“You Would Call It Rape”: Sexual Assault in China Mieville’s “Perdido Street Station”

[Content note: rape, torture; spoilers for Perdido Street Station]

Cover of Perdido Street StationAfter reading almost nothing but nonfiction for years, I finally decided to check out China Mieville’s work and have developed a bit of an obsession. As in, five books of his in a row in the past few weeks.

Mieville has a talent for incorporating contemporary social issues into settings as fantastical as you can imagine (or can’t, in some cases). His novel Perdido Street Station tackles rape at the end, when the main character learns that the friend he is trying to help is a rapist.

Some background for those who haven’t read it:

Early on in the novel, the main character, Isaac, receives a visit from a mysterious man seeking his help. Yagharek belongs to the garuda, a nomadic race of people with human bodies, birdlike heads, and huge wings with which they can fly. However, Yagharek’s wings have been sawed off as punishment for a crime that he is unable to explain to Isaac due to the differences in their cultures. He calls the crime “choice-theft” and explains that among the garuda, the worst thing one can do is take away someone else’s choice. He seems horribly ashamed of both what he did and what happened to him as a result, and wants to somehow regain the power of flight.

Yagharek has traveled to the city of New Crobuzon to see Isaac because Isaac is a rogue scientist who researches arcane and experimental forms of physics, and might be the only one who can help Yagharek fly again. Isaac, horrified at the brutal punishment, accepts the huge sum of money Yagharek offers and agrees to try to help him.

This ends up indirectly leading to the main plot of the novel, which involves creatures called slake-moths terrorizing the city and feeding on people’s sentience (long story). At the end, the slake-moths have finally been killed with the help of Yagharek and others, and Isaac is finally ready to return to the problem of helping Yagharek fly again.

But then, Isaac receives another garuda visitor, Kar’uchai. She asks Isaac not to help Yagharek fly, because their community has judged him guilty and carried out the appropriate punishment. Isaac protests, saying that Yagharek is his friend and saved his life. He demands to know what Yagharek has done to deserve such a punishment, and Kar’uchai tries to explain:

“He is guilty,” said Kar’uchai quietly, “of choice-theft in the second degree, with utter disrespect.”

“What does that mean?” shouted Isaac. “What did he do? What’s fucking choice-theft anyway? This means nothing to me.”

“It is the only crime we have, Grimneb’lin,” replied Kar’uchai in a harsh monotone. “To take the choice of another . . . to forget their concrete reality, to abstract them, to forget that you are a node in a matrix, that actions have consequences. We must not take the choice of another being. What is community but a means to . . . for all we individuals to have . . . our choices.”

Kar’uchai continues to explain how the garuda classify choice-thefts: for instance, some are done with respect, such as when a child steals the cloak of an adult they love to sleep with it at night. Others involve disrespect, such as killing someone. But in each case, the garuda view the primary crime as being taking away someone’s choice–to use their cloak, to continue to live, or whatever the case may be.

Isaac, still frustrated and confused, asks once again what Yagharek did. This time, Kar’uchai replies, “You would call it rape.”

Oh, I would call it rape, would I? thought Isaac in a molten, raging sneer; but the torrent of livid contempt was not enough to drown his horror.

I would call it rape.

Isaac could not but imagine. Immediately.

As Isaac tries to make sense of what Yagharek did, Kar’uchai reveals that she is the one he raped. And although she gave him the word to understand the crime, she resists his attempts to imagine the crime through the lens of his own human culture:

“Yag . . . a fucking rapist,” he hissed, and she clucked.

“He stole choice,” she said flatly.

“He raped you,” he said, and instantly Kar’uchai clucked again. “He stole my choice,” she said. She was not expanding on his words, Isaac realized: she was correcting him. “You cannot translate into your jurisprudence, Grimneb’lin,” she said. She seemed annoyed.

Isaac tried to speak, shook his head miserably, stared at her and again saw the crime committed, behind his eyes.

“You cannot translate, Grimneb’lin,” Kar’uchai repeated. “Stop. I can see . . . all the texts of your city’s laws and morals that I have read . . . in you.” Her tone sounded monotonous to him. The emotion in the pauses and cadences of her voice was opaque.

“I was not violated or ravaged, Grimneb’lin. I am not abused or defiled . . . or ravished or spoiled. You would call his actions rape, but I do not: that tells me nothing. He stole my choice, and that is why he was . . . judged. It was severe . . . the last sanction but one . . . There are many choice-thefts less heinous than his, and only a few more so . . . And there are others that are judged equal . . . many of those are actions utterly unlike Yagharek’s. Some, you would not deem crimes at all.

“The actions vary: the crime . . . is the theft of choice. Your magisters and laws . . . that sexualize and sacralize . . . for whom individuals are defined abstract . . . their matrix-nature ignored . . . where context is a distraction . . . cannot grasp that.

“Do not look at me with eyes reserved for victims . . . And when Yagharek returns . . . I ask you to observe our justice—Yagharek’s justice—not to impute your own.”

So much to unpack in this dialogue. Mieville almost seems to be speaking through Kar’uchai, and through her cultural lens, to critique the sexualized framing of rape that is so often used in our society. In a discussion with friends recently, I noted how rape is often considered “the worst thing that can happen to a woman” purely because constructs like “purity” are so essentialized. It brings to mind the old debate of whether rape is “about sex” or “about power.” Kar’uchai introduces a new frame: rape is about theft. Specifically, the theft of someone’s choice not to have sex.

Although this sounds a little like the icky libertarian practice of viewing everything in terms of theft of property, the garuda don’t seem to see it that way. Rather, they combine what we’d call individualism and collectivism: they consider all individuals part of the “matrix” of society, but they also view individual freedom and choice as extremely important. Although Mieville (regretfully) doesn’t expand much on garuda culture apart from these passages, it seems to me that the garuda understand that the only way a nomadic and interdependent society like theirs can function properly is if its members respect each other’s freedom to choose for themselves.

Without knowing what exactly the gender politics of the garuda are, it seems that this framing of rape does away with a lot of the problems that occur in our own society. When Yagharek later reflects on what he did, there is no hesitation from the other members of his band about his guilt. It didn’t matter to them what a “nice guy” Yagharek had previously been, and whether or not Kar’uchai somehow “asked for it” never entered into the judgment. Her sexual history was never brought up, because sex had nothing to do with it. Yagharek stole her choice, and admitted to it when asked. (I do wonder, though, what would’ve happened if he’d given in to his initial urge to deny it.)

After Kar’uchai leaves, Isaac ruminates over the situation and can’t seem to find a way out of it. He thinks of his partner, Lin, whom he recently freed from her imprisonment as a hostage, and who has bruises that suggest rape. He thinks of how Yagharek fought beside him and saved both him and Lin. He thinks of Kar’uchai and thinks of her ordeal as “rape” even though she has asked him not to.

He realizes that no matter what he does, he is judging someone and something. Here his thoughts start to follow a familiar path to what we often hear when someone’s accused of sexual assault: “It’s he said/she said,” “Well I don’t know the facts,” “Who am I to judge them,” and so on:

He tried to extricate himself.

He tried to think himself away from the whole thing. He told himself desperately that to refuse his services would not imply judgement, that it would not mean he pretended knowledge of the facts, that it would simply be a way of saying, “This is beyond me, this is not my business.” But he could not convince himself.

He slumped and breathed a miserable moan of exhaustion. If he turned from Yagharek, he realized, no matter what he said, Isaac would feel himself to have judged, and to have found Yagharek wanting. And Isaac realized that he could not in conscience imply that, when he did not know the case.

But on the heels of that thought came another; a flipside, a counterpoint. If withholding help implied negative judgement he could not make, thought Isaac, then helping, bestowing flight, would imply that Yagharek’s actions were acceptable.

And that, thought Isaac in cold distaste and fury, he would not do.

After this realization, Isaac suddenly knows what the right thing to do is. He writes Yagharek a letter explaining Kar’uchai’s visit and revelation, and his decision not to reverse Yagharek’s punishment. He leaves the letter in the hut where they’ve been staying and, along with Lin and their friend, flees the city to avoid capture by the militia. The novel ends as Yagharek finds the letter, relives his crime and his shame, and resolves to live in his new home as a flightless being, a man.

While this treatment of sexual assault is not without its issues (as all representations of pretty much anything are), I think Mieville does an amazing job of having his characters grapple with the ethical issues raised. Part of Isaac’s dilemma is that he considers Yagharek’s punishment so gruesome and cruel, which influences his decision to try to reverse it. Interestingly, while Yagharek desperately wants to fly again, he pushes back against Isaac’s judgment of the punishment by pointing out that New Crobuzon’s punishments, which often involve a torturous procedure called Remaking that alters and disfigures people’s bodies in macabre ways, are really no better. Isaac, who runs with a group of radicals who protest the city government’s cruelty, immediately agrees.

I don’t get the sense that at the end of the novel, Isaac has decided that having his wings sawed off was a just punishment for Yagharek’s crime. However, he feels that reversing the punishment would nevertheless imply tacit acceptance of what Yagharek did. He is able to acknowledge that the punishment was grotesque and that Yagharek nevertheless did wrong. And as the reader, I felt sympathy for Yagharek as he tries to find his way in a new city, an exile not just from his community but from his entire race; nevertheless, I held him fully culpable for his crime.

In our own society, punishments for sexual assault are not even remotely on the level of that of the garuda. Yet people constantly bemoan how “unfair” it is to hold rapists accountable for what they did, how “tragic” it is that their lives have been “ruined.” Rape survivors are publicly excoriated for naming their rapists, as Dylan Farrow was when she named Woody Allen. Even the suggestion that people stop inviting a friend who has violated another friend’s boundaries to parties is often met with disdain, because it’s “unfair.”

Through Isaac’s moral dilemma, Mieville points out that “neutrality” in these cases is not truly neutral. It sends a message of acceptance in the form of a shrug of the shoulders.

~~~

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I Am Not Trayvon Martin

When Trayvon Martin was murdered last year, I remember seeing many people post things like “I am Trayvon Martin” online, sometimes accompanied by photos of themselves in hoodies. At first I thought it was something people of color were doing as a sign of solidarity and as a reminder that they, too, face the same prejudice and danger that Trayvon did, but then I noticed lots of white folks doing it. This sort of bothered me.

Now that the awful verdict has appeared, I’ve been seeing it again, but I’ve also been seeing plenty of thoughtful responses to it. For instance, this Tumblr, simply titled “We Are Not Trayvon Martin.”

The Tumblr is full of posts from people who submit their photos along with a note about why they are not Trayvon–that is, how they benefit from privilege. Here’s one:

I am a young white woman.  Last night, I attended a JusticeforTrayvon rally in East LA.  As I walked up the block toward the main square, I passed a line of (all white) cops.

“Are you going to the rally?” one asked.

“Yes,”  I replied.

“Behave yourself,” he said with a wink.

I gave a short laugh.  “I will”  (I really wanted to say, “You, too.”)

He gave me a big, friendly smile and pointed me toward the square.

I am not Trayvon Martin.

Another one:

I am not Trayvon Martin. I am a white, 30-year-old woman living with my husband and young son in the Midwest. We live two doors down from a black family that includes teenage sons. I have never met them, never introduced myself, never made an effort to show that I am happy we are neighbors, that they are safe in their neighborhood and respected by their neighbors. I do not fear them as black men; it’s more that I’m a shy person, afraid of the awkwardness of reaching out to anyone. But fear of any kind prevents community, breeds suspicion, and can lead to isolation and violence.

Will my white son wonder, one day, why we don’t know these neighbors? I repent of my fear; I promise to start being a true neighbor.

And another:

I am not Trayvon Martin. I am an African American stay at home wife and mother of three sweet girls. I was born in Atlanta, Georgia, and though I am not Trayvon Martin. I know many Trayvons. As a former educator I witnessed a system that allowed some of our most brilliant children to fall through the proverbial cracks. As a college educated, lighter hued, African American woman who has always lived a comfortable middle class existence, I know my privilege. Though I have been racialized, and I know what it is like to be a woman in a society that attenuates women consistently, I will NEVER know what it is like to be a black man in Amerikkka. I do not know what it is to be viewed as a menace to society. I am not Trayvon Martin.

It’s not as palatable a message as the stream of “I am Trayvon Martin” posts and hoodie photos. But it rings much more true.

I understand the importance and the appeal of solidarity, so I can sympathize with the sentiments of these posts. But I feel that they are misguided. We (white folks) are not Trayvon. We will never in our lifetimes be Trayvon, except perhaps by some fluke (which then by definition is not the same, because what happened to Trayvon was not a fluke at all).

And even if that happens, our faces will be all over the media with teary reporters talking about what good students we were and how kind we were to our friends, families, and neighbors. They will talk about how we could’ve gone on to write a bestselling novel or start a business or develop a new vaccine, but our lives were tragically cut short by a Bad Person who will soon face the full force of justice.

Sometimes—often, really—it’s more useful to think about our differences than our similarities. This won’t play well to those who claim that “we are all human” and we must “overcome these artificial divides.” Yes, we are, and we must. But before we do so, we must consider the tremendous impact these divides, however artificial, have had on our lives and societies.

You can’t wish this shit away. The familiar refrain of We Are All Human and We Must Look Beyond Our Differences can’t undo Trayvon’s murder and his murderer’s acquittal, and it won’t make this tragedy stop repeating itself. In fact, I would even argue that the more we sing this refrain, the less likely the tragedies are to ever end, because this overplayed song always plays much louder than the uncomfortable but truer songs: the ones about how everyone “sees race,” cops and judges and jurors included, and how the Supreme Court has institutionalized racism into our criminal justice system and on and on.

Before we can do what it takes to make sure that there will never be any more Trayvons ever again, we have to stop singing this song.

We are not Trayvon because we’ve created a world in which some people are Trayvon and some are not. Wishing really really hard that we hadn’t done so will not undo it.

~~~

If you only read one (other) thing about Trayvon Martin and the Zimmerman verdict, make sure it’s this.

[blogathon] Restorative Justice for Sexual Assault

This is the eighth and last post in my SSA blogathon. It was requested by a reader. Don’t forget to donate!

[Content note: sexual assault]

Restorative justice is a word you sometimes hear in discussions about how to reform our criminal justice system. It refers to “an approach to justice that focuses on the needs of the victims and the offenders, as well as the involved community, instead of satisfying abstract legal principles or punishing the offender.” As you can see, it would probably look quite different from the system we have now.

Someone asked me to write about what restorative justice might look like from the perspective of a rape survivor. To be clear, I am not a survivor of rape, although I am a survivor of sexual assault. In any case, I can only speak for myself.

But when I think about justice, this is what comes to mind.

I would want a perpetrator of sexual assault to have to learn about the roots of what they did. It’s not as simple is “Sexual assault is bad, don’t sexually assault people.” I would want them to understand rape culture. I would want them to understand all of the factors that might have contributed to their decision (because, yes, it was their decision) to sexually assault someone. I would want them to understand that their socialization has prepared them to become a person who sexually assaults people, but that this can be undone.

I would want the perpetrator to listen to the survivor talk about what they want through (if the survivor is comfortable). This doesn’t need to be a face-to-face conversation, of course, and I don’t think that many survivors would be willing for it to be. It could be an audio- or video-taped recording. It could even be a written account.

If prison is involved, I would want the prison to be humane. Regardless of whether or not we switch to a system of restorative justice, prison violence (including rape) must be addressed. This isn’t (just) because I’m concerned for the welfare of prisoners; it’s also because violent environments are much more likely to create violent individuals. For both selfish and altruistic reasons, I want perpetrators to serve their sentences feeling healthy and safe.

I would want the perpetrator to receive help with integrating back into their community afterwards–with finding a job, getting a place to live, and so on. Again, this is not because I think they “deserve” help. This is not about what they do and do not deserve. This is about what will make them the least likely to offend again.

But enough about the perpetrator. What about the survivor?

I think it goes without saying that in a system of restorative justice, there will be no victim blaming. The past “behavior” of a victim should have no bearing on the outcome of a trial. Not even if they had been sexually “promiscuous” (whatever that even means) in the past. Not even if they are a sex worker. Not even if they have committed crimes. Not even if they are an undocumented immigrant. Nothing makes someone deserving of sexual assault, and nothing makes it not worthwhile to pursue justice following an assault.

In a system of restorative justice, a survivor should not have to pursue any legal action that they don’t want to pursue. If a survivor doesn’t want to testify, they shouldn’t have to. That’s what it would mean to prioritize the needs of the survivor over our desire to punish the perpetrator.

Hopefully, in a system that focuses on reforming the perpetrator rather than punishing them, community members would be much less likely to blame the survivor for “ruining” the perpetrator’s life–which, tragically, often happens now when survivors of sexual assault speak out. But in any case, a system of restorative justice would also help community members support and affirm the survivor. Friends and family of the survivor would learn–both directly from the survivor and in general–what sorts of challenges survivors of sexual assault may face in dealing with the aftermath of their trauma. Rather than blaming the survivor for their feelings and expecting them to “get over it,” community members would learn how to help them cope.

Of course, this is all probably incredibly naive and the cultural shifts it would require are immense. But that’s a bit of what it would look like for this survivor of sexual assault.

~~~

That’s the end of my SSA Blogathon. If you haven’t yet, please donate to the SSA. Thank you for reading!

[blogathon] Does Anyone Deserve to be Stigmatized?

This is the third post in my SSA blogathon! Don’t forget to donate!

Last quarter I took a psychology class called Social Stigma. Social stigma, to quote the great Wikipedia, is:

the extreme disapproval of (or discontent with) a person on socially characteristic grounds that are perceived, and serve to distinguish them, from other members of a society. Stigma may then be affixed to such a person, by the greater society, who differs from their cultural norms.

Social stigma can result from the perception (rightly or wrongly) of mental illnessphysical disabilities, diseases such as leprosy (see leprosy stigma),[1] illegitimacy,sexual orientationgender identity[2] skin tone, nationalityethnicityreligion (or lack of religion[3][4]) or criminality.

In the first class, the professor ignited a debate by asking the question, “Does anyone deserve to be stigmatized?” As examples, she used neo-Nazis and pedophiles.

We were really divided. The understandable knee-jerk response is that, yes, some people do things that are so terrible that they deserve to be stigmatized. However, I came down on the “no” side for several reasons.

First of all, there’s a difference between condemning someone’s actions and stigmatizing them. Although we may talk about certain actions as being “stigmatized,” the way the phenomenon of stigma operates is that it puts a mark of shame on an entire person, not just on something they did. When someone does a thing that is stigmatized, we don’t just think, “Oh, they’re a good/cool person but I don’t like that they did that.” We think, “This person is bad.” They’re immoral or vulgar or even mentally ill (transvestic fetishism, anyone?).

When a group is stigmatized, they are considered less than human in some ways. Whichever aspect of them is stigmatized becomes the whole of their identity in our eyes, and often this means that even if they change the actions that caused them to fall into that category in the first place, the stigma remains. This is the case for ex-convicts, for instance, who are often denied housing, employment, and other opportunities simply because they used to be criminals, served their time, and are now trying to contribute productively to society.

So, stigma and social disapproval are not the same thing; there are some key distinctions between them that I think may have been lost on some people during that class discussion.

Second, there’s a bit of an idealist in me that wants to teach people why doing bad things is bad rather than just keep them from doing those things for fear of stigmatization. And I get that practically it doesn’t matter, and if the only way to prevent people from doing bad things was to make them afraid of stigma, I’d accept that.

But the thing is, if the only reason you don’t do a bad thing is because you’re afraid that people will judge you, what happens if/when you become reasonably sure that you can do it without getting found out?

Take sexual assault. Being a convicted rapist is actually a very stigmatized identity–it’s just that rapists rarely become convicted rapists. Rape is known to be a Very Bad Thing, but rapists know that they can get away with it if they commit it in certain ways. Despite the stigma, rape is pervasive and rape culture exists.

Third, what we stigmatize does not always correlate well with what is actually harmful to society. Rather, we stigmatize things for knee-jerk emotional reasons, and then we invent post-hoc explanations for why those things are harmful. That’s how you get the panic about gay teachers converting students to homosexuality (has there ever been any evidence for that?), abortion causing mental illness, same-sex couples being unfit to raise children, atheists being immoral, and so on.

We didn’t decide to stigmatize same-sex love, abortion, and atheism because they were harmful to society. We decided they were harmful to society because we were stigmatizing them. And now, even as modern science and research knocks these assumptions of harm down over and over again, bigots still cling to the fantasy that these things are harmful. That should tell you something.

Fourth, wielding psychological manipulation as punishment really, really rubs me the wrong way. The attitude that if someone does something bad they deserve to be cast out and hated and seen as inhuman scares me. I think it’s very normal and understandable to want to punish someone for doing a horrible thing, but, as I wrote after the Steubenville verdict, I’m not sure that that’s the most useful and skeptical response. I feel that our primary concern should be preventing people from doing bad things (both first-time and repeat offenses) and not satisfying our own need for revenge by punishing them.

Stigma is a blunt weapon. By its very definition it transcends the boundaries we try to set for it (i.e. condemn an action) and strongly biases our views of people (i.e. condemn a whole person). That’s why “hate the sin, love the sinner” just doesn’t work. If we are to promote rationality in our society, we should find ways to prevent crime and other anti-social acts without using stigma and cognitive bias as punishment.

~~~

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More About Justice and Less About Revenge: On Reading the Steubenville Coverage Too Early in the Goddamn Day

[Content note: sexual assault]

I don’t want to hear anything more about the “ruined futures” of Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond. The verdict did not ruin their futures. They ruined their futures, when they made the decision to rape someone.

I don’t want to hear anything more about how you shouldn’t drink if you don’t want to get raped. One could get blackout drunk every single day for a lifetime and they still wouldn’t get raped unless someone decides to rape them.

I don’t want to hear anything more about how Jane Doe didn’t “affirmatively say no” and how Mays and Richmond thought they had consent. They said, “She is so raped right now.” They knew exactly what they were doing.

I don’t want to hear anything more about how Jane Doe has been known to lie. Her rape was caught on video.

I don’t want to hear anything more about how it’s only rape if there’s a penis involved. It’s rape if someone is made to participate in sexual activity without their consent.

I don’t want to hear anything more about how hopefully girls and women will “learn from this.” No. Hopefully those who think they can assault others with impunity will learn from this.

I don’t want to hear anything more about how hopefully Mays and Richmond will get raped in prison. This is rape culture.

I don’t want to hear anything more about how “dangerous” partying is for young women. 40% of rapes occur in the victim’s home; an additional 20% occur at the home of a friend, relative, or neighbor. Only 24% happen in the early morning hours between midnight and 6 AM.

I don’t want to hear anything more about how “remorseful” Mays and Richmond were. They cried and begged for forgiveness only after the verdict came down. Sorry, that really doesn’t mean much.

I don’t want to hear anything more about how we need to crack down on teenage partying. Sure. But what we really need to crack down on is rape culture, violent masculinity, and the glorification of sports.

I don’t want to hear anything more about where Jane Doe’s parents were looking while she was out partying. Where were Mays’ and Richmond’s parents looking? Where was their coach looking? Oh, right, he said he “took care of it.”

I don’t want to hear anything more about how Mays and Richmond were “just kids.” Kids may not be ready for adult responsibilities and rights, but that doesn’t mean they don’t know what they’re doing when they assault someone.

I don’t want to hear anything more about how Mays and Richmond are just “sick,” how they’re “monsters,” how nobody you know would ever do something like that.

I don’t want to hear anything more about justice being served. I mean, yeah, let’s give credit where credit was due. But what will happen in just a few years when Mays and Richmond are released? Will they have changed? Is Jane Doe getting the help she needs? Are we doing everything we can to make sure this never happens again? That would be justice. Our work is not done.

Here’s what I want to hear more about:

What will this community do to support Jane Doe? What will it do to impart better values not just to its children, but to its adults? What will it do to ensure that being a football player gets you absolutely no special privileges? What will it do to try to help Mays and Richmond become productive members of the community without letting them off the hook for what they did?

I want to hear more about rape culture, violent masculinity, and the glorification of sports.

I want to hear more about how rapists rape because they know they’ll get away with it, not because the victim was “asking for it” or because men are too pathetic and driven by sexual urges to control themselves.

I want to hear more about what makes you a rapist and less about what makes you a victim, more about structures and less about individuals, more about justice and less about revenge.