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.”

Is this justice for Rehtaeh?

Last week we saw major developments in Canada’s ongoing response to the death of Halifax teenager Rehtaeh Parsons: two men were charged with making and/or distributing child pornography (of Rehtaeh), and a new piece of civil legislation was introduced to address “cyber-bullying”. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure how I feel about either one of these developments.

Firstly, I despise the term “cyber-bullying” and would like to kill it with fire. It is so conceptually broad as to be meaningless, it infantilizes behaviour that adults are just as prone to as kids are, and it depoliticizes social aggressions that are often quite political indeed (think sexist harassment like slut-shaming, harassment of gay or gender non-conforming people, or harassment of low-income kids for things like wearing hand-me-downs). I agree with Jesse Brown, who would “rather have laws against specific crimes, rather than against vast swaths of vaguely defined human behaviour”.

Secondly, I have a very basic problem with civil legislation as a response to revenge porn or online harassment: it costs money to sue someone. Sure, you might find a lawyer who’ll take your case pro-bono, but the likelihood of incurring high costs means that only those who can afford justice really have access to it. Our criminal justice system is already deplorably selective about who can access justice (see, for example, the astronomical overrepresentation of indigenous and Black people in Canadian prisons), but at least if you’ve been the victim of a crime, you don’t pay money for your legal representation. This is one reason why I’m a bigger fan of a potential Criminal Code amendment (proposed by Dartmouth NDP Member of Parliament Robert Chisholm) than I am of dealing with the problem in civil court.

This proposed legislation would make it a crime to share intimate images without the subject’s consent. The legislation needs some work (in my humble, non-legal-expert opinion), as it currently places the burden of proof on the accused. If the accused cannot furnish evidence that they obtained consent from the subject, their intent is automatically deemed malicious and guilt is assumed. In past posts I have argued for just this kind of legislation, and there is a certain beauty to its open-and-shut-ness, in that it would circumvent all of the gendered character judgments and “he said, she said” (emphasis on the “he said”) that influence court decisions about sexually-charged crimes. But at the end of the day, I can’t advocate for legislation that merely circumvents the biases and bigotry of our criminal justice system (you know, the same ones that pervade our broader culture) at the expense of the rights of the accused. We need to tackle those biases themselves, not find ways to sidestep them.

This brings me to my ambivalence about the arrests. While Rehtaeh was still alive, she and her family sought justice by attempting to press charges against Rehtaeh’s alleged rapists for sexual assault and child pornography. The RCMP’s re-opened investigation did not result in sexual assault charges. They did, however, charge the alleged rapists with making and distributing sexually explicit images of Rehtaeh during the incident. The RCMP’s decision to press charges on one crime and not the other suggests that they felt the evidence was too murky to conclude that Rehtaeh did not consent. Meanwhile, Rehtaeh was allegedly vomiting out a window while one of her attackers raped her, and our current laws indicate that a person cannot legally provide consent while extremely intoxicated.

That is rage-inducing, but it is also indicative of the culture in which our criminal justice system is embedded and serves to uphold. We have national columnists (to whom I refuse to link) slut-shaming her in death, if that’s any indication of how our culture tends to understand consent when a survivor was intoxicated at the time of the attack. Why would our justice system be any different, even if our laws explicitly spell things out differently (*sob*)?

So I can, quite frankly, understand why the Parsons family wanted to use any tool available to them in our broken system to try and find their own version of justice – including charging the attackers with child pornography, despite the fact that her non-consent (not her nudity or sexuality writ large) was the crux of the violation. That said, I think it sets a precedent that may create problems down the road. For example, imagine a minor’s consensual sexting is discovered by a horrified parent, who sees child pornography charges as a way to punish the kids involved and clamp down on youth sexuality in general. Also, what if Rehtaeh had been 18? Capturing and distributing that photo would have been just as morally abhorrent, just as damaging. This is why I think the legislation proposed by Robert Chisholm fills a necessary gap.

Realtalk though: this legislation wouldn’t be necessary if our culture learned to understand sexually-charged violations in a more equitable and just way. If law enforcement officers, lawyers and judges didn’t build their careers in a culture steeped in sexism, they might quite easily interpret revenge porn as a form of criminal harassment (a law already on the books in Canada). As we saw recently in the case of an appropriately-named former MP’s assistant, Cody Boast, some law enforcement officers and judges already do draw those conclusions. But too many people inside and outside our criminal justice system are quick to blame the subjects of the images for consenting to their capture in the first place. It is this underlying mentality that needs to change. Otherwise we’ll just have another new selectively enforced law on the books.

That’s why I’m glad to see that, despite its shortcomings, the civil legislation in Nova Scotia also includes interventions at the level of the public education system. While those have their own problems (Jesse Brown has some great analysis therein), I appreciate the marriage of legal and educational interventions. To introduce the former without the latter would be putting the cart before the horse. What our education systems really need, though, isn’t a “Cyber SCAN investigation unit” – it’s frank discussion about consent, respect and privacy in sex and relationships (online and offline), and how societal systems of power impact these dynamics on an individual level.

#sheparty is the best party

Sometimes feminists on Twitter use the #sheparty hashtag to host live-chats about a wide variety of topics. Yesterday, @jarrahpenguin (Vancouver) and @OpinionessWorld (Boston) co-hosted a two-hour #sheparty and invited me to be a special guest for the first hour. From 3pm-4pm ET we discussed revenge porn, which anyone who follows my blog knows is an issue of major importance to me. I mean I’ve only written about it, like, 30% of the time.

Our discussion about revenge porn covered legislative responses to the problem (in Nova Scotia and nationally, as well as in New Jersey and Florida), as well as steps that parents and teachers can take to address it with youth. If you’re new to the topic, this discussion was a fantastic introduction. Don’t fret if you missed it, because you can always count on me to Storify these kinds of things for future reference! Here’s a recap of the #sheparty revenge porn discussion. I also encourage you to check out @tootwistedtv‘s Storify of the 4-5pm #sheparty discussion, which focused on feminism and (dis)ability.

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.

Scrubbing racism from the air we breathe

This post contained some reflections on the racist assumptions and stereotypes that laid the groundwork for the unjust verdict exonerating George Zimmerman, who racially profiled and killed teenage boy Trayvon Martin. In the post (after a trigger warning for examples of racism), I admitted to having been in some ways influenced by these awful and pervasive stereotypes, and the horror and shame that this realization induced in me.

I wrote about it because, like many white people, I was afraid to admit this to myself for a long time because on a conscious level I abhor racism, love my friends of colour, and want a world that doesn’t oppress people based on race. I thought perhaps my admitting it publicly would spur other white folks to engage in similarly critical self-reflection, which I think is wholly necessary if we are to truly address our racist culture.

Some preliminary feedback indicates the post did spur that kind of self-reflection. However, it also caused pain for friends of mine, friends who are already experiencing enough pain in the wake of the verdict. I think there may be some value to this type of reflection in eradicating racism, until I have found better ways to share these reflections that don’t cause pain to the people who are oppressed by them, I opted to remove this post.

Taking the Rape out of Culture

On Thursday, May 23 2013, I hosted an event at Academy of the Impossible called “Taking the Rape out of Culture”. It was an open group brainstorm (with some breakout discussions as well) to map the component parts of rape culture – what does it look like in practice? What are the sub-concepts (or as I dubbed them, “subgenres”) under the big umbrella of rape culture?

I was thrilled at the quality of discussion and the diverse range of participants we had. Participants included: people who work in violence prevention, anti-racism organizers, parents, journalists, new Canadians, trans* participants, volunteers at crisis centres. We came at the topic from a variety of perspectives and we really dove into the subject matter.

One of these days I’m going to have to get a WordPress plugin that allows me to embed a Storify, but today is not that day. I do urge you to read my Storify of tweets from the evening, which captures some of the ground we covered and provides detail on many of the “subgenres” of rape culture we discussed. We’ll likely be holding another session in the future to discuss methods of intervening and challenging the many component parts of rape culture, so stay tuned.

Dear Jane Doe

TRIGGER WARNING for sexual assault and victim-blaming.

I won’t rehash the horrific, digitally documented rape of a 16-year-old girl in Steubenville, OH by multiple young men while other teenagers laughed or shared photos and video of the assault with their friends. I’m taking a cue from Jaclyn Friedman and not using the word “alleged” here because, as she puts it, “there’s video [evidence] and this column is not a court of law.” If you don’t know the case’s background, you can find decent breakdowns here, here, or a million other places on the internet.

Here, I don’t want to tell the story of what happened in Steubenville and the trial taking place as I write this, whose verdict is expected mere days from now. I want to tell the anonymous survivor, whom the media has dubbed Jane Doe, what an incredibly strong and admirable young woman she is.

Going public about a sexual assault (to your family, your friends, your community) is incredibly difficult, particularly if you share mutual acquaintances with your assailant(s). When no physical proof exists (and even when it does), the overwhelming tendency of bystanders is to “not get in the middle of it,” which typically means at least tacitly siding with the accused – in other words, acting as though nothing happened. All too often, people the survivor knows and trusts find ways to assign blame to them and not the accused. You were drunk. What were you wearing? You were flirting with him all night. He’s pretty popular – are you sure you’re not just looking for attention?

Victim-blaming isn’t restricted to people who know both the accused and the accuser. While incapacitated by alcohol at a bar as a university student, I was dragged away, driven home and carried through my apartment door by a sober and opportunistic stranger. I woke up to find this unfamiliar person in my bed, and learned he had had sex with me without a condom while I was incapable of speaking or walking. When I told my roommates what had happened later the next day, they cast suspicious looks in my direction, pointed out how unbelievably wasted I was (as if that didn’t merely prove that what happened was rape), and chided me for “bringing home” a dirty-looking man that nobody knew. A month later they kicked me out of the apartment.

I recently shared this story on Twitter in the wake of a torrent of victim-blaming after former mayoral candidate Sarah Thomson alleged Toronto mayor Rob Ford sexually harassed and assaulted her at a party. At least seven followers then shared their own stories of being blamed for their assaults by their friends, their teachers, their own mothers. If this is what we face when we speak up about our assaults to our loved ones, imagine what happens when a survivor reports their assault to the police.

I want to preface this next part by saying that no survivor of sexual assault is in any way obligated to report their assault to the police, nor does the decision not to report render the survivor a weaker human being. It takes an inordinate amount of strength to survive at all. Survivors of sexual assault owe exactly nothing to the community or to other potential victims, and there are a great many reasons why people do not report. One doesn’t have to look very far to see cases of re-victimization upon reporting, including dismissal or callous disrespect from law enforcement, expulsion from school, being arrested themselves (!!!), and (I shit you not) being straight-up raped again by police officers. The legal system is not a friendly place for sexual assault survivors, and going that route takes a toll even on those who encounter the most benevolent officers.

I don’t know much of anything about Steubenville’s 16-year-old Jane Doe, and that’s as it should be. Nobody deserves privacy more than she, after enduring the violation she has. But I would very much like to shake her hand. I’m overwhelmed by how bravely she is facing, at such a young age, the brutal reality of how communities, the media, and law enforcement treat sexual assault cases. I hope that as she testifies in the courtroom, she feels my and others’ solidarity and rage on her behalf. I hope she has many arms to hug her and ears to listen to her and anything else she needs to find strength and peace in the aftermath. I hope she knows how many survivors she has touched and inspired by coming forward. And while I dearly hope she isn’t crushed by the weight of the discourse surrounding her case, I hope someday she can find solace in knowing that she pushed that discourse forward.