Bystander intervention and myth-making in “Anonymous vs. Steubenville”

This morning I learned that Brad Pitt’s film production company purchased the rights to “Anonymous vs. Steubenville”, a Rolling Stone article about online citizens’ investigation and exposure of a cabal of teenage rapists in middle America and their enablers, which included both teens and adults, institutions and individuals. An advocate for Jane Doe, the unidentified survivor of the Steubenville rape, claims she is seeking input on the film. This whole thing could go very well, or very poorly.

So far, discussion around the new film has centred on the story frame created by the Rolling Stone article, which largely erases Jane Doe, and entirely erases the female blogger, Alexandria Goddard, who exposed the story and shone a beacon on it for Anonymous to discover. Instead, the Rolling Stone story focuses on Deric Lostutter, the Anon who became known as KYAnonymous and famously faces more jail time than the Steubenville rapists for his role in bringing them to justice.

Some folks think this framing is a bad thing, because the last thing we need is another story about sexual assault that erases the survivor in favour of crowing about the heroic man who intervened. Others disagree, arguing that we need to be telling more stories about men challenging rape culture and sexual assault.

I’m inclined to agree with both viewpoints. The truth is, men have an important role to play in solving the problems of rape culture and sexual assault, and it couldn’t hurt to give them more role models for bystander intervention. I think, for me, the problem lies in making the men who do intervene into heroes, and their interventions into acts of heroism and bravery, rather than imperfect acts of support and respect. This mythologization can actually make the act seem more intimidating to perform, and gives people license to stand down if that’s easiest for them, because they’re not a HERO or anything.

I understand that it can be intimidating to stand up to your colleagues if they are making rape jokes, or to tell your friends how fucking predatory it is that they’re scanning the party like Terminators to find the drunkest girl to bring home. Toxic masculinity means that some will interpret these acts as betrayals of your bros. And because of the aggressive ways in which men are socialized to respond to challenge, I understand it also opens up the possibility of physical violence in some cases, and we all need to be careful about that.

So okay, I get it, it can take guts to intervene as a bystander. But make no mistake, these are not True American Hero guts – they are Regular Decent Person guts, and we can all find them in ourselves if we do a little digging. In the case of sexual violence and rape culture, indeed, we all must find these Regular Decent Person guts in ourselves, because it will take that many acts of intervention, that many confrontations, that many snubbings at the bar or in class or at work, that many destroyed “personal brands”, that many damaged or ended friendships (among many, many other things), to solve the problem.

When I was in university, I found myself in a very Jane Doe-like situation: I was black-out drunk and, when my friends turned away for a mere minute, a man I didn’t know (who was sober) whisked me into his car, drove me to my house and raped me. It took a few weeks to begin to understand what happened to me as rape, because of the many messages our culture sends to the contrary (through vessels ranging from the film The 40 Year Old Virgin to my own roommates). One reason I did come to understand it as rape was through the counsel and support of a few close friends, including a couple I knew named Chris and Candace.

A couple of months after my rape, Chris and Candace and I went out to the same bar where my rapist had found me. As the night wound down, we were smoking out front when a good friend of Chris’s approached us to say hello. The friend said, “I want to introduce you to a buddy of mine,” and who should that buddy be but my rapist. I flushed and turned away. After exchanging a few words with Candace (i.e. “That’s him.” “Are you fucking kidding me?” “Nope.”), Candace whispered the guy’s identity to Chris. My rapist held out his hand, to be shaken by Chris. Chris looked at my rapist’s hand like it was covered with snakes.

After what seemed like hours, Chris said slowly and clearly, “I can’t shake this fucking guy’s hand.” His friend looked confused. My rapist looked like he was trying to appear confused, which infuriated me so deeply that my anger exploded in a shove (sorry, I am not an advocate of physical violence, but please, this guy raped me), pitting him against a nearby garage door. In front of a crowd of people smoking nearby, I screamed that he might want to wipe that confused look off his face, since a couple of months prior he raped me without a condom while he was sober and gave me a curable STI. I wasn’t embarrassed, I just wanted everyone witnessing the confrontation to know exactly what he had done. Then I ran away crying, because yeah. When Candace caught up to me a few moments later, she told me that Chris had punched my rapist (again, sorry, see above) and was now having a conversation with their mutual friend about why he should not befriend my rapist.

Chris’s response in this situation was not perfect, and is not intended as a script for how one should always deal with these situations. But he intervened in a way that demonstrated clear support for me, first and foremost, as well as challenging rape culture. Chris wasn’t a hero, he was just my friend. He knew that, if he cared about me and my right to exist in safety without feeling like I can never again return to this bar or be in the presence of his friend again, it was incumbent upon him to act. So he found his Regular Decent Person guts, and he acted in the ways that made the most sense for him in that moment.

I almost wonder if understanding bystander intervention as a challenging act, rather than a supporting one, is part of why men’s intervention in cases of violence against women is so likely to be deemed heroism rather than care and responsibility. Perhaps it’d be helpful if we understood bystander intervention as support and care for the survivor first and foremost, which is in and of itself a challenge to rape culture and gender violence. Maybe then, stories about bystander intervention in cases of violence against women wouldn’t be reduced to, as my friend Heather Cromarty so succinctly put it, “Good Men vs. Bad Men, and damn the ladies in between.”

Twitter, rape threats and garden variety misogyny

As you can imagine, I have THOUGHTS and FEELINGS about the campaign of rape threats against Caroline Criado-Perez and Stella Creasy, and Twitter’s response. I’ve been mostly (blessedly) off Twitter for the last week and a half, so I haven’t said much on the matter, other than this tweet on July 27:
Screen shot 2013-08-06 at 6.41.18 PMFor the uninitiated: feminist advocate Caroline Criado-Perez ran a campaign that convinced the Bank of England to put a single freaking woman besides the Queen on a banknote. If you’re somehow not shocked that this landed her on the receiving end of a barrage of rape threats, surprise, you might be a Woman with an Opinion on the Internet.

Rape (and the threat of rape) has always been a go-to silencing tool among misogynists. They run particularly rampant online in part because the internet offers distance as well as access to people well beyond one’s immediate social circle. A man who feels ineffectual and deprived of personal power in his own life can feel a consequence-free rush by inflicting sexually-charged verbal aggression on an empowered woman he doesn’t know. Thanks, internet!

Or at least, so far it has been mostly consequence-free, but that is beginning to change. Two of the Twitter users who threatened Criado-Perez are under arrest. Twitter UK published a blog post outlining their responses to the situation, including the much-discussed “Report Abuse” button and updating the Twitter Rules to reflect a firm stance on abuse. Changes to the rules are welcome. That sends an important message to Twitter users and the business community about online violence, and may give some in-platform recourse to users under attack.

Shakesville details some of the problems likely to arise from the “Report Abuse” button, mainly that “one-click reporting systems are almost always automated to some degree and are already widely abused by trolls on Facebook and YouTube” (it was a favourite tactic in the campaign against Anita Sarkeesian, for example). Even a more hands-on moderation system can’t solve the problem, unless the company’s culture and training acknowledge the reality of gender-based violence. The Facebook Rape campaign provides a rich and recent example of a large social media platform whose moderation system was devoid of a gender lens. Many Facebook moderators categorized graphic depictions of violence against women as “humour”. This is unsurprising – our culture is steeped in that kind of messaging, why would we expect Facebook or Twitter to be immune?

Honestly, I feel our culture has the greatest potential for change if misogyny is out in the open. That doesn’t mean I feel remotely safe in a space saturated with it, or that I don’t want platforms like Facebook and Twitter to do what they can to make their spaces safe for all users. But misogynists have always been around, and in the same or similar numbers as we see now (though now we, regrettably, call them “trolls” – my thoughts on that here). They used to reserve their hatred for partners, colleagues, family members, one-off encounters and maybe the occasional letter-to-the-editor. Now misogynist hatred is diffused across many targets, near and far. It’s mundane. It’s time-stamped. Screencaps provide evidence difficult for a “devil’s advocate” Facebook friend to refute. I want this garbage out in the open air and sunlight where it can be referenced and challenged – because it’s there regardless. This is garden variety misogyny.

Labour MP Stella Creasy, who supported Criado-Perez’s campaign, has called for greater coordination between Twitter and law enforcement to help users under attack. I also believe law enforcement has an important role to play in curbing online rape threats and all other forms of violence against women, and that we must continue putting pressure on them to do so. But here’s the rub: institutional and technological interventions will always reflect the beliefs and values of the culture that shapes those institutions and the people who work with them. It’s why police forces, colleges, Twitter, etc etc etc do such a crap job of holding accountable the perpetrators of gender-based violence, online and offline. And they’ll continue to do a crap job of it until our culture takes this shit seriously and looks to the perpetrators (not the survivors) for change.

Well-meaning folks have been telling Criado-Perez to just stay off Twitter, because is it really worth all that trouble in the end, they wonder? FUCK THAT. Pushing opinionated women out of public discourse is exactly what these very small, very loud misogynists are trying to accomplish. We’ve been telling women to shut up about this stuff for long enough. Do you really want to hear more from the world’s misogynists than from its Caroline Criado-Perezes?

So keep reporting rape threats to the police and to Twitter, sure, but we also need to be pushing for the deeper change needed to turn institutional tides. We need to help people who work in these institutions to understand the role that rape threats play in silencing and subordinating women. One way to do that? Women: for the love of everything good in this world, don’t shut up, and deal with jerkoffs however the hell you want.

Not all Twitter fights are trivial

This morning I woke up to find a popular and respected Globe & Mail international affairs columnist making a light joke about a Scottish chef murdering his girlfriend. When people said “hmmmm not okay” he made more jokes in response. Albeit these jokes did not suggest he actively felt like “hahaha domestic violence”, but can we not make light of these scenarios please? It is extremely irresponsible use of an influential voice (a major privilege).

So I confronted him and, to his credit, he ultimately deleted the tweet and acknowledged the joke’s inappropriateness. In the process, a feminist I like and respect suggested this kind of transgression is not significant enough to warrant a Twitter fight, which she considers a “small” act of feminism. While I don’t think each of these conversations changes the world, I don’t think they should be dismissed either. I wrote about how it all went down for Canada.com – read the rest here.

I’m not done thinking or feeling or writing about this, so expect more here in the next day or two.