Monday, April 05, 2010

Feminist rape culture, Part 1

NOTE: This post contains discussion of sexual abuse. For reasons of length, my comments will be split into multiple posts. Even with the split, this initial post is quite lengthy. For those interested in this topic, a listing of all posts at The Superfluous Man concerning sexual violence and related issues can be found by clicking here.

Here's a conundrum for you to ponder. A man is at work one day when his boss's 11-year-old daughter, who spends a lot of time hanging around her father's business, approaches him while he's alone. She informs him that she has a crush on him, and starts to reach for the zipper of his pants. The man begins performing sexual acts with the 11-year old girl on a regular basis. Which of the following best expresses your assessment of the situation described?

A. The grown man is a sexual predator, and the 11-year-old girl is his victim.

B. The 11-year-old-girl is a sexual predator, and the grown man is her victim.

If you answered B, congratulations: You have the keen moral judgment needed to be a prominent feminist blogger!

Well, almost. Just replace “man” with “woman” and “11-year-old girl” with “11-year-old boy.”
Then you have the keen moral judgment needed to be prominent feminist blogger Hugo Schwyzer.

We'll get to him in due time, but first things first. Schwyzer's post was a follow up to this post at the blog of another commenter*, entitled “Challenging our beliefs about sexual abuse & remembering why I don’t talk to my mother.” (Note: The post has since been taken down.) The title of the post is quite wrong, as we shall see; the blogger's beliefs about sexual abuse are quite comfortably mainstream and traditional.

(* Per a request made elsewhere by the individual in question, I have removed references to the name of one of the people under discussion here for the sake of the privacy of one of her relatives, though the link remains to her post remains. Hence this post's references to "the blogger.")

(Hat tip on both to Toy Soldiers.)

She discusses an excerpt from the autobiography of Pal Sarkozy (father of French President Nicolas Sarkozy):

Sarkozy recalls that when he was eleven years old, “I innocently asked the nanny to lie down next to me as if to give me a big cuddle while whispering the story. She obeyed. ‘I slipped my clumsy but hurried hand under her skirt while she, unperturbed, continued reading.’ After ‘finding peace with my body, my desire satisfied’, she rearranged her dress and kissed him on the forehead. ‘From then on, I would ask for my nurse and stories every night.”

Sarkozy’s story reminds me of a family story which still enrages me. When my nephew was about 9 or 10, he developed an obsession with my daughter’s body. He spied on her and her friends, grabbed her breasts, her ass and even tried to stick his hands in her crotch. When my daughter told him to keep his hands to himself, or complained about his behavior, my mother scolded my daughter...
I guess it's true what they say: Women eventually turn into their mothers. The irony of the blogger complaining about an adult who wrote off sexual assault on a minor as harmless and chose to defend the assailant and attack the victim would be darkly hilarious if it wasn't so repellent.

She continues:
It is not a stretch to see Sarkozy’s nanny as being in a similar or worse position. Even by Sarkozy’s account, he was manipulative and she was not an active participant in the sexual act... No un-traumatized women I know would sit idly while being molested by an eleven year old... given the time and Sarkozy’s nanny’s social standing, there is a better than average chance that the nanny had learned it was best to simply be passive...

It seems almost certain that under today’s laws and social morays, Sarkozy’s nanny would be considered a child-molester. One wonders, however, whether such a label would be just. Sarkozy’s family was wealthy and powerful; the nanny was, almost certainly, poor and powerless...

Our culture has the assumption that children below a certain age are essentially a-sexual, but as Sarkozy’s story illustrates, not all children are sexually innocent and some are even sexually predatory. Our laws, our judgments and our most basic moral beliefs are all based on the assumption of pre-adolescent a-sexuality, and Sarkozy’s story, together with my creepy nephew, make me wonder if it is time to re-examine such beliefs.
(The Sarkozy excerpt originally appeared in the Daily Mail and subsequently in the Huffington Post. If the blogger has read anything in the autobiography aside form the parts quoted in those article, she gives no indication.)

Some thoughts:

1. The first point is somewhat peripheral, but still worth pointing out: The blogger was certainly right to protect her daughter, and her nephew's behavior clearly was sexual and not at all harmless. However, nine-year old boys do not simply decide one day to start sexually assaulting their own relatives because of some innate wickedness encoded on their Y chromosome. Prepubescent children who engage in the sort of sexually inappropriate behavior she describes in her nephew are usually victims of sexual abuse themselves. The “creepy” boy is probably in dire need of psychological help.

Note that she invents a purely speculative background of psychologically devastating sexual abuse to explain and justify the sexually abusive behavior of a grown woman, but never so much as hints at the possibility when she talks about her nephew. Grown women are sympathetic, innocent, and tragic; 9-year old boy are just naturally predatory and despicable.

2. If Sarkozy was in fact “manipulative,” she fails to quote anything from him to that effect. Even if she had, the supposed “manipulations” of an 11-year-old are not an adequate excuse for an adult to engage in sexual activities with that 11-year-old. I will also note that attacking the victim for their supposed manipulation and sleazy wiles is a common victim-blaming tactic deployed when a woman is raped.

3. Nannies have a quasi-parental relationship with their charges, and a degree of authority over them. This makes the idea that the woman was helpless to say “no” to an 11-year-old trying to put his hand up her skirt even harder to credit. In addition to the incestuous overtones that gives this incident, it also raises rather obvious (to people who aren't sexist bigots) issues about the abuse of both the adult's authority and the child's trust and emotional attachment. The presumption that there was an imbalance of power in favor of the child is baseless, and becomes outright ridiculous if one stops to consider which of the two in a preteen child-adult caregiver relationship is more likely to have more psychological and emotional leverage over the other.

4. If I just sat back in my armchair while an 11-year-old girl who had been entrusted to my care and supervision stroked my penis, would you presume that she was the aggressor and I the victim because I “was not an active participant in the sexual act?”

5. “No un-traumatized women I know would sit idly while being molested by an eleven year old.” Consider the scenario described in point 4. If you walked in on that scene, would you consider the more probable scenario to be a. the 11-year-old girl was a sexual predator, and I was allowing her to masturbate me because some psychological trauma left me too terrified to resist being "molested", or b. I was a sexual predator exploiting a child's trust and curiosity for my own gratification? The answer is obvious, and the answer in the case of an otherwise identical scenario with the sexes reversed is equally obvious provided one does not buy into Victorian mythology about female purity and passivity.

6. The blogger notes that once Pal was done, the nanny kissed him on the forehead. This seemingly affectionate gesture does not fit comfortably with the blogger's "terrified woman too traumatized to say so much as a word of protest to her preteen rapist” scenario. It does, however, fit with a common tactic of people who sexually abuse children: presenting their sexual predations as “love.”

7. Let us suppose, on the basis of nothing except the blogger's imaginative speculations and 19th-Century essentialism, that the nanny was, in fact, motivated by the fear that she would be fired if she did not acquiesce. We now return to my little scenario above: Is it permissible to sexually abuse a child because you think it might displease your employer and get you fired if you don't?

Let us once again reverse the sexes of the two figures in this story, and imagine an adult male in a quasi-parental position of supervision and care of an 11-year-old girl engaging in repeated sexual acts with that girl, involving the girl touching the man's genitals, while she is under his supervision. Now, imagine someone making the above arguments in a blog post to claim that the grown man is the victim in this relationship, and the 11-year-old girl the abuser. Imagine that her blog post has nothing to suggest she has even entertained the possibility that the adult should be blamed, instead of the child. Imagine her inventing a completely speculative background for the man, based on nothing in the source material quoted, to make him seem as sympathetic as possible. Now imagine that she uses these arguments to claim that this story of a man's sexual relationship with an 11-year-old girl indicates that “our laws, our judgments and our most basic moral beliefs” about sex between grown men and preteen girls should be “re-examined.”

How would that sound? Just for kicks, ask yourself how it would sound if it had been written by a man.

On the basis of some fanciful speculations about the secret inner turmoil she imagines a woman who repeatedly and willingly engaged in sexual acts with an 11-year-old might have had and some essentialist Victorian stereotypes about male depravity and female passivity and purity, she is proposing that we ought to spend more time entertaining the suspicion that prepubescent children sexually molested by adults are actually dangerous sexual predators, and the adults their innocent, helpless victims. Or, to be more precise, the suspicion that prepubescent boys sexually molested by adult women are actually dangerous sexual predators, and the adult women their innocent victims. (That's an assumption on my part, but only in the same sense that my belief that gravity will not reverse direction and launch me into the sky tomorrow is an assumption rather than an absolute certainty.)

This is rape apologism, pure and simple. I'm sure she doesn't see it that way. I'm sure guys who respond to news of a woman being raped with, "The slut was asking for it, leading him on like that!" don't think of themselves as complicit in something horrible, either.

As I said above, the blogger's interpretation of this incident most certainly does not “challenge” existing beliefs about sex. The assumption that females are helpless and passive, and that men and boys are active, predatory, and sexually bestial permeates our culture to the point where most people have trouble even grasping the idea of a female sexually coercing or harming a male. Women who sexually abuse boys are treated with kid gloves by the legal system. People quite commonly portray and think of their victims as initiating and benefiting from the abuse, and are not shy about accusing male victims of actually being victimizers. The blogger's portrayal of a female sexual predator as a pitiable, tragic victim who deserves sympathy rather than condemnation for her actions does not “challenge” existing attitudes, it is the existing attitude. Our society is in no danger of actually taking either female sexual violence or its victims seriously.

The blogger is not one of the heavy hitters of online feminism. (Though there doesn't appear to be anything in her worldview that is particularly fringe or eccentric relative to that community, aside from her willingness to explicitly take some assumptions about gender common among feminists to their gruesomely logical conclusion.) The same cannot be said of Hugo Schwyzer, who is one of the best-known male feminists writing online today, and who consequently has the potential to do harm on a larger scale.

More on that next time.



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3 comments:

dlwoodman said...

You missed the entire point of the discussion. To declare one person entirely innocent and another person entirely guilty based on age or gender is for moralizing and condemning. This is not a prosecution nor is it a defense, it is simply challenging our assumptions.

John Markley said...

dlwoodman,

Even if we take Sarkozy's story at face value, he was repeatedly molested at an age where he was not capable of giving meaningful consent to sex. If Sarkozy's nanny had a penis instead of a vagina, this would be too obvious to everyone to even discuss. If we consider the fact that, due to the social and psychological pressures they are under and the overwhelming shame associated with admitting to being a male sexual abuse victim, male survivors of sexual violence frequently try to convince themselves that they were the aggressor rather than the victim, branding an 11-year old boy as "predatory," to use your term for him, is even more outrageous.

Everything you said about the nanny absolves her of moral responsibility, while at the same time you relentlessly vilified an 11-year old. You quite clearly are judging guilt by gender, unless you expect me to believe that, in a situation with the sexes reversed, you would be claiming that the adult male was the victim and the 11-year old girl was "predatory." The idea that you are "simply challenging our assumptions" is ridiculous; you sound like one of the people who rants and raves about how there still isn't enough proof that Barack Obama wasn't born in Kenya, then turns around and says that of course they're not driven by xenophobia or racism, they're innocent truth-seekers "just asking questions."

Anonymous said...

I cannot believe a feminist wrote this. I'm ashamed...