Tag Archives: sexual assault

Mainstream discourse around consent is leaving women and girls vulnerable

More men are agreeing that there’s a need for consent education and have shared success stories about how it’s improved their own understanding of male-female interactions and relationships. Which is good. It’s a start. But it’s not the solution, as mainstream discussion would have us believe, to male sexual violence against women and girls.

Forgive me if I’m more horrified than encouraged by the fact that men are just starting to have awareness of the issue now, and only because the problem has been dragged kicking and screaming into the daylight. How wonderful it must be to never have to think about a problem unless it affects you directly or someone forces you to pay attention. I have to wonder: these men who finally get it now and are so appreciative of women for enlightening them after repeating themselves over and over and over again – were they going around raping women before? Are we to understand that they were so ill-equipped to understand when they shouldn’t lay hands on someone that they needed guidance? Or is it that they were too callous to accept that responsibility for themselves and were waiting for women (those mystical nurturing creatures) to save them from a life of depravity? Or perhaps women have simply been so beaten down that their pain and indignation is too great to ignore.

Are we seriously supposed to give men the benefit of the doubt? Like, they didn’t have the capacity until right now to distinguish between right and wrong? Poor pets, they were victims, you see, unable to recognize when they were gratifying themselves at the expense of women and girls and exploiting their position. Patriarchal culture simultaneously makes gods of men while infantilizing them for the purpose of rationalizing their violence. We need to give them far more credit. Abusive men don’t lack agency; they’ve always been in a position to know what they’re doing and the fact that they need to be told that they don’t have a right to harm us is indicative of a much deeper problem.

When people supposedly start ‘caring’ because you’ve asked them to, that means they didn’t care before and they still don’t care now. People who truly value the dignity of others don’t have to be convinced to show it. All we’re doing is giving men a new script around which to model their language and behaviour in public. The appropriate time to begin cultivating self-awareness and empathy is in childhood, when human beings are forming their most basic ideas about themselves and their relationship to the world around them. Instead, we’re rearing boys into masculinity and teaching them that females are inferior.

Men haven’t been violating the boundaries and bodily integrity of women and girls because society wasn’t telling them that they needed to get permission first. They do so because they implicitly believe they’re entitled to take what they want and do as they wish, particularly where females are concerned because they view us as objects rather than human beings of equal value.

Even when a woman says she doesn’t want to have sex, rapists insist she does. They privilege their own thoughts and desires above hers. What is she, after all, but an inert vessel with no purpose or will of its own? This is what it means to be objectified. The porn men and boys consume is littered with degrading, dehumanizing language and acts, many of which identify that a specific place in the social hierarchy is reserved for racialized women. The problem isn’t a lack of consent; it’s a desire to possess and defile that which is beneath you. Sexual assault is about domination and power. Men who do these things are sadists: violation is the point. They don’t want us to consent. They want to break us.

When we talk about consent, what we’re really talking about is male violence against women and girls. Females as a group don’t need to be reminded not to violate the boundaries of their male peers who are generally physically stronger than them and dominate the social order. Most importantly, telling women and girls that they’ll be protected from sexual assault if men are simply better educated places them in danger because it ignores the fact that a core group of men hate women so much, they’ll hurt us anyway. Meanwhile, a critical mass of men who don’t themselves physically attack women aid them by downplaying and decontextualizing misogyny, letting rape jokes pass, or allowing sexist comments and behaviour to continue unchallenged.

Overt or violent misogynists lower the bar, making men who are chauvinists in their own right, but better at hiding it, look like decent men. They exploit this situation by demanding accolades from women, enjoying the space they can take up as women and girls curtail their behaviour to avoid the threat of male violence, and gaslighting women who dare to call them out. For every man who’s willing to take responsibility, there are more who either vocally protest any suggestion that they’re part of a social class that terrorizes women, or they disguise their resentment and disdain for women behind a mask of anti-feminism and libertarian free speech rhetoric.

If we want to address the root of the problem, we also have to recognize that consent can hardly be described as entirely self-determined and intact in a culture that grooms girls into submissive heterosexual relationships. It’s inaccurate, naive, and ultimately oppressive to say that girls are free to make their own choices when those choices are constrained by an intense pressure to behave within the strictures of femininity so that they’re deemed attractive to boys and acceptable to society at large. Girls need to know unequivocally that they have a right not only to consent, but to refuse.

And finally, when we talk about male violence and misogyny, that conversation should be devoted to supporting and healing women and girls, and ultimately abolishing gender. Not celebrating men, thanking them for not raping us, or spending a fraction of a second worrying about how the topic makes them feel. Are there good men? Honestly, it’s just not a feminist obligation to prove that men aren’t sexist. Given how pervasive sexism is spanning from mild/subtle misogyny to the extreme of violence, it’s implausible that all men don’t contribute to it in some form. I truly marvel at the arrogance of men who fancy themselves special enough to have avoided soaking up masculinity and misogyny. It doesn’t take much creativity to imagine what a man who’s internalized the idea that he’s superior might think of women.

You can’t expect or convince people to care when they have every reason not to. Women are going to have to fight for our humanity, like we always have.

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‘Real’ nations and ‘real’ men

In my last post I wrote about deconstructing the language of ‘great nations’, ‘Canadian values’, and even ‘American values’. By questioning what is meant by these phrases, I hoped to explore how they erase historical and ongoing inequalities. There are many other ways in which mainstream discourse impedes progress by framing these discussions in specific, calculated ways.

Recently, David Cameron said that Jamaica should “move on” from the legacy of slavery. While this oft-repeated attitude is sometimes softened with a polite admission that the trauma is ongoing, the carefully selected people who are given a platform always avoid addressing the structural oppression responsible for these circumstances. Activists and observers have consistently pointed this out, as in these tweets by Eric Ritskes:

Telling marginalized people to get over their material reality is like holding someone underwater and telling them to breathe. If they drown, well, it’s their own fault. We’re expected to manufacture some semblance of justice within the boundaries of this logical framework. We know this is true because every tiny step forward, even when it’s accompanied by a step or two backwards, is supposed to be celebrated as a win, like the house of cards has collapsed and we can finally exhale. If you deny this you’re ungrateful and committed to anger and victimhood. We live in a post-racial, post-patriarchal society, remember?

There are more articles than anyone can read about how terrible it is that certain groups of people are just so unfortunate. We are filling pages and vats of tears over how bad we feel for these poor souls but very few people name the problems or identify the root causes. Writing for Maclean’s Magazine about the living conditions of First Nations in Canada, Scott Gilmore claims, “A real nation would not let this happen… We care more about postal service, child care and tax credits for the suburban middle class than we do Aboriginal issues. What kind of a nation are we?”. Gilmore gathers that since we allow this poverty and disenfranchisement to persist, the upshot must be that we’re not actually a nation.

But we are not a people, not a nation, not really. If we were, we would not be able to ignore each other, ignore other Canadians, the way we ignore the Aboriginal community.

No, we are not a people. We are different groups of different peoples. Different ethnicities, different sexes, different religions, different socioeconomic statuses, settlers, Métis, indigenous peoples, etc. We do not all share the same identities, interests or needs, owing to our experiences and the limitations we face. Moreover, our society is comprised of classes of people who do not enjoy equal power. It’s the absence of class analysis that makes articles like this one effectively useless when it comes to eradicating problems such as poverty and violence.

No, we are not a people but we are a nation. A very real one – just not the kind that we can or should be proud of. Canada is in fact a colonial state, a constitutional monarchy led by elected officials whose victories are produced by a disastrous electoral system. Our legal institutions still view First Nations as wards of the state via the Indian Act, with many other laws since passed that violate their inherent rights, including those protected by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms (at least on paper).

With a few exceptions where indigenous leaders and groups have made some headway particularly in Latin America, even countries that have achieved independence are marked by deep racial, gender, and economic divides. Is Australia a real nation? Of course it is. The fact that Australia’s treatment of Aboriginals and other marginalized groups is abhorrent doesn’t detract from its status as a nation; the truth is, the state itself as well as many of its citizens have a vested interest in denying these rights.

A real nation as Gilmore understands it is a nation that treats people better somehow (he’s not quite sure how) but remains a political construct composed of institutions that are designed and controlled by people who possess the power to do these things. But that’s not all. A larger category of people – including the ones in charge – are the benefactors of these institutions. As for the poor people who get trampled underfoot, that’s not collateral damage. They’re the intended targets. Stepping on their backs is how we get ahead. The land we occupy, the resources we extract, the paths we clear to make way for pipelines, and the waste and pollution we produce – someone has to pay for that development. This often happens in the form of environmental racism.

In Canada, the treaties were supposed to guarantee a nation-to-nation relationship. First Nations and the Canadian government were to trade and share resources and co-manage. There was never any agreement that settlers would make decisions for First Nations. But they do. And that’s what Canada, a real nation, looks like. So what would we call a nation that respects the treaties? A decolonized one. A lot of settler Canadians have never even heard of this idea.

Privilege is having the luxury of theorizing about other people’s problems, failing to offer meaningful analysis or solutions, and failing to identify who is responsible but getting published by a major news outlet anyway. This is the limp shrug with which Gilmore ends his essay:

I don’t know who to be more ashamed of, our politicians or us.

Privilege is thinking that you might be able to blame other people for a system that you yourself benefit from and participate in because you can afford not to acknowledge white supremacy. Apparently, all we have to do is be nice folks who express sadness for other people and hope that someone gets their act together. There’s no need to challenge the ideologies that underpin power imbalances, and after all, why would someone like Gilmore want to do that? According to his LinkedIn page, he’s a co-founder of and owns equity in an advisory firm that works with the extractive sector, the most destructive driver of imperialism, capitalism, and ecocide on the planet. Why does he think people need to hear what he has to say about injustice? Oh, right. Privilege.

Now that we’ve established that the concept of real nations is nonsense, I’d like to turn our attention to the concept of ‘real’ men. It goes something like this: real men respect women, real men smoke cigars in their man caves, real men curse and grow facial hair, real men do this, real men do that. There’s loads of this crap everywhere. AskMen.com, for example, lists Traits of a Real Man, which they claim is “the only handbook you’ll ever need to becoming a real man”. You’ve already heard the drill: it starts with “strength, reliability, and action” and goes from there. Because women are weak, unreliable, and passive, I guess. Well, women and men who aren’t real men. If you’re a man who hasn’t mastered these traits, don’t worry. Old Spice offers a short cut to this coveted status. You just have to get past their ridiculous marketing and buy their stupid products. You didn’t think it would be free, did you?

Imagine extra terrestrials observing a conversation about masculinity here on Earth and trying to make sense of it.

“So if real men do all the things that make them real men, what does that make other men?”

“I don’t know. I mean, they’re men too, aren’t they?”

“Well, what else would they be?”

“Men who are losers?”

“But then they’re still men.”

“Wow, these humans are dumb.”

Yeah. All men are men. I know, it’s a tad confusing. That’s because masculinity is bullshit. But I’m not just being flippant here. As feminist Sue Veneer demonstrates, the repercussions of this framing are serious.

Well worth a read, she expands on this here by explaining that this phrasing “implies that rapists are some sort of ‘other’, a type of man that is outside of masculine culture. Yet we know that however monstrous the crime of rape is, rapists are not ‘monsters’. They are men from all parts of society; fathers, husbands, priests, servicemen…”. She adds:

By ‘othering’ rapists, it allows men to shirk collective and personal responsibility for rape. By defining rapists as not ‘real’ men, it allows men to conveniently place the blame for rape and violent male behaviour as something apart from them. By describing rapists as not ‘real’ men, men needn’t look at the systemic culture of rape and violence against women and how it defines our existence.

Michael Salter also does a good job of demystifying this subject in “Real men don’t hit women”: Constructing masculinity in the prevention of violence against women. Ultimately, there is no version of masculinity that’s healthy. Men don’t have to act in any particular way to prove that they’re men. We can see that they’re men. It’s not a big deal. There’s no need to make a drama out of what that means. Acting in a considerate, respectful manner and challenging hierarchies of power is pretty much all that’s needed to be a decent human being. Everything else is pure invention.

Whether we’re talking about real nations or real men, we need to recognize that behind this language lies a tightly woven web of beliefs that are harmful to everyone, especially disempowered groups of people. Many of us probably wouldn’t ascribe to these beliefs if we took a closer look. Let’s get real: pretending that behaviour is exceptional when in fact it’s systemic is a time-honoured method of maintaining structural oppression.

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