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Teaching consent – is it the answer to rape culture?

 

Kudos to the Wellington secondary school students who organised Monday’s protest against rape culture. Its so inspiring and invigorating to see and hear so many young women taking a strong public stand against the sexism they are facing. Naming the problem and showing a collective front against it are the preconditions for change. And seeing young men from local high schools join the protest and add their voices to this public refusal of sexism is also very encouraging.

This current protest was sparked by revelations last week of a Facebook conversation between two Wellington College students. In a private group, one boy said, “if you don’t take advantage of a drunk girl, you’re not a true WC boy”.  Another said “fuck women”. This kind of trivialization, if not promotion, of rape cannot be reduced only to individual bad judgement. As young women in Wellington said this kind of behaviour is “quite common”. In the wake of the publicity, the two original boys were said to be devastated, yet others in the same Facebook group showed no insight. Some “jokingly” threatened to run over girls from other Wellington secondary schools planning the protest against rape culture: “bring your cars and run them all over“. It wasn’t the only case of schoolboy sexism last week, with a group of students at St Patricks College suspended after “an incident of sexual harassment” involving inappropriately filming two women teachers.

Rape culture has received a critical rap in the media over the past two weeks, and it’s good to see. Sexual violence is a big and enduring problem, not just in New Zealand. We all know its underlying causes are complex, and that there is no simple prescription for change that will fix things overnight. Much faith at the moment seems to be put into the promise of teaching consent. It has become established as one of the key ‘answers’ offered by commentators in the media – especially in the wake of schoolboy scandals like this.

Young people (all people) need to understand about consent! It is a bottom-line legal requirement for sex with another person. It’s a fairly simple idea: you should only have sex with someone if they agree to it. And this means they must be in a state where they are capable of agreeing – it is not consent if they are passed out, asleep or so affected by alcohol or other drugs that they are unable to either consent or refuse consent.

But what do we mean by teaching consent? Is the principle of consent a high enough bar to aim for? Can teaching about it in schools make enough difference to undo rape culture? And, counter-intuitively, could there be a downside to taking up this message about consent so singularly, and out of context of a wider call for more profound changes to the gendered power relations in our society?

Consent is quite a loose concept. It means giving permission or agreeing to a request or invitation. But its meaning is elastic. Consent can also mean acquiescing or complying – neither of which carry any sense of enthusiasm.

We can, should, and in some places do argue for an expanded affirmative understanding consent – just because a person doesn’t say ‘no’ doesn’t mean they are saying ‘yes’. In this model of consent (adopted in law in some countries, but not New Zealand), only sex that is mutually shaped by both people’s desires, wishes, and interests should be considered consensual.

But consider this: Last year the defence lawyer in the Scott Kuggeleijn rape trial said “consent is the key word. It matters not whether it was given joyfully, reluctantly, exuberantly.” In this case, the complainant had told the defendant “no” dozens of times and tried to pull up her underwear while Kuggeleijn held her arms above her head and allegedly raped her while she had tears coming down her face. Philip Morgan QC claimed it was reasonable for Kuggeleijn to believe she consented, asking her during cross-examination if she said no, but didn’t mean no. He also had the cheek to lecture, “did you not recognise that telling him you were on the pill in those circumstances [Kuggeleijn had asked her] was you telling him you wanted to have sex with him?”. If Morgan’s androcentric distortion of consent still holds sway in 2017 – there was a hung jury in 2016, and in February this year a jury found Kuggeleijn not guilty – then it offers women no protection.

And consider this: According to a friend, the Wellington College boys who were joking about rape “both know about what’s consent and stuff like that.” Knowing about consent doesn’t guarantee it will always be taken seriously.

At the protest on Monday, Wellington secondary school students called for the compulsory teaching of consent and the rights of women. This second part of their demand – for recognising the rights of women – is fundamental to a platform for change. Sexual violence affects people of all genders. But not equally.

Underlying such breaches of consent, and its trivialization, is what Jan Jordan calls a “patriarchal footprint” – the legacy of an explicit cultural belief that men are superior to women. At some level we still act as if it is natural for men’s and boy’s sexual desires and ‘needs’ to set the sexual agenda. When boys joke about ‘taking advantage of’ girls, when men sexually harass women on the street, when boyfriends pressure girlfriends (or younger or more vulnerable boyfriends) to do certain sexual acts they don’t want to do, they are all acting from a more privileged position on the gender hierarchy. This kind of unreflexive masculine entitlement hurts girls and women, as well as transgender people of all genders, and cisgender men deemed ‘too feminine’.

We do need to talk about and teach consent. But this is only a small part of the solution to the enormous problem of rape culture – and it is not uncomplicated. Study after study shows that people go along with sex they don’t want, because they have been pressured. When they feel they have agreed, even reluctantly, they do not call it rape. But this experience can be just as harmful as sexual assault. It can leave people feeling used and disrespected, and sometimes fearful and betrayed. If we just promote the importance of consent without also interrogating what it means and how it is shaped and constrained in uneven ways by gender norms, then we risk encouraging young men to pressure for consent. Consent in these cases of ‘unjust sex’ can become what American philosopher Ann Cahill calls an ‘ethical cover’. It becomes a tick-box, covering-your-back kind of consent that is motivated by the interests of the person seeking consent, without proper regard for the interests of the person they want consent from.

The more controversial – and I think more urgent – task is challenging the sexism that underpins consent’s disregard (and its diminishment). I’m buoyed by seeing and hearing so many young people from Wellington schools making these connections. I hope that we can start attending to that part of their message, rather than putting all our eggs in the fragile basket of consent.

Nicola Gavey

Sex, gender, age, and the law: Challenges from the Opotiki case

 

Five young Opotiki men who pleaded guilty to sexual connection with girls under the age of sixteen, were last week discharged without conviction. Many commentators agree this was the right outcome. But left hanging in its wake are complicated questions about sex, gender, age, and the law. Not least of all: what, if anything, did this case have to do with sexual violence?

There is a lot we don’t know about the case – or more to the point, these cases. We don’t know – and neither should we – what went on between all of the girls and boys and what lead to charges being laid. But we do know some of what was said in the courtroom during sentencing. And it is troubling. There are so many contradictions, and they pose a real challenge to what we think we are doing to address sexual violence.

Several issues about this case concern me. First, is the impact on the girls – and what appears to be an injustice towards them. In the name of protecting girls from a crime of violation, it looks as if the rights of at least one and maybe all of the girls have been violated by the criminal justice process.

Second, are the highly contradictory messages about the specific ‘wrongs’ the boys were accused of committing. The judge told them they did wrong, the boys accepted they did wrong. But what exactly was that wrong? Was it simply breaching the legal technicality around age (more on that later) or was it breaching the legal technicality around age in ways that were also ethically wrong (was there disrespect, pressure, denigration, exploitation?)?

Confusion over this point risks reinforcing old-fashioned and inegalitarian sexual stereotypes that feed into the ‘cultural conditions of possibility’ for rape (eg, the idea that it’s simply natural for young men to be driven to want sex with girls younger than them; and that young women are passive vessels who can’t possibly have any sexual desires or initiative of their own).

Third, I’m wondering why a path of criminal prosecution was taken for a handful of boys over what appear (from the contradictory, semi-contextualized fragments we can piece together) to be behaviours that were either not problematic at all or were highly problematic but in ways that are arguably tied to the mixed messages we are giving young men about how to be a man.

* * *

A confusing element in this case is that the girls who were the ‘victims’ of the crimes did not, apparently, see themselves as victims. The judge, the boys, and supposedly the girls, all agreed that the sex was consensual. (I’m hedging slightly, because not all the girls’ voices were directly reported.) Why, therefore, were these cases prosecuted? While technically sex with a person under 16 is a crime, the law is rarely used (as far as I can tell) to prosecute a young person for having consensual sex with a person a few years younger.

Having an ‘age of consent’ at which we don’t accept a person’s consent as legally meaningful is important. It helps safeguard against the kind of dangerous victim-blaming excuse-making that men who abuse children tend to use to account for their actions: “she lead me on”, “she wanted it”. Children are particularly vulnerable to coercion, manipulation and exploitation. While there is no magic age at which children become adults overnight, our law says that young persons under the age of sixteen still deserve this protection. While it could be seen as paternalistic as it also deprives them of the liberty to choose to have sex without fear of criminal consequence for their sexual partner, on balance I think it’s about right (so long as it’s not used against those very same young people).

But what is incredibly jarring in this case, is the image of one of the girls speaking out in court tearfully and strongly stating that she did not see herself as a victim. She spoke warmly about the boy accused of her statutory rape, as a “gentle giant with a kind heart” who “never forced me, never tried to make me do anything I didn’t want to do”. “There was never anything disgusting about us being together,” she said, and she did not want him to be punished.

Apparently circumstances in these cases were all quite different. But we need to listen to this young woman’s words. She describes what sounds like a caring and respectful girlfriend-boyfriend relationship that surely bears no resemblance to sexual violence. For a moment, I’m going to suspend any speculation and questions about the rights and wrongs of what happened between all of the boys and the girls, to focus on just one issue: the victimization of ‘victims’ through the criminal justice process.

We are often calling for the criminal justice system to take sexual violence more seriously. In the Roastbusters case, for example, there was widespread outrage at the failure of police to take any action against young men who boasted about egregious sexual exploitation that seemed to bear the hallmarks of gang rape. Many of us are also concerned, still, about the way ‘rape myths’ operate within the criminal justice system to filter which cases are taken seriously and prosecuted. And to blame and discredit rape victims during the court process. Some women who have had the courage to report rape and appear in the courtroom, are told by defense lawyers that what they say was rape was really consensual sex. And that it was no big deal, and they aren’t really victims at all.

In this Opotiki case, for at least one young woman, we have the very opposite happening. The criminal justice system is insisting that she is a victim when she is insisting she is not. This young woman, who said she was not a victim of any crime, by contrast described the police investigation as having “made her feel dirty and disgraceful” – “I feel like we are being used by police to make a point”. As well as this, presumably related to publicity about the case, the girls were reportedly blamed by some in the community for “causing drama” and shamed as “sluts”.

How can this possibly be right? Do we need to go back to basics and think about why we have laws against sexual violence? Isn’t it because sexual offences violate people’s fundamental rights in ways that can cause serious and lasting harm? Part of the harm of rape for some people is that it can disrupt their sense of themselves and their place in the world. So how, in the name of protecting young people against sexual violence, can we justify treating the girls in ways that mirror aspects of the same kind of violation we are trying to protect against? That, in itself, is a form of symbolic violence.

Admittedly, this is delicate territory. It is possible, I believe, that someone can be raped or sexual exploited without them recognizing it as such. And that doesn’t mean that sexual violence was not perpetrated. But neither does it mean that anyone has a right to impose a particular reality and identity on that person. There can be good reasons why people don’t identify as victims – one is that they have not been victimized! Another reason is that it can be psychologically unhelpful at a particular point in time to see oneself as a victim, and it can attract a lot of social baggage from other people. It is one thing to ask questions that potentially open up other ways a person might see their experiences (which can have both therapeutic and political value). But to outright tell someone that you know better about their experience and reality than they do is not only patronizing and disrespectful, it can cause harm.

* * *

One response to all this, is to focus on the agreed facts that all the sex was consensual, advocate revisiting our age of consent, and see no problem at all. But here is where things get complicated and murky.

Lots of people have sex before the age of 16. The Adolescent Health Research Group’s survey of over 8000 New Zealand secondary school students in 2012 found that nearly a quarter of 15 year olds had (ever) “had sex” and nearly one in five were sexually active at the time of the survey. These figures excluded experiences of sexual abuse. Early sexual experiences are nothing new. Among people born in the early 1970s, another New Zealand study found that over a quarter of young men and nearly a third of young women had first experienced (hetero)sexual intercourse at age 15 or younger. In this study, women were more likely to be younger than their male partner. It seems likely, therefore, that sex between 15 year old girls (and – but less commonly – 14 year old girls) and older boys is not uncommon.

How does this relate to the wrongs the boys committed? If their wrong was purely a technical infringement, having sex with a girl under 16, then it would seem difficult to justify criminalising behaviour that is reasonably normative. Particularly with a crime that attracts a maximum sentence of 10 years imprisonment.

But, on the other hand, just because something is fairly common, doesn’t mean it’s always right. Research consistently paints an uninviting picture of girls’ early heterosexual experiences, with intercourse variously described as boring, painful, and a duty. It seems to be common, still, for girls to expect sexual experiences to be disconnected from their own sexual desires, and for them to feel pressure to please males. Heterosexual coercion is common, and sometimes girls feel that they have no choice to but to go along with sex. Researchers who study sexuality and sexual violence make a distinction between nonconsensual sex and unwanted sex. It is possible for a person to consent to sex that they don’t want. Equally it is possible for someone to not consent to sex that they would like (for many reasons). So, while the law has to take a dichotomous view of consent, the fact that someone consented to sex does not mean they asked for it, they enjoyed it, or even that they wanted it. In other words, just because sex was consensual doesn’t mean it was ethical.

So how do we marry up the contradictory conclusion that the boys’ actions were wrong but, according to the judge, “human nature”. If, as he said, no harm was done – “no one was forced into a position or made vulnerable” – was the wrong only a technicality?

The risk in this case is that this confusing jumble of messages (you boys did wrong, but no-one was harmed, and it was your nature anyway, so it wasn’t really wrong, but we’ll make you pay $500 all the same …?) obscures the range of different possible dynamics that the case was about. In doing so, we are invited to make sense of what went on in black and white terms. Either the girls really were victims and the boys (lead by their unruly natures) perpetrated sexual crimes; or the girls were fully and actively consenting to egalitarian sexual relations and the prosecution was totally off target. Both alternatives paper over the possibility that the reality was probably more complicated. And that to the extent real wrongs were committed, they were probably fuelled not so much by human nature as by sexist social norms about male sexual entitlement and portrayals of girls and women as bodies to please. These norms are pervasive, and their circulation is a systemic social problem that us adults must collectively take more responsibility for challenging.

From the facts presented, it is difficult to know what was happening in Opotiki that lead to charges being laid against five young men. Maybe, for some of the men, nothing more than sex with a willing but too-young partner. But if the acting out of harmful sexist sexual norms was part of what was going on (surely something more concerning than ‘underage sex’ attracted police attention and resources), then we probably need to see these boys’ behaviour in a wider context. If there were ethical wrongs that some of them committed, did they merit becoming criminal wrongs (given the girls said they consented)? Particularly if they were acting on the kinds of mixed messages we give young men about gender, power, and sexuality. That could, perhaps, seem hypocritical. And making a spectacle out of a handful of young individuals seems not only potentially unfair, but dangerously diverts attention from where it is needed – which is in challenges to the scaffolding of sexist sexual culture across the board. Not only because it creates a context in which boys’ mistreatment of girls is possible, but because it also is part and parcel of a ‘rape culture’ that makes sexual violence possible.

Nicola Gavey

[Thanks to Kirsty Johnston for sharing her insights, observations and questions that got me thinking about this thought-provoking case.]

The Epidemic of, well, Rape Culture

(tw: rape, gendered & ableist slurs)

Recently, the University of Canterbury’s student magazine (Canta) recalled an issue containing an article about virtual rape in GTA5 (Grand Theft Auto 5) Online. The title? ‘The Epidemic of Virtual Butthurt’. The editor has claimed satire as their defence, stressing that this is an opinion of an individual student. But of course: why on earth would a publication ever have to take responsibility for the toxic opinions they publish?

I admit: I have little to no desire to directly address many of the author’s points. The article is essentially a snapshot of misogynistic mainstream gamer culture that somehow found its way onto a physical published page. That said, the fact that this was published in the first place, with the assumption that readers would appreciate the ‘satirical’ humour, speaks volumes about the state of gamer culture and indeed college and mainstream culture in general. And, I suppose, the lack of source material Canta had to work with. But even a blank page would have been better than this.

The article addresses a fan-made mod (modification) that allows players to trap another player in a humiliating position and, well, simulate rape. They cannot fight back and must simply wait for their attacker to lose interest. While the author doesn’t exactly posit this as a pleasant experience, they claim that it is nothing to get riled up about and that feminism has more important issues to worry about.

Oh, where do I even start?

The author completely misses how a victim’s identity and past experiences can shape their reaction to this ‘virtual rape’. Just because it may not bother your average white cisgender heterosexual guy (while the author claims a feminine alias, this applies to the gaming community as a whole), doesn’t mean players with less privileged identities and/or personal experience with sexual assault can write it off as easily (because we exist. Hi.).

Here, in a fictional world, women and non-binary players (especially feminine-identifying and/or passing) are blasted with the same messages we face in the real world: ‘You are inferior. You are powerless. You are available for others’ amusement and pleasure – and there is nothing you can do about it.’ We have grown to know these whispers well over the course of our lives we have become intimately familiar with that dread. That ice-fire panic and helplessness that hides behind our eyes when we have to plan how to get home at night so we won’t become another statistic. We know this because we exist and because our existence requires us to navigate the constant shadows of rape culture. To survive.

That isn’t to say virtual rape is the same thing as everyday rape. Players can walk away from their screens and occupy themselves while they wait, for example. But instances like these are just another manifestation of the misogyny that allow others to represent us as lesser. As ‘asking for it’, available for consumption. Of course, players whose identities are privileged enough that they never have to worry about rape culture will have a very different response to those who do. The former, those who do not live in fear of rape, nor have to plan their lives around that fear, may be momentarily irritated, maybe amused. For them, it is an inconvenience. For us, it is another reminder of our lesser status. For survivors of sexual assault, it is potentially triggering and traumatic.

In this way, rape becomes not a sickening violation of human rights, but a tool of power – a source of amusement or offhand punishment, and a brief inconvenience.

What goes on in the virtual world is never self-contained. The environment itself is often constructed from what we know in the ‘physical’ world, so bigotry leaks in, and, in this and many other cases, feeds back to other forms of media and real life behaviours. Violence in video games has been linked to a greater tolerance of sexual harassment1, and with the problematic representations in the vanilla (unmodded) GTAO, it isn’t a huge leap from murdering prostitute NPCs (non-player characters) to virtually raping other players. While players do have agency, their views and behaviours are inevitably shaped by the rape culture that permeates the gaming world, and indeed media in general. Gaming is often talked about as an escape from reality, but when the realities of rape culture stalk us to our fantasies, it begs the question: who are games really for?

Most of mainstream gamer culture, and indeed the public, would say that games are for your ‘typical’ gamer (read: white cisgender heterosexual able-bodied young man). Indeed, most games are designed for that audience in mind. When developers do acknowledge that yes, gamers are a diverse population with different identities, and that representing that multifaceted community is not only respectful but non-negotiable, the internet forums explode with damaged egos shrieking about political correctness, censorship and freedom of speech. When critics, specifically women and/or people of colour, point out instances of sexism or racism, they are assailed with rape and murder threats. However, I would like to destroy the notion that there is a vocal minority amongst the ‘mostly good’ gamers that can take all the blame. Everyone who plays games has the capability to actively discourage hate speech, rather than simply tolerate or ignore it. People who do see themselves reflected in the media are less likely to be attacked. But many of them are comfortable in their isolated privileged spaces and instead pressure minority groups to speak up, regardless of our safety. Alternatively, they deflect criticism of toxic opinions by preaching ‘freedom of speech’ and rallying against censorship – utterly missing the point.

Canta’s claims mirror that of mainstream gamer culture in that it individualises hateful views and attempts to pull the issue towards censorship rather than reflect on the bigger picture. If your opinions are actively hateful, then you have nothing constructive to contribute to public discussion. But when people defend these opinions, they fail to recognise that they are excusing not simply the opinion of one individual but entire cultures of hate towards minority groups such as women. Rather than limiting people’s ability to freely express themselves (which is what censorship is often framed as), the issue here is responsible journalism that is respectful of its audience and people in general.

About the article itself: you cannot simply reproduce everyday hate speech and call it satire. While we know next to nothing about the author’s intentions, or whether Canta made the decision to pass it off as satire, toxicity masquerading as satire is still toxic. It would be funny if the beliefs it drew attention to were widely accepted as obviously ridiculous, but these are the genuine beliefs that destroy their targets’ mental and emotional health and make them fear for their safety. This filth is ‘just’ satire? I’ll believe you when players calling people like me ‘stupid cunt[s]’, telling us we aren’t ‘real’ gamers, and, of course, the classic: ‘it’s just a game’. In short, I’ll believe you when people who proudly call themselves ‘gamers’ become empathetic human beings.

I am a gamer. But I am not proud of gamer culture. And if I was a UoC student, I certainly wouldn’t be proud of my university either.

 

Rosalie Liu

2014 Sexual Politics Now Intern

 

Beck, V. S., Boys, S., Rose, C., & Beck, E. (2012). Violence Against Women in Video Games: A Prequel or Sequel to Rape Myth Acceptance? Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 27(15), 3016–3031. doi:10.1177/0886260512441078

The Battle for the ‘Last Male Space’

Sexual Politics Now Intern Caitlyn Drinkwater gets us up to date on Gamergate and the problematic place of feminism in video and computer game culture.

 

Computer and video games have a bad reputation for being adolescent male power fantasies. As time has gone by game technology has progressed greatly, but its story telling capabilities have not.

 

Part of the reason for this is that computer and video games are usually more about the players experience than the narrative structure, and so there has often been a reliance on simple plotlines. At the same time video games have been increasingly targeted at the young male demographic. This has led to the video game narratives to frequently feature a white heterosexual male protagonist operating in a world of stereotypes that exist only to progress their narrative. This can be especially problematic with its treatment of female characters, who are often treated as the male characters ‘prize’ and are being increasingly exploited for sexual content. There have been attempts to change this. There is a growing environment of video game criticism and development that tries to diversify the representation and experiences contained in video game culture, including more positive and developed storylines and representations of women. Potentially, games can be a powerful tool for talking about social issues and conveying messages due to the amount of interactivity they offer. While other art forms require the audience to observe a character that progresses through a narrative, with video games you become that character. There has been some resistance to this development in the gaming culture, as some argue that these developments are detrimental to the quality of the games and only exist because people from outside the culture desire to push an agenda. These arguments often contain hints of misogynistic attitudes and it is not uncommon to see it argued that video and computer games are a ‘male hobby’ and that the presence of feminist attitudes is an unwanted intrusion. Over time the debate has become increasingly hostile and polarised as these two different perspectives struggle for dominance.

 

The story of the Gamergate controversy begins with Anita Sarkeesian, a feminist media critic. In 2012 Sarkeesian started a Kickstarter campaign to fund a short web series that examined the depiction of women in video games from a feminist perspective. In response to this Sarkeesian became the target of extensive misogynistic harassment, including rape threats, cyberbullying and a flash game that allowed you to simulate abusing her. Ironically this attempt to shut Sarkeesian down had the opposite effect. It lead people to view discussion about misogyny in video games as being more important than ever.

 

In the mainstream media the story ended there, but in the gaming community the controversy has continued. People like Sarkeesian who advocate for greater diversity in video games are often labelled ‘Social Justice Warriors’ (SJWs) and are often criticised for  using the medium of video games to promote a specific agenda. A vocal community of ‘anti-SJW’ or even ‘anti-feminist’ critique has emerged online amongst gamers who attempt to discredit feminist arguments as being misguided or flawed. At the same time they claim that accusations of abuse against Sarkeesian and others are inflated or even manufactured by the victims themselves. It is often argued by some gamers that such abuse is a part of the culture that everyone experiences, and arguing that it is inherently misogynistic ignores the fact that men experience it as well. These arguments ignore the intensity and sexualised nature of online abuse that many women experience in the gaming community and also the fact that some women have been sent death threats in the post in an attempt to increase the intimidation. In this online subculture Anita Sarkeesian is often viewed as initiating the entire social justice debate, and because of this she has become a prominent hate figure. This becomes particularly apparent with the announcement of the new web video project ‘The Sarkeesian Effect’ which attempts to address the detrimental effect that they feel ‘SJWs’ have had on video game culture. Over time the debate became increasingly hostile, and many popular video game websites (such as ‘The Escapist’ and ‘TVtropes’) have had to closely moderate the increasingly polarised discussion of these issues.

 

It is in this environment that the event known as ‘Gamergate’ has developed. The story revolves around indie game developer Zoe Quinn who developed a game called ‘Depression Quest’ which was controversial for its lack of interactivity (and also, arguably, because it was designed by a female game developer and focusses on what was perceived to be a ‘social justice issue’). While this game received large amounts of criticism it received many positive reviews in gaming journalism, which frustrated many more conventional gamers who viewed the game as pretentious and lacking in content. Like Anita Sarkeesian, Zoe Quinn became the victim of online abuse. In August 2014 her former partner wrote a blog post accusing her of sleeping with videogame journalists in an attempt to generate publicity. For some, this accusation was seen as ‘proof’ that gaming journalism and game developers were too closely involved and that developers were using this relationship to push their own agenda.  Some members of game journalism where quick to dismiss such claims and accuse the controversy as being fuelled by misogynistic attitudes.  In response it was argued that accusations of misogyny were unfounded and were being used to ignore legitimate concerns about corruption in game journalism. The conflict between these two points of view came to be known as ‘Gamergate’, which on one side involved many gamers (who came to be known as ‘gamergaters’) accusing game journalism as being corrupt and under the influence of a vocal minority, while on the other side people were accusing a large portion of gamer culture as being misogynistic.  Anxieties around journalistic integrity have been developing for some time, as video game journalists are frequently courted by game publishers to influence reviews. However these anxieties had little relation to the controversy surrounding Zoe Quinn, a small independent video game producer. The accusation of Quinn being a corrupting influence on video game journalism was misguided and seemed more motivated by the fact that she represented an aspect of video games that many gamergaters wished was entirely absent.

 

As the debate continues it has ceased to be about any particular individual, and instead it has become ideological. This can be seen in a particularly inflammatory article titled ‘Gamers are over’ by videogame journalist Leigh Alexander’. Alexander describes ‘gamers’ as being ‘misogynistic manchildren’ who are increasingly becoming obsolete. She argues that the controversy surrounding Gamergate is due to ‘manchildren’ crying out in panic as they try to hold onto what they have seen as their ‘safe space’.  Alexander’s article unintentionally fit the narrative held by the people she was accusing that ‘feminists’ where seeking to claim video games for their own agenda. This intensified the argument as accusations of hacking, death threats and conspiracy were thrown back and forth. Anita Sarkeesian also became a target with bomb threats directed at her public appearances and the FBI getting involved in her case. To separate themselves from accusations of misogyny some gamergaters have tried different tactics, stating that reports of such attacks are often exaggerated or fabricated, and that they themselves are the victims. This also saw the creation of Gamergate’s mascot ‘Vivian James’, a female gamer character who ‘just wants to play games’ and is tired of any discussion of feminism. Ironically while this character was created to be a mascot that proves that gaming culture is not sexist there have been frequent issues with some gamergaters  sexualising her appearance by creating pornographic fanart of her.

 

Eventually celebrities became involved, with actor Adam Baldwin tweeting about the controversy supporting the view that video game culture was being taken over by feminism. In response many prominent game developers (like Tim Shafer) and popular celebrities (such as director Joss Whedon) became involved criticising gaming culture as having issues with misogyny. Right Wing political advocates got involved and brought the story to a larger audience, portraying it as an example of the ‘feminist agenda’. Notably Christina Sommers has used Gamergate as a platform for her criticisms of contemporary feminism. For some the increased involvement of right wing advocates has been applauded as they felt it added legitimacy to their arguments but to others it is intensely hypocritical. One of the core arguments that supporters of Sarkeesian and Quinn have been challenged with is that feminists and ‘SJWs’ are outsiders to video game culture who have become involved to promote that agenda, and any claim that women who talk about social issues are avid fans of video games themselves is criticised as being deceptive. In comparison many of the right wing advocates are quite open about their lack of knowledge about video games and some even state that previously they were quite critical of gamers, making it appear that they are just using Gamergate to promote their own arguments and to attack what they see as a growing liberal bias of the media. However their presence is continued to be accepted by some gamergaters as they are seen as giving some support to the argument that gaming culture is under attack by feminist values.

 

While some right wing advocates were quick to voice support for Gamergate advocates this support died down as attacks against women involved in computer game culture became more vicious. In October Anita Sarkeesian held several public talks at universities and reported receiving several bomb and death threats. These actions drew parallels between Gamergate and school shootings, which echoed much earlier criticisms of videogames as encouraging violent behaviour. This further increased the media profile of the event with popular media outlets such as TIME magazine and the NZ Herald. This also led to both Anita Sarkeesian and Zoe Quinn making more frequent appearances in the news and on talk shows to discuss their experiences. This media exposure ruined what little credibility gamergaters had.

 

While the events of Gamergate seem to have passed their peak, the division between ‘gamergater’ and ‘SJW’ opinions and attitudes has become part of gamer culture. While initially it began as an accusation of corruption in gaming journalism, it has developed into a conflict about what video game culture should be. As technology continues to make computer and video games more prominent and more accessible there has been an increasing demand for these games to reflect a more diverse range of experiences, At the same time the more traditional audience for these games feel threatened by these demands, as they feel that they are either detrimental to video game quality or that they are taking away a culture that they always felt belonged to them. This has led to an intense debate between both sides, but the frequent use of misogynistic and abusive tactics has only helped to support the arguments that the misogyny in video games needs to be addressed. This has led to the debate becoming ideological, as gamergaters began to receive support from right wing advocates in an attempt to push their issue, a union that seems to be mostly focused on the two groups discomfort with more empowering representations of women. The attempt to keep feminism and social justice issues out of video games functions as an attempt to preserve what they see as a male space, but it also prevents the medium from developing. This is problematic as it keeps the medium dominated by a white heterosexual male perspective and continues to foster hostility towards anyone who does not fit this demographic.

 

Caitlyn Drinkwater

Where to after Operation Clover?

 

The Police report on Operation Clover is depressing reading. It creates the agonizing impression that Police believe many girls were sexually victimized by boys in the so-called roast busters group. And it leaves the strong sense that our justice system is currently at a loss for how to effectively deal with this.

 

Might the decision not to charge the suspects in this case create a big enough crisis of confidence in our society’s ability control sexual violence that it re-ignites government commitment to make a real difference? We have been at this point before, in the aftermath of the 2006 acquittal of Shipton, Schollum, and Rickards. We made progress, and we stumbled. (Recommendations of the Taskforce for Action on Sexual Violence, released in 2009, fell into a black hole.) Two areas are begging out for urgent immediate intervention: long overdue law reform and proactive social measures to clarify the ethical goal posts for sex.

 

Detective Inspector Karyn Malthus’s report on the investigation into the ‘roast busters’ alleged crimes is an unusual gesture towards transparency in Police process. The ultimate failure to lay charges doesn’t appear to be a result of Police inaction or, over the past year, misguided action. The report describes lengthy, careful and proactive efforts to identify girls who were potential victims and boys who were suspects. One hundred and ten girls were canvassed – each meeting “the criteria that Police had concerns that they may be victims of sexual crimes and in need of victim support”. Of these, 44 girls “were identified as remaining of concern”. This included (1) girls who made disclosures “that appeared to meet the threshold of criminal offending”, (2) girls who “‘denied’ involvement in any sexual activity” but who were identified by other girls, or in some cases eyewitness accounts, and (3) girls identified by suspects, as being involved in what the suspects claimed was consensual sex. Of those 44 girls, five made formal statements to the Police.

 

There was enough evidence relating to another twenty-five girlsthat they were requested to give formal interviews to the Police. These girls decided not make formal complaints. Their reasons make perfect sense – and those reasons are an indictment more than anything else on “rape culture”. Some were concerned that they could be perceived to be responsible for consenting to some sexual activity and some did not want to give evidence in court. “An over-riding concern”, according to the report, was girls’ “fear of bullying and harassment by their peers as well as the fear of being exposed in the media”. As Malthus notes, girls’ fears of bullying are realistic. “Many girls” had moved schools after being harassed and bullied both online and in person. Clearly, the formal complaints made to the Police are just the tip of the ice-berg of what has been going on.

 

Police identified five “suspects” – boys who were the subject of formal complaints. They also identified 30 more “persons of interest” – boys who had been named by girls for actions that were “sufficiently concerning” to Police that they sought to interview them. But because there are no formal complaints relating to those 30 boys, the investigation could not proceed with them, even in cases where there was eye-witness testimony. Taking a “victim centric” approach Police rightly had to respect girls’ rights to privacy, and not disclose their accounts in the pursuit of evidence, when that was a girl’s wish.

 

The offences in the case are serious: sexual violation (rape and unlawful sexual connection) and sexual conduct with a person under 16, which carry maximum sentences of 20 and 10 years imprisonment, respectively. The boys interviewed as suspects were reportedly “adamant” that the sexual violation identified in the five girls’ formal complaints was consensual sex. I could be wrong, but my impression from the report is that the Police don’t believe this. And this is where things presumably got bogged down by the technicalities of our laws and formal guidelines for prosecution.

 

As we know, following advice from the Auckland Crown Solicitor, the investigation has concluded with no charges being laid. This is extremely disappointingly. What we cannot tell from the report are the exact reasons why the Police decided not to charge the suspects identified in the five girls’ formal complaints. At this point transparency fogs up.

 

The media reporting has been uneven. I am not a legal expert, but I think we need to unpack what is meant when it is said the reason for this decision was a “lack of evidence” – which is how it has sometimes been reported. It seems that the problem is not so much a lack of evidence per se – but a lack of evidence in a very technical sense.

 

According to the Solicitor-General’s Prosecution Guidelines (2013), a prosecution should only proceed if the evidence “is sufficient to provide a reasonable prospect of conviction”, and if it is required in the public interest. It would be impossible to argue that seeking justice in the ‘roast buster’ case is not in the public interest. So presumably the evidence amassed was not considered robust enough to stand up in court. This does not mean that there was no evidence, or even that there was necessarily “insufficient” evidence (a misleading shorthand written into the Guidelines themselves). This so-called ‘evidential test’ requires that “there is an objectively reasonable prospect of a conviction on the evidence”. The Guidelines go on to admit that “the apparent cogency and creditability of evidence is not a mathematical science, but rather a matter of judgment for the prosecutor” and that “in forming his or her judgment the prosecutor shall endeavour to anticipate and evaluate likely defences.”

 

The formal requirement to anticipate and realistically appraise defence strategies is where the black and white edges of the law come face to face with the messy prejudices of the society it represents. There is an abundance of research to show that ‘rape myths’ shape decisions at all layers of the criminal justice system. These ‘myths’ are stereotypical and inaccurate assumptions about rape, rapists, and victims, which typically minimize and excuse sexual violence. These include victim-blaming (and perpetrator rescuing) notions that women are ‘asking for it’ if they dress in certain ways or if they drink too much, or if they go to certain places, or if they consent to some sexual activity. They also include assumptions about how a woman would and should act if she has been raped, that reveal a profound lack of understanding about how disempowering and stigmatizing the experience can be. And about how silencing a hostile, harassing, victim-blaming peer culture can be.

 

I want to reject the idea that there was “insufficient evidence” to proceed with these charges and insist that we talk about the real problem. That is, that very good evidence (from a lay point of view, as well as a psychological and social point of view) might not be able to propel a case forward because the evidential test is unrealistic for many cases of sexual violence. If a case cannot be prosecuted because a conviction is a long shot, and if the reason for that is because the evidence will be viewed through a filter of normative misunderstandings and prejudices that could be sympathetic to defence attempts to discredit victims … then aren’t we trapped within a circular logic that helps to perpetuate the very dynamics of “rape culture” that makes rape possible in the first place, and prevents justice for women who have been sexually violated?

 

Without a more nuanced account of why a case like this could end up with charges not being laid, it also makes it possible for ludicrous and dangerous conclusions to be drawn. For example, a family member of one of the key suspects publicly claimed that he has been vindicated. The Police report gives absolutely no weight to this interpretation.

 

The solution isn’t easy or obvious. It will always be a delicate business weighing up whether or not to take a rape complaint to trial. The biggest issue, currently, is that the pursuit of justice relies on putting people who have been made vulnerable by the crime being tried through a potentially traumatising process. Their treatment in court by defence lawyers is often brutal, and it is not uncommon for women to describe the experience as like a second rape. This has to change.

 

What can we do for change?

 

So, what can we do to improve the system, so that (1) it is impossible to imagine any tolerance let alone kudos for boys who celebrate methods for coercing and/or forcing girls to have sex with them, and (2) that the criminal justice system is better able to deal with sexual offences, making the process fairer than it currently is for survivors of sexual violence?

 

I think there are two do-able things that should be kick-started immediately: A review of our laws and formal guidelines and a high profile public awareness campaign to promote sexual ethics and say no to rape.

 

Already there have been many calls for renewed attention to our laws as a result of the outcome of Operation Clover. It is time for the government to embrace this challenge. We have an excellent platform of research-based recommendations in Elisabeth McDonald and Yvette Tinsley’s review of options for how to reform the way we deal with sexual offending through the courts, and the Law Commission’s 2012 Issues Paper makes an important start in considering possible reforms to pre-trial and trial processes. It may also be necessary to envisage broader notions of what justice could look like. In some cases long prison sentences may not be the most constructive solution.

 

In terms of the law itself, I think an opportunity was missed in 2008 to clarify the way consent is and should be defined. Currently the law explicitly lists a range of circumstances in which “allowing sexual activity does not amount to consent”. These include being so affected by alcohol that it is not possible to consent or to refuse consent. The law also specifies that the absence of “protest” or “physical resistance” does not automatically constitute consent. However, I think the legal framing of consent could be strengthened. Many similar jurisdictions have moved to a model that specifies a more “positive definition” of consent – which explicitly writes into the law that it must be free and voluntary agreement.

 

Currently the definition of sexual violation excludes cases where the accused acts “believing on reasonable grounds” that the other person consented. Surely we have to reconsider this escape clause. Canada, for instance, explicitly restricts the option of a defence based on “honest belief in consent”. It excludes it when “the accused’s belief arose from the accused’s self-induced intoxication, or where the accused’s belief arose from the accused’s recklessness or willful blindness or where the accused failed to take reasonable steps to ascertain whether the complainant was consenting”. The combination in our law of a passive notion of consent and a vague reasonable belief defence together create a real impediment to justice.

 

Social science research suggests that men do know how to read a woman’s cues for whether or not she wants sex; it also shows that some men freely admit to deliberately ignoring these cues when it suits them. It is not reasonable to claim that sex is consensual if it follows persistent sexual pressure that is met by ongoing reluctance, resistance, or tense resignation. At best it is disingenuous. At worst, and when a woman says there was no consent, it surely must be treated as nonconsensual. As philosopher Lois Pineau said, sexual interaction should look like “a proper conversation rather than an offer from the Mafia”.

 

“Rape culture” remains the elephant in the room. While nearly everyone is outraged at rape, many are dismayed at the “lack of respect” these boys showed towards girls, not everyone is willing to look in the cultural mirror and reflect on how this behaviour is rooted in norms and behaviours that seem more ordinary and taken for granted. Victim-blaming is still rife, young women and girls are still denigrated and potentially stigmatized for being ‘too’ sexual, and it is still normalised for young men and boys to regard women as sexual playthings.

 

Norms and values that make rape possible are woven right through our society in more and less subtle ways. For this reason I don’t think school-based education or small-scale social media campaigns are ever going to be enough to make a lasting difference. They are part of the solution. But we have to change the world that young people live in rather than treat them as the problem to be fixed. What we need is a high profile mass media campaign to promote a whole new vocabulary and set of norms around sex. Like the “It’s Not OK” campaign against domestic violence, a campaign like this has potential to slowly but surely chip away at norms that make it possible for young men to claim abusive exploitative sex as consensual. With a strong, clear, and inclusive message, it would have the potential to become a shared reference point for everyday interventions. It would challenge excuses that some young men might use to justify a bulldozer approach to sex. It would provide a tool for supporting others who want to stand up against abuse when they see it happening. And it could help young women to believe that if sex is forced on them without their consent it is not their fault.

 

A lot is already happening in New Zealand, but it is too piecemeal and too dependent on insufficient and uncertain funding. It is time for the government to step up and support, develop and extend this important work in a way that is more integrated and sustainably resourced. This includes properly funding services to support people who have experienced sexual violence to rebuild hurt lives and to go through the criminal justice system if they want to. It includes prevention education in schools and through social media. In developing this work further, some of what needs to be done might seem counter-intuitive. For example, rape prevention education in schools must in my opinion go hand in hand with positive sexuality education. Discussing and endorsing sexual desire and pleasure for girls in particular is actually an essential ingredient in clarifying what sexual coercion is. And teaching sexual ethics, upon a foundation of ethics taught more generally from an early age, seems obvious. While New Zealand has an excellent sexuality education curriculum (under redevelopment this year), it is shameful that it is not compulsory for all schools to teach it to all students. This is an issue of public good, so an opt-in approach makes no sense. Promoting consent is necessary as a bottom line, because consent remains an important principle in our law. But as a model for guiding ethical (and legal) sexual interaction it is not aspirational enough. I would prefer young people (all people for that matter) to expect that “having sex” is something that people do when they both reallywant to, rather than when one person simply agrees to another person’s invitation.

 

These are all starting points. For more egalitarian norms for sex to really take hold, we also have to tackle gendered power and privilege, and especially what it means it means today to be a man. But that is another conversation.

 

There is an enormous amount of expertise in New Zealand that could be harnessed in a coordinated and sustainably resourced way to give us a real chance to lead the world in stopping sexual violence. We are waiting for the government to take the lead and put in the money to make it work.

 

Nicola Gavey

 

 

This is what we mean by Rape Culture

Revelations last week about the Dunedin-based “Rack Appreciation Society” remind us of the work that still needs to be done in joining the dots between sexism and sexual violence. The Facebook group with over 2000 members was set up to “post pictures of bikini clad models and to comment on women’s breasts”, but soon included private photos of local women posted without their knowledge or consent. Dunedin Rape Crisis and others have called it “an example of rape culture in action”.

We shouldn’t need another blog on rape culture this year. Globally activists have been busy on social media and on the streets raising awareness and standing up against sexual violence. Locally, many excellent columns have tackled the issue. As Tania Billingsley said in the wake of her experience of sexual assault earlier this year:

“Violence does not occur in a vacuum. There are very real reasons why sexual assault is happening in our country every day. This is because our society normalises, trivialises and in both obvious and subtle ways condones rape. This is called rape culture.”

But the message isn’t always getting through. A couple of months ago, fellow academic Jarrod Gilbert wrote a piece in NBR (also published on his blog) questioning the notion of ‘rape culture’. Harshly, he pronounced, “anybody using the term ‘rape culture’ in the New Zealand context today are either unfamiliar with what culture means or are simply using it incorrectly”.

Why is Gilbert wrong in his dismissal of the concept of rape culture? And why is it correct to see the “Rack Appreciation Society” as yet another notch in rape culture’s belt?

At its core the term rape culture draws attention to two key points – our society’s ambivalent attitude towards rape and the way that mundane aspects of our everyday gendered culture actively create the ‘conditions of possibility’ for sexual violence.

Contrary to Gilbert’s claim that we “sanction strongly against” rape, messages about sexual violence in our society are rather more two-faced. Yes, rape and other forms of sexual violation are on the books as serious crimes. But a whole lot of social prejudices (about gender, sexuality, class and race) affect whether or not a rape will ever be reported to the police, let alone whether it will be investigated and taken through the courts. These prejudices also coalesce in the court of public opinion to trivialize some rapes, to blame and silence victim/survivors, and sometimes even to pat men on the back for borderline legal sexual conquests. So while some cases of rape garner widespread social condemnation, many more remain invisible.

At the same time, rape is made possible through the ways men are taught to understand their sexuality. The way they are encouraged to develop a sense of sexual entitlement and to regard women as props for indulging it. Not all men take up this invitation. Of course not. But there is a systemic problem in our society with the messages young men are being given. It is fed in equal doses by conservative traditional cultural ideals for masculinity and contemporary portrayals of male sexuality within popular music, advertising, mainstream pornography, men’s magazines, gaming, and other spheres of popular culture.

What happened with the ‘Rack Appreciation Society’ clearly illustrates the interconnections between this kind of banal sexism and sexual violation. Sean McDonald, spokesman for the secret men-only page, said it was designed as a sort of (er, excuse me while I dust off the DeLorean) “cigar and whiskey kind of page to ponder on the finer things in life”. According to this story the problem started only when some men shared photographs of girlfriends and ex-girlfriends without their consent. McDonald says the page was intended “purely out of respect and nothing less”. Commentators like Paul Henry imply this is benign, but I don’t agree.

A site that trades in images of women’s bodies displayed for men’s enjoyment is part of the problem in the first place. If this Society was really about “respect” it would be bucking the trend in how boys and men tend to act in these male-only spaces. Do we really imagine men sitting around in awe of these women’s beauty, honouring and admiring them with deferential regard and esteem (which is pretty much how the dictionary defines respect)? When men talk about pornography for instance, they are more likely to speak with callous disregard about the women in it. In his book ‘Guyland’, masculinities scholar Michael Kimmel said the young men he interviewed “consistently spoke of women more with contempt than desire”. Other masculinities scholars, like Michael Flood, have talked about how men’s support for the sexual objectification of women in these kinds of ‘homosocial’ environments is a way that young men ‘prove’ their masculinity (and/or their heterosexuality).

Until we face up to sexism and misogyny we will never stop sexual violence.

A culture that celebrates the sexual objectification and humiliation of women – which too easily go together – provides fertile conditions for committing or enjoying other men’s committal of sexual violation. A secret society for commenting on the breasts of bikini-clad women is itself part of rape culture. Let’s not get side-tracked arguing about whether it is ok because the women who are those bikini-clad models chose to be photographed for public display. Individual choices are complex. But why a lot of women find a site like this demeaning is because it reinforces a cultural dynamic that affects all women, whether or not they have made those choices. It promotes a gendered sexual logic in which women are props for male enjoyment.

Within a space defined by this blurry logic it isn’t surprising that some men over-stepped the mark and thoughtlessly – or vindictively – posted explicit photos of girlfriends and ex-girlfriends without their consent. That is sexual violation. (Whether or not our laws have caught up with it – and not just because Jennifer Lawrence says so!) But, culturally conditioned to have a blasé attitude towards the women/bodies/’racks’ being shared and commented on, it’s not difficult to imagine how easy it would be to cross this line. The scene has already been set for patterns of behaviour that treat women as playthings, and for this to be seen as normal.

One woman, a student from Otago, was quoted as saying:

“It’s not a feminism thing, it’s having respect for other human beings, and knowing right from wrong … It would be just as bad if it was boys that had been posted on a page.”

The reason I disagree with this is precisely because there is a strikingly gendered pattern to these sorts of things. They are not restricted to Otago University or New Zealand society – Laura Bates has just reported on a fresh batch of misogynist hurdles female students currently face in UK universities. The phenomenon is not gender neutral, so a gender neutral analysis can only obscure what is going on.

This is not a simplistic argument that men are bad – which is how some people seem to interpret any mention of ‘gender issues’. Lots of men are speaking out on social media, in classrooms and other places. They are repelled by gender based violence, and troubled by the connections they see between everyday sexism and sexual violation. Their support and their willingness to speak out is an essential ingredient for meaningful social change. Jarrod Gilbert, we agree with you that “not all men are the problem”. But recycling this defense completely misses the point of a critique of rape culture. (See David Cormack’s response to the hysteria over David Cunliffe’s man apology.) Actually, to the contrary it is conservative commentators like Bob Jones (read this version and Marama Davidson’s response) who malign men’s essential nature when they write as if rape is an inevitable fact of life that women just have to accept and be constantly vigilant against.

In joining the dots between the sexual objectification of women and sexual violence, we do not claim that these things are the same as each other or that rape is a direct result of consuming sexist imagery. Otago University Students Association administrative vice president Ryan Edgar (who was added to the original page without his agreement) “reject[s] the notion that all males involved in [the Rack Appreciation Society] are sexual predators”. I agree that would be highly unlikely. But as a defence it muddies the waters. I don’t think anyone is seriously claiming this. But, as Tania Billingsley said, violence does not occur in a vacuum.

We have no chance of ever stopping gender based violence (such as rape, sexual violation, sexual harassment and exploitation) if we accept the kind of banal sexism (and heteronormativity) underlying activities like ‘rack appreciation’. In so quickly becoming a space where more obvious violations of consent took place, this case shows how fragile the line is between “fun” and abuse. The activities of the Rack Appreciation Society are on a continuum with the widely condemned actions of Auckland’s ‘Roast Busters’. We can’t be surprised when young men treat real women in real sexual situations with a lack of real respect if we continue to perpetuate confusing and dangerous messages that it’s just harmless fun for men to regard women as body parts to excite, judge, amuse, and bond over.

Nicola Gavey

Making fuss about fuzz, part 2

This blog follows my earlier one, where I responded to the claim that 2014 is ‘the year of the bush’ and highlighted the cultural interest in women’s pubic hair, as well as research tracking pubic hair removal practices. Practices of pubic hair removal beyond the ‘bikini line’ have been valorised, and been presented as normative in sociocultural space. However, they have also been contested, often by feminist scholars concerned about the implications for women’s embodiment and gender relations, but also by artists, and by the medical profession.

One response has been to disrupt the sociocultural representational context – to intervene and present alternatives to the ‘all bare’ or ‘highly trimmed’ look of the ‘Brazilian’ or ‘Hollywood’ waxes – this has come both from artists, and from those who create many of the visuals that dominate our contemporary worlds – advertising. The clothing company American Apparel got on board this train early, with recent window displays showing female mannequins with pubic hair revealed at the edge of their underwear. American Apparel’s ‘edgy’ advertising has often been problematic for feminists, not least through their association with controversial photographer Terry Richardson, and I won’t laud them here. Yet their use of apparent pubic hair speaks to a cultural zeitgeist in which pubic hair is, still, edgy, and therefore unusual to encounter in public space.

Creative responses hold more interest for me, as they are at least potentially uncoupled from capitalist imperatives. One recent art intervention by US photographer Rhiannon Schneiderman has been to photograph herself mostly naked, with different luxurious and elaborate pubic wigs, in a series she titled Lady Manes. The show has been interpreted as giving “a definitive “hell no” to the objectification of women, and the pressures put upon them to conform to beauty standards – even with regards to their pubic hair.” Another response by London-based Israeli photographer Ben Hopper has been to photograph women with underarm hair, to demonstrate that beauty, attractiveness, femininity and underarm hair can co-exist. Although his show does challenge our normative ideas of what gendered bodies (especially ‘female’ bodies) should look like, it retains an underpinning emphasis on beauty and sexual attractiveness that shapes so many women’s lives.

However, as many women have attested, simply ‘choosing’ to go against normative body expectations and not to remove body hair is not easy. Research by Breanne Fahs at Arizona State University has demonstrated very poignantly the abuse and punishment that women who stop body hair removal can receive, including questioning of their femininity. The linking of femininity with hair removal has a long history in the west (well, since the 1940s, really, as fashions changed, and women’s bodies started to be visible; advertising for hair removal products around this time started to inform women of the need to remove visible leg and underarm hair). Capitalism, then, is an important part of the women and body hair removal story, including the pubic hair removal story. (In the last few decades, advertising has also started to focus on men, as men’s body hair removal practices have started to appear.) The latest highly criticised advertisement from the hair removal company Veet presents four different scenarios in which a woman, who is one day post-shaving, becomes a man. Veet pulled the ads in response to ferocious and, I would argue highly justified, criticism, but you can still see some of them. We’ve come a long way, baby… not!

One of the latest pubic hair possibilities – marketed, perhaps, in response to the various cultural interventions against full pubic hair removal – has been the so-called “full bush Brazilian”, the removal of pubic hair around the labia and anus, but retention on the pubic mound. This has been postulated as a rejection of “the porny obviousness of total bareness”. It has been described as a look where the pubic hair is apparently not, yet actually is, highly manicured.

So is 2014 the year of the bush? Such a statement is obviously ridiculous, yet attention on pubic hair practice does seem to be high in places like the media. It demonstrates the ways meaning and practice are neither natural nor fixed – and the shifts and transitions around female pubic hair practices are both quick and often dramatic. It wasn’t that long ago, that the idea of pubic hair removal beyond the bikini line was basically unthinkable within the mainstream (except, perhaps, for shaving women in preparation for childbirth – a topic that still generates considerable attention!). Whether the public – and celebrity! – attention around, and questioning of, trends like the Brazilian will lead to significant changes in individuals’ pubic hair practices, long term, remains to be seen.

Virginia Braun

Making fuss about fuzz, part 1

This year began with a flurry of interest in pubic hair – women’s pubic hair, to be precise – after the actress Cameron Diaz decried the (full) removal of pubic hair, suggesting it ‘has a purpose’. This contrasted with a story she had told previously on the Graham Norton show, of forcibly trimming a friend’s* ‘70s style bush’. Cameron Diaz’s disgust for untrimmed pubic hair was evident in her comment about the friend’s husband putting up with her 70s bush being evidence of ‘how much he loves her’ – as if having pubic hair au naturel could render a woman anything other than utterly unlovable and undesirable. The ‘common-sense’ nature of this narrative of untamed pubic hair disgust was evidenced by Rod Stewart’s interjection ‘she has a boyfriend?’, by Diaz’s telling of it as a humorous tale – she did not expect, and she did not get, a hostile response to the story – and by the collective laughter that accompanied it.

(*This friend was later revealed to be the actress Gwyneth Paltrow; the state of her pubic hair was not mentioned in her recent announcement of separation from her husband Chris Martin)

As early as January 19, 2014 was declared ‘the year of the bush’. Women the world over suddenly breathed a huge sigh of relief.  We suddenly understand – and so early on – the purpose of this year: growing our pubic hair; no longer did we have to fret that it might be the year of ‘thigh gap’ or ‘bikini bridge’, or some other particular bodily focus, which we might not have realised until it’s too late.  This early declaration for 2014 followed 9 signs bush was back in 2013 – though the list itself demonstrates the rarity of pubic hair in public space. Commentators like the Irish writer Emer O’Toole, (in)famous for having appeared in public in 2012 with visible underarm hair, applauded an apparent shift away from pubic hair removal by women. Body hair, and what we do with it is, as she says, a big deal. It’s part of the normative gendering of bodies in western cultures (different cultures have different body hair practices, and norms; I focus here on cultural contexts similar to my own).

The importance of having a clear stance on pubic hair came up again in an April 2014, when Cameron Diaz again appeared on the Graham Norton show, and explained herself: she stated that pubic hair is both sexy and has a function – a position interpreted as clarifying her stance on pubic hair  – and that permanent removal is something to be very cautious about. Responses to Cameron Diaz’s earlier announcement had not been universally positive. For example, Sian Boyle, writing in The Independent, claimed that Cameron Diaz is wrong about pubic hair. The bush is not back, and presented a defence of permanent pubic hair removal. But what do women actually do? Are our waterways and rubbish dumps awash with discarded pubic hair?

A British market research survey released in late 2013, of 2000 women, reported that just over half did nothing to their pubic hair. Those data surprised me. That proportion of women reporting engaging in pubic hair modification is lower than any recent social science study from across the westernised world. In my own survey, conducted with my colleague Dr Gareth Terry, 86% of under 35s New Zealand women (and 78% of New Zealand men) reported that they had removed pubic hair at some point in their life, with 69% of women (and 54% of men) ‘currently’ removing it. Although similar proportions of men (45%) and women (49%) removed ‘most’ or ‘all’ of that hair, the distinction between ‘all’ removers was stark: 10% of men compared to 26% of women. Age appears to be a significant factor in women’s pubic hair removal practices, with younger women removing considerably more pubic hair than older women.

Pornography presents an easy and obvious target in discussions about where individuals’ pubic hair removal practices come from, and I believe there is a lot of validity in this. In our survey, we found that people’s reported pornography consumption was not directly related to whether or not, or how much, they removed pubic hair. However, that doesn’t mean there isn’t some relationship or influence. If we understand pornography not in direct causative terms (as in: looking at pornography means you will then go and remove your pubic hair) but rather as part of a representational sociocultural context, in which our own ideas about desirability, body norms, and body expectations are shaped. Our ideas about what is desirable or normal might match our practices, or they might not. We may be critical of what we see as sociocultural expectations for our bodies, or we may not. Whether we are critical, we may still comply, or we may not. And this may change, across the course of our lives, across the contexts we grow and exist within.

In another study, some colleagues and I explored the meanings associated with pubic hair and its removal. Certain meanings predominated:

  • Pubic hair was presented as a private thing – something to be kept out of the public space (and hence should be removed if it appears beyond something like a swimsuit).
  • Having less pubic hair was more physically attractive – either naturally having less, or through removal of pubic hair.
  • Pubic hair was constructed as ‘getting in the way of sex’ – especially oral sex – rather than being sexual (despite it being one indicator of the ‘sexual maturation’ of the body).
  • Pubic hair affects cleanliness – less hair makes the genitalia cleaner (actually, research suggests it puts people more at risk of infection).

Underpinning these four meaning was an understanding of pubic hair practices as individual choices, something others ought not to have an opinion on. The prioritising of individual choice fits with our broader neoliberal social context, in which we are seen as rational, decision-making agents not swayed or influenced by culture. We are not dupes; we make choices based on our own individual preferences. That so often these fit with dominant representational practices and meanings is irrelevant, it’s ‘my choice’.

In Part 2 of this blog, I will explore some of the responses to pubic hair removal practices.

Virginia Braun


 

Pornography and ‘perfect’ (female) genitalia

There’s a lot of interest in genitals in pornography – especially hairless genitals, all the better for the camera to capture the action, in all its fleshy detail. And the ‘mainstreaming’ of pornography in contemporary western cultures in recent times has paralleled – some would argue, has even caused – an interest in the aesthetic appearance of genitalia, as well as modifications to them. Especially women’s genitalia.

There is of course also concern about male genital appearance. The trope of the ‘penis enlargement’ email spam circulates as cultural capital; a joke we can all share in, because we all ‘know’ what it means… It reflects supposed male anxiety with penis size (an aesthetic concern). Similarly, in my recent research with Gareth Terry on NZ views and perspectives on body hair and its removal, a reason offered for male pubic hair removal is “to make the tiger stand tall on the plain”. Hairlessness is linked to an increased size. Both of these locate the size of the penis as either modifiable in actuality, or modifiable in appearance. But male genital cosmetic surgery and male pubic hair removal have not reached the dizzying heights that their female counterparts have, and real female genitalia remain more ‘hidden’ in the everyday lives of most girls, and so my focus here is on women.

The two most obvious ways this interest in the aesthetic appearance of female  genitalia manifests are in cosmetic surgery, and pubic hair removal (there are also other more ‘fringe’ genital transformations – such as bejazzling, or labial dyeing, but I won’t focus on these). With these, certain things have changed in the realm of women’s genitalia – and by changed, I mean are markedly different from what it was like a decade or more ago:

1.  Women’s genitalia have become a legitimate site of aesthetic concern – suggesting women should care about what they look like, and make effort to ‘improve on’ their natural state. And that their sexual partners might legitimately have concern and preferences about genital appearance.

2.  Women’s genitalia have become a site of alteration – for instance some pubic hair removal is very common (another blog will follow around pubic hair removal), and women are getting cosmetic surgery to alter appearances. This might seem like a simple choice issue – women can make that choice, or not (and therefore it’s implicitly good, because it gives us options!). But as alternation becomes the normal response to aesthetic concerns, even women who don’t do anything to alter genital appearance, become accountable for their ‘choices’… This means that genital appearance becomes something all women are potentially judged in relation to, those women who choose to modify or alter in some way, permanent or temporary, and those who don’t.

3.  Women’s genital practices have become commodified, and subject to forces of capitalism – making money in relation to women’s genital aesthetics appears to be a boom industry. If you specialise in female genital cosmetic surgery, for instance, and aggressively promote yourself/the surgery, you can make a lot of money!

I talked to a colleague recently, who told me about the experiences of a GP friend… She had started seeing teen girls, on a weekly or even daily basis, who were anxious about their genitalia, and enquiring as to their genital normality. A concern for normality stems from the assumption that something could be wrong. The idea that something ‘could be wrong’ is not necessarily new, but the context, and the new(ish) visual economy of pornography, which trades in genital appearance, is.  In Australia a few years ago, social and mainstream media highlighted the issue of vulval photoshopping – a legal requirement that only certain aspects of women’s external genitalia be visible in magazine-based pornography being sold under certain censorship laws. Akin to recent social/political engagement around the photoshopping in fashion magazines – covered widely in the media – the idea underpinning these campaigns is that unrealistic images distribute not only mis-information, but also anxiety and problematic perceptions about one’s own body. Effectively, images promote the ideal, the most desirable, and even just ‘the normal’. In pornography, the vulva is often ‘smooth’, and often hairless. Pornography stars may have labiaplasty or other genital surgery, some famously even auctioning off the excised tissue.

The concern with genital abnormality stems also from a lack of knowledge of normal diversity. A lack of understanding where and how one’s genital appearance fits in the spectrum of diversity. Or, indeed, that there is a spectrum of diversity and that female genital appearance is – as one scholar once put it – as unique as a person’s face. Understanding the range of diversity per se is a quite different issue to having concerns about where in that spectrum one sits. The concern, then, would be more akin to disliking the particular nose one has – knowing full well that noses come in all shapes and sizes… As a response to the appearance of procedures like female genital cosmetic surgery, we have seen a growth in online galleries – even from magazines – and art projects demonstrating vulval diversity. The aim: to educate women (and men) about female genital diversity; and also, to reassure… Your genitalia are not abnormal (putting aside instances of infection, or rare cases when genital growth is far outside a spectrum of ‘normal’). These offer an important counterpoint to a context in which knowledge about bodies – and sexualities – may be dominated by what is presented in pornography.

Ginny Braun

 

 

 

Roast busting and the revival of misogynist sexual culture

In March this year US teenagers Trent Mays, 17, and Ma’lik Richmond, 16, were convicted of raping a 16 year old girl in August 2012, in Steubenville Ohio. The girl was sexually violated as she was dragged from party to party over the course of several hours one night, in an inebriated and unconscious state. Aside from the sexual assault itself, there are several haunting dynamics of the Steubenville rape case. There were many witnesses who did nothing. Over 900 photographs and videos were reportedly taken by those involved and by onlookers. (Mays himself was also convicted of distributing a photograph of the girl, naked.) The boys’ actions appear to have been covered up by some adults in the community and minimized by national media (eg, CNN). The sexual violence and humiliation of this girl was celebrated by friends of those involved – in real time, on social media. An infamous 12 minute online video shows one young man, almost delirious with excitement, going on and on about how “dead” (ie, passed out) the girl was; that is, the girl who had just been raped by his peers, and filmed by them and onlookers.

Steubenville is just one very high profile example of contemporary rape culture. Others, with similar dynamics, have been in the media this year. ‘Underage’ girls, who are intoxicated or drugged, are sexually violated and further humiliated through the posting of photographic or video evidence on social networking sites. For the girls who are the victims of this violence and humiliation, the impact can be devastating. Last year 15 year old California high school student Audrie Pott took her own life after having been sexually assaulted by three teenage boys while she was passed out at a party. She woke the next morning to find she had been drawn on by marker pen, photographed naked and violated. She later found that these photographs had been passed around her school. Earlier this year 17 year old Novia Scotia girl Rehtaeh Parsons took her own life, having been sexually assaulted 18 months previously when she was 15 by four boys, one of whom circulated a cell phone picture of what happened around their high school. Daisy Coleman who recently spoke out about the rape she reportedly experienced, at 14, while drugged – and who was also videotaped – twice tried to take her own life. All of these girls experienced harassment and bullying, not only by the boys who raped and humiliated them, but later by others in their peer groups and wider communities.

These cases are the horrific pinnacles of rape culture. How is it that young men can act in such hateful ways, with such grandiose senses of entitlement, in such voids of empathy and seemingly without moral bearings? I have become more and more convinced of the connection between sexual violence and a wider cultural tolerance of misogyny. Sexual violence and gang rape are not new. But something seems different about the narcissistic performative nature of these violations. That they are sometimes filmed and distributed, or gloated about, on social media. That the boasting is so open, online for anyone to see, is made possible by communication technologies that weren’t around even 10 years ago. Different kinds of behaviour become possible. That these boys and men use this technology without any apparent sense of caution for the repercussions – not only for their victims but also for their own reputations later in life and their chances of getting caught – suggests that cultural norms are changing with the technological possibilities.

At a few conferences this year I have spoken about Steubenville, and discussion turns to New Zealand. People wonder whether this kind of violence happens here too – or is it a malaise particular to the underbelly of the cheerleaders-and-football-heroes culture of American high schools?

This week we have a clear answer: it does happen here too.

Last month sketchy details were reported that two 18 year old young men were charged with the rape of a 17 year old young woman in New Plymouth. And that one of these young men along with a third man was charged with filming it.

This week we know that was not an isolated case. A group of Auckland boys who call themselves ‘roast busters’ have been busted themselves for their sexual exploits with young girls. TV3 News showed video footage (from the group’s Facebook) of Beraiah Hales and Joseph Parker promoting ‘roasting’ – a form of sexual conquest that is juvenile in design and likely devastating in impact for the girls involved. The boys describe intentionally targeting young girls for something that involves two of them penetrating the girl orally and vaginally at the same time: “two or more guys.. one dick in pussy one mouth and if there’s more then two guys then you use your hands too [sic]” (as Hales explains it on ask.fm).

TV3 reports that on their Facebook page they apparently posted videos naming the girls they ‘roasted’. The page was operating for five months until a complaint from TV3. Many girls are also named and discussed in intimate detail on ask.fm. Parker’s site was disabled today. Hopefully Hales’ will be soon – not only does it contain copious potentially harmful revelations about girls he knows, but it is incriminating. Rape comes up a lot on Hales’ site – in places he jokes about raping, in places he says they don’t rape (“I don’t need to”). They describe having sex with girls who are too intoxicated to consent. Hales repeatedly admits to having sex with girls as young as 13. The boys also talk about ‘gang banging’ girls. Someone asked Hales: “how many dudes have you done a gang bang with at one time”. Answer: “like 7 hahahahahh” (4 months ago, ask.fm). Another question: “how many girls have you banged”. Answer: “4”.

Commentators in the sexual violence and sexuality fields like Kim McGregor from Rape Prevention Education and Francis Bird from Family Planning, have talked about the importance of the concept of consent. It’s not really a very radical or complicated idea, the idea that if two (or more) people have sex, everyone should be into it. Yet the boys don’t seem to get this, and have an archaic idea of consent. To the question “how would u get a girl? into bed [sic]”, Hales jokes (presumably) “Chloroform” (4 months ago, ask.fm). Asked “How do you manage to a [sic] girl into roasting, coming from a wannabe roaster. ;p”, Parker offers detailed guidelines:

99% of girls that we roast say “ew I would never roast I think its yuck”

what you need to know is girls dont mean what they say half the tiem.

you just have to get them in the rame of mind that roasting is nothing major and they will love it blah blah, or you can just take the Down low route and just have 1 get with her normally an once they are doing they thang the other just creeps on over and trys to roast (keeping in mind you both MUST flirt an hit on her prior to all this going down) [sic] (4 months ago, 5 people like it, ask.fm)

On the similar theme of the challenge of getting a girl to do something they might reasonably be expected to resist, someone asked Hales “how did the gang bang come about? please just explain haha like did she ask, did you suggest it..were you all in the room and all were horny like how did it start [sic]”, to which he responded “just got her drunk ;)” (4 months ago, ask.fm). Kim McGregor from Rape Prevention Education, like other commentators, have already said this sounds like rape.

Mainstream and social media have been full of condemnation of these boys. Also widely criticized has been the lack of effective police action in stopping them. Police have known about the group since 2011, but Detective Inspector Bruce Scott claims the police have been impotent to stop it: “without actual evidence my hands are tied”. The boys have been spoken to and warned, he says, “and been told their behaviour is verging on criminal, if not criminal”. Scott’s constant reference to the need for a “brave girl” to be willing to make a formal complaint before they can act is irritating, at best. Girls who have been abused by these boys are probably facing every day with courage. Reading what Hales and Parker write on ask.fm and the questions put to them builds a picture of a toxic culture for girls in those peer networks. The boys give an impression (probably a false facade) of Teflon coated masculinities – powerful, wilful and invulnerable. They set themselves up with a platform to pronounce some girls as mates, some as desirable (to “fuck” or to be in a relationship with), and others as roast-worthy. “We don’t roast girls that we think of as friends” (4 months ago, ask.fm) (Hales). Questions are asked of Hales about intimate details of particular girls’ bodies and what they’ve done sexually and how it was judged to have been. Sometimes he doesn’t tell, many times he does. This degree of public surveillance and judgement couldn’t help but create an intimidating social environment for girls.

Reading their arrogant misogynist bravado and knowing what it is claimed they have done to girls, it is difficult not to find them despicable. It would be comforting if we could believe that they were mad or bad individuals, because it is more manageable to think about how we can fix that. At the same time, it’s clear that they are part of a community in which they are not universally seen as ‘beyond the pale’. On ask.fm there are as many, maybe more, lovers than there are haters. And, from what you can tell, as many girls as boys warm to or admire them. In response to the question “What is a saying you say a lot?” Hales replies “Go ahead, Call the cops. They can’t un-rape you” (7 months ago). 19 people ‘liked’ that.

Making a plea for a brave girl to make a formal complaint seems out of step with the reality of what it must be like to be a girl who has been abused by these boys living in that situation. Going to school with their friends, and friends of friends, and already having too much of the hurtful personal details of your intimate life unwillingly opened up for other people’s eyes and opinions. Surely the justice system response needs to be more proactive and creative. Might it make a difference if some police and community joint initiative worked to provide a deeply supportive and connected structure in which girls (plural) could be given the opportunity to stand together to collectively claim back more power in the situation? (Whether that means making a formal complaint or not.) Isolated as individuals they are incredibly vulnerable. Already there is victim-blaming chatter on teenage social networking sites which naively casts responsibility on the girls for ‘knowing what they were getting into’. But if joined together in a sort of ‘class action’, standing alongside respected community and school leaders, there surely must be ways of turning around the sluggishness of the justice system’s response to this case. While always respecting the decision of any girl already hurt by these boys to protect herself in whatever way possible from further harassment and scrutiny.

Russell Brown points out on Twitter that there has been plenty of evidence of criminal wrong-doing by the group – much of it posted online by the boys themselves. Enough surely to have warranted some kind of further investigation into the boys’ activities – with or without a complainant’s formal report. Phones and computers could have been searched, he suggests. The boys themselves could have been questioned according to Kim McGregor. Some of them may have been bystanders who are witnesses to crimes. Police have been aware of the group since 2011. They knew about their Facebook page, but didn’t take action to shut it down, despite acknowledging the suffering it has likely caused girls that are abused and named. The boys themselves have projected a cocky imperviousness to calls for justice. Someone challenged Hales about statutory rape and having sex with an underage girl. His response: “I’ve already been to the police about that haha and im not going to jail sooo idk what you’re on about” (4 months ago, ask.fm). It will be a challenge, and it may be painful for the girls who have survived this abuse, but it does seem unlikely that he will not end up facing charges.

The even bigger challenge is how to dismantle whatever it is that is supporting the widespread revival of misogyny and ongoing sexual violence that allows these boys to act like this for so long. These acts of abuse reflect a “trend of degradation” according to Peter Boshier from the White Ribbon campaign. The whole idea of masculinity and what it means to be a man in our society has to be looked at. Francis Bird and Kim McGregor have both raised the role of pornography in contributing to this misogynist sexual culture. Pornography is a mixed bag, but the everyday kind of mainstream pornography that many young men now regularly consume glorifies hostility towards women. Young women are props for male sexual pleasure – participating as second class human beings whose sole purpose is the consumer’s enjoyment. It is essential as part of our efforts to prevent sexual violence that we start talking about pornography, its portrayals of women and men and sex. And asking questions about the ethics of celebrating male sexual domination and female submission and aggression towards women in the name of sexual pleasure. Research looking at the way men talk about pornography shows a detachment from the ethical dilemmas that this should pose in a society that on the surface values gender equality. We are doing young men (and women) a disservice by not offering critical ways of thinking about it. Up until recently, the main social message about pornography has been one of liberal tolerance, as though it was only about sex, sexual freedom, and sexual pleasure. An issue for individuals and their private lives. Not an issue for communities and public discussion, as it should be on the grounds that it isn’t only about sex, but is also promoting hateful depictions of women. The concern about pornography is not a simple case of ‘monkey see, monkey do’, although there is anecdotal evidence that that is happening with young people who have grown up getting their “sexist education” (as Michael Flood puts it) from porn. Maree Crabbe and Dave Corlett’s recent Australian documentary, Love and Sex in an Age of Pornography, based on numerous interviews with young people and people in the pornography industry illustrates this connection.

The issue is really more about the sexual norms and cultural values it reinforces and promotes, even if they don’t originate with pornography. It is about the social vocabulary that pornography, and other things like some popular music lyrics, offers us for talking about – and thinking about and acting towards – women. So whether Hales and Parker watched a lot of porn, for instance, is irrelevant, because its contribution is in shaping the wider cultural context in which they go about their business. Shaping the reception to their actions and how it is responded to by their peer communities and wider society. In fact Parker claims not to watch porn, but in the manner of doing so echoes the dominant message of mainstream pornography:  “I dont watch porn i got bitches to fuck [sic]” (4 months ago, ask.fm).

Nicola Gavey