Why You Should Care About Violence Against Sex Workers

[CN: sexual assault, anti-sex work stigma]

Last month, the Chicago Sun-Times published a shameful column by Mary Mitchell regarding a recent case in which a sex worker was raped by a would-be client. Unusually, the rapist was actually charged with rape. Mitchell refers to this as “making a mockery of rape victims” and states that she is “grateful [the rapist] isn’t being accused of snatching an innocent woman off the street.” She says it’s “tough to see this unidentified prostitute as a victim” and that “because this incident is being charged as a criminal sexual assault — when it’s actually more like theft of services — it minimizes the act of rape.” She also includes this amazingly contradictory bit of reasoning:

I’m not one of those women who believe rape victims are at fault because they dressed too provocatively or misled some randy guy into thinking it was his lucky night.

But when you agree to meet a strange man in a strange place for the purpose of having strange sex for money, you are putting yourself at risk for harm.

Anyway, that’s enough of that. I recommend reading these excellent responses from sex workers.

First of all, if you care about the issue of sexual violence, as Mitchell claims to, you should care about sexual violence against sex workers. Even if you aren’t one. Even if you don’t know any (although you probably do). We can’t restrict ourselves to caring about problems only when they affect people who look and act like us, or else things will only get better for the people who have the most people who look and act like them. (Who might those be?)

But even from a more self-interested point of view, it makes no sense for anti-rape advocates to excuse sexual violence against sex workers.

If you think you’re going to find success by portraying yourself as pure and good compared to those nasty women* who “sell themselves,” you’re mistaken. Sex workers aren’t stigmatized simply because there’s an exchange of money involved. After all, many of the women who cheerfully dismiss sexual violence against sex workers would be horrified at the idea that a woman “deserves” to be raped because she went on a date with a man to get free dinner. (Of course, though, there are plenty of other people who nevertheless accept both scenarios.)

Women who do sex work are stigmatized for many reasons, many of which intersect with class, race, and other social categories. One of those reasons is that their sexual behavior is “improper” and therefore suspect. We can’t seem to trust a woman who actively pursues sex (whether for pleasure or money or both) rather than letting herself be “chased.” People who don’t understand consent think that a sex worker can’t be raped because she already agreed to have sex (never mind that sex workers can be assaulted by people who aren’t clients at all). They believe that consenting to one sex act means consenting to all sex acts, forever, and that “putting yourself out there” as a person who’s willing to have sex means that people can do whatever they want to you.

But sex workers aren’t the only people impacted by these myths. You know who else’s experiences of sexual assault are routinely dismissed because of their perceived sexual “availability”?

Most survivors’.

If you’re assaulted after agreeing to do something else sexual with someone, you’ll be blamed for agreeing to that. If you’re assaulted by someone you’ve had sex with in the past, you’ll be blamed for having had sex with them in the past, even if you made it abundantly clear that you didn’t want to do it again. If you’re assaulted by someone you never agreed to have sex with but did go on a date with, you’ll be blamed for agreeing to go on a date with them. If you’re assaulted by someone you’ve never gone out with but did flirt with–or were perceived to be flirting with–then you’ll be blamed for flirting. If you never flirted but dressed “revealingly”; if you never dressed “revealingly” but drank alcohol; if you never drank alcohol but let yourself be alone with them for any reason; if you did none of the above but have a race, body type, or gender identity that people devalue and treat as sexually “available”…and on and on it goes.

The point is that as long as we treat a survivor’s prior sexual behavior, actual or perceived, as relevant to the question of whether or not they were really assaulted, nobody is safe. The justifications we use to dismiss assault of sex workers are basically identical to the justifications we use to dismiss assault of anyone else.

Sex workers pursue sex with people; non-sex workers pursue sex with people. Sex workers agree to do some sexual things but not others; non-sex workers agree to do some sexual things but not others. Sex workers may have had many different sex partners; non-sex workers may have had many different sex partners. Sex workers may have sex with strangers; non-sex workers may have sex with strangers. The only difference is the exchange of money.

And if you claim that these victim-blaming narratives suddenly become acceptable and proper when the exchange of money is involved, then you’re claiming that being a sex worker is so bad that it means you deserve to be raped.

In which case, you should just say that so that people know what you mean rather than obfuscating the issue needlessly.

Keep in mind that if you believe that sex workers deserve to be raped, you’re including the ones who don’t experience sex work as a choice. (While activists rightfully challenge that idea that all sex workers are exploited, some certainly are.) Can a sex worker forced to do sex work be raped? If so, why can’t one who chose sex work? Can someone who used to do sex work but stopped be raped? If so, why can’t a sex worker who’s not working on the day they are assaulted, or whose assailant is not one of their clients?

You can see how tricky things get when you claim that there are cases in which the absence of consent does not equal sexual assault.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t surprise me when people who have a vested interest in violating others’ consent oppose the idea that yes means yes. All those men in my Twitter mentions yelling “But that would make me a rapist”? Well, yeah. But it does surprise me when people who advocate against sexual violence twist themselves into the same arguments.

It is apparently tempting for some of these people to create hierarchies of survivors with themselves or the people they care about at the top. Maybe they think there is safety in that, in always having someone below them.

But there isn’t. The prejudice and violence of others is not a force you can harness and control so that it always points away from you. That’s why what we call victim-blaming is always invalid. If directing others’ prejudice and violence away from you were a real option, then there’d be no such thing as victim-blaming.

Besides that, though, it’s monstrous to use people who are more marginalized than you as shields. Too many people take it for granted that sex workers should serve as bait, to redirect male violence away from women who do not “deserve” it.

I can’t live at ease in a world in which we’re shifting the burden of violence onto other people rather than ending it. Of course, ending it is easier said than done, but it begins with acknowledging the problem whenever we see it, including when the victim is a sex worker.

We will not be safe if we throw sex workers under the bus. We will not be safe by creating categories of people who are rapeable, expendable. Those chickens are always going to come home to roost.

The only way to fight sexual violence is to keep centering consent in the discussion. Not what the victim looks like or acts like. Not what the victim did in the past. Consent. And once we’ve finally got that down, maybe we can even go beyond it.


*Although I’m mainly talking about female survivors in this post–because the tropes that Mitchell used are based on that–it’s important to note that sex workers are not all women, and that the violence and stigma faced by sex workers applies to sex workers of all genders.


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Other People Have It Worse

[CN: bullying, sexual assault]

I had a client recently who spent most of his childhood as a target of relentless bullying and physical violence at school. Now, he says, “It’s not that big of a deal. I had a home and a loving family. Some people had it much worse.”

I said, “The worst thing you’ve ever gone through is the worst thing you’ve ever gone through.”

What I mean is that whatever it is that happened to you that still makes you burst into tears or wake up from nightmares or shudder in horror, that’s still (one of) the most difficult thing(s) you’ve ever lived through. The fact that the things that make other people burst into tears or wake up from nightmares or shudder in horror seem worse to you doesn’t change that.

Besides, it’s not so easy to rank suffering. Even if you could rank potential traumas from worst to least worst, someone else’s ranking might look totally different. (There are people who feel that they’d rather die than be gay, and there are happy gay people.) And the ranking might change completely if the hypothetical becomes real. Many people might think, “I could never live through ____,” until ____ happens. Then it sucks, and yet they live. Often they even thrive. And something else becomes The Worst Thing.

So, in fact, one of the people who’s survived one of the things you think about when you think “other people have it worse” might be thinking the same about you. Who’s to say who is right?

When I worked with survivors of sexual assault on a hotline, I noticed that almost every single one of them expressed the belief that others were the “real victims” while they didn’t really have it “that bad.” The women who had faced “attempted” rape said that the women who had “actually” been raped had it “worse.” The women who had been raped by partners or friends said that the women who had been raped by strangers had it “worse.” The women who had been raped by strangers said that the women who had been physically injured during the rape had it “worse.” The women who had been physically injured during the rape said that the women who had contracted an STI or become pregnant had it “worse.” And on and on it went.

In fact, some women who had been raped by strangers thought, “At least I didn’t get raped by someone I loved.” Some women have found it less traumatic to be raped by someone they hadn’t wanted to have sex with at all than by someone that they agreed to have sex with, who then violated their consent by lying about having put on a condom or by doing something else that they hadn’t consented to.

Everyone seems to think that 1) someone else’s experience was objectively worse, and 2) that this means that their own experience “shouldn’t be that big of a deal.”

So either everyone’s trauma is valid, or no one’s trauma is valid. And the latter doesn’t make any sense.

The purpose of reminding yourself that “others have it worse” is ostensibly to build perspective and remind yourself that yours aren’t the only problems in the world. That’s an admirable goal and a worthwhile perspective. However, I think that a certain amount of healing needs to happen before that’s feasible or healthy. It’s okay if there’s a period of time during which you feel absolutely certain that nobody has ever suffered as you’re suffering. And it’s okay if the cause of that feeling is a broken-up relationship or a failed class or even just a spectacularly shitty day. It doesn’t have to be a Real Approved Trauma™.

I think many people feel that they have a moral imperative to always Keep Things In Perspective and make sure that their feelings are in line with some objective ranking of bad things. But the way you feel in the aftermath of a bad thing doesn’t have to be your final say on the matter. It doesn’t have to Mean Anything besides the fact that your brain is doing brain stuff. It doesn’t have to be a feeling you “endorse.”

Of course, many people also believe that if you can somehow fully convince yourself that others do in fact Have It Worse, it will hasten your healing. I’m sure that’s the case for some people, but it doesn’t really seem in line with what I’ve observed in my own experiences, friendships, and professional work with people. Rather, it seems that people heal through acknowledging what happened to them and feeling the feelings that it brings up. There’s a reason why “Wow, that sounds really hard, I’m sorry” does a better job of comforting people than “You know, others have it worse.”

If there value in contemplating the struggles of others as part of your own healing process, I’m convinced that it doesn’t lie in chastisingly reminding yourself that Others Have It Worse, but in letting yourself see how similar those struggles really are. Don’t jump to the classist assumption that people in the “Third World” are necessarily dying of AIDS or hunger while silly privileged you is crying over a breakup. Read some lovesick poetry written by a teenage boy in Ethiopia. And, not but. Replace “This sucks but others have it worse” with “This sucks and I bet other people have to deal with it too.” Countless other people have survived this and you will too. Doesn’t make it suck any less, but it does mean there’s hope.

Emotions are relative, which is why the worst thing you’ve ever experienced feels like the worst thing in the world. But that’s a feature, not a bug. The fact that emotions are relative is what allows us both to cope with persistent adversity and also to keep reaching higher for happiness rather than becoming complacent.

It also means that there isn’t much use in trying to figure out who’s suffering more. Rational!You can choose to care more about global poverty than rare feline diseases that kills some pet cats (I think that would be a wise decision), but the rest of you is still allowed to grieve when your cat dies because of a rare feline disease, and while you’re grieving, you’re allowed to care much more about rare feline diseases than global poverty. If nothing else, think of it this way: the sooner you let yourself feel your feelings, the sooner you can be back to your rational, poverty-prioritizing self.

But besides that, I think that allowing ourselves to feel our own feelings also helps us to be more compassionate to others, including all those people we think are suffering so much more.


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A List of Ways I Have Used Trigger Warnings

[Content note: mentions of sexual assault]

These are some ways I have mentally responded to encountering a trigger warning/content note on the internet:

  1. [ignores, continues reading]
  2. “Oh, yikes, this is going to be pretty serious. Ok, I’m ready. Let’s do it.”
  3. “I think I need to take a few minutes to mentally prepare myself before reading this.”
  4. “Welp, that’s just too much right now. I’m going to wait a few hours or days until I’m in a better brainspace and then engage with this.”
  5. “Ok, this is totally fine for me, but it’s nice to know what I’m getting into.”
  6. “I can do this. But I’m going to message a friend and talk to them while I read it, or maybe pet the purring kitty.”
  7. “I’m going to read this, but I already know I’m going to be a wreck afterwards, so I’m going to set up some hot tea/some time with a friend/Chinese food/a fun TV show to help me afterwards.”
  8. “You know what? I don’t need to read this. I’ve lived this. I know this. There’s no reason to make myself think about it again.”

I’ve been hearing a lot about how trigger warnings are nothing but a way for trauma survivors to “avoid challenging material.” I present this list in order to show some more typical ways that people use trigger warnings, such as mentally preparing themselves for the material, choosing the best time to engage with it, and setting up self-care practices that will help.

As you see from #8, yes, sometimes people choose not to engage with triggering material at all. In that latter (and not extremely common) case, it’s useful to remember that people who are triggered by something are usually triggered by it because they have lived it. I’ve sat through many classroom discussions about sexual assault, suicide, eating disorders, sexism, and other things that I have lived through, and while I occasionally did learn from these discussions, more often I learned little or nothing, because I have lived through it. And yes, everyone’s experiences are different, which is why it can be useful for survivors of trauma to share their experiences with fellow survivors and learn from each other. But that’s usually not what the classroom space is.

I’m also a bit fed up, to be honest, with this deceptive word “challenging.” What is a challenge? Here are some things that I find challenging:

  • applied math problems
  • recipes that involve very precise timing
  • coping with depression
  • keeping my apartment clean when I’m very fatigued all the time
  • wrapping my head around dense and difficult literature or philosophy
  • persuading myself to make the effort to go out and see friends even when I’m wiped out from work, because I know that it’ll be good for me
  • sitting through a very boring class or meeting
  • saying goodbye to people I love after a visit
  • shooting in low-light conditions without a tripod
  • telling someone that I love them
  • addressing situations where I feel like someone is communicating passive-aggressively and we need to get things out into the open and talk about them
  • dentist appointments
  • arguing with someone who thinks that rape victims ever deserve what happened to them
  • economics
  • climbing up four sets of stairs while carrying several bags of groceries
  • figuring out how to properly manage my enormous student debt
  • relationships where I feel like I’m more invested in the person than they are in me

You might notice that many of the things on this list seem to have absolutely nothing to do with each other because “challenging” is a very ambiguous word!

There are intellectual challenges, like solving a difficult math problem or understanding a difficult text. There are interpersonal challenges, like figuring out the right way to address a conflict with a partner. There are physical challenges, like climbing a lot of stairs while carrying a heavy load. There are emotional challenges, like coping with depression or with dentist appointments. Some challenges involve combinations of these things. For instance, shooting in low-light conditions without a tripod involves an intellectual challenge (knowing what all those manual settings on the DSLR mean and how to set them) and a physical challenge (holding the camera as still as possible). Telling someone that they have hurt my feelings involves an interpersonal challenge (figuring out the right way to say what I need to say in a way that’ll be effective) and an emotional challenge (dealing with my hurt feelings as I do this).

When people condescendingly claim that college students who ask for trigger warnings are trying to “avoid challenging material,” they are–perhaps intentionally–conflating two meanings of the word “challenging.” Triggering material is emotionally challenging. The challenge is that you feel like you’re about to start screaming and crying in front of your classmates and professor. The challenge is that suddenly you’re back in that bar or that dorm room or wherever it happened, and you’re trying to get away but you can’t get away and you’re trying to scream but nothing comes out. The challenge is that suddenly you’re floating somewhere high above the classroom looking down at yourself sitting there unable to move. The challenge is that you forget who or where you are. The challenge is that your brain starts to empty out like a glass with a crack in it, and no matter what you do you just can’t fill it up again and they’re all looking at you because the professor asked you a question and you have no idea what any of those words meant or how to even make words.

Do we really go to college to encounter this type of “challenge”? No, college coursework is intellectually challenging. The challenge is understanding the nuances of complicated arguments or literary devices. The challenge is connecting ideas together in a way that flows and makes sense, finding patterns in the texts, defending your opinions using evidence from the book. The challenge is being willing to entertain an argument that you personally disagree with, to examine it from all sides. Sometimes, the challenge is memorizing facts, though that’s not so common in college. Sometimes the challenge is writing code that works, or designing a study that effectively examines a particular research question.

You know who would be pretty bad at those types of challenges? Someone who, in their mind, is currently stuck reliving the worst thing that ever happened to them.

Yes, those who insist that trigger warnings are no substitute for professional mental healthcare and that it’s not a professor’s job to heal their student’s personal trauma are absolutely correct. Trigger warnings will not heal trauma. However, they will also not “prevent people from healing” or whatever’s getting thrown out as the latest justification for not using them. What they do is allow people to engage with triggering content in a way that works for them. Only sometimes will they cause people to choose not to engage at all, and remember, the absence of the trigger warning wouldn’t have made them engage with it anyway. It would’ve made them try, get triggered, and fail to engage. It’s such a creepy “Gotcha!” sort of thing to insist on tricking people into trying to engage with triggering content by not including a trigger warning when they asked for one.

In my experience, most survivors of serious trauma–the ones that get triggered by things–are either already accessing mental healthcare, are unable to access mental healthcare, or have tried it and found it unhelpful. Please stop with the condescending advice to students to seek mental healthcare “instead” of asking for trigger warnings. Engaging with triggering content in a thoughtful, intentional, and controlled way is often part of someone’s healing process and has been recommended by plenty of mental healthcare professionals.

Trauma survivors know best what they need. They don’t know perfectly, but they know better than someone with no experience or knowledge of that trauma. If you don’t want to use trigger warnings, then don’t, and say so. But don’t cloak that unwillingness in a patronizing concern for the survivor’s well-being. We see past that stuff. You’re not the ultimate authority on what we need and what’s best for us. Just say it’s too much of an inconvenience for you and you won’t do it.

“The Good Ones Say No”: Why Purity Culture and Rape Culture Are Two Sides of the Same Coin

[Content note: sexual assault/coercion]

Alice Dreger, professor of clinical medical humanities and bioethics at Northwestern University, recently livetweeted her son’s high school sex education class. (Here’s her article about it.) The results were…about what you’d expect, if you’ve been following the news about high school sex ed. Students were warned that condoms frequently fail (as in, 18% of the time) and that premarital sex can lead to drug abuse and imprisonment and (obviously) teenage pregnancy.

But the most disturbing thing in the whole livetweet, for me, was that bit about going for the girls who say no:

This is how purity culture and rape culture are two sides of the same coin.

On one side of the coin is the idea that only “good” women are worth anything, and only women who consistently refuse men’s advances can be “good.” Of course, this creates a paradox: if women are only “good” as long as they refuse, and men could only ever want to get emotionally (and materially) invested in “good” women, what happens when a woman stops refusing?

So either men are supposed to only have sex with virgins and only once, or they’re supposed to indefinitely stay in relationships that are not sexually fulfilling (because there is no sex), or they’re supposed to coerce and rape women. The latter option is the only way to have sex with someone who says no, by the way.

And that’s why rape culture is the other side of the coin. If saying no is the only way a woman can be “good” and therefore desirable, if pushing past “no” is romantic and sexy, if sex is only morally acceptable if the woman didn’t really want it–then rape is acceptable. Not all rape, of course–most purity culture adherents would probably be horrified at stranger-in-the-bushes rape–but I would argue that accepting some rape is equivalent to accepting rape, because as soon as you accept that it is okay to violate someone’s consent in some cases, you will be able to justify violating someone’s consent in any case where you have a motivation to justify violating their consent.

Of course, people who endorse views like “the good ones say no” would be quite offended by what I just said. After all, they’d say, a woman need only say no until she is married to a man. Then she can magically undo years of sex-negative messaging and have a healthy, fulfilling sex life with her husband. More easily said than done.

But this has consequences far beyond wrecking individual people’s sex lives. The idea that “the good girls say no [until marriage]” implies that women frequently say “no” when they really mean “yes,” or wish they could say yes, or whatever. This is one of the beliefs that is most frequently used to justify sexual assault and coercion.

Of course, even if someone says no to sex that they actually want, that’s no excuse to pressure them into bringing their actions in line with their desires. If I say no to a party I’d really love to attend because I have to write a paper instead, it’s still wrong to pressure me to go. If I decline to go on a trip with you that I really wish I could go on but cannot afford, it’s still wildly inappropriate to just buy me the tickets and then expect to be paid back. Most adults understand that we can’t and shouldn’t always do what we want to do regardless of the consequences, and people who don’t understand this are people that I usually feel unsafe around.

And what of the unknown proportion of women who say no while hoping that their partners will ignore it and proceed anyway? Sexual predators claim that many, if not most women do this. (And many men have told me stories of how they dutifully took “no” for an answer, only to have the woman demean their masculinity and lose interest because of it. Needless to say, I still think they did the right thing and should keep doing it.) I don’t have statistics, but I can’t imagine this is very common. And regardless, there’s a simple solution–always believe someone who tells you “no.” If that’s not what they meant, they’ll quickly learn to say what they mean.

(And if not taking no for an answer is sexy for your and your partner, negotiate a kinky scene that’s consensually nonconsensual.)

More broadly, I think this is a small part of how we get that cultural message that resisting is sexy (when women do it). Think of how many romantic scenes in books and movies hinge on a woman saying no over and over until the man finally wears her down and she agrees–or he just straight-up physically forces her.

Some people say that this is sexy because there’s just something inherently sexy about chasing someone. (But only for men, for some reason.) I don’t know about that. More likely, as Emily Nagoski writes in her excellent book, Come As You Are, there is little about sexuality that isn’t learned.

And certainly it’s okay to find it sexy and to incorporate it into your life in a consensual way. In fact, one of the vignettes in Nagoski’s book features a couple trying to do exactly that. The problem is when women are taught that refusing is the only way to be sexy, and when men are taught that “chasing” a woman who refuses is the only sexy thing to do. And that’s exactly what the sex ed class that Dreger livetweeted tried to do. The speaker implies that women who don’t initially say no aren’t worth pursuing at all.

(Obviously, this particular class will not be the only way that these teens will get this message, and if it were, I wouldn’t be writing this because it’d be a drop in an otherwise-empty bucket. But it’s a drop in a very full bucket, and we have to empty the bucket drop by drop.)

When girls get the message that saying no makes them sexually/romantically appealing, they lose touch with their own boundaries and their own sense of what they want*. When boys get the message that girls who refuse are playing coy in order to attract them, they learn to ignore any intuitions they may have about respecting boundaries and not pressuring people. I hear from a lot of men who are so clearly uncomfortable with the idea of pressuring women into sex, but are nevertheless convinced that they must do it because it’s just what men should do. Why do we persist in teaching young people this convoluted and contradictory way of thinking about sex?

Most of the controversy about abstinence-only and otherwise sex-negative sex ed is that it teaches teens falsehoods about safer sex and STIs, and that’s true, and that’s scary and wrong. But there’s a lot more lurking in these lessons than medical misinformation.

*I just want to add something here for all the women who find it sexy to be pressured in certain ways but not in other ways or some of the time but not other times or at first but not once you pause and really think about it: there’s nothing wrong with you. We’re taught to ignore our own intuitions about what we want, and we’re taught that men know what we want better than we do. In some situations, you might truly be okay with someone pushing you to do things, whether it’s because you trust them or for any other reasons, and in other situations you might not be. My advice is to do the difficult work of figuring out what you want, not what other people think you want, and then go about getting that by being clear with your partners about it.

I’ve felt that flutter in my chest when I watch movie scenes that are totally not consensual and I sometimes wish that would happen to me, and then I remember that it has happened and it was never like it was in the movies and I never turned out to want it. Maybe someday it will happen like that, but in my own experience, these things are better negotiated and brought out into the open rather than assumed.

And guys who date women: you need to try to understand these dynamics if you’re going to date women ethically. What men often write off as women being “fickle” or “complicated” is actually just us trying to negotiate some peace treaty between all the competing messages we’ve been given about our bodies and our sexualities. Negotiating peace treaties, as you may know, can be messy, difficult, and time-consuming. That’s life. For the time being, that is. Until classes like the one Dreger attended never happen anymore, and the things said there are never said anymore.

Why Madonna Should’ve Asked Drake for Consent

[Content note: sexual assault]

My latest Daily Dot piece is about Madonna and Drake’s kiss at Coachella.

When Madonna took Drake by surprise with a kiss during their Coachellaperformance, the pop singer made waves on the Internet, provoking discomfort and disgust. Some of it was because Madonna is “old,” while others argued Drake’s reaction suggested a lack of consent.

However, on Tuesday, the Canadian rapper responded on his Instagram, clarifying that he had no problem with what happened and thanking Madonna for the impromptu make-out session:

Rape Isn’t a Fashion Statement

[Content note: sexual assault]

I wrote a Daily Dot piece about rape “joke” t-shirts.

An unnamed Coachella attendee is making headlines online after Jemayel Khawaja, managing editor of Thump, tweeted a photo of him wearing a shirt with what I assume is meant to be a “joke” about rape:

The shirt, which is presumably a reference to Fatboy Slim’s song, “Eat, Sleep, Rave, Repeat,” is not that unusual. Similar ones have made the rounds online in recent years, prompting retailers to hastily pull them off their shelves.

For example, the SM Store, located in the Philippines, caused a backlash after a customer found a shirt with the slogan “It’s Not Rape, It’s a Snuggle with a Struggle.” Online retailer eBay was criticized for selling shirts saying “I’m Feeling Rapey” and “Sometimes No Means Yes.” Solid Gold Bomb, a clothing company that uses automation to generate t-shirt slogans, sold shirts saying, “Keep Calm and Rape A Lot” on Amazon. Topman sold a shirt that featured a checklist of excuses for domestic violence, such as “You Provoked Me” and “I Was Drunk.” Anti-violence advocates rightfully pointed out that these are actual excuses that abusers use all the time.

Why do these shirts keep being made and sold? The eBay shirts were oh-so-helpfully labeled “offensive cool geeky funny” in the online store, and that provides a clue:

Screengrab via eBay

Some people like to wear (or make) clothing with “offensive” slogans because they think it identifies them as someone who doesn’t care about others’ opinions of them, which therefore makes them “cool.” However, if anything, filling your closet with these types of shirts marks you as someone who desperately wants to seem “cool” more than anything else.

As for “geeky,” I don’t know where that comes from, except maybe a cynical assumption on the part of the shirt’s designer that geeky people would want to wear such a thing. And “funny?” Well, given how many comedians are still trying to use rape as a punchline, it’s obvious that people still find it funny.

Sexual assault can be funny, in a certain context, when joked about by certain people. But jokes about rape that work tend to make fun of rapists or people who engage in rape apologetics, not actual or potential victims. The “joke” in the Coachella guy’s shirt, if there even is one, is “I find raping people as necessary for my continued survival as sleeping and eating.”

Read the rest here.

Why is Rolling Stone Still Blaming Jackie?

[Content note: sexual assault]

Now that the report on Rolling Stone and its coverage of rape at UVA has come out, I’ve written a Daily Dot piece about how the magazine still isn’t taking full responsibility for its mistakes.

On Sunday, the Columbia Journalism Review released its report on Rolling Stone’s infamous article, “A Rape on Campus,” about the alleged gang rape of “Jackie,” a student at the University of Virginia. Published in November 2014, the article quickly provoked critics who claimed that some of the details about the incident just didn’t line up.

The Columbia report extensively details the journalistic “failure” of the now-retracted piece, and many are assuming, as usual, that this means that the survivor lied. Meanwhile, the leadership of Rolling Stone is still blaming Jackie for their failure in ways both subtle and not. According to the New York Times, the magazine’s publisher, Jann S. Wenner, was quite clear about where the blame should go:

The problems with the article started with its source, Mr. Wenner said. He described her as “a really expert fabulist storyteller” who managed to manipulate the magazine’s journalism process. When asked to clarify, he said that he was not trying to blame Jackie, “but obviously there is something here that is untruthful, and something sits at her doorstep.”

Although it is possible that Jackie lied, it is unlikely for reasons that I discussedback when the original article was first being put through the online wringer. The errors she made in telling her story are completely consistent with the neurobiology of trauma. There is no evidence that Jackie is an “expert fabulist storyteller,” and you’d think this whole scandal would have taught Wenner not to make public statements without evidence.

But not everyone sees Jackie as the scapegoat. Steve Coll, Dean of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, said in a press conference, “We do disagree with any suggestion that this was Jackie’s fault. As a matter of journalism, this was a failure of methodology.”

Why is Rolling Stone still blaming Jackie, even though the Columbia report documents the magazine’s errors in 13,000 meticulous words? Probably because it’s easy to do. Much of the public already seems to believe that Jackie lied, and many of them seem to believe that she lied intentionally. The thought process is that, sure, the writer and editor could’ve been more careful (and to their credit,Rolling Stone has acknowledged that), but lying is bad and it’s the liar’s fault, so that’s where the blame should really go.

Despite acknowledging their missteps, the Rolling Stone staff doesn’t seem to be planning on making any changes in the wake of this massive journalistic failure. Will Dana, the editor of the retracted article, says in the Columbia report, “It’s not like I think we need to overhaul our process, and I don’t think we need to necessarily institute a lot of new ways of doing things. We just have to do what we’ve always done and just make sure we don’t make this mistake again.” But the report claims that “better and clearer policies about reporting practices, pseudonyms and attribution might well have prevented the magazine’s errors.”

Especially controversial is the fact that Rolling Stone won’t be firing anyone involved in the debacle. In an interview with the Columbia Journalism Review, Jill Geisner says that Rolling Stone’s mistakes were very serious and that firing the staff involved might be a good idea: “Firings send a message that certain behavior is unacceptable. I don’t advocate them for public relations purposes, but rather to rebuild a team and restore trust.”

Whether or not anyone at Rolling Stone is fired over this, though, it’s crucial that journalists and editors understand that it is their responsibility, not that of their sources, to ensure accuracy and fairness in reporting.

Read the rest here.

Uber Can’t Fix Rape Culture

I wrote a Daily Dot piece about Uber, rape culture, and what the service can and can’t do to prevent sexual assault.

On Wednesday, ubiquitous ridesharing app Uber announced a partnership with UN Women, promising to create a million jobs for women by the year 2020. Currently, 14 percent of Uber’s 150,000 drivers are women, double the percentage of female cab drivers.

Although there’s much to praise about the new initiative, which could help womenworldwide achieve financial independence, some wonder if this bold move is a response to mounting criticisms of Uber’s handling of sexual violence.

In one terrifying incident in India, a male Uber driver allegedly kidnapped and raped a female passenger. In response, Uber apologized and promised to look into options to make its service safer. It also introduced a “panic button” feature that allows riders to alert the police and a few selected friends or family members of their location.

This feature seems like it could go a long way to increasing both actual safety and feelings of safety, but it is only available to riders, not drivers, and—for some reason—only in India. Uber did not provide any explanation for this, suggesting that the company either views the alleged rape as an isolated incident or one unique to India specifically.

But as we know, rape with and without the aid of Uber is all too common all over the world, including within the United States. In the past year, Uber drivers have allegedly assaulted riders in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Orlando, and Washington, DC. In response, a website called Who’s Driving You?, which appears to take a strong stance against ride-sharing services, was formed to document these incidents.

While these assaults may make seem like drivers hold all the power over riders, male riders have found ways to harass and abuse female Uber drivers, too. One of those ways involves exploiting the fact that Uber allows riders to call drivers using an anonymized phone number.

Read the rest here.

Interpreting Sexism in Science Fiction

[Content note: mentions of sexual assault]

I was reading one of Peter Hamilton’s books, Pandora’s Star, and enjoying it to a certain extent. It’s not exactly my favorite sort of science fiction–there’s a little too much about the exact velocity of the spacecraft and how its wings function, but I can deal with that. Then, a few dozen pages in, I read the following passage:

‘You’re under arrest for theft.’

‘You’ve got to be fucking joking! I said I’d help you. That was the deal.’ He turned his head to try to look at her. The weapon was jabbed into his jaw.

‘There is no deal. You made a choice.’

‘That was the deal!’ he yelled furiously. ‘I help you, you get me off this rap. Jesus!’

‘You are mistaken,’ she said relentlessly. ‘I didn’t say that. You committed a crime. You must face the consequences. You must be brought to justice.’

‘Fuck you, bitch. Fuck you. I hope your terrorist blows up a hundred hospitals, and schools. I hope he wipes out your whole planet.’

‘He won’t. He’s only interested in one planet. And with your help, we can stop him from damaging it further.’

‘My help?’ The word came out as a squeak he was so shocked. ‘You stupid bitch, you can suck me and I’d never help you now. We had a deal.’

At this point I just got too depressed to keep reading. Centuries into the future, and we’re still at “Fuck you, bitch.” Still.

Now, I’m sure many Hamilton fans will want to explain to me that the policewoman was indeed being a total bitch and she tricked Sabbah into accepting a deal that wasn’t what he thought it was and really doesn’t a man have a right to be angry when he’s getting arrested and manipulated into helping with a police investigation?

Okay, sure. But if she were a man, it would’ve been “Fuck you, you lying piece of shit, I’m not helping you.” Or “Get the fuck off me before I kill you.” But no–because it’s a woman, we get “Fuck you, bitch” and “You stupid bitch, you can suck me and I’d never help you now.” Because it’s a woman, we get references to sexual assault or exploitation. Because it’s a woman, Sabbah somehow has the presence of mind to imagine himself getting a blowjob even while he’s trying to protect his life and freedom.

And so I didn’t want to read any more. This book is nearly a thousand damn pages long, and I’m really not interested to see what happens when the tables turn–as they inevitably do in space operas–and Sabbah gets to take his revenge on the policewoman. (On the very next page, she graduates from “bitch” to “superbitch.”)

The thing is, I read for pleasure. That doesn’t mean that the experience of reading is always a happy one, of course. Things in books may make me sad or scared or angry, but I tend to be glad I read the things I’ve read and to feel like I’ve gained something from the experience. When books include sexism, racism, sexual assault, or other shitty things, that usually means that I come away from the book with some sort of additional insight into the problem, a possible way forward, a better-articulated critique, something.

With science fiction, especially, I read to see a glimpse of a different world, a changed world. Science fiction at its best isn’t just about evolving technology, but evolving humanity. Pandora’s Star takes place in the year 2380. If it’s the year 2380 and our society still hasn’t progressed past “suck me, bitch,” well, I give up.

Whenever I write about this, legions of my (mostly-male) fellow science fiction/fantasy fans rush in to inform me that I’ve misinterpreted everything, that the author was just trying to be “realistic” (as if it’s even meaningful to speak of “realism” in a universe in which spaceships travel faster than light, or in which talking dragons co-exist peacefully with humans, or whatever), that the author was actually “critiquing” the sexism or whatever it was, that the author is in no way a sexist because he is not condoning this type of behavior, just illustrating it.

Well, I actually don’t care whether or not a given author can be classified as “a sexist,” because I just find that particular question boring. I don’t know if Peter Hamilton is “a sexist.” Probably not.

As for whether or not it’s a critique, readers may disagree. Everyone always wants to know how to tell whether or not an author is representing oppression in order to critique it, but I don’t think it’s necessarily possible to give a list of criteria. You tend to know it when you see it if you’re used to thinking critically about literature.

For instance, reading Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale was often uncomfortable and distressing. It was difficult to read. But I never felt that Atwood was condoning the sexism and rights violations of the society she described. There were a few ways this was made clear–the fact that the protagonist was trying to escape, the way that the authority figures were described, the epilogue.

Likewise, her Imperial Radch trilogy, Ann Leckie depicts a deeply classist, xenophobic, and imperialist society, but then has her protagonist try to fight on behalf of marginalized people. And even though other characters may disagree or claim that the protagonist is naive, this is represented as a Good Thing To Do.

China Mieville, whom I’ve written about before, manages to include all sorts of grotesque, graphic, and cruel injustice in his books without ever coming across like he condones it. In his first novel, King Rat, the protagonist Saul encounters a homeless woman while on the run from both the police and a fantastical villain who’s trying to kill him. Lonely and desperate for human interaction, Saul finds himself talking to her, hoping that she’ll set off to explore the city with him:

‘Do you want to go to sleep, Deborah?’

‘What do you mean?’ Her voice was suddenly suspicious, even afraid. She almost whined in her trepidation, and bundled herself up into her sleeping bag. Saul reached out to reassure her and she shrank away from him in horror and he realized with a sinking feeling that she had heard such a line before, but spoken with different intent.

Saul knew that the streets were brutal.

He wondered how often she had been raped.

Here we basically have a man encountering the idea of Schrodinger’s Rapist for the first time. Rather than indignantly lashing out at the woman for assuming that such a nice guy as him would ever do such a thing, as many men I encounter on the internet do, Saul immediately apologizes, gives Deborah more physical space, and explains what he actually meant. Later on in the book, as he prowls the nearly-deserted streets at night, he sees a woman walking alone and sits down against a wall until she passes so that she won’t be afraid of him.

In this way, Mieville subtly takes a stance on an issue that is still considered controversial. Had his protagonist reacted differently, a very different message would have been sent:

‘Do you want to go to sleep, Deborah?’

‘What do you mean?’ Her voice was suddenly suspicious, even afraid. She almost whined in her trepidation, and bundled herself up into her sleeping bag. Saul reached out to reassure her and she shrank away from him in horror and he realized with a sinking feeling that she had assumed that he might rape her.

Saul was hurt, infuriated. All his life he had tried to treat women well, just as his father had always taught him to do. And yet over and over again they assumed the worst of him, no matter what he did. He felt so alone and isolated. All he’d wanted was to show her the city as he saw it, but she had pushed him away.

Honestly, I probably would’ve put down a book like that, too.

Mieville incorporates these sorts of moments into his fiction, and that makes it pretty obvious to me that his novels are critiquing sexism, racism, sexual assault, etc rather than condoning them. And it’s entirely possible that later in Pandora’s Star, Hamilton takes a brave stand against calling women bitches, but I doubt it, considering that both the main characters introduced thus far are men, women have barely appeared at all, and no analysis of gender or sexuality or inequality, period has occurred.

Which is fine. Not every novel needs to take an anti-sexist stance. And I don’t need to read every novel.

Even when an author means to be critical, the result is sometimes still too close to home for some. Maybe for male readers, that Hamilton passage might be a moment of, “Oh, wow, sexism is a thing.” But I have already had that moment. My entire life is that moment. Plenty of men have called me “bitch,” plenty of men have threatened to assault me, and a few men actually have. I don’t need a reminder or a wakeup call. I don’t need this in my novels that I read for fun.

That said, everyone’s boundaries are different. At risk of sounding cliche, some of my good friends like Peter Hamilton’s books. I don’t think Peter Hamilton is “a sexist.” I don’t think you are “a sexist” if you like Peter Hamilton. I do think that my male friends who recommended these books to me without reservations should think about whether or not they remembered that the book has gendered slurs, and if not, why not, and if yes, why they didn’t warn me.

I also think that fans of authors who “casually” incorporate sexism in this manner should think critically about these works. (Remember, “think critically” is not synonymous with “dislike.”) What literary purpose is being served? If these passages are meant to characterize the person as “a sexist” or “a very bad man,” is this position actually supported by the rest of the novel? In what direction is this fictional society moving, and do the characters seem satisfied or dissatisfied with these trends? (You can learn a lot from how a character responds to, say, a new law defining nonconsensual sex with an AI as rape, or to the fact that a spaceship captain is a woman.) Are characters able to fling sexism around without any repercussions? How do other characters respond to the sexism? Who is the reader meant to sympathize with? Who succeeds? Who fails? How or why do they succeed or fail? (I think a lot about the epilogue of The Handmaid’s Tale.)

And, finally, I would like men to stop telling me I’m wrong when I’m uncomfortable with something that happens in a work of fiction, and to stop questioning my decision when that discomfort means that I need to put the book down.

How to Get Away with Rape

[Content note: rape & sexual assault]

My latest piece for the Daily Dot is about excuses people make when accused of rape.

In 2013, two then-students at Vanderbilt University, Brandon Vandenburg and Cory Batey, allegedly raped an unconscious female student on campus. They used a cell phone to capture footage, which also shows Batey urinating on the victim and using racial slurs.

Unlike most accused rapists, Vandenburg and Batey are now on trial. As the trial opened this past week, the defense team made some interesting comments about Batey’s culpability.

Batey’s attorney said the football player from Nashville was influenced by a campus culture of sexual freedom, promiscuity and excessive alcohol consumption that contrasted with the manner of his upbringing.

The atmosphere “changed the rest of his life,” and Batey was too drunk at the time to deliberately commit a crime, he added.

The reasoning seems to be that Batey has been somehow wronged by this university and its campus environment in a way that is relevant to the matter of his innocence or lack thereof. (The question of whether or not being drunk should influence culpability is a separate one that I will leave to a separate article.)

This seems like a convenient way of obfuscating the issue. Of course Batey was influenced in all sorts of ways by his environment. We all are. That’s the nature of being a social species. But ultimately the burden of making the decision falls on the individual making it, and part of being an adult is accepting that responsibility.

This got me thinking about other bad and illogical excuses people make when accused of rape.

1) “I’m the real victim here.”

Usually this means “victim of a false rape accusation,” but clearly Cory Batey and his lawyers didn’t have that option–there was video evidence. Instead, Batey is the victim of “a campus culture of sexual freedom, promiscuity and excessive alcohol consumption that contrasted with the manner of his upbringing.” The implication seems to be that none of this would ever have happened if Batey had not found himself (well, chose to place himself) in such a campus environment.

I’ll be the first to endorse the claim that many college campuses have unhealthy cultures, and this can impact people in all sorts of ways. (Not necessarily negative ways—some people respond to these environments by becoming passionate activists for a better culture.)

Short of some horrific and science fiction-esque brainwashing scenario, you can’t force a person to rape someone.

However, short of some horrific and science fiction-esque brainwashing scenario, you can’t force a person to rape someone—or to urinate on them, for that matter. Batey’s peers and environment may have suggested to him that this sort of behavior is OK, but it is not too much to expect an adult to be able to make their own decisions about whether or not to rape someone, especially if that adult’s upbringing contrasted so greatly with this campus culture.

That said, buried deep within the obfuscation and rationalization that Batey’s lawyers are presenting here is actually a nugget of truth that anti-rape activists have been repeating for years: Many campuses have a really unhealthy and dangerous climate when it comes to things like binge drinking and sexual assault. Acknowledging this and working to change it, however, does not mean excusing those who commit rape.

2) “She was asking for it.”

This is, of course, entirely self-contradictory. If someone was actually asking for you to have sex with them, then it was not rape. If someone was not asking (or consenting) to have sex with you, then it was rape. If someone makes a rape accusation, then that means they were not asking. The only way to actually “ask” to have sex is to, well, ask for it—not to drink alcohol, not to dress sexy, not to dance or flirt with you, and not to make out with you.

We hear this excuse a lot with sexual harassment, too, not just assault. The reason I used a female pronoun is because this is typically only applied to female survivors. Why? Probably because (white, conventionally attractive) women are presumed to be so irresistibly appealing that men cannot possibly restrain themselves—therefore, those women were “asking” for whatever it is the men did.

But we didn’t ask for you to have such poor self-control that you cannot keep yourself from catcalling or raping us. And, more to the point, rape is typically a premeditated act. It has nothing to do with irresistible urges.

Read the rest here.