keefe requested that Boudreau meet with him at his home to discuss the documentary. Well, apparently, instead of a conversation with the journalist, O’Keefe planned some kind of bizarre encounter in which he would lure Boudreau onto a boat behind his home which would be stocked with sex toys, pornography, and cameras. (Boudreau’s official blog excerpts the list of these “props” from a planning document obtained from O’Keefe’s assistant. It’s pretty… weird.)

I agree with Tracy Clark-Fory’s take on this story, the thrust of which is that

Whatever the exact plan, the imagined goal was humiliation. Sexual humiliation.  To make that “bubble-headed-bleach-blonde” squirm.

Which is why I’m bringing it up on this blog. Clearly, O’Keefe and his camp believed that the best way to critique CNN was to use stage a sexually explicit scene to harass, intimidate, and, yes, humiliate the chief reporter on this documentary. One of the underlying assumptions here is that sex and sexuality are weapons to be used to violate someone’s sense of safety and comfort. Which, I’d argue, is a certain kind of violence. Another assumption is that it’s always open season on women when it comes to this kind of violence. “Bubble-headed-bleach-blonde” is a quote from a speech O’Keefe was supposed to read to the camera before taping the encounter with Boudreau. As Boudreau herself writes:

They feel because of the way I look that I do not matter, and that my reporting is a joke.

Another way to put this: they feel that her gendered embodiment makes this kind of attack an appropriate vehicle for their criticism of CNN.

This willingness to use sex as a tool of abuse and the ease with which O’Keefe employs sexualized stereotypes to discredit and degrade Boudreau are symptoms of how profoundly the attitudes of rape culture inform public discourse. I’d end by summarizing the most accurate way to describe this debacle, but Media Matters has done it for me:

Lying to a reporter in order to lure her onto a boat under false pretenses, then secretly recording her reaction to being confronted in an enclosed, unfamiliar environment by a strange man with handcuffs and sex toys, all while disparaging her as a “bubble-headed-bleach-blonde,” is not a “stunt.” It is the vicious, misogynist act of a twisted person whose 15 minutes should have expired long ago.

Mixed Feelings

Reprehensible items related to sexual assault published in campus newspapers: one could probably devote a blog just to aggregating these and covering the ensuing reactions, retractions, revisions, and convenient omissions. We have certainly covered our fair share of them here (in fact, see the fantastic student guest post from Monday). Sometime I have a hard time summoning the energy to read about, let alone discuss, these incidents. The same cycle gets played out pretty much every time: publication of some mind-bogglingly disturbing “opinion” piece, outrage follows and is circulated among various internet sites, rape-apologists run to the defense of said newspaper/writer, the writer responds (typically with a defensive, disingenuous “apology”), critiques ensue, and sometimes editorial staff comment, apologize, and/or publish a formal retraction of the piece. Rinse, lather, repeat. Sigh.

The latest iteration of this, from the Purdue University Exponent, popped up in a few different news sources this week. The twist this time is that it was a cartoon rather than an op-ed. (FYI: The second and third linked stories contain the image itself, which is not only tacky and offensive, but potentially triggering.) Basically, the joke depicted involves deceiving someone into engaging in a sex act beyond what they have (presumably, for the purposes of the joke) consented to.  Thus, as one story put it, “To many readers, the cartoon in question looked a lot less like boyish hijinks and a lot more like rape.”

The cartoon itself is disturbing to say the least. And in the few days since, the paper has, predictably, been flooded with calls and emails, and the editor-in-chief issued an apology on Monday. Part of me wants to applaud the apology — unlike most in this burgeoning genre, it actually seems sincere, and there are some indications that the staff (or at least the editor who penned the letter) get why they should be apologizing:

I deeply regret that I didn’t see what was depicted, and I apologize to the campus, to any survivors of sexual assault and, well, to any decent person who saw the graphic Friday and was offended. You’re right. We are absolutely in the wrong on this one and we’re doing our best to correct it.

And:

And to those defending us: While we appreciate some of your arguments on our behalf, ladies and gentlemen, suggesting that someone was “asking for” rape is misguided and precisely the problem here.

Perhaps I’m naive, but I’m a little bit heartened by these sentiments, and by the tone of the letter as a whole. But I continue to have mixed feelings, in part because the letter begins by framing the issue partly as one of perception or interpretation:

If someone engages in any sexual act with anyone without his or her explicit consent, it’s rape. The comic can easily be interpreted that way.

Yes, you have a decent definition of rape here, Exponent. And that’s exactly what the cartoon portrayed, so there’s really nothing to “interpret” here. This may seem like quibbling, but it’s not: focusing on “interpretation” or “perception” as a key issue when it comes to something that clearly depicts and/or condones rape contributes to the all-too-prevalent notion that explicit, affirmative consent is not absolutely necessary. Or rather: that some versions of nonconsenual sex (for example, sex with someone who’s incapacitated, or who’s being deceived about some element of the encounter) is not “really” sexual assault. Which, actually, it is.

Like Wagatwe, I’m in part heartened by the fact that the circulation of these stories via the internet means that people often  come together to support victims and demand change (in the Purdue incident, a Facebook group calling itself “Tell Purdue Exponent Advocating Rape is NOT OKAY” quickly sprang up). And I do think that the more these incidents come to light, the more opportunities we have to critique and challenge rape culture.

I just wish I didn’t have to read about them so often.

More on music

Ashley’s brilliant dissection of Eminem’s “Love the Way You Lie” reminded me of an old favorite song of mine, by the British MC Ms. Dynamite. “Put Him Out” is a song that exhorts someone in an abusive relationship to leave, or as the title puts it, reject the abusive partner. Now there are a couple of things I quite love about the song and the video. For one thing, it emphasizes that abuse isn’t just about physical violence. It refers to controlling behavior (the abuser “tells you what to wear and how to behave”) and verbal abuse (he “shout and curse at you in public places”). The video depicts folks from a range of socioeconomic classes and races. And some of the video’s scenes are fun and celebratory, with crowds of young people mouthing the words to the chorus — sort of a fantasy rendition of the community support victims and survivors should receive.

But as much as I love Ms. Dynamite, there’s a lot that troubles me about the song and video. Of course, it almost goes without saying that framing the issues of intimate partner abuse as something that can be solved by just “putting out’ the abuser is simplistic, and wrongly places the burden on the victim rather than the perpetrator. But what’s equally troubling to me is that that the song seems to conflate abuse with other undesirable (but not necessarily abusive ) behaviors, like infidelity and laziness. Sure, we might encourage someone we know to get out of a relationship because of one of those latter two, but linking all of these together is problematic. Abuse is often trivialized (or minimized, as Ashley describes), both within a relationship and by the culture at large. One way we can change that is by having an accurate definition of what abuse is, and naming it when we see it represented in pop culture products (like the Eminem song).  While I think it’s awesome that Ms. Dynamite wanted to condemn intimate partner violence, I wish she would have saved some of the other stuff for a different track.

Video here and lyrics below. Readers, do you have favorite (or un-favorite) songs about these issues?

Now Im’a tell it like this girlfriend,
He don’t love you.
Never have I seen him kiss or hug you,
He don’t make effort,
He don’t respect you,
Or accept you for you.
Tells you what to wear and how to behave,
Comes in your home and treats you like his slave,
Don’t need him if he make you sacrifice your freedom,
Get him out your life.
Shout and curse at you in public places,
Sleep in your house on a part time basis,
He ain’t even taking care of his child,
He don’t make you smile.

I understand you love him and you’re down,
But that don’t mean you got to be his clown.

Girl, you got to put him out,
Change them locks and all that.
Girl, you got to put him out,
And this time don’t take him back.
Girl, you got to put him out,
Take the time to love yourself.
Girl, you got to put him out,
You can find real love with someone else.

He don’t even know how to be honest,
All he know how to do is false promise.
Any real man agree he ain’t a man after the first time that he raised his hand.
Treat your home like hotel,
Don’t pay his way,
Lost count of the times that that dog has strayed.
Sleep around,
Creep around,
Bring back disease,
What if next time it was HIV.
Four baby mamas, Eight kids and no work,
You can play strong but I know that it hurt,
You make the choices,
You gotta stop this,
‘Cause girlfriend,
The boy’s worthless.

I understand that y’all love birds from school,
How did you get from being his girl to just bein’ his fool?

Your little girl needs a daddy,
I agree,
But the fool is far from that.
Any boy can be a father,
That ain’t reason enough to keep on takin’ him back.
He never reads with her or takes her out,
That shit’s called neglect you hear.
Sure she confused and tired of always seeing mama’s face bruised and drowning in tears.
Look what you showin’ her by lettin’ him disrespect you,
You just growin’ her to think that it’s something that all men do.
You owe it to yourself and your daughter ’cause she thinks it’s all all right,
When she get older,
Follow the footsteps you showed her,
How you gonna look her in the eye?

It’s not about Duke: masculinity and sexual violence

I’ve been seeing a number of stories from ESPN and local sports columns pop up in my Google news alerts over the past couple of weeks. If you follow college football, you probably know why. Derrick Washington, team captain and star running back for Missouri University, was dismissed from the team in connection with a felony sexual assault charge. (News of his suspension, which was first announced as “indefinite” and later became “permanent,” actually broke before news of the criminal charge.) I don’t know the details of this case,  other than that Washington has been charged with a single count of assaulting a former tutor over the summer.

But I don’t actually want to talk about this case, or about any incident or case in particular. This isn’t the first time that we’ve seen sexual violence and college (or professional) sports come together in the news, and sadly I’m sure it won’t be the last. Indeed, news outlets  are reporting this story in a pretty perfunctory manner (at least in the coverage I’ve seen), focusing more on what Washington’s absence will mean for MU’s upcoming games than on the charges themselves. To be fair, little seems to be known about the case itself, but I can’t help but think that there’s a certain sense of the ordinary attached to these kinds of incidents. I don’t mean that folks don’t t find them disturbing, but it’s hard to be shocked at something that one hears about pretty routinely. (In fact, I’d say that there’s probably a fair bit of public fatigue happening with regard to these stories.)

What I would like to talk about are larger concerns about the link between masculinity and violence that the Washington story brings to mind. Like I said, despite the fact that we hear about cases like these not infrequently, they still have the power to unsettle us and, unfortunately, become the occasion for some pretty ugly victim-blaming.  For folks who don’t have a critical awareness about the prevalence of sexual (and sexualized) violence in our larger cultural context, this “intrusion” of ugliness into an arena of recreation and escape probably registers as just that — an unpleasant interruption. Yet the same people could, I’m sure, easily list a number of stories from recent years involving accusations and/or convictions of sexual assault involving college and professional players. I don’t want to demonize sports as necessarily  implicated in violence, but I think we can use sports as a way to talk about  certain  norms around masculinity and how harmful these can be. And harmful for everyone, I’d like emphasize — including for the men who grapple with living up to, or failing to live up, these norms.

One thing that I think is going on here is that the role of “college athlete” is in many ways a hyper-masculine one. Indeed, sports are an arena in which men can demonstrate or “prove” their masculine bona fides. I’m reminded of a passage from the sociologist Erving Goffman’s book Stigma:

In an important sense there is only one complete unblushing male in America: a young, married, white, urban, northern, heterosexual Protestant father of college education, fully employed, of good complexion, weight, and height, and a recent record in sports.

I definitely think Goffman was on to something in situating athletics alongside other key markers of ideal masculinity (whiteness, heterosexuality, etc.). And if the figure of the college athlete is expected to embody a masculine ideal, is it really any wonder that so many folks are willing to ignore or excuse sexual violence perpetrated by individuals in that role (that is, to blame victims)?

There is some evidence (see, for example this recent analysis from a peer-reviewed journal in the social sciences) that participation in all-male activities (the data in that linked article is on team sports and fraternities) is correlated to attitudes that support rape and, to a lesser extent, sexually aggressive behavior itself.  These correlations have been found to be moderate, but not overwhelming. Similarly, one of the first studies of male college athletes found a slight over-representation of athletes (as compared to other male students) in sexual assaults report to campus authorities. It seems to me there’s something significant going on with these correlations, yet it’s clearly not simply that  male athletes, as a class,  are aggressors. (If that were the case, I think the data would be much more definitive.)  The 2007 research (that first link) points toward characteristics of the environments studied, rather than athletes or fraternity brothers as individuals, as the sites of problematic norms and values. And I think much of this stems from unfortunate ways in which ideal, “correct” masculinity is often equated with or linked to the willingness to behave aggressively and, in some settings, violently.

I think this is a problem for men and masculinity as a whole, but it becomes more visible in a hyper-masculine arena like college sports. And it’s important both because it’s an element of a social context that engenders violence against women and because it imposes constricting norms on men themselves. This is especially harmful, I’d venture, for young, college-age men who are still forming a sense of identity. We need to develop other models, and challenge the link between “ideal” masculinity and aggression. Fortunately, you don’t have to take my word for it. Not only has NOMAS been working on this for 35 years, plenty of other activists and thinkers have since joined them. Byron Hurt has contributed much to this discussion – including his powerful documentary Byond Beats & Rhymes. If you’re interested in reading about the construction of masculinity, you might start with Michael Kimmel. There are some feminist critiques of his work, but he’s been a major intellectual voice, and you can dig around in his bibliographies for even more.