Get victimized

I’m going to suppress my instinctual reaction to the Taylor Swift trial on account of there’s a much more important implication lingering in the background which I’d prefer it if we could try to focus on. I mean, there’s nothing really interesting going on here otherwise; as though it’s at all impressive that one of the richest and most powerful people in the entertainment business was able to . . . er, no, right, I’m not doing that. Seriously, good for her. She was entirely in the right and she dealt with the whole thing as accurately and sincerely as possible. It was actually a just resolution of the situation, for once.

The problem is this:

This is exactly the opposite of what’s happening here. If Swift were really “refusing to be a victim,” she could do that very easily by simply ignoring the issue. From what I hear, she has some other stuff going on for her, so if she didn’t choose to make an issue out of this, it wouldn’t be an issue. (I’m aware that she was sued first, but she could have just let the lawyers wrap it up and it would have been washed away by the news cycle and completely forgotten in about 3 hours. I mean, that’s probably going to happen anyway, but now it’ll at least have a paragraph on her Wikipedia page.) On the contrary, by taking the stand and turning this into a media thing, she has made her status as a victim an indelible part of the public record. When she says things like this:

“I am critical of your client for sticking his hand under my skirt and grabbing my ass.”

“Gabe, this is a photo of him with his hand up my skirt — with his hand on my ass,” she said. “You can ask me a million questions — I’m never going to say anything different. I never have said anything different.”

“I am being blamed for the unfortunate events of his life that are a product of his decisions and not mine.”

what she is saying is precisely, “I am a victim.” She’s saying that this happened to her without her consent and she was completely powerless to do anything about it. If this is “badass,” it’s badass because she’s accepting her victimhood.

Now, the original feminist aversion to the “victim” concept resulted from a laudable motivation. Part of the way sexism works is that the things that disadvantage women are blamed on the individual women themselves. Rape is an especially salient example, because not only are women portrayed as “asking for it,” but even blameless victims are still considered to have been “damaged” by the experience. (And of course it’s the other way around for the perpetrators: raping someone is just one of those things that men do sometimes, so there’s no sense in ruining someone’s life over it.) So the counter-tactic here was to assert that, rather than being “victims,” people who have undergone sexual assault are instead “survivors.” This turns the negative into a positive: rather than being a “victim” who will never be able to escape their experiences, a “survivor” is someone whose accomplishments are all the more admirable due to having been achieved despite duress.

So that’s all well and good, far be it from me to tell anyone how to understand their own experiences, but this approach stops working when you try to apply it as a general prescription. The fact of the matter is that rape really does harm people severely, and sometimes you don’t get over it. Some people literally don’t survive rape, and many more fall into trauma, give up on themselves, curtail their ambitions, or simply slog through the rest of their lives latched to a dull, throbbing weight that never really goes away. If these things were not the case, rape would not be a real issue. That’s kind of the whole thing about oppression: it creates an environment in which being casually restrained and put-upon is normal. Furthermore, the people most harmed by rape are the people who are most in need of help – they’re the people that our theory has to be centered around. If our conceptualization of the issue tacitly abandons them, we’re not doing feminism very well.

This is, of course, exactly what’s been happening. The modern mainstream conception of feminism is essentially a self-help program for rich white women based on a skin-deep conception of individual empowerfulmentness and manifested largely through bastardized pop-psych-sci-mythology and snake-oil saleswomanship. I mean, just so we’re clear, I’m not addressing what random Twitter morons are saying about this; I’m talking about the general conception of what feminism is right now. (Also, the real kind of feminism is still alive and well, it’s just that there are now two different things with the same name, and, as always, the bad one is more popular.) “Refusing to be a victim” is a perfect one-line description of this ideology: it’s an individual denialistic response to a society that is assumed to be unchangeable. Hence, among many examples, the current trend towards “advice” about how to properly mangle your own vocabulary to ensure that you aren’t saying anything that will “hold you back.” Rather than analyzing why it is that speech patterns characteristic of women are considered “flawed” in some way, or why we expect people to jump through ritualistic hoops unrelated to the actual work they’re doing in order to succeed (and certainly rather than suggesting that anything about men’s behavior ought to change), we simply assume all of that to be fixed and ask the only remaining question: how can each individual woman act so as to most effectively mitigate her own inherent disadvantages? It is in this sense that the correct response to sexual assault is understood to be “refusing to be a victim”: dealing with your specific personal complications on an individual level and ignoring any broader context.

There’s a reason things have turned out this way. Sexism has its own unique characteristics, but the general dynamic here is the same was what’s happening to everything. Our society has be de-politicized in general such that all problems are understood on the individual level. We see exactly the same dynamic when, for example, liberals respond to unemployment by advocating education and retraining. Rather than modifying society so that it works for everyone, we force each individual person to contort themselves into one of the few permissible shapes.

“Women’s issues” are at the heart of this problem, because the fundamental motivation for patriarchy is to force women into a limited set of socially necessary roles (child rearing, housework, emotional labor) so that these things can be assumed to be taken care of and men are free to do whatever else they want. (The fact that some men may very well want to do the things we’ve cordoned off for women is one of the reasons that patriarchy hurts men too.) As long as our society is organized on the basis of this dynamic, we will continue to see it replicated in different ways for different groups of people. We can’t solve this problem for anyone until we can solve it for women. This is among the many reasons that feminism is for everybody.

But the original impulse here is still valid: conceiving of patriarchy as a vast ineluctable darkness and woman as hopelessly downtrodden is equally fatalistic. Rewriting the script to give yourself a flashier role doesn’t change the fundamental problem, because the fundamental problem is the existence of the script. Creating a new model for how women are supposed to act will make women’s oppression look different while continuing to be oppression, and continuing to leave anyone who doesn’t fit the model out in the cold. “Refusing to be a victim” actually means buying in to the idea that victims have something wrong with them, that only by responding to a tragedy in the proper, socially-approved manner do you qualify as a human being. It is not incumbent upon oppressed people to respond to their oppression in a way that makes everyone else feel good about themselves. To insist on this is precisely to blame the victim. You have to accept how people feel and provide resources to help them regardless of whether they’re sassy sheroes or whether they’re useless losers. The society we want is a society that works for all women, one where even women who are complete stupid assholes are disadvantaged only by their own stupid assholeness and not by sexism. Making moral sympathy contingent on the ability to act in a way that makes other people feel good about themselves is deeply sick.

And it’s more than sick; it’s factually inaccurate. “Victories” make it seem like the current situation is okay, when of course the fact that these things happen at all unavoidably illustrates that it is not okay. Even someone like Taylor Swift, who is privileged enough to be immune to almost everything else, is not immune to the banal impulses of whatever rando she ends up standing next to. The significance of the case is not that Swift “won,” because she didn’t. She broke even: she took a bad thing that happened to her and fixed it (and she really didn’t even do that, because she still had to waste her time going to court and arguing with some asshole lawyer). The significance is that, hopefully, the next guy who gets it into his head to pull some shit will instead think twice. Victory isn’t winning a court case; victory is being treated like a person in the first place.

The state of being a victim is morally neutral. That is, the thing that happened was bad (meaning the state of being a victimizer is morally negative, obviously), but it can happen just as easily to a good person or an awful person, and the fact of it happening does not make the person any better or worse. What being a victim actually indicates is that someone else did something immoral. Not only does it not reflect badly on you, it doesn’t reflect on you at all; the whole point of the term is that the situation was outside of your control. If we accept this, we have to accept that how a victim responds to their victimization is absolutely irrelevant to the situation. It’s fine to prefer certain types of responses to others (especially since many possible responses are themselves immoral in different ways), and we might have advice about how to respond in a healthy manner, but none of that should have any effect on our evaluation of the initial violation. It’s either wrong or it’s not, and if it’s wrong, then we can’t excuse it in either direction: we can’t wave it away as “the way things are,” but we also can’t accept an “inspiring” resolution as a “happy ending.” Because it’s not an ending; the only ending will be when this actually ends, when the last page of the last book of the old order’s precepts is reduced to ashes and scattered to the four winds. Since that’s not going to happen anytime soon, it’s not a fantasy that we can reasonably console ourselves with. We must accept that we are doomed and also accept our responsibility to fight for the sake of the true future. Our only option is to continue to live as victims.

Sadly, the current conception of things hasn’t really been forced on us. It’s certainly something that the ruling class has promoted to their own advantage, but it’s only worked because people have gone along with it, and the reason they’ve gone along with it is because it’s easy. It’s comforting to imagine that any problem can be resolved by simply finding the secret code that turns it off. Actually, it’s more than just comforting; acknowledging that there are vast historical forces arrayed against you but imagining that you can overcome them through nothing but your own cleverness and determination doesn’t just make things okay, it makes it so you’re the hero. And since this rarely works out in practice, we instead find the few people privileged enough to make it work and experience the fantasy vicariously through them.

Neither being a queen nor slaying is a good thing. It isn’t “badass” to pretend like you’re perfect and nothing affects you. It isn’t badass to only pick fights that you’re sure you can win effortlessly. It is badass to admit your weaknesses, to be honest about your history and your emotions, and to confront things that are scary. It’s badass to fight things that you’re probably not going to be able to defeat, to choose just struggle over shallow success.

What this means in practice is that we must, all of us, refuse to refuse to be victims. We must insist on our own victimhood, and on the validity of our cause regardless. We aren’t right because we’re the coolest people with the best hair and the sassiest comebacks. We’re right because we’re right. Victorious or defeated, we remain victims; together or alone, we remain united in the cause of justice.

This is the thing that we all have in common. We all have different situations, but each of us is vulnerable to something. Each of us has been, in some important way, failed by our society. We have all had our potential stifled, our opportunities curtailed, our selves denigrated, and our dreams deferred. We all bear the scars of irretrievable losses; we are all less than we could have been. We’ve all run into walls; we’ve all encountered painfully decisive evidence that we are not equal to the task before us, and we’re all going to keep trying anyway. We’re all broken robots play-acting at personhood. It is this realization, not the cheap glamour of hero-worship, that creates the foundation for real solidarity.

You’re a victim. Admit it.

Long con

Deadspin brings us the story of a ridiculous “longform” piece from something called SB Nation defending that one rapist cop (you know, that one cop who saw his job as an opportunity to fulfill his pathetic male power fantasies) on the grounds that, uh, he used to play football, I guess. The point is that this is identified not as an individual failure, but as a fundamental problem with the concept of longform writing:

“There had never been a complete failure of concept and execution quite like this one, but it was nearly inevitable. If a company has a gorgeous CMS designed for longform, and a mandate to produce longform, and staff in place to present longform, it’s going to publish longform—whether the stories are there or not.”

Obviously, the problem with the “longform” concept is right there in the name: “long” is not a format. It’s a one-dimensional quantity that imparts no further information. Length does not imply complexity, incisiveness, or insight; nor does it necessitate ponderous meandering. But the fact that the concept exists at all means it has to refer to something. In particular, there are websites that aggregate longform articles regardless of subject matter. Someone who sits down to browse one of these sites is not thinking “I feel like reading something long today.” So what are they actually looking for?

It’s clear what role the longform concept fills in the ecosystem of the internet. It’s a countertrend against the bite-sized “content” delivery of tweets, listicles, and slideshows. In other words, longform pieces are supposed to be substantive. But substance comes in many forms; again, length is not antonymous with vapidity. So what longform pieces actually are is a fantasy: the fantasy that you can avoid being mislead by prejudice and trendiness if you put in the effort to read allllll about something and get the “complete” picture. They’re nuanced, where “nuance” is an internet buzzword for “look at how objective and reasonable I’m being.” The temptation of the internet’s infinite information illusion is that it makes it seem like you can get all the facts, that one perfect story can explain everything. The longform concept insists that there is such a story to be told for every subject. This is not the case.

Hilariously, Deadspin itself falls into this exact trap with their longform piece explaining why longform pieces are fundamentally flawed. The essay aggregates plenty of data about the SB Nation piece, but despite aspiring to figure out “how it happened,” none of it is actually explanatory. For example, word count enforcement is cited as a mechanism for padding non-stories into vectors for insight:

“When Stout launched SB Nation Longform in the fall of 2012, the idea was very much that Stout could bring prestige to the site by regularly running long stories—not stories aspiring to a certain complexity, note, but long ones. One freelancer said that per the terms of his contract, the story had to be at least 4,000 words long.”

Obviously having a strict word count like this is a dumb idea, but it doesn’t actually apply to the piece in question, which was 12,000 words – three times the “required” length. So the issue was not that the author was inflating irrelevant details to make word count; rather, they clearly felt that they had a hell of a lot to say. Similarly, Deadspin claims that “this story serves as an example of why diversity in the newsroom is so important,” as anyone familiar with the dynamics of rape culture would surely have put the brakes on it. But in fact, that exact thing actually happened. The one black woman involved in the process raised hell about it, and was casually overruled. So the story is actually an example of why “diversity” doesn’t fucking matter as long as the same old power dynamics are still in play.

The actual issue here has nothing to do with the mechanics of longform – at least not the explicit ones. The issue isn’t the particular format in which the story was told, it’s the fact that it was told at all. As Jezebel points out, there was fundamentally no story here:

“The question, of course, is why Arnold felt Holtzclaw deserved a more rounded portrait in the first place. By most accounts, Holtzclaw is an unexceptional man who has been found guilty of serial rape. The difference between Holtzclaw and other men who sexually assault women is that his position as a police officer allowed him a unique opportunity to brutalize his victims while keeping them silent. The other difference, of course, is that Holtzclaw actually got caught and will pay for his crimes.”

In other words, any story proceeding from this angle – regardless of length or process or who was writing it – was going to be worthless. The actual direct fist-to-the-face cause of this debacle was that everyone involved in it, excluding the lone ignored objector, thought it would be a good idea to write a sympathetic story about a serial rapist. And this – the idea that there must be a story to be told from the rapist’s perspective, that there must be some mitigating factor to “explain” the situation in the moral sense – is in fact one of the pillars of rape culture.

It’s commonly understood, I hope, that any kind of real understanding of basically anything requires multiple stories from multiple perspectives. But the one thing that stories need to be is true, not merely factually but in the fullest sense: they need to be the right stories. The seemingly-free publishing space of the internet makes it too easy to respond to everything with more words, with an explanation of why someone else’s explanation of an explanation is wrong (which is obviously what I’m doing right now). What’s needed to cut through the fog of confusion is not the ponderous weight of nuance, but the thin, bright blade of discernment. Truth does not result from the aggregate of all lies; it must be carved out. Lines must be drawn. That’s why sometimes, even often, the right story is no story.

Limits and limitations

This may be slightly outside my area of analytical competence, but it’s sort of bothering me, so here we go.

Here’s Lily LaBeau describing how James Deen assaulted her:

“At one point in the scene, Deen grabbed a cattle prod, a shocking device that is sometimes used in kink, and held it near her head. LaBeau said the device was on her ‘no’ list and that Deen was well aware of it. ‘The cattle prod makes me go into complete panic,’ she said. ‘When you pull it out, I’m done, I’m scared, I’m crying, I can’t think.’

. . .

While his foot was in her mouth, she said, ‘I just remember him taking his hand really far back and then just hitting me hard. Hard. Like, too hard,’ she said. ‘I heard and felt an almost crack in my ear, from my ear down to my chin. I couldn’t close my mouth.’

. . .

‘I honestly don’t remember what happened after that,’ she said. ‘I’m still dealing with trauma from it. Even talking about it right now, little tears come to my eyes.’ LaBeau later added, ‘Even to this day, certain people holding my head a certain way will bring up a lot of trauma and cause me to start crying.'”

What was notable about the Cosby allegations was the consistency of his M.O.; America’s goofy dad turned out to be a classic predator. What’s notable about the Deen allegations is that they all describe different situations, but they evidence a consistent motivation. Deen is clearly the type of person who gets off on knowingly violating boundaries (with the awareness of the victim that this is what’s happening). The enlightened cool dude turned out to be a class-A creeper.

(Fun fact: living cautionary tale Hugo Schwyzer once had Deen deliver a guest lecture to one of his classes. Birds of a feather flock together.)

[Update 2: Here’s an informative article explaining what the actual deal with Deen’s fanbase is/was. I didn’t talk about the Deen-as-alleged-feminist thing here because I didn’t actually know what was going on, but this pretty much clears it up.]

Of course, in neither case should this have been a surprise. Cosby was a patriarch through and through; his show was sexist entirely apart from his personal behavior (as is generally the case with family sitcoms. Family structure is a microcosm of social structure). It’s the same deal with Deen: the fact that he’s primarily known for making rape porn is bad enough without his let’s say “cavalier” attitude towards the subject.

That link includes the hypothesis that Deen was a “missing stair;” that is, his rapism was a known issue that everyone ignored because it would have been too much of a bother for them to have done anything about it. Given Deen’s apparent ubiquity, this is almost certainly the case, but it’s insufficient as analysis. It amounts to bad apple-ing him.

Here, for example, is Joanna Angel:

“Angel brought a notebook with her to the show with notes she had about the relationship, clarifying that Deen’s behavior ‘does not represent porn; this represents a specific individual.’”

LaBeau disagrees:

“LaBeau emphasized multiple times that she believed this incident should be used as evidence that the industry needs better safeguards to protect performers, not just to condemn Deen. ‘The thing is, James isn’t the only one who’s crossed boundaries,’ she said. ‘James is the one that was the worst, but there’s been other ones. It’s not just James and that’s the problem.’”

The swiftness of the retribution against Deen may seem heartening, but it’s actually suspicious. Not that it’s a bad thing; it’s actually completely amazing that a sex worker can go on Twitter, accuse a successful, popular man of rape and get instant results, especially since this is a new development that has occurred within the past 10 years. The problem is that the current dynamic allows everyone to take the correct, socially approved set of actions (hashtag solidarity), wash their hands of the issue, and change nothing. In particular, the fact that Kink.com dropped Deen immediately is cause for extreme eyebrow-raising. This is a popular actor who’s done tons of work for the company, and they axe him on the basis of one accusation? Doesn’t this suggest rather strongly that Kink.com was already aware of the problem, that dropping Deen was a deliberate attempt to get positive press ahead of the news cycle, knowing that the floodgates had been opened? Indeed, doesn’t this attempt to save face indicate Kink.com’s recognition of its own culpability?

[Update: corroborating evidence. Not that this was a hard call or anything.]

Which is to say that LaBeau is correct. Consider the context in which she was assaulted:

“In a later incident, LaBeau was performing in a scene for Kink.com’s Upper Floor, a live-streaming BDSM group sex series. LaBeau was the star of the scene, the conceit of which was that she was being initiated as a sex slave; there were several other female performers involved, as well as multiple male performers and a number of people simply in attendance watching. LaBeau and Pierce, who was also performing, said Deen was not scheduled to perform in the scene, but that he began to participate.”

Isn’t this pretty clearly a lit match/powder keg type of situation? Is it at all probable that someone like Deen wasn’t going to push boundaries here? And let’s be clear: LaBeau was doing her job; she was no more free to say “fuck this, I’m out” than you are when your boss starts swinging his dick at you.

“Pierce said he asked LaBeau why she had greeted Deen politely in the first place and she responded that she saw him all the time, since he got so much work, and didn’t want him ‘getting pissed off.’ According to Pierce, when he then asked her why she agreed to the impromptu filming with Deen, she responded, ‘I didn’t, he just picked up the stuff and I didn’t want to make a scene.’”

This is why the “missing stair” angle is not good enough: the problem is not individual behavior; indeed, the supportive response to the accusations indicates that we’re actually doing a good job on that front. The problem is institutional incentives.

“It was supposed to be a regular boy/girl sex scene (anal was one of her ‘no’s’), but her co-star apparently had other plans. ‘James [Deen] kept trying to get inside my ass but I kept pushing him away, so he choked me, then he slammed my face down into the couch and forced himself in my ass anyway,’ says Peters. ‘The crew all high-fived him and told him what a great job he did getting an anal scene for the price of a boy/girl scene.’”

Yes, these are bad people. But the problem isn’t that they think rape is a good thing, the problem is that they don’t care, they’re just happy that they got a good scene out of it. They’re happy to have done a good job.

Of course, there are Serious Official Policies in place for preventing this sort of thing:

“When shooting a scene, performers and the director typically set boundaries and expectations for all individuals before filming. Particularly in BDSM, for which actors are often involved in pain play and seemingly aggressive acts, these boundaries help to keep the cast safe and ensure that their limits are respected. Prior to a scene, an actress might, for example, indicate parts of her body where slapping or flogging is off limits or what specific sex acts she consents to—often she does so on a physical checklist that is given to performers on-set.”

So official. Much checklist. Note that the assumption here is that the male performer is going to be as much of an asshole as possible, and it is the woman’s responsibility to articulate each individual action that is “off limits.” Recall that in LaBeau’s scene, a cattle prod, which was on her “no list,” just happened to be present and available for Deen to use (also, maybe I’m a prude, but: a cattle prod? Really?). Indeed, the “no list” concept itself precisely illustrates the problem: the industry creates a maximally dangerous situation for its female performers, and then puts the onus on them to defend themselves. We’re in a situation where women actually have to say “don’t electrocute me.” This is not an accident. It is a natural limitation of the consent standard.

In an ideal world, consent would imply mutuality. But the fact that we don’t live in a world where men and women can engage each other on equal terms is sort of fundamental to the whole “feminism” idea. In the world we actually live in, consent implies acquiescence.

Crucially, this applies even to the stronger standard of informed consent. Again, ideally, an active “yes” to a sexual encounter would indicate real desire. But in the world we actually live in, women are expected to cater to men’s desires. Women are expected to be “cool,” to not “make a scene,” to be emotional managers who consistently put their own feelings second. Because of this, informed consent is a mere improvement that retains the consent standard’s fundamental flaw: a “yes” can be coerced.

We need to quit patting ourselves on the back for meeting basic standards of human decency and realize that we’ve entrenched ourselves in a fully defensive position. The true standard of justice is mutuality: the condition in which all participants do not merely accept what is happening, but actively will it. As I’m sure you realize, this requires a complete rehabilitation of the way we conceptualize sexuality. Despite everything that’s happened, we’re still very much stuck in the “man fucks woman: subject verb object” framework. And porn, particularly in the absence of substantive sex education, is the primary vector for reproducing this ideology.

The second wave feminist critique of porn has fallen entirely out of vogue, which is the right conclusion, but it happened for the wrong reasons. We’re all aware by now that the “ban all porns” approach is a non-starter. You can’t really ban a mode of expression. More than that, you can’t fix anything by just identifying the “bad things” and getting rid of them. Ideas have an inconvenient stickiness; having come into being, they rarely die out completely. The only workable approach to dealing with bad concepts is redemption. You have to engage them in order to transform them into something that’s compatible with justice.

This may strike you as exactly what’s happening with porn right now. To an extent, that’s true; like I said, the right conclusion was reached for the wrong reasons. The errors in the second wave approach were tactical, but they’ve been taken as foundational. Second wave feminists were not prudes, they had an actual critique of porn, which was that it reflected and reproduced patriarchal ideology regarding sexuality. This is still the case, and it’s what is missing from the current discourse.

What this means is that there’s a world of difference between engagement and naive engagement. Ideas are powerful. Anyone participating in the porn industry (including consumers) is necessarily going to end up reproducing its ideology. It doesn’t really matter how much of a feminist you are when the institutional logic of your situation is against you. Again, this does not mean that asceticism is the only option. It means that any engagement not backed up by a substantive critical framework is doomed. This is a battle, and we need to be armed.

Obviously, this doesn’t just apply to porn. It applies to everything. Naive engagement is perhaps the great failing of our current era. Feminists have been doing a spectacular job in recent years of rejecting the flawed approaches of their predecessors – too spectacular. It’s becoming increasingly clear that we’ve been throwing the baby out with the bathwater.