A Low-Grade Fever: On Aziz Ansari’s Comeback Netflix Special

Sexual violence

Maybe it was his nice-guy image or the fact that Master of None was so endearing. Maybe it was because the scene of mounting sexual pressure “Grace” described was, unlike the outsized horror of the Harvey Weinstein or Bill Cosby allegations, so disturbingly familiar. Whatever it was, for women across the internet, the sexual assault accusations against Aziz Ansari, detailed on Babe.net in January 2018, hit close to home. 

Read more at The Horizontal. Photo credit:  David Shankbone CC BY 3.0


The Girl Who Jumped Out of a Pie and Into a Gilded Age Morality Tale

Food, Sexual violence, Sexuality, trauma

ON MAY 20, 1895, 16-YEAR-OLD Susie Johnson, wearing nothing but gauze and haloed by a flock of live canaries, burst through the crust of a giant pie. It was polo player John Ellliot Cowdin’s 10th wedding anniversary, and the dinner was lavish: 16 courses from clams to coffee, each punctuated by champagne. Two models entertained the male guests. There was a later rumor—likely apocryphal—that their hair color was coordinated with the wine, the brunettes pouring red, the blondes pouring white. Susie Johnson, dancing out of double-crust pastry, served herself.

Read more at Atlas Obscura. Photo: Hugo Aitken/Unsplash.

Dealing with Complicated Feelings Around Abusers

mental health, Sexual violence, trauma

Recently, a man I know was outed as a serial sexual harasser. I say “know” in a rather unfortunate sense: I’d been approached online by, went on a date with, and even kissed the guy a couple years ago. His too-forward sexual advances had always left a bad taste in my mouth.

When the revelations went live, with dozens of women telling stories of his disrespectful and aggressive behavior, I felt happy he was exposed, yet ashamed I hadn’t listened to my gut instincts. I blamed myself for overlooking his boorish behavior and letting my hope that he could end up being a decent guy take precedence over the warning bells clanging in my head.

Giving that man the benefit of the doubt was not my fault. And if you’ve stayed with an abusive partner, or even given a guy a second chance after he harassed you, it’s not your fault, either. The pressure to be kind, generous, and forgiving — especially as women — is drummed into our heads from birth.

Read the complete article at Talkspace. Featured image: Court Prather on Unsplash

One Year After #MeToo

mental health, Sexual violence, trauma

The day after Dr. Christine Blasey Ford testified before congress about her experience of sexual violence in relation to Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN) received the highest number of calls in its 24-year history. More than 3,000 people connected with the network on September 28, part of a record-breaking increase in the number of survivors of sexual violence requesting services since the #MeToo movement began last year.

Read the complete post at Talkspace. Featured image: Mihai Surdu on Unsplash

Harsher Punishments Won’t Keep Kids Safe from Sexual Abuse: The Death Penalty in India

$4 Wine, India, Sexual violence, social justice

When rape makes the headlines in India, talk of hanging begins. Commentators blare from news screens; politicians pledge death. These stories of brutal crime and brutal punishment, all in the name of protecting women and girls, tell us something  important about contemporary Indian responses to rape. They also tell us about a fundamental flaw in our thinking about sexual violence and punishment across contexts: a mistaken idea that the primary threat to women and children is from the “outside” or the “stranger” rather than our own homes.

The death penalty has emerged as a response to rape in India two major incidents in the past few years. After the horrific rape and murder of Jyoti Singh, known in the international news as Nirbhaya, “the fearless one,” on December 16, 2012, demands for the death penalty clamored. Five years later, the Indian Supreme Court, which recently has been restrained in its approval of the death penalty generally, approved the hanging of four of Jyoti Singh’s murderers (one had killed himself in prison; one, a juvenile, had already served his time).

The death penalty has emerged again following the disturbing rape and murder of Asifa. Asifa was a Muslim nomadic child, gang raped and killed in a Hindu temple by a group of Hindu men who wanted to send a gristly, unthinkable warning to the Muslim nomadic people to cede their traditional land use rights. In the outpouring of grief and anger afterward, the Indian cabinet approved the death penalty as punishment for the rape of a child under twelve.

This is precisely opposite the response to rape advocated by Indian feminists. Following the rape and murder of Jyoti Singh, a group of Indian feminists were appointed to the Justice Verma Committee constituted under the former Chief Justice of India to draft a proposal for improvements to India’s rape law. The report’s suggestionsincluded criminalizing marital rape, which remains legal; reviewing the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), which gives the military impunity in contested regions of India, and which has been used to prevent prosecution for military sexual violence; and a Bill of Rights for Women, which would specifically ensure women’s sexual autonomy in relationships. The Justice Verma Committee Report was specifically opposed to the death penalty. Yet none of the previous three recommendations have been made law; the death penalty, meanwhile, nearly has been.

It’s almost cartoonishly clear where the state’s priorities are: tough, even fatal punishment rather than the promotion of women’s rights and autonomy and the checking of state impunity.

But who is this tough punishment for? Contained within the notion that people who rape children should be killed is a set of assumptions about who these people are—and who these people aren’t. This mistaken idea should be familiar to Americans living in a “tough on crime” landscape of sex offender registries and life-long jail sentences: that people who rape children are strangers, recognizably dangerous and sinister, and that the problem of sexual violence and the sexual abuse of children can be snuffed out like someone’s breath at the end of the rope.

This is false. While the media focuses on the figure of the evil stranger abuser, and while cases of stranger sexual violence like Jyoti Singh’s and Asifa’s are especially brutal and deserve all the outrage they got, these cases are not representative of sexual violence as a whole. In India, according to the the 2016 National Crime Records Bureau report, 94.6% of girls and women are raped by people known to them. In the United States, 93% of children who are sexually abused know the perpetrator, and of the thousands of cases a year investigated by Child Protective Services, 80% of perpetrators were a parent, according to RAINN. Most of these cases happen in private; most are covered up or go unreported.

In this context, the death penalty is not only archaic, evil, and a violation of human rights—it is utterly ineffective. As Indian human rights groups, feminists, the Delhi High Court, and child rights groups have already argued, the death penalty and similar lifelong punishments against rapists would be ineffective as a deterrent and unequally applied. Even more disturbing, in the Indian case, imposing the death penalty for rape possibly incentivizes a perpetrator to murder a victim, as the punishment for murder is life in prison rather than the death sentence.

The proposal that rape should be punishable by death—when murder in India, in contrast, is punishable by up to life in prison—suggests several ideological assumptions about rape and rape victims. It suggests that rape is worse than murder; that being raped is worse than being killed; and that if a child is raped, they are, to use the Hindi phrase bandied about by conservative politicians after Jyoti Singh’s murder, a “zinda lash”—a “living corpse.”

The death sentence also implicitly denies the actual conditions and likely perpetrators of child sexual abuse: family, caretakers, or acquaintances in private spaces. There is evidence that permanent punishments (like the sex offender registry in the American context) actually serve as a disincentive to report perpetrators, who may be the victim’s caretaker, material provider, or relative. In a context where targeting of rape victims by the family or even murder to cover up a rape is not uncommon, drastic punishments would incentivize family members to cover up the crime and shun the victim.

For most of us who are opposed to the death penalty anyway, it seems easy enough to reject the punishment for cases of child sexual abuse. It is more difficult to confront the underlying reality that our “safe” homes and communities may be deeply violent. Sexual violence is not a monster in whose heart to drive a stake; it is a social and political problem, and it can only be solved through social and political means. Actually supporting survivors means centering their need for safety and healing, encouraging family accountability, and intervening to prevent people at risk of perpetrating, like pedophiles, from perpetrating in the first place. It means being willing to confront the reality that what we fear out there is often, in fact, contained within the intimate.

Read the original article at Feministing. Cover photo: anti-sexual violence protest on 22 December, 2012. Nilanjana Roy, Wikimedia Commons

Chokhri, a New Sexual Health Project, Maps Marital Rape and Abortion in India

Health, India, Sexual violence, Sexuality

There’s a scene about birth control in the questionably feminist 2017 Hindi flick Lipstick Under My Burqa that stuck with me. Shireen, whose abusive husband rapes her and refuses to use condoms, goes to the gynecologist for another abortion. The gynecologist tells her she can’t keep having abortions and using the morning after pill, and the only other form of available birth control is the condom. Shireen, however, knows her husband won’t use them.

Hold up, I thought, sitting in the theater. What about the pill? After all, I get my pack easily available at my handy-dandy local Delhi pharmacy, prescription-free, for the grand total of 60 rupees (about 88 cents) a month. Easy, peasy, preventing pregnancy. Why wasn’t this fictional gynecologist suggesting that this lady who clearly needs a covert and independent form of birth control use the pill?

That wasn’t the first time I’d noticed a difference in the politics of contraception, and specifically the daily pill, in India versus in the United States. Compared to my friends at home, many if not most of whom are on the pill, none of my heterosexually-active women friends here uses the pill for birth control (more, in fact, use the morning after pill). I’ve had a lot of conversations about this, and friends pointed to many factors affecting our different attitudes toward hormonal contraceptives: mistrust for Western medicine, a mistrust for pharmaceutical companies, and lack of sex education in homes and schools (of course, far from an India-specific phenomenon). Friends also pointed to the role of state-sponsored family planning programs, exclusively geared toward married women and including sometimes-fatal forced sterilization, in sowing justified mistrust towards contraception programs as a potential act of state control. Finally, while we had these conversations among ourselves, there was a distinct lack of sexual and reproductive health resources on even our progressive university campus.

One new site is looking to change this. Called Chokhri, a Hindi word meaning “girl” (but in a pejorative, “woman of ill repute” kind of way), the site aims to create crowd-sourced maps of sexual assault, workplace sexual harassment, abortion access, and marital or intimate partner rape. While crowd-sourced maps of gendered violence aren’t new, Chokhri’s approach is important. First, the project includes a map of marital or intimate partner rape, which remains legal in India, and which is often overlooked in favor of sensationalized accounts of public sexual violence by lower-class and caste men against upper-class and caste women.

Second, the map of abortion access is useful in sparking a conversation about particularly young, unmarried women’s access to reproductive healthcare and contraception. In a social context where premarital sex is certainly common but remains quite taboo, discrimination and moral policing against sexually active unmarried women by gynecologists and other medical professionals is rampant. Meanwhile, there is a massive problem of sex-selective abortion against female fetuses, which contributes to a highly skewed sex ratio and the devaluing of girls’ lives. Yet access to abortion remains difficult particularly for poor and unmarried women. This is especially true considering that, while abortion by doctor’s recommendation to protect the health of a woman or in the case of rape is universally legal, elective abortion (abortion in case of contraceptive failure) is  technically only legal for married women. While  unmarried women can access elective abortion under-the-table even in reputed clinics, stigma and socioeconomic constraints mean that access remains an issue.

Chokhri’s demographic seems highly skewed toward young, English-speaking urban women, which definitely limits the scope of experiences it can represent. Yet the videos on its Twitter, featuring young women talking openly about sexual health, are great in a context where sexual health resources remain largely inaccessible even for privileged women.

Check out the site (plus an awesome cover image!) here, the Twitter feed (with videos!) here, and Vice India’sinterview with the site’s founder, Rashi Wadhera, here.

Read the original article here. Featured Image via Victor Byckttor at Wikimedia Commons.

Is There a “Gray Zone” in Consent?

Sexual violence

If you’ve ever made a formal complaint of gendered violence, you might have felt that translating raw experience into the language of law is like describing a walk through the forest using only the formal scientific names of the trees. Whereas in lived reality, you saw the sunlight filtered green through the leaves, noted the precise shine off a beetle’s shell, and started at the sudden call of a bird, in telling it everything becomes technical, different. Whereas in lived reality, you were muddling through your discomforts, trying to use the right language to send the right signals, sometimes not sure what you wanted, the law is black and white. Did a sexual assault happen or didn’t it happen? Is there evidence?

It’s hard to translate the complexities of power, intimacy, and sexuality into a cohesive narrative for our own understanding, let alone to lodge a formal complaint. The schemas that feminists write in anti-domestic violence or sexual harassment pamphlets can seem simple, neat renditions of power and violence on the page, but when we look at some of our own experiences we may find them complex.

This complexity has been described by some as the “gray zone,” or the idea that there is a space between consent and non-consent. Katie Roiphe opined on the concept in her 1993 book The Morning After, in which she argued that college campus feminists’ activism against rape infantilized women by redefining ambiguously coercive sexual encounters as rape. Roiphe has continued to argue that contemporary feminists’ widening of the definition of rape is a puritanical infantilization of women in the guise of progressive politics. Laura Sessions Stepp, meanwhile, popularized the idea in her 2007 Cosmopolitan article about “gray rape,” or young women’s ambiguous experiences of assault or sexual coercion, often involving alcohol.

But there’s one problem: The “gray zone” idea has often functioned as a tactic to minimize or dismiss violence, and therefore evade accountability, by claiming that sex is inherently a murky, illegible realm.

Feminists on the other side of the debate respond to this by saying that consent is, after all, quite simple: It’s a freely-given, enthusiastic “yes” which is clearly and unambiguously signaled, as simple as figuring out whether or not someone wants tea.

I’ve used this consent-is-black-and-white line in my own work. And yet a dissonance remains. Just as the translation of sexual violence or harassment from lived experience to legal complaint can reveal those aspects of experience that remain fraught and ambiguous in our own minds, our experiences of gender, power, and violence are not always black and white. That is not to say that all experiences of sexual violence are somehow elusive or ambiguous; there are plenty of clear and egregious instances of violence in which the idea of the “gray zone” is a strategy used to sow doubt in the minds of victims.

But in many of our lived experiences, there is complexity. Perhaps an experience involves multiple kinds of intersecting power—class, race, sexuality, gender—or takes place in the context of an intimate relationship with power dynamics we can’t quite parse. For many of us, the complexity may revolve around the question of enthusiastic consent: Did I or my partner indicate it clearly enough?

These tensions recently came into relief in the discussion surround the Babe story on Aziz Ansari, a tale of a night of “bad sex” or sexual assault that is unsettling, yet ubiquitous. Feminist analyses of the incident emphasized that it was precisely the banality of the story that prompted pushback. If we admit that this is assault, many writers argued, we must reinterpret many of our own experiences, and that scares us; it means uprooting what we understand about intimacy, each other, ourselves. The more unflinching a gaze we turn to the violence of our own gender norms, the more we understand that coercion itself is a continuum.

There is a distinction, however, between acknowledging the complexity of gendered violence, and endorsing the idea that consent is an unknowable “gray zone.” Because power is multilayered, advocates of the “gray zone” logic argue, we can shrug consent off as an inherently flawed framework and accept that some degree of coercion in inalienable to sex. But when we think of gendered violence as complex, moments of ambiguity or discomfort don’t lead us to reject the responsibility of consent. They rather push us to ask deeper questions about how gender and power shape our intimacies and how consent itself is enabled or hindered by power relations. Experiences that feel violating yet ambiguous challenge us to think of violence as a spectrum of power and coercion, rather than a simple dichotomy between “good sex” and “rape.”

Katie Roiphe argues as much herself, albeit with the wrong conclusion, in her 2011 New York Times article, “In Favor of Dirty Jokes and Risque Remarks”:

The so-called rape epidemic on campuses is more a way of interpreting, a way of seeing, than a physical phenomenon. It is more about a change in sexual politics than a change in sexual behavior . . . We all agree that rape is a terrible thing, but we no longer agree on what rape is . . . The lines between rape and sex begin to blur.

Roiphe is right: It’s not that suddenly, more people are being sexually harassed or sexually assaulted. It’s that we’re now labelling a lot of experiences as sexual violence when we didn’t previously understand them as such. And it’s true: That creates uncertainty about the meaning of rape, and of gendered violence more generally, and calls into question the “normal” idea of sex.

But here’s where I (and many of us) differ from Roiphe, and it’s a big difference. Whereas she takes the expanding definition of violence to indicate a society of puritanical paranoia, we take it to indicate a serious and important interrogation, in which violent gender norms can be revealed, reevaluated, and changed. This interrogation calls for us not only to expand our idea of violence, but to expand our critique of norms around gender and sexuality in general. If it is a normal experience for women to feel violated during sex, there is something wrong with “normal” sex. That doesn’t mean all patriarchal sex is rape. That doesn’t mean all sex which is uncomfortable, violating, or even coercive can be or should be criminal. That does mean we have to expand not only what we consider sexually violent, but how we respond to sexual violence.

If we understand sexual violence as necessarily committed against an innocent woman by an evil man who must be punished with years of jail time—then yes, it will be difficult for many of us to understand our own, daily experiences of violation as rape or assault. When we understand sexual violence as a coercive violation of someone’s bodily autonomy which is enabled by social power imbalances—which can be addressed through multiple processes of justice—we give ourselves the space to articulate our own experiences in all their complexity.

I don’t think consent is always simple. Power and intimacy are as complex as we are, and at the end of the day human intimacy is more fraught than tea time. But that doesn’t mean that consent is a useless framework, that sex occurs in some amoral “gray zone,” or that we’re somehow off the hook for ensuring that our own encounters are enthusiastically consensual. It means, rather, that when we acknowledge the complexity of our lived experiences of power and violence, we find that creating genuine sexual equality requires much more than firing a few men or sending them to jail (though these things can be important). It requires the creation of a new normal.

Read the original piece at Feministing. Header image: 2018 Women’s March in New York City, Wikimedia Commons.

Justice for Asifa: Sexual Violence, Religious Conflict, and the Politics of Outrage

India, movements, Sexual violence

On January 17, Muhammad Yusuf Pujwala and Naseema Bibi saw the body of their eight year old daughter, Asifa Bano. The child, a member of the nomadic Bakerwal community, a Muslim herding community residing in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, had been missing for several days. While her parents hoped for her safe return, they were greeted with the worst possible news: Their child had been raped, physically tortured, and murdered.

While Asifa was killed three months ago, the case has just gained enormous traction in the Indian and international media now. That’s partly because of the sheer human brutality of the violence, and that too on a child. But the murder of Asifa has also prompted nationwide outrage and serious interrogation over religious and ethnic violence, and how sexual violence is used as a tool of domination. Preliminary reports reveal that Asifa, a Muslim nomadic girl, was raped by a group of men from the dominant Hindu community, including a police officer and retired government official, in a Hindu temple explicitly in order to terrorize her community. The violence visited on Asifa should be a cause for anger for any person, and especially anyone who cares about gender issues: For the person she was, the person she cannot be, and the many girls and women like Asifa whose attacks and murders do not get global attention. It should also prompt serious self-interrogation on the use of sexual violence as a tool of political, racial and material domination in the U.S. — from the sexualized war crimes at Abu Ghraib to ICE officers committing sexual violence against immigrant women.

Religious Violence and Official Complicity

Jammu is a Hindu-majority region in the Muslim-majority state of Jammu and Kashmir, in a Hindu-majority country currently ruled by a right-wing, Hindu nationalist governing party, the BJP. Kashmir itself has long been the site of political violence, as many Kashmiris reject Indian rule in favor of independence or accession to Pakistan, believing the Indian army’s presence in Kashmir to be an illegal occupation. Indeed, Kashmir is the most heavily militarized zone in the world, and the Indian army has been suspected or found guilty of numerous and egregious human rights violations in Kashmir, from the use of human shields to the widespread sexual violence committed by Indian soldiers in the villages of Kunan and Pushpora.

It is impossible to consider Asifa’s case without considering this context. That’s because a preliminary investigation has revealed that Asifa was tortured and killed not only as an act of misogynistic violence, but also of religious and ethnic violence, by local men of the dominant Hindu community who wished to chase away the Bakerwal community out of resentment of their Muslim faith and nomadic lifestyle. The perpetrators claimed that Bakerwals were trying to overtake the dominant Hindu population, both demographically and through land use. It is a chilling detail that the place where Asifa was kept and tortured for four days was a Hindu temple.

Asifa’s case has also revealed a chilling level of official complicity. The accused consist of a retired government official and four policemen, who have also been accused of tampering with evidence. Asifa’s family and lawyer have been facing intimidation from both the local community and officials: A violent local group prevented them from burying the child’s body in the local cemetery and they were initially intimidated not to report the crime. On top of this, two BJP Members of the State Legislative Assembly participated in protests in defense of the accused, in full public view. While they have since been fired from their posts by the state’s Chief Minister, their presence there to begin with suggests a troubling impunity.

National Response

Asifa’s rape and murder is one in a long string of sexual assault cases that has challenged the public conscience in India in recent memory. The 2002 Gujarat riots witnessed widespread mostly anti-Muslim violence, including the burning of Muslims’ shops, murder of Muslim people, and severe sexual violence against Muslim women. This is violence has been tacitly endorsed by some politicians affiliated with the ruling party, for example in the notorious threat of one right-wing state governor’s supporter at a political rally that Hindu men should rape the corpses of Muslim women.

In the past couple years, the December 16, 2012 rape and murder of Delhi’s Jyoti Singh, dubbed Nirbhaya, or “fearless,” by the media, also spurred a massive nationwide movement. This led to the adoption of some (but not all) suggested progressive measures to prevent sexual violence. In another recent case, an 18-year-old woman attempted to immolate herself in front of the Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister’s residence, saying she was raped by a state legislator from the ruling party.

Debates around Asifa’s case have focused on how exactly to understand the role of religion and identity in the violence. Progressive writers and activists have argued that it’s impossible to separate Asifa’s identity as a girl from her identity as a Bakerwal and Muslim, especially considering the stated aims of the perpetrators. Protests — of students, workers, politicians, feminists, Bakerwals, and other citizens — have raged across India, demanding justice for Asifa and accountability in preventing future sexual violence against girls and women.

We should be outraged about what has happened to Asifa. But stopping at outrage is easy. What’s harder, but more necessary upon witnessing such violence, is to use our outrage as an invitation for self-reflection. What happened to Asifa is about her own life, but it is also about the persistence of ethnic, religious, and resource-based violence that plays out brutally on the bodies of girls and women across the world. As we look toward the Justice for Asifa protests in India, we should also look at ourselves: Who are the Asifas among us, women whose bodies have been made into battlefields, yet whose stories remain to be told?

Read the original piece at Feministing.

My abusive partner promises they’ll change. Will they?

mental health, Relationships, Sexual violence

“I promise I’ll change.”

These are four words most people in a relationship with an abusive partner have probably heard. Longed-for yet dreaded, the words can offer both hope and disappointment. Hope that things really will get better this time, and disappointment when, inevitably, the abusive behavior—whether emotional, physical, or verbal—begins all over again.

We’ve all heard that a leopard can’t change its spots. But what about an abusive partner?

Are Abusive Partners Capable of Real Change?

Many experts say it is possible for abusive partners to change. Yet false promises to change are often a way to keep victims in abusive relationships. So how do you know when a pledge to change is real—and when it’s just an empty promise?

The truth is, there’s no magical formula to make an abusive person change. And as much as you may care about your partner and wish things were different, no one can “make” anyone else change at all—they have to do that for themselves. But there are signs we can look for to tell a false promise from a real effort. Ultimately, real accountability begins when the abusive partner acknowledges their abuse, genuinely commits to changing, and prioritizes the feelings, experiences, and desires of their victims over themselves.

While change is possible, it’s hard to do and it takes a lot of time. If you’ve been in an abusive relationship, remember: You deserve safety, respect, and love. You can’t make anybody else change. But you can care for yourself. You can decide what you need to lead a happy, healthy, and free life, including whether, when, and how to leave the relationship. And you can love yourself with all the patience, passion, and ferocity with which you love others. You deserve it.


Read the full piece at Talkspace.

Is #metoo a moral panic? Not if we’re clear about our values.

Sexual violence

Last month, in response to a profile of pornography literacy programs, conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat wrote an op-ed entitled “Let’s Ban Porn.” In it, Douthat argued that banning porn was not just feminist but also the logical conclusion of the #metoo movement’s quest for better sex. After all, Douthat argues, “It was only a generation ago that the unlikely (or was it?) alliance of feminists and religious conservatives made the regulation of pornography a live political debate.”

Douthat was immediately criticized by progressives for his argument, and there is a lot that remains to be written specifically about how his argument perpetuates stigma against sex work. But right now I want to take a closer look at Douthat’s argument that there should be an alliance between the #metoo movement and a conservative position on sexuality. This suggestion reveals a lot about the contradictory attitude toward sexual violence that we’ve seen in debates around #metoo.

Here’s the paradox. While most people will tell you they’re against sexual violence, most people, in practice, condone it. I don’t mean that all people actively support or commit sexual violence. But many of us have excused violations of consent through our words or actions (jokes, comments, dismissals). We’ve watched abuse happen and refuse to intervene. Plenty of people voted for Roy Moore.

This contradiction — that we as a society both deplore sexual violence and, in practice, mostly tolerate it — is one of the central tensions of #metoo and its backlash. I think understanding this contradiction requires getting to the root of why, precisely, we are against sexual violence. Why do we believe sexual violence is wrong? What assumptions are we operating from?

Much of the time, as a society, I don’t think we actually mind violence so much. Instead, I think what really bothers us about sexual violence is sex. Hence Douthat’s argument that #metoo and a conservative anti-pornography position are natural bedmates: Because implicit in our culture’s condemnation of sexual violence isn’t actually a condemnation of violence — it’s a condemnation of sex.

To understand this, let’s delve a little bit into the history of American attitudes towards rape. Historically in American law, rape was never actually considered a violation of someone’s autonomy or an issue of social equality, but a property crime. By taking a woman’s “chastity” without lawful entitlement to it (husbands, as rightful owners of a woman’s sexual labor, weren’t convicted of rape until 1976), a man robbed that woman of her value, thus committing a crime against family and community. Since for much of American history women effectively had no legal identity beyond their father or the husband, a woman’s consent wasn’t the major factor in determining whether sex was ethical or legal (and men legally could not be considered victims of rape).

It wasn’t only who you had sex with that mattered; it was what kind of sex you had. Alongside the notion that women’s sexuality was the rightful property of her husband was a schema for what kinds of sex were acceptable and unacceptable, and even legal and illegal, based on ideas of sexual morality. A whole host of sexual acts — queer sex, anal sex, pedophilia — were grouped together as deviant. Under this framework, it didn’t matter whether particular sex acts were consensual or not; doing them at all was bad, and people who did them would corrupt “moral” society.

For example, anti-sodomy laws, only struck down by the Supreme Court in 2003, tended not to make a distinction between consensual anal sex and rape. This reveals an emphasis on what kind of sex you’re having and with whom rather than whether all partners consented. And it’s this thinking that gave us, for example, the longstanding stereotype that gay people molest children; since both sodomy and pedophilia were considered deviant, there was no differentiation between consensual adult queer sex and assaulting a child. Under a feminist framework, on the other hand, the former is okay because it’s consensual, and the latter is wrong because the power imbalance between adult and child makes it inherently non-consensual.

Sodomy laws have been struck down in the United States, and rape is now considered a crime against the victim themself, not their male relatives. But the remnants of this system of thinking about rape, in which sexual deviance and social roles matter more than consent, stubbornly cling to our collective notion of sex and violence.

Douthat’s suggestion that #metoo and a conservative anti-porn stance are natural bedmates comes precisely from this kind of thinking. The notion that we should ban porn is inherently anti-sex because it assumes that sex is more naturally obscene than any other topic and thus deserves to be singled out for censorship. It also suggests that abusive labor conditions should specifically be outlawed in the porn industry, but apparently tolerated in other industries. We can tell, then, that the root of the argument isn’t a problem with violence — it’s a problem with sexual violence. Emphasis on the “sexual.”

I think this confusion between condemning sex and condemning violence explains a lot of our ambivalence toward rape. Even the broad category used by many in the media during the #metoo reckoning — “sexual misconduct” — carries with it the suggestion of sexual impropriety rather than sexual discrimination — implying a harm to good manners rather than a harm to equality.

We can see this thinking lingering in how we as a society talk about different instances of sexual assault. The same man who would explode if someone raped his daughter may joke about someone raping a sex worker. The same woman who is sympathetic toward a friend raped by a stranger may minimize a friend raped by her husband. An “innocent” victim of sexual assault may gain more sympathy than someone assaulted in jail.

In each of these cases, we can see that the values we make decisions about can be based more on our idea of social propriety — who is a worthy victim or a “bad” one, what kinds of sexual violation are acceptable and unacceptable — than on a commitment to justice. If we’re focusing on consent, on the other hand, the above scenarios are all wrong, and violence done to more socially vulnerable people may even be worse.

So: Is #metoo a moral panic? No — but it can easily be hijacked by concerns of sexual morality rather than sexual equality. Making sure it doesn’t requires that we examine our own reactions to news of sexual violence and the reasons and motivations behind these reactions. If we equate sexual violence with sexual perversion, focusing on lurid stories rather than the social harm they cause, #metoo will become a moral panic. If we take some kinds of violence more seriously than others based on a vague notion of the “respectability” of the victim, #metoo will become a moral panic. If politicians declare they’re against sexual violence because they “have a daughter” rather than because all people have a fundamental right to equality and autonomy, then #metoo will become a moral panic.

But if we stick to our ethical guns, examine our own motivations, and prioritize an understanding of power, #metoo is a revolution.

Read the original article on Feministing.