Stop Soft-Pedaling Rape and Rapists

(From elconfidencial.es)

Many of you have read about the resolution of a criminal case in Spain last week.  The case, described thoroughly in this The Guardian article from last Thursday and this December, 2017, article from El País, involves an 18-year-old woman who was at the Pamplona Running of the Bulls (“los sanfermines”) on July 7, 2016, and was approached by five men in the early hours of the morning.  They offered to walk her to her car, but instead took her to a lobby of a nearby building, where they raped her and filmed the gang rape on their cell phones.  One man stole the woman’s cell phone before leaving the scene of the attack.  The five men, self-named “La Manada,” or, “The Wolf Pack,” planned and filmed the attack.

Last week, the five attackers were not convicted of rape, but of “sexual abuse,” a decision that brought a lesser punishment of nine years in prison (five years to probation) and a 10,000-euro fine.  One of the magistrates, Ricardo González, deemed that the event was consensual from start to finish.  His questions and comments sexualize, rather than criminalize, the case, thus demonstrating his inability to make fair judgment and the ease with which more than insensitive legal actors can influence outcomes and retraumatize individuals attacked in violent cases.  In addition to harming the survivor, the blame-the-victim line of questioning does further harm to any person who has experienced such violence.  The distinction made by the Spanish law and the court, in this case, is that sexual abuse does not involve violence or intimidation.  Upon hearing the decision, thousands in Spanish cities big and small took to the streets, in a wave of protest, to decry the utterly unjust verdict and the revictimization of the young woman who survived the brutal attack. (*See the BBC’s report of the protests here.)

Were any of you stuck in the last paragraph at the mention of “sexual abuse does not involve violence or intimidation?”  First of all, I would think that both sexual abuse and sexual violence involve violence and intimidation and that the impulse to distinguish one from the other here is an impulse to say that boys will be boys and, well, rape just happens.  Second, when a single person, armed with only a cell phone, is surrounded, stripped of her clothing, and raped by five grown men in a building lobby, we can clearly say that person is being both intimidated and violated.  It is sheer insanity to say otherwise. Saying otherwise reveals the depth of our (us, our cultures, our laws, the people we know) willingness to allow violent, insecure men to take and keep control of others.

At the very least, this case is forcing Spanish legislators to reckon with these laws and is demonstrating how thousands of Spaniards are willing to protest this toxic masculinity embedded in the law.  Protests of “No is No,” “We are All the Wolfpack,” “I Do Believe You, Sister,” and “Justice Now” contribute to a public display that might help to move the legislative needle in the centuries-overdue right direction.  The President of the High Tribunal for Justice in Navarra, Joaquín Galve, has criticized protesters for being out of control, and yet has no comments about the out-of-control verdict handed down last week.  This is yet another case of embracing a centuries-old status quo and blaming the wrong group of people—those who are appropriately protesting profoundly unjust laws. (*See this Gender Shrapnel Blog post on the status quo, this one on civility codes, this one on rape as violence against a real person with a real body, and this one on gender-based violence in Spain and elsewhere.)

As were many people, I was particularly touched to see a group of Carmelite nuns from the north of Spain write and post a communiqué on Facebook to protest the decision and express support for the young woman in the case.  According to this piece (the translation is pretty close to what I read in the original Facebook post in Spanish), the nuns write: “We live in closure, we wear a habit almost up to our ankles, we do not go out at night (more than to the Emergency Department), we do not go to parties, we do not drink alcohol and we have taken a vow of chastity.  And because it is a FREE option, we will defend with all means within our reach (this is one) the right of all women to FREELY do otherwise without being judged, raped, intimidated, killed or humiliated for it.”

I will leave it to Spanish critics to determine the significance, if any, of the occasion of the sanfermines, a runaway seven-day fiesta that caters largely to foreign tourists wanting to drink until dawn and then run the streets with the bulls.  Perhaps this celebrated tradition has a deep-rooted masculinity at its core that has dictated to young men that bulls and women are to be taunted, maimed, and killed.

No expert in Spanish law, I still believe that legislators, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and judges have a long way to go in terms of understanding how legal precedents based in the Napoleonic Code (think of Emilia Pardo Bazán’s tremendous short story, “El indulto” [“The Stay of Execution”], which criticizes both perpetrators and legal codes designed to allow them to keep committing crimes) dictate patriarchal power that continues to be extremely difficult to undo in the courts.  In addition, lack of representation of women in powerful legal and judicial positions (*see this 2017 article with statistics) limits the likelihood that new perspectives will be introduced and taken seriously, thus confounding the initial problem of legal history and stagnation in legal reform.  On-the-spot protests like we see happening throughout Spain, along with sustained protest movements like “Ni Una Menos” in Latin America, must continue to gather steam, push legislators and judges, and change the deep acceptance of gender-based violence still so prevalent in this 21st century.

Rape is rape, not “sexual abuse.” Rapists are rapists, not “sexual abusers.”  Let’s call it what it is, ensure there are real consequences for the crime, and effect lasting cultural change.

Gender-Based Violence (from Start to Finish)

(Cover of Edurne Portela’s 2017 novel, Mejor la ausencia)

I recently finished reading Edurne Portela’s gripping novel, Mejor la ausencia (Galaxia Gutenberg, 2017), which features a young protagonist, Amaia, whose life is marked by the violence present in 1980s and 90s Basque Spain and by the very real violence of the life inside her own home.  Amaia’s mother, grandmother, and three brothers constantly wonder if the father will come back into their lives at any moment, bringing with him a relentless brutality exercised upon his own family.  Five-year-old Amaia at the beginning of the novel takes refuge from her father’s violence, especially as manifested on her mother’s body, in her eldest brother Aníbal and her stuffed animal named Buni.  The surrender of Aníbal to heroin addiction and death, accompanied by Amaia’s frustrated destruction of Buni, demonstrates that the protagonist will have no people to count on and that, even as she develops into a strong young woman, she will surprise even herself with her own enactment of violence.

The title tells the reader that absence from “loved ones” can be safer and better than presence with them.  The violence that rips (not ripples) through the novel is mostly exercised by men—on other men in the spheres of politics and business, and on women in the domestic sphere.  In this sense, the novel communicates gender-based violence in its genesis (toxic masculinity) and its reception (men as business “partners”; women as domestic “partners”).  Amaia’s attack on her mother suggests that the protagonist scorns the weakness she perceives in her mother and that she has learned how to use the physicality of her own body to both defend and attack.  The novel moves quickly enough that the reader has to slow down to absorb how the protagonist has evolved according to the public and private contexts in which she lives.

While Portela’s El eco de los disparos (Galaxia Gutenberg, 2016) examines portrayals of late 20th-century Basque violence in literature and film, Mejor la ausencia offers a fictional first-person narration that drives home each of the astute observations of Portela’s abundant non-fiction corpus. I read the novel because its author is a friend and talented writer, not because I read violence well.  I finished the novel because Portela approached the topic in an honest, unflinching, compelling manner that made me grapple with the theme in bigger ways.

I have a privileged enough life that I can choose to protect myself from witnessing violence.  When I studied history as a child and young adult, I despised that it was basically always a history of violence of men against men, women, and individuals who did not identify as part of the gender binary.  History just seemed to move us from one war to the next, one aggression to the next, one genocide to the next, one dead person to the next. I strongly believed that we could unlearn this narration of violence and examine histories of peace, celebration of others’ accomplishments, and selfless leadership.  As an adult, I have had to temper this reticence in the face of harsh realities, but I have still consistently chosen in my private life not to watch television and film portrayals of violence, not to read works of fiction that celebrate violent modes, and not to allow my children to play violent video games.  (Full disclosure: I do teach an upper-level Spanish seminar course on the Spanish Civil War.  I get it.)  I know that I am naïve.  I have never been able to articulate clearly my lack of understanding of people’s desire to inflict violence on other people or animals.  I just don’t get it.  (Of course, I do understand how people can become violent and/or fans of violence.  As an adult, I just don’t get how all of this must feel.)

As I finished up Portela’s novel, I read these headlines in the Spanish newspaper El País: “Un hombre denunciado seis veces por maltratar a dos mujeres mata a su actual pareja” (“A Man Reported Six Times for Abuse of Two Women Kills His Current Partner”; 2-14-18),  “Cómo descubrir a un agresor reincidente” (“How to Uncover Recidivist Aggressors”; 2-14-18) and “Maltratadas mucho antes de cumplir los 18” (“Abused Long Before They Turn 18”; 2-18-18).  Despite all we know about gender-based discrimination and violence—via the international work done by  the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), now under the aegis of the United Nations, multiple police reports from country to country, data collection (e.g. in Spain and the United States), academic studies from a variety of disciplines—, newspaper headlines reveal that we still do not pay attention to all of the real acts and the warning signals that place people in danger.  We still seem to want to buy into the rhetoric of “he’s a good guy,” or “he’s a real professional,” or “it can’t be that bad.”  We know that ignoring early signs of violent tendencies is never good, and we do it all the time.  (*See this Gender Shrapnel Blog post about how violence is usually not hidden.)

This all brings me back to the man Donald Trump, Orrin Hatch, and a host of others protected through reports of gender-based violence, Rob Porter.  In this CNN piece (2-18-18), Orrin Hatch issues an apology to Porter’s two ex-wives for having jumped to Porter’s defense; Hatch is reported to have said, “It’s incredibly discouraging to see such a vile attack on such a decent man.”  Even when Hatch walked back the defense and issued the apology, he had to maintain that his interactions with Porter were “professional” and “respectful.”  Hatch, CNN, and everyone else seem to forget that of course Porter knows to respect his higher-ups, who have infinitely more power than he does.  It is his treatment of those with less power than him that we have to worry about.  The fact that Hatch maintains, even in his apology, a half-defense of Porter as a good man tells us a lot about our boys-will-be-boys culture, our constant propping up of mediocre politicians and violent men, and our constant willingness to kind of, sort of not believe the victims.

Just as Edurne Portela reveals in Mejor la ausencia and in El eco de los disparos, the signs of violence are there, from start to finish, in public and in private.

Threats and Trolls

(President Troll’s tweet from February 10, 2018)

Almost two weeks ago (2-11-18), The Chronicle of Higher Education published a piece titled “For Scholars of Women’s Studies, It’s Been a Dangerous Year.”  The article provides examples of increased criticism and threats issued to professors and scholars of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies.  Middlebury College Professor Carly Thomsen appropriately responded to the criticism of all-activism, no-scholarship by saying: “It’s the issue of the relationship between theory and practice, between scholarship and activism.  The assumption that women’s studies equals a kind of uncritical support for contemporary movements is wrong.”  In fact, I would add that this area of study has examined contemporary realities and movements in profound and broad ways and has contributed to careful critical thinking on the operation of gender and its intersections in our world. I was wholly unsurprised by the content of the article, from reporting on the frequent undercutting of women’s studies as a viable field of study (those who launch the criticisms often have not actually read the syllabi to which they refer), to offering examples of derogatory language leveled at professors, to issuing actual threats of rape and death.

Professor Heidi Lockwood of Southern Connecticut State University is also quoted in the article.  She says, “If anything, controversies about feminism and movements like #metoo and the entertainment industry’s Time’s Up are precisely why women’s-studies programs are necessary, Rose said. “Now we are being looked to as programs and as scholars to have the conversations people haven’t had before,” she said. “We are the one program on campus that is equipped intellectually and politically to actually do and care for the kind of work that needs to be done.”  Lockwood rightly asserts the existence of and increased need for a critical apparatus on gender issues that addresses contemporary issues of gender, race, religion, and national origin.

Before I got the opportunity to share the article with colleagues, I was pleased to see that our dean had already shared it with the core and affiliate professors of our Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Program.  While the generalized notion and acceptance of threats against women is troubling in and of itself, at least we know people are recognizing the threats and understanding the need for increased awareness on campus.

The Gender Shrapnel Blog certainly makes me a more visible person in these realms.  What I most notice are the increased Facebook “friend” requests coming from men dressed in camouflage, often bearing arms, sometimes sharing photographs of barely-dressed young girls, and not infrequently giving loving cuddles to dogs and puppies.  While I always mark these daily requests as spam, I also always wonder why I am receiving them.  Is it the blog, my work on our WGSS Program, my scholarship, general hatred of women who speak?  Of course, it must be some twisted combination of all of the above, and I don’t usually give this more thought than what I’ve just done here.  At the same time, our current political regime protects Second Amendment rights over First Amendment rights and over protections offered by Titles VII and IX, and that’s enough to have anyone think twice about her public voice.  The Weinstein/Cosby/Trump era certainly drives home who has the power to assault and silence others.  (*See many Gender Shrapnel Blog posts that treat these issues more specifically.)

Several years ago, a colleague and I wrote a series of letters to then-Governor of Virginia Bob McDonnell protesting the lack of awareness and action surrounding campus sexual assault.  We also wrote letters to the editor of Ms. Blog, The Richmond Times Dispatch, and The Wall Street Journal.  At the same time, we were writing protest poetry and one-act plays that demonstrated activism on Title IX and Title VII issues.  The result was a violent voice mail message that told “us little missies” what we could do with our activism.  The speaker made sure we knew that he knew where we lived and worked.  We reported the incident to our campus police and administrations and left it at that.

This trolling of us from years ago of course has been replicated in many contexts, in more dire circumstances for more visible people and more copiously through increased social media access.  Many famous women, including actor Leslie Jones and writer Mary Beard, have had to deal openly with the violent verbal attacks on their persons and beliefs and the very specific, gender-based threats made over and over again.  (*See this Gender Shrapnel Blog post on Mary Beard and this one that looks at “civility” in the case of Leslie Jones and others.)  These are threats not unlike what we have heard from Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (who has ordered women rebels to be shot in the vagina) and United States President Donald Trump (who has openly and repeatedly trolled Rosie O’Donnell).  Of course, “trolled” ends up being too light a term, for it does not convey the intensely implied physical threat behind the tweets, soundbites, and mockeries, nor does it communicate often delusional sentiments and desires of the trolls.  For example, Glamour had to point out that Trump trolled the January 18, 2018, Women’s March by pretending that the anniversary march—an anniversary of the all-important, seven-continent Women’s March of 2017—was in celebration of his first year in office.

Don’t even get me started on the international, illegal, world-changing trolling of Hillary Clinton to promote fraud, ensure her election loss (despite the historic number of votes she won), and put President Troll, dangerous dupe, stupid stooge, and vulnerable villain of the Putin regime, into office.  Even the famously anti-Trump Washington Post recently called the trolling of Hillary Clinton “both comical and sinister”: “The indictments allege the Russians communicated with unwitting members of Trump’s campaign in local communities. They sought to organize rallies. They put out false information. They paid for a demonstrator ‘to wear a costume portraying Clinton in a prison uniform’ and wired money to someone in the United States ‘to build a cage large enough to hold an actress portraying Clinton in a prison uniform.’ It is both comical and sinister.”  I actually would love to hear Washington Post Chief Correspondent and author of this article explain these comments without re-legitimizing the “Lock Her Up” trope that became so vicious and violent.  (*See this Gender Shrapnel Blog post and this one on this topic.)  Like so many others, Dan Balz succeeds in normalizing the supposed criminality of women who dare to step into the public arena.  There is nothing comical about this.

Guns

The United States loves its guns.  The country loves its guns so much that it is willing to sacrifice seven children and teens on an average day, 96 United States citizens a day, and 13,000 lives a year. (*See this Everytown site for more statistics, based on data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  See this 2016 article from The New York Times.  See also this site for up-to-the-minute reporting on gun deaths in the U.S.).  The data tell us, too, that 50 women a month are shot to death by intimate partners and that black men are 13 times more likely to be killed by gun violence than white men.

Is gun violence a disease?  Which other organizations are tasked with stemming the tide of violent crime, and especially violent crime committed in our schools?  Why do we now think it is normal or acceptable for our children and their school teachers and staff to experience violence in schools and to have to prepare themselves for violence through repeated lockdown drills?  What the hell is wrong with us?  Why are we such cannibals? (*See this Gender Shrapnel Blog post, especially Act 5, about the shame of it all.)

None of what I am writing today is news.  We all know it, and we all know it to be true.  We are catering every day to the hypermasculinist NRA lobby, which has infiltrated every level of government and affected the safety and/or sense of safety in every one of our schools.  We know it.

I was going to write this week’s post about gender-based violence on the national and international stages, and I still am.  This is because what is becoming a type of gun genocide in the United States stems from an ever-more-dangerous toxic masculinity fomented through our government representatives, television shows and movies, commercials, and video games.  This inculcation of violence influences mass shootings and supposedly behind-closed-doors incidents of domestic violence.  It tells men to reject all attributes and feelings coded as “feminine” and to embrace ultra-power and dominance.  (*See this 2013 summary of an article about print images in advertisements that promote hyper-masculinity.)  Time Magazine in 2014 reported that 98% of mass murderers are male, attributing the statistics to many phenomena along the age-old gender binary: cultivation of men as hunters and warriors; men’s protection of their status in a group; influence of violent media; etcetera.  It is no accident that we use the metaphor of “guns” for highly developed muscles.

The National Rifle Association (NRA) adds to this toxic mix by encouraging gun sales, discouraging anything that impedes gun sales, and thereby openly motivating gun violence.  I was reluctant to visit the NRA website and give it any more traffic than it already gets, but it behooves us to know what this billion-dollar lobbying organization is up to.  The website informs us that NRA-TV is alive and well, promoting television shows about guns and gun violence.  Trending on its blog right now is the proud announcement that the AR-15 is the most popular gun being sold right now.  Remember that this is the gun purchased and used to kill dozens of people in recent mass shootings in the United States.  The website also lets you know (to me, menacingly) that, “The NRA is closer than you think,” as it provides maps and directions to local stores and shooting ranges.  It features the story of an “armed citizen [who] protects his family,” making me wonder if the armed citizen’s children ever go to school and if they are protected there.  A photograph of two beautiful lions invites “American hunters” to shoot them.  And don’t miss the pitch to young people: “The NRA has been actively involved in promoting the shooting sports to youth since 1903. We wish to ensure the future of the shooting sports by providing proper tools and resources to America’s young people.”  In other words, “we hope to promote gun sales to kids as young as five or six who can accidentally shoot each other.  If they survive that, then they can shoot others when they get a little older.  Don’t miss out!”

I just visited the NRA online store and am feeling more than sick to my stomach.  It’s all about “protecting freedoms,” “not being tread on,” and weapons, weapons, weapons.  What is this war?  It is Wayne Lapierre’s fear of himself, of not being enough.  It is Wayne Lapierre’s followers agreeing that not being enough can be compensated by owning a gun.  It is the United States afraid to confront its own deeply-rooted, ever-growing pornographic affair with its guns.  You don’t have to be a literary critic to understand what the gun compensates for, and you don’t have to dig too deep to worry about how we cater to this.

Guns have no other purpose than to kill.  Let’s remember that.

OpenSecrets.org shares information about NRA contributions to candidates, elected officials, and party committees. (*Here are the statistics from 2016.)  As far as I can tell from the list, all of these candidates, government officials, and political parties are Republican.  Every last one.  This is not at all surprising, but it should allow us to become more draconian in our condemnation of the GOP.  For those of us living in Virginia, let’s remember that Ben Cline, who has declared his intention to run for Bob Goodlatte’s House of Representatives seat for the 6th District, has an A+ rating from the NRA.  Ben declares this proudly on his “pro-life” website.  (*See Gender Shrapnel Blog posts on Ben Cline here and here.)  As Voluble blogger Robin Alperstein has said, GOP candidates want to get re-elected and therefore respond to vociferous voters, many of whom promote the gun lobby.  The best way to defeat them is to increase contact with our representatives to encourage smart gun regulations.  Gabby Giffords’ Law Center is an excellent place to get information for this kind of massive effort, so necessary for 2018 midterm elections.

I promised I would talk about gender-based violence, and I already have, in part.  Gun violence is gender-based violence from the start.  Gun violence requires that we understand toxic masculinity and reverse it, just as it requires deep change in public policy surrounding the First, Second, and Fourth Amendments. (*See related Gender Shrapnel blog posts here [free speech], here [Charlottesville], and here [stop-and-frisk].)

The GOP’s massive and perverse power has placed our own country at war with itself.  This civil war relates in no small part to our Groping Old President, whose decades-long anti-women actions and comments extend to his support for other violent misogynists who wield great power.  Let us not forget that the White House delayed a full week in condemning multiple reports of Rob Porter’s violent acts against not one, but two, wives.  (*See Dana Milbank’s take-down in The Washington Post of the all-too-conveniently evolving White House stance on domestic violence.)  The Groping Old President (assaulter-in-chief) also “boasts of a great relationship” with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, whose most recent recommendation to shut down female rebels was to “shoot them in the vagina.”

State-imposed misogyny and state-indulged gun violence are not news.  None of this is.  We have got to get on this now, yesterday, 30 years ago.