Most of us are tired of hearing about Jian Ghomeshi. I am. This is not about him, though it’s partly inspired by responses to what I wrote about the whole thing. The debates about him have opened up space to talk about rape culture, the pervasiveness of sexual assault, and how to deal with gender-based violence in our everyday lives (because it’s happening around us, whether we experience it or not). It’s an opportunity for men, in particular, to take a more active role in all this, because if we’re not the perpetrators, we’re rarely active in preventing violence or supporting survivors. As a man, I’m learning about a bunch of this for the first time, primarily from women who’ve been dealing with it because they have to. I think the public debate is an opportunity to notice some patterns and look around for alternatives. Here are three:
We are in rape culture; it’s in us
There are a lot of statements beginning with “I’m against rape culture, but…” People (usually men) then go on to say all kinds of things that reproduce rape culture. We don’t have all the facts, the women might be lying, this is someone’s private life, etc, etc. When these are pointed out and linked to rape culture, there are all kinds of contortions to explain how we really meant something else, and we’re all really against rape culture.
But if I admit that rape culture is pervasive, then (especially as a heterosexual man socialized into patriarchy), rape culture is something I’m struggling with and hopefully against, some of the time, not something I can oppose because I say so. A lot of these conversations start and end with these debates and contortions, so they don’t feel very productive, and this is often taken as proof of the inadequacy of feminism. But this is the inadequacy of our engagement with feminism. Feminism isn’t a stance, it’s a complex array of habits, behaviours, ways of thinking, and collective practices. How can men welcome criticism? How can we allow ourselves to be implicated? How can we have more of these conversations with each other, more often, so that we don’t derail other conversations about supporting survivors or preventing sexual assault? This is men’s work, a nascent movement to engage men in conversations—and action—around patriarchy and gendered violence.
Neutrality is not complexity or nuance
Another common pattern shares anxieties about the insistence that we should believe survivors. Others have felt it important to remind everyone that false accusations of rape do exist. There has been lots of analysis that shows how these sentiments are connected to rape culture. But something else is going on here too. When these statements are confronted, feminist analyses of rape culture are cast as simplistic and vicious. Believing survivors is often contrasted with a more ‘complex’ stance that could productively deal with the conflict. This ‘more complex’ stance is almost never elaborated, and when it is, it’s usually the simplistic fence-sitting stance, either filled with anxiety and indecision, or with cold neutrality.
The fetishism of law
This ‘neutral’ stance usually falls back on the law. It either assumes that perpetrators will be prosecuted (innocent until proven guilty!), or it takes on the mindset of a judge within the Western legal system as a way of seeing conflict. Judges seek a place of neutrality, with the assumption that they’ll eventually parcel out blame and punishment. Believing survivors gets conflated with rushing to a legal judgement. It’s true that believing survivors is a barrier to neutrality, and that’s why legalistic approaches tend to retraumatize survivors and enact new forms of violence. Feminists such as Andrea Smith have challenged this fetishism of law, pointing to the ways that law continues to uphold genocide, dispossession, exploitation and violence. “Rather than uphold the law,” she argues, “indigenous feminism demands that progressives work against the law.” In this sense, believing survivors isn’t a barrier to complexity; it’s the beginning of actually being able to address sexualized violence in our communities. So what would collective, compassionate responses to sexual assault look like? What would it mean to move beyond individualistic, principled stands?
There are already a bunch of collective responses to these questions, and unsurprisingly, they come out of feminism. More specifically, they come out of queer, indigenous, and anti-racist feminism. Genderqueer and trans folks, communities of colour, and indigenous communities have spearheaded most of these experiments, often with the recognition that cops and courts consistently compound violence in their communities, rather than alleviating it, so there’s less willingness to rely on the law and legalistic thinking.
The Revolution Starts at Home is a compilation of insights from folks who have confronted intimate partner violence. Numerous communities have developed collective responses to violence, which involves establishing alternatives to policing and incarceration while building supportive communities in the process, and reducing reliance on the legal system, often under the mantle of transformative justice. INCITE!, a collective of women of colour, has organized around this for over a decade, and has developed an extensive set of accessible resources. In some places, men are also taking more initiative to work with perpetrators and unpack rape culture amongst themselves, while trying to figure out how to be accountable to those most impacted by gender-based violence. This is just the tip of the iceberg.
There are already nascent alternatives to rape culture; we don’t have to start from scratch. We can learn from them, nurture them and proliferate them. In recent days, I’ve seen some men (and women) set themselves apart from feminism, claiming that it lacks complexity, nuance, or kindness. I’ve done this a bunch. But when I perceive feminism to be lacking complexity, I’m consistently reminded that this is my own failure to engage with feminist movements in more complex ways. This isn’t to say that there aren’t simplistic analyses written by feminists. Feminism isn’t a monolith, and there are plenty of contradictions. But men (especially white, heterosexual, middle-class men) consistently position ourselves the ones who see complexity, nuance, and other possibilities, casting feminism (and feminists) as inadequate. We rarely approach with curiosity and a willingness to learn.
The real complexities—and concrete possibilities—have been developed by those who are resisting the interconnected systems of rape culture, incarceration, heteropatriarchy, policing, ableism, colonization, white supremacy, capitalist exploitation, and environmental degradation, among others. Feminism is plenty complex.