Monday, November 24, 2014

Reflexive Distrust of Rape Victims

We interrupt our semi-frequent blogging about political-economy to talk about Bill Cosby. The thing about celebrities is that when they get into scandals, they get a lot of people talking about the wider issues of these scandals, because the nature of celebrity is that people know who you are and have an opinion about you.

O.J. Simpson, Jian Ghomeshi, and now Bill Cosby. (Just to name a few. Hey! They're all men of colour! Why is that? Truth be told, I thought about mentioning Bill Clinton, but decided he was a politician more than a celebrity. And I had a narrower point to make, based solely on the basically vapid nature of "celebrity." Then I thought of Jimmy Saville, but I really have no idea who he was. Thinking of Jimmy Saville made me think about Gary Glitter, but he was caught red-handed with child pornography, and, if anything, pedophiles are lower down on the public esteem charts than are female rape victims. Anyhow, those three guys are the ones that popped into my head. The O.J. Simpson trial was 20 years ago, but it was HUGE.)

So, the thing is, ... why are people only talking about Bill Cosby now? I know why I'm only talking about him now. I'd never heard of these accusations from decades ago until now. Supposedly, Cosby used his financial, legal, celebrity clout to squash these accusations in the past. Sometimes he'd settle out of court and pointedly refuse to comment on them afterwards. So, in all honesty, I'd never heard of them.

Oh! (And this is a blog post, not an academic treatise, so excuse the stream-of-consciousness flow.) The thing about the basically vapid celebrity culture means that even though the celebrities are just ordinary people and why should we concern ourselves with them, is that the issues behind the scandals, the issues driving the scandals, are often hugely important. So, people all know the celebrity. They all have opinions about the celebrity. And they're all talking about important social issues like sexual assault.

Notice the dearth of female celebrities with around a dozen men accusing them of rape across the decades?

So, Bill Cosby. I liked "Fat Albert." I was a kid and it was a cartoon. I had little to say about his Jello-Pudding-Pops commercials. (Apparently they were a mega-success.) I actively disliked "The Cosby Show." I heard he did great stand-up comedy over the years. I was a little put-out by his whole "black people have to get their shit together" routine. (Which now seems a little ironic, given the circumstances.)

So, at the same time as Jian Ghomeshi (another celebrity who I had little knowledge of other than who he was and what he did for a living) is in the news as a predatory monster, comes this avalanche of horror about Bill Cosby. It's alleged that for decades he preyed on young women, befriending them, before drugging them and raping them. There's now something like 13 women accusing him of having done this to them.

So, here's the thing; when the allegations against Ghomeshi surfaced, I heard a woman I know say "I hope it's not true." Publicly, Elizabeth May (who despite her religious issues with abortion, is definitely a feminist) and Judy Rebik (who is 100% a feminist) signaled their support for him (since quickly retracted). What's up with that? (I'll get to it.)

I didn't even know what his voice sounded like, when I read the first bit of that disastrous Facebook post of his. And I thought: "He says that he's into BDSM and a vindictive ex-girlfriend is accusing him of stuff? Well, maybe." But as things piled-up, "Bad-date Ghomeshi" and "Big-Ears Teddy" and two women came forward publicly about him, and many more did so anonymously, it became pretty to hard to argue that he was a victim of Victorian prudery and a woman scorned.

So why did it take all that for me to decide (personally) that Ghomeshi is probably guilty as sin? Because I believe in innocent until proven guilty.

But I want to admit to a personal triumph.

At no time did I think an ex-girlfriend was definitely lying. I thought "maybe" Ghomeshi is the victim of an vendetta, but I also thought "maybe" he was harassing female co-workers, or had beat a woman.

The phrase for what I was looking for, in trying to describe this was "the public’s reflexive distrust of rape victims." If you didn't click on the link, it's from an article called "Bill Cosby loses control: comedian no longer dictating the narrative -- and it's about time." It's pretty good. Give it a read.

Here's something; This DOES have to do with patriarchy. It is possible (it's very rare, but it's possible) for men to be falsely accused of sexual assault. It is therefore in the self-interest of men that society assume men are innocent, and, necessarily, that women are liars. In the same way, it is in the self-interest of women that men be seen as the guilty party and that women are the truth-tellers.

It is an indication of the power of men in society, that WE set the terms of the debate. That the default mode for people when hearing about allegations of sexual assault is to believe the man and not the woman. Even women do this. And it is a testimony (a disgusting indictment more like it) of the power of patriarchy in our society, that this holds true in spite of the fact that vastly more men are guilty of rape than women are guilty of making false accusations.

Let me give that it's own little paragraph:

Even though far more men rape women than there women who have made false accusations of rape against men, we still believe that men are innocent and women are liars when rape accusations are made.

I'm proud to say that I no longer do this. I do not reflexively believe that, not only is the accused innocent, but that his accuser is definitely a liar.

"Big-fucking-hairy-deal thwap! Don't dislocate your shoulder patting yourself on the back!"

So why did Jian Ghomeshi have to (allegedly) beat over ten women and two of them come forward publicly before thwap and the rest of society turn against him? Why was Bill Cosby (allegedly) to have raped a dozen (maybe more) women over a period of decades, and some people still believe him?

Part of the public support for people like Ghomeshi and Cosby doesn't come from patriarchy. It comes from "celebrity," but not from some brainless, but magical power that "celebrity" conveys in order to turn people into morons. To be a celebrity is to be famous. But people get famous for different reasons. Paris Hilton is famous because she's a wealthy heiress who had a private sex-tape leaked. Kim Kardashian is famous because she's a wealthy heiress who also had a private sex-tape that was supposedly leaked to the public without her knowledge. Brad Pitt is a celebrity because he's a really good-looking actor (and I would agree with anyone who says he has a helluva screen presence).

Jian Ghomeshi (apparently) had a persona as a sensitive, liberal, cultured male who had a unique talent for getting other famous and/or interesting people to open up to him and thereby obtain great interviews. People thought they knew him. (Evidently he read essays at the beginning of his show that were very popular, but people didn't know that he didn't write them.)

Bill Cosby? A lot of people found him lovable. Black people saw him as an inspiration. He was a respectable entertainment icon only a few years after Martin Luther King was murdered for the cause of Civil Rights in the USA. Supposedly "The Cosby Show" has a strong message of female empowerment with its characters or whatever.

(I watched part of one episode where the Huxtable kids were all bickering and squabbling with each other, and then, on their television, some commemoration of MLK began playing ... here it is ... reflecting upon it later, I figured that the message had been that while they might have their differences and their everyday conflicts, the Huxtables, and other African Americans, and everyone else who has benefited from the Civil Rights struggle, should pause and be thankful for the gains they've made. They [and we] should be thankful that we have such small problems, since heroes like MLK got rid of so many big ones for them [us]. But honestly? At the time, I thought that there's a big difference between ordinary people and spoiled, vapid, self-centered wealthy fucking air-heads. I thought the message was: "Here's a family of obnoxious rich morons. Let's tack a speech from Martin Luther King on the end, because.")

(The only other episode I watched, one of the Huxtable daughters had a fiancee or new husband, and one of his female college friends was in town and would he like to go for drinks with her and her friends? He asks young lady Huxtable if that's all right and she says sure, but he asks if she's sure she's sure, because he doesn't have to. She insists it's fine and so he goes out with his old friend [girlfriend? don't remember] and her friends for an innocent afternoon or evening, to come back to her giving him an angry cold shoulder. Whereupon Papa Huxtable explains that men just gotta know how to read women and even when they say "yes" they can mean "no." I was disgusted. If I was in that young man's place I would have told her to go fuck herself, and then gone out to get drunk with some other friends. Fuck's sake! Say what you mean!)

As unimpressed as I was with Bill Cosby, I had a hard time processing these accusations. "Avuncular" means "like an uncle" but I think it also means a kindly, friendly uncle. I thought of Cosby as this "avuncular" character, wearing the big colourful sweaters. Also, he's very rich. There is such a thing as a deranged fan. Is it possible that a celebrity could be accused of something by a mercenary person who wants to be paid-off? Of course it is.

But to trust a celebrity you "know" isn't entirely patriarchy. Parents of children who have been accused of terrible things (or even convicted of them) will refuse to consider the idea that their children are guilty. Good looking people are often forgiven for things far more than plain people. If you're already sympathetic to someone (and in Cosby's case, his persona was very much his own creation) it's natural to side with them against a stranger. So, it's not always, or not entirely patriarchy that makes even feminists doubt accusations against someone they know.

But, anyway, what's happening with Bill Cosby? Why are the rape allegations finally sticking
A major obstacle in changing attitudes about rape is there are literally decades of cultural endorsement of the idea that sex is a matter of a man getting one over on a woman, and therefore it’s okay to have sex with unwilling women using trickery, bullying or intoxicants.Popular songs like “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” “Summer Nights” or “My Sharona” glorified force or exploitation as normal parts of seduction. More recently, “Blurred Lines” and “Blame It On The Alcohol” continued to push the notion that non-consent is something to be bullied or drunk away. Rape through trickery is treated like a throwaway bit in movies like Revenge of the Nerds or Face/Off. There’s a scene where handing a drunk girl off to be raped is treated like a joke in Sixteen CandlesBill Cosby himself had a routine suggesting that all men just really want a drug that would strip a woman of her ability to say no to sex, an idea that seemed like a light-hearted joke in the ’60s.
But now another conversation is happening: People are beginning to key into the fact that it’s not normal to want sex with someone who is laying there like a dead fish, crying, or otherwise giving in because she fears she isn’t getting out of this situation safely otherwise. In fact, that behavior is not funny or cool, but sad at best, and usually downright violent and predatory. A man who bullies an unwilling woman into bed isn’t “scoring” but a real creep. Sex should be something where both parties are interested in getting it on, not something that men inflict on reluctant or resisting women.
We're in a transition period. Genuinely "nice guys" can be guilty of sexual assault because, as I said a while ago, our society considers violence against women to be no big deal. Women as people are considered inferior to men, and men's desires are given precedence to women's desires. So if men want sex and women don't want to have sex, it was considered natural for men to try to conquer women. It has taken feminism decades to combat these attitudes. And these are complicated, entrenched attitudes. Certainly, some women have been instructed to play "hard to get," not because they're trying to "tease" men, but because they're trying to avoid the reputation of "slut." (Which is another neurosis of our culture. One that is also only now being attacked. "Slut shaming" is being met with "Slut Walks." (To which the more hopeless and cretinous of men respond with disgust and rape threats.)

So, we're starting to realize that even avuncular Bill Cosby can be a rapist. Decades ago, the even more reflexive distrust of rape victims than exists today, helped him to use his power to strangle these accusations. Nothing happened. Just a deranged female seeking to exploit the male celebrity. But now, things are changing. "Good men" can rape. And, not-so-good men, inflated by celebrity, money, power, can tap-into the underlying misogyny of our society and become serial rapists, drugging women and abusing them.

I still believe in "innocent until proven guilty." It's entirely in my self-interest to do so. The problem is that women accusing men of sexual assault are the only complainants who are treated with contempt. If you report that your house was robbed, the police don't assume you had gave your possessions to the "thief" willingly but now you're jealous about something, so you've fabricated this "break-in" story. When you complain about someone causing a traffic accident, the police don't assume that you're making everything up and that the other party is innocent. They take everyone at their word and do an objective investigation. I don't believe it's necessary to remove the presumption of innocence:
I mean, the problem is that we'll have (for example) a teenaged girl go to a party at some guy's house and she winds up dumped in the snow on her front lawn in the cold of a freezing winter's night, and she's only barely sober enough to tap on the front door so that her parents can find her and save her from dying from hypothermia. Then it turns out that the charming young men at the party have used their cell-phones to record themselves plying her with booze until she's incapacitated, whereupon they record themselves raping her, and this is further corroborated because the girl's mother takes her down to the hospital the next day and examinations show she's been raped .... and police don't lay charges because there isn't enough evidence.
I'm sorry, but is the only antidote to that bullshit to be that you automatically believe that the accused is guilty from the get-go?
Sexual assault, by its very nature, is a difficult crime to convict someone of. But when an entire group of young men brag about raping someone, and circulate pictures, ... at least as a society, we're close to the point of calling that rape and convicting them. At least now, the word of ten women is thought to count for something against the protestations of one man. The almost identical stories of women who don't know one another are enough to turn many people against the man being accused.

Sad to say, this is progress.


greg said...

It might be good for some of our politicians, in a larger sense, to stop saying we're so much better, more civilized, than other countries. WE are better by fractions, it seems.

If women are shamed or feel shame in going to the police, then we're not that much better.

AS far as ethics go, maybe we might at least stop saying that our oil is ethical. (anyway, I read that there was a link between the extraction industry and women's rights.) But ..... I know oil is not ethical. Maybe it's a good way for women's rights groups and environmentalists to get together. PUll this shit together. I hope this makes sense.

thwap said...


There are similarities between the mindsets that rape the planet and those that rape other human beings.

That having been said, I think it's possible to effect a revolution in social relations between men and women, before we achieve a revolution in political-economy.

mogs moglio said...

I believe we have to stop calling it sex that's very mechanical. You should be making beautiful meaningful love to a woman and she wants you and invites you in...

thwap said...

mogs moglio,

First Impression: You might be on to something there.