Horrible friendship dissonance (in which I react badly to a joke about sexual assault)
December 30, 2010, 4:06 pm
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Last night was awful. I went to the pub thinking “I haven’t left the flat in days and it’s going to be awesome to see my friends and socialize, yay!” but when I came back home I just felt grimy. At the pub my friends were talking about some party where there was one room that was completely dark and you had to move around by touch alone. “But you can only touch another person if they give their consent” Friend A said, and Friend B replied “Aw, that’s no fun!” and laughed at the hilarious joke he had made. I was kind of shocked and I sat there waiting for someone to say something, but no-one did, and then I quietly, half-heartedly started to say “I don’t think that’s OK”, but I was at the other end of the table and no-one heard, and I realized that if my friends did hear me they wouldn’t get it anyway, they would be thinking “That Gethen, she needs to get a sense of humour, doesn’t she realize that obviously Person B doesn’t really think sexual assault is OK, it was just a joke, duh.” And no-one except me would be thinking “Hey, actually, in a world where sexual assault is common, in a world where around one in three women are survivors of sexual assault (which statistically probably includes some of the people sitting in the pub here now), in a world where women are frequently told to just put up with sexual assault rather than demanding the right to live and work in safe places, in a world where we are frequently told that sexual assault isn’t important or serious (so put up and shut up), in a world where many, many women are desperately, silently trying to get through PTSD and put their lives back together without any support at all from friends because many survivors of sexual assault don’t tell their friends what happened to them because in this world SURVIVORS OF SEXUAL VIOLENCE ARE MADE TO FEEL ASHAMED OF THE FACT THAT THEY ARE SURVIVORS OF SEXUAL VIOLENCE, in a world where many men (a minority of men as a whole, but still scarily quite a lot of men) openly say that they think sexually assaulting or raping a woman is OK in certain circumstances, such as if she’s drunk or she flirted with him or she had sex with him in the past or she agreed to go home with him or she’s his girlfriend/partner/wife – in a world like that, it obviously wouldn’t be OK at all to make jokes about sexual assault and clearly only an asshole would do so, but upon reflection that is exactly how the world actually is, and therefore I am going to make a conscious decision never to make light of sexual assault because this makes it easier for perpetrators to tell themselves that sexual assault is OK, it makes it harder for people who have been assaulted to speak out and ask for support, and it makes it less likely that, when someone speaks out about the fact that they have been assaulted, others will take them seriously and offer support .”

So I’m pretty sure no-one was thinking that except me, and I didn’t say anything, and as the conversation moved on I sort of forgot about it. But the rest of the evening wasn’t fun. I felt this weird sense of disconnection from my friends, I’ve known most of them for years but suddenly I was looking at them and if felt like they were strangers. At the end of the night I came back to my flat feeling terrible and I couldn’t sleep for hours and then I had nightmares. I woke up the next morning/afternoon i.e. now and realized that I was so upset that I couldn’t concentrate on anything, so I decided I might as well write about it since I wasn’t going to be able to get anything else done anyway.

The thing that’s driving me crazy is that because I was silent in the face of that stupid joke, I ended up in a position where everyone probably thought I thought it was a reasonable thing to say, when in fact it made me want to throw up violently. I didn’t stand up for what I believed in, and that means I am morally equal to pond scum. By writing down what I really think I am trying to get back a little tiny piece of the integrity I lost, even if it’s too late, even if I’m just writing this stuff in a blog that no-one reads.

Of course an obvious solution to this type of dilemma would be to always speak out about things that I think are important in future, but it’s not that simple because I’m pretty sure if I did that I would end up being rejected by my friend group. And the reality is I need friends, everyone does.


How we talk about terrorists
December 24, 2010, 8:35 pm
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I was just reading a newspaper article where a couple of researchers were debating the reasons why some people become suicide bombers. One of the researchers said that they are mindless fundamentalists who believe they are going to go to heaven and have a harem of hot virgin sex-slaves, while the other thought that many are actually clinically depressed people who want to kill themselves, and they become suicide bombers because suicide is forbidden in Islam, but suicide bombing is OK because it’s considered martyrdom, not suicide.

So there was this long discussion about whether suicide bombers are suicidal, or whether they are mindless fundamentalists who really believe Allah is going to reward them with virgins, or whether they are just driven by a mindless hatred of the West. It just makes me sad that apparently smart people can miss out the completely obvious fact that one of the reasons suicide bombers become suicide bombers is that they are angry about the wars and occupations in Israel, Afganistan, and Iraq. I mean, everyone knows that this is one of the reasons. Bin Laden is pretty clear about it in his videos.

I think it’s really sad that we are unable to have a grown-up discussion about terrorism, to the point that there is this strong pressure to paint terrorists as cartoonish supervillains who don’t have any reasons for what they do that a rational person could understand. I really wish journalists were more grown-up than that, and say ‘probably some suicide bombers are religious fanatics and/or some are suicidal and/or they hate our way of life, but probably one other factor is that they are angry that we are currently bombing a lot of Muslim countries.’

I mean, when you have to reduce your enemy to a cartoon caricature of Pure Evil, it doesn’t really say a whole lot about your own integrity, you know?

What is rape apologism?
December 16, 2010, 4:44 pm
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Rape apologism is when someone says that rape isn’t really rape, or that rape is not really that bad, or makes an unfounded claim that allegations of rape are untrue, or claims that rape allegations in general are often untrue and should not be taken seriously. In reality the rape of false rape allegations is around 1-2%, the same as for other crimes.

Because rape apologism is so widespread, survivors of rape often don’t tell anyone about their ordeal because they know they are unlikely to be taken seriously. Because of this the survivor doesn’t get the support they need from family, friends, doctors, and the police, and this lack of support makes it much less likely that they will overcome their trauma. Rape apologism literally destroys lives. In addition, rape apologism promotes rape, since it assures rapists that it is unlikely their victims will come forward and be taken seriously.

Some examples of rape apologism:

She wasn’t really raped, she made up the accusations.
She wasn’t really raped – she just changed her mind.
It wasn’t really rape because the victim knew the rapist / was the rapists girlfriend / wife.
It wasn’t really rape because the rapist didn’t use force.
It wasn’t really rape because the victim didn’t immediately report it.
It wasn’t really rape because the victim wore a short skirt / had a reputation / flirted with the rapist beforehand / had previously had sex with the rapist / was friendly towards the rapist afterwards.

Rape apologists often have an idea in their heads which I like to call the Idealized Rape: this is a scenario where a woman is walking alone at night when a stranger attacks her and beats and rapes her. The survivor then immediately goes to the police to demand justice. Whenever the rape apologist hears that a woman was raped he compares her experience to the imaginary Idealized Rape that he is carrying around in her head. If the survivor’s experience matches up then she is deemed worthy of sympathy and support, but if not the rape apologist will dismiss her experience and tell her it ‘wasn’t really rape’.

The problem here is that in real life only a minority of rapes follow the script of the Idealized Rape. More often the victim knows the attacker, often the attacker uses intimidation or alcohol or other drugs rather than physical force, and often the victim is too shocked and/or scared to physically fight back. Sometimes a person who has been raped doesn’t behave the way you’d expect: they may be in shock, they may be experiencing cognitive dissonance where their mind simply won’t let them understand what has happened to them, or they might be trying to normalize the experience as a coping strategy.

Just for the record: the only reasonable definition of rape is this: rape is sex without consent. This may not be the legal definition of rape in all parts of the world but to me it’s clear this is the only morally defensible definition. A person who maintains that only a rape that fits the Idealized Rape script is ‘really rape’ is a rape apologist, since they are dismissing and silencing millions of rape survivors.

Some examples of rape apologism with respect to Julian Assange:

– The whole ‘sex by surprise’ thing. The phrase ‘sex by surprise’ puts a cute cozy gloss over the ugly reality that if you touch a person who is asleep (and thus hasn’t consented) in a sexual way, it is sexual assault.

– The whole ‘he was arrested for not wearing a condom’ thing. According to the allegations Assange was arrested because his partner withdrew her consent for sex but he continued having sex with her. This is rape. That she withdrew consent because he wasn’t wearing a condom is irrelevant.

– Naomi Wolf’s ‘Captured by the world’s dating police’ article, in which she alleged, on the basis of no evidence whatsoever, that Julian Assange’s accusers made up the accusations because they were angry that he hadn’t called him back.

– Michael Moore claiming, on the basis of no evidence whatsoever, that the accusations were ‘hooey’.

Rape apologism is part of Rape Culture: a culture that facilitates rape. Another manifestation of rape culture is punishing the victim by publicly making lots of unfounded accusations against them. Unfortunately Assange’s accusers are now experiencing this. This victim-smearing makes it less likely that future victims will come forward, and thus adds to the already-cushy safety net which our society provides to rapists.

Although rape is often dismissed as being just a personal problem with no wider political meaning, the fact that 1 in 6 women will experience serious sexual assault in her lifetime shows that rape is a form of systematic oppression. Just as the fact that Blacks are disproportionately stopped and searched, beaten, and arrested by police is one manifestation of racism in our society, the fact that women have a 1 in 6 chance of being raped, and the fact that we have a whole system of rape apologism and victim-blaming set up to make sure that it stays that way, points to the fact that rape is a manifestation of our society’s structural, systematic hatred toward women. With this political understanding of rape in mind it becomes clear that all progressive people have a duty to educate themselves about rape and to work towards dismantling the culture of rape apologism and victim-blaming that continues to make rape possible.

#mooreandme Michael Moore gets (Tiger) beat down for rape apologism
December 16, 2010, 2:43 pm
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It’s really heartening to me to see the #mooreandme Twitter campaign. There is background here and here:


I’ve personally often felt torn by the communities I’ve been involved in: I get involved in groups that are based on the ideas of solidarity and mutual aid, anti-racism, anti-facism, anti-capitalism – but despite all that anti-oppression rhetoric, when someone gets sexually assaulted within the group, there isn’t any solidarity or mutual aid that gets extended to the victim, instead the victim is called a liar in order to protect the perpetrator. At best, these anarchist or anti-capitalist groups have been spaces where the oppression of women was dismissed as though it wasn’t ‘real’ oppression that the group would take time to talk about and challenge, at worst these spaces have been places where rape and sexual assault were encouraged and protected – because the rapists were well-respected members of the group, and they were too smart to use physical force to carry out rape, instead they used alcohol or intimidation, and singled out victims who were young, lacking in self-confidence, and didn’t have a solid base of friends who would back them up.

I know I’m not the only progressive woman to be sick and tired of this dynamic. Progressive men, if they want to call themselves that, need to educate themselves about rape and learn how to extend solidarity and support to rape survivors. Because progressive women aren’t putting up with this shit anymore.

Morality 3: politics
December 12, 2010, 1:26 am
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: ,

When I talk about ‘politics’ I’m not so much talking about someone who is a politician, I’m more talking about someone who believes in a certain political system, like socialism or anarchism or libertarianism or laissez-faire capitalism or whatever, and takes action of some sort to try to make that system a reality.

Is doing politics the same thing as doing morality?

My first reaction is yes, or at least they certainly should be the same. My gut feeling is definitely that my political beliefs arise from my moral beliefs.

But political actions are different from moral actions. A moral action, like giving money to someone who needs it, has an immediate good effect, whereas a political action, like going to a protest, doesn’t necessarily have any good effect at all. The protester is hoping that the protest, as part of a wider social movement, will lead to some positive change in the future in the way society is run. But that’s a gamble: the protester has no way of knowing whether or not her action will have any positive effect at all.

So you could argue that going to a protest isn’t a moral action, since it doesn’t particularly help anyone. Sure, you hope for some hypothetical positive effect in the future, but that isn’t a moral action in the same way as, say, giving a meal to a hungry homeless person in the here-and-now.

But you could argue it the other way too: if you give a meal to a homeless person her hunger may be eased for a few hours, but you leave her in the same place as you found her, so the action has not had any lasting good effect. The only morally adequate response would be to change the system that causes some people to be homeless in the first place.

This business of changing the system is tricky though. Even if you can manage to make any change at all, how can you be certain that it’s the kind of change you want? There was a time when a lot of people all around the world were really excited about the Russian Revolution, which was going to bring in a wonderful communist system free of all forms of oppression… but that didn’t work out so well.


Moral complexity, Julian Ansange, and Rape Culture
December 7, 2010, 4:09 pm
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So, Julian Ansange.

1. He’s responsible for leaking documents that reveal a lot of dodgy dealings that various world leaders have been involved in.

2. He probably raped two people.

First off, I think 1 is pretty cool. It’s a good thing that we now know a bit more about what our leaders get up to. And the fact that Julian Ansange and the other people working at Wikileaks have gone ahead with their work even in the face of quite a lot harassment is laudable.

On the other hand, he almost certainly raped two people. That is a Big Deal.

The details of the rape allegations are sketchy and seem to vary from newspaper to newspaper, but as far as I can gather, in one case he had sex with a woman who was asleep, and in the other case he was having consensual sex with a woman, but then she realized he wasn’t wearing a condom, she told him to stop having sex with her, but he didn’t stop.

If that’s accurate than both cases were definitely rape. If you have sex with someone who is asleep then by definition you are having sex with someone who can’t consent, which is rape. In the second case, the only things we need to know are:

(a) She told him to stop having sex with her, and

(b) He didn’t stop.

The fact that she told him to stop because he wasn’t wearing a condom is irrelevant. If someone says ‘no’ and someone else keeps having sex with them anyway then it is rape whether they said no because a condom broke or because they have a headache or because they have to pee or because they just realized they don’t really like the person they’re with and don’t want to be having sex with them anymore, or for some other reason.

So there are a lot of people who think that what Wikileaks does is Really Important, and that the fact that Julian Ansange probably raped two people is a minor insignificant little detail.

For example: on the front page of today there’s a link to an appeal to people to take all their money out of their Paypal accounts in protest against Paypal’s decision to prevent people from making donations to Wikileaks. Fair enough, I think that’s a good idea, if I had a Paypal account in the first place I would probably go along with this action. But follow the link, the following text stopped me short:

“Our dear friends at WikiLeaks just got their PayPal account shut down…”

“Our dear friends”. Wow. The PirateBay aren’t just saying that they agree with what Wikileaks does as an organization, they are saying that the people at Wikileaks are their “dear friends”. Since Julian Ansange is the best-known representative of Wikileaks, that pretty much means that Julian Ansange is their dear friend.

You know what? If I knew that someone was probably a rapist, I wouldn’t be friends with them. Just like I wouldn’t be friends with someone who was a racist, or a fascist, or someone who liked to beat up gays or set fire to synagogues for fun. I know that no-one is perfect, but there are certain lines you can’t cross and still be my friend. Now I imagine that if asked about this the PirateBay people would try to gloss over the rapes, saying that is only a personal matter which does not concern them, and that they are focused on Important Issues like Free Speech and Government Transparency.

It’s wrong to gloss over rape.

As well as being devastating to the survivor, rape is part of a wider system of oppression against women. Rapists are the frontline stormtroopers in a system which (still!) makes sure women don’t get the same respect, the same opportunities, and the same level of safety that men get. The people who don’t commit rape but who commit the more minor sexual assaults that virtually all women have to endure are also stormtroopers in the Rape Culture, standing a row or two back from the rapists. And a few rows further back are the people who don’t commit any assaults themselves but try to make it sound like rape is OK as long as not much physical force was used (“It wasn’t really rape, it was just a misunderstanding!”, “It was surprise sex!”). Alongside them are those who rush to the defense of rapists (“he can’t have raped anyone, he’s my mate!”) and those who insist that rape is just an unimportant personal problem, and refuse to recognize that it is part of a system of oppression.

Image: Star Wars Storm TroopersDon’t be a storm trooper.

(Just as a side note, I can’t think of a more sick-making phrase than “surprise sex”. If your partner came home early from work one day and said, “hey honey, would you like to go to bed?”, that might be a nice surprise. But if someone has sex with someone else who isn’t expecting it and hasn’t consented, it’s not “surprise sex”, it’s rape.)

I really appreciate the work that Wikileaks does. At the same time, all evidence suggests that Julian Ansange is the worst kind of scum: a person who thinks he can commit rape with impunity. I sincerely hope he goes to jail for a long time. If he doesn’t (and let’s face it, he probably won’t) it will send a clear message to rapists that they can continue to rape people with impunity, and it will send a clear message to women that they are fair game and that if they are raped they will get zero help from the supposed justice system. (By the way, if you are one of those people who was trouble understanding what the phrase ‘Rape Culture’ is supposed to mean, I think the previous sentence pretty much sums it up.)

To conclude:

Wikileaks: awesome.

Rape: very very wrong.

Julian Ansange: probably raped two people, in which case he should go to jail for a very long time.

Morality 2: total selfishness
December 5, 2010, 12:43 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

In part 1 I tried to figure out what it means to act morally, and decided that I agree with the principle of Utilitarianism, or ‘Do the greatest good for the greatest number’. I found that a lot of actions that I think of as being morally good don’t fit into Utilitarianism, and that a normal person can’t really be expected to obey strict Utilitarianism all the time.

Problem: Utilitarianism says I should treat all people exactly equal, but the reality is that I care about myself most of all, my friends and family next, and outwards in widening circles, so that the further someone is from me the less I care about them.

I’ve set up a contrast between totally utilitarian behaviour and totally selfish behaviour. If I am totally utilitarian I donate all my spare money to charity, keeping only the bare minimum needed to keep myself alive, and spend all my spare time doing volunteer work. And if I am totally selfish I think only of myself and don’t do anything to help anyone in any way.

Both of these idea are nonsense. The totally selfish me doesn’t work; if I behaved that way I would actually be very unhappy, since I would feel ashamed. In fact I want to do some good in the world and to help others (to an extent) because it makes me happy, just as eating chocolate cake and going to the pub and living in a nice flat make me happy. I optimise my happiness by attempting to take care of everyone, but in a differential way: I put the most effort into caring for myself, next in line are the people close to me, and I put only a little effort into helping people who I don’t know.

Actually, come to think of it, I am a much more capable and competent person, and thus much better able to help others and do good in the world, when I am feeling happy. If anything, the principle of Utilitarianism suggests that I should focus on taking good care of myself and making sure I am as happy as possible.

The idea of a totally unselfish me is also unrealistic, because I simply wouldn’t be able to live that way. I could try it, and I might last a week or two, but I know that I would soon start spending my money on things I like, and spending my spare time watching films, reading blogs, or visiting friends. And here is an interesting point: the Utilitarian principle only demands that I choose from all possible choices the one that does the greatest good for the greatest number. If I redefine the totally unselfish me as being impossible, then Utilitarianism no longer demands that I behave that way, since Utilitarianism only demands that I pick the best of all possible choices. (I do realise that my re-definition of what is possible is arbitrary and potentially very self-serving!)

When I take a realistic view of my life, I realise that the range of changes I could make in order to live a more moral life is fairly small. I could give a bit more money to charity, but not much more. I could do a bit more volunteer work, but not much more.

However I can probably squeeze quite a lot more utility out of my life by optimizing the things that I am already doing. Utilitarianism pushes me, not only to give to charity, but to put effort into choosing the charity that will do the most good with the money I give to it. And I have to not only do volunteer work, but also give careful thought to choosing an organisation that genuinely does good, and where my skills are genuinely needed. In short, morality demands that I take the things I do for moral reasons just as seriously as I take my work. When I’m doing things in order to earn money I strive to be efficient and effective, because I want to earn the maximum amount of money possible while doing the minimum amount of work possible. Utilitarianism demands that I have the same focus on efficiency and effectiveness when I do things for moral reasons, like choosing a charity or doing volunteer work.

I have got a separation between moral and selfish activities: some of the time I am doing selfish things, like working to earn a living, or relaxing and having fun, and sometimes I am doing moral things, like volunteering. But I think that a theory of morality should apply all the time, to everything I do, rather than being something I turn on and off like a light switch. Also, I wonder where doing political work, with the aim of changing the way society is organised, fits into this scheme.

To be continued…