By Jane Ward
Jane Ward is a guest blogger from the University of California Riverside and the author of Not Gay: Sex Between Straight White Men (2015).
All these mother fucking men. These men who grope and threaten and assault girls, boys, and women. They are finally going down. We are celebrating, so the commentators say. We are enraged, they say. Every pundit has something to say about what has happened to us—the “survivors” of rape culture.
We, it seems, are also being careful, strategic. We are whispering to one another, please don’t muddy the waters by talking about false equivalences right now. We are admonishing each other out of fear, please, I beg you not to distract from this powerful wellspring of feminist truths, this unstoppable testimony of violation and survival, by attending to gray areas and complexities. Not now. The stakes are too high. This is finally working! In trusted company we acknowledge these complexities, but we ask that they not be spoken outside our carefully guarded feminist chambers, where we trust they will be handled with great care.
But these complexities are not theoretical. And they are not private. Nor are they evidenced only by the starkest historical examples, such as Carolyn Bryant’s lies about Emmett Till, or the day-care satanic sexual abuse panic of the 1980s and 90s, or the lesbians now known as the San Antonio Four, falsely accused of sexual abuse in the mid 1990s (A case I’ll discuss further in a moment). The complexity—by which I mean the fact that seemingly feminist, zero-tolerance responses to sexual assault are often animated by racism, sexism, and heteronormativity rather than any kind of substantive feminist intervention—is the key fact for many of us, absolutely impossible to compartmentalize or put off for discussion until a more convenient time.
My partner and I—like many queer people—are included in this group of people for whom the complexities are often the real story, not the marginal notes. Three weeks ago, just as the #metoo campaign gained momentum, my partner—a genderqueer teacher at a public high school in Southern California, received a formal reprimand from the principal at her school. It seems a girl at the high school had been giving a boy, one of my partner’s art students, regular blowjobs in an art classroom during lunchtime. Having heard from another student that this was happening, the principal confiscated the students’ cell phones and found evidence in black and white: the girl had texted the boy expressing her excitement about the blowjobs she was planning to give him. Needing an adult to take the blame for these blowjobs, the principal explained that the school district considered placing my partner on a disciplinary leave, but ultimately decided a reprimand letter would be sufficient. In the reprimand they placed in my partner’s employment file, they described how she had “enabled obscene acts” by not supervising the students who had told her they were doing their homework in the classroom during lunch. The principal confessed that the whole thing was “sort of a cover-your-ass situation,” in case the school was subject to legal action initiated by the girls’ parents. The boy was given the choice to withdraw from school or be suspended for the remainder of the semester; he chose the latter. The girl was suspended for one week, cast largely as a “victim” of the boy’s sexuality. And my partner, she was asked to produce a response letter explaining why and how she had “failed to create a safe learning environment.”
Everything about this story is right out of the sex panic playbook. Consensual sex cast as abuse, girls’ sexual desire rendered invisible, boys’ sexual receptivity cast as aggression, teenagers imagined to be simultaneously sexless and obscene, safety and sex framed as mutually exclusive, the school imagined to be a sex-free environment, a queer teacher to blame for all of it, and the whole episode driven largely by instrumental concerns about liability. Even as school administrators invoked concepts like “safety” and “obscenity” in their formal communications, they made clear during less formal, in-person discussions with my partner that they did not “personally” believe she had behaved inappropriately. They just needed to follow the rules.
What my partner’s experience confirmed for me, as I simultaneously followed the public disavowals of sexual misconduct by Miramax, NBC, Netflix and so on, is that the answer to rape culture is not, and can never be, liability culture. Rape culture—and the use of sex as a weapon of power and discipline more broadly—is not undone by compliance with institutional policies that attempt to manage people’s unpredictable behavior, create sex-free institutional environments, and protect the institution from profit-disruption or lawsuits. What that kind of liability culture accomplishes is similar to what a parent spanking a child accomplishes: it trains people to avoid certain behaviors out of fear of punishment, and to develop an unreconciled split between what they actually think or want (e.g., the principal who did not really believe my partner was to blame for Blowjob Gate) and what they must publically say and do (e.g., blame a teacher so as to appear tough on anything resembling sexual misconduct).
Queer women have long been the scapegoats during times of mass fear about sexual victimization. Lesbians who interact with children, in particular, are always already embedded in histories of sexual suspicion and fear of predation. Four decades ago, Anita Bryant’s Save the Children campaign overturned employment discrimination protections across multiple states so as to ban lesbians and gay men—and in some cases, anyone friendly to gay men and lesbians—from working as teachers in public schools. Only twenty years ago, in the late 1990s, four Latina lesbians in San Antonio were falsely accused of gang-raping a little girl and spent 15 years in prison before being exonerated. Prosecutors used the women’s queerness as a motive, but their case was also bolstered by the satanic sex abuse panic that swept through the country in the years just prior. In 2001, queer comedian and foster mother Paula Poundstone was accused of lewd acts on a minor and her children were removed from her custody. Poundstone has consistently denied sexually touching her children (though she acknowledged that her alcoholism affected her parenting) and prosecutors ultimately dropped the lewd conduct charges.
Many queers, including queer women, are aware that queer life means risking accusations of having made other people uncomfortable, perhaps even making them feel violated, with our sexual excess or illegibility or unpredictability or boldness. It is for this reason that some of us cannot so immediately vilify the accused and “believe all women,” because we have been the accused, we have loved the accused, and we have watched institutions manufacture and take down the accused to protect their own interests. We have watched as liability concerns have posed as feminism (such as when university administrators have implemented “robust” sexual assault policies without seeming to have consulted a single feminist student or faculty member). We have witnessed people and institutions, unwilling to acknowledge that sex is part of institutional life (because humans are part of institutional life), attempt to train, report, discipline and sue their way out of dealing with the presence of sexual desires that make them uncomfortable (see Jennifer Doyle, Campus Sex, Campus Security) . Rather than grapple with a teenage girl excited to give a blowjob, they have cast their environment as unsafe.
I, for one, have long been a sexual problem. I grew up in a sex-talking house. I recall my father chasing my mom around the house, his arms outstretched, yelling “boobs! boobs!”—my mother running away laughing. I recall my brother, upon entering puberty, coming down the stairs and proudly announce the presence of a new “pube.” My mother, the most reserved of our bunch, laughed heartily at every ridiculous, juvenile sex joke on her favorite show, South Park. And for my part, I took my sex interests to school. In kindergarten, I organized a consensual butt-rubbing clinic in the girls’ bathroom, which was met with a severe spanking and public shaming by my teacher. In high school, I was sent to detention for noticing aloud that my friend Ashley’s boobs had grown, not finding out until later that the school had called a meeting with my mother in which they earnestly inquired whether I had been molested—because what else could explain such a brazen, sex-talking girl?
By high school I had learned that despite all efforts to cast me as a sexual victim, adults were worried I may be one of those girls who was a sexual problem. I was perhaps one of those girls from whom other girls needed protection.
My partner, too, was sometimes cast as one of these bad girls—accused and not accuser; perpetrator and not victim. Once, while she was in her elementary school, administrators found pages from a Playboy magazine in the trash can of the girls’ bathroom and subsequently launched a McCarthyesque investigation in which they asked all of the students to write down the name of someone they thought might have brought Playboy to school. While it turns out that my partner had not brought the magazine to school, she had, on earlier occasions, proudly shown three friends who had visited her house that her dad had a collection of this intriguing magazine. Hence, her name was written down three times, and she was subsequently subjected to an intense interrogation by several sex-panicked adults. Amazingly, when it was discovered several years later that she was on campus again (her brother was now a student at this elementary school and my partner walked there from her high school to be picked up along with her brother), she was told she was not allowed to enter the school because the Playboy images had continued to appear on campus. She remained their number one suspect. A few years later, when she came out as queer, the news about her lesbianism spread through her family and she was banned from interacting with some of her younger cousins. Cast, yet again, as a sexual threat.
These are common dyke stories: being the first suspect when sexual misbehavior is (or is imagined to be) afoot; being told to stay away from the children in one’s extended family; keeping your distance in locker rooms and bathrooms and other places where straight women presume the absence of same-sex desire and panic when they realize it could present. Dykes know what it means to be the accused.
And these experiences, too, are the context that shape queer people’s unyielding attention to the complexities and to the dangers of zero tolerance approaches “where rough justice stands in place of careful analysis, nuance and due process,” to quote Andrea Ramsey, the democratic candidate for Congress from Kansas, who dropped out of the race this week following a resurfacing of sexual harassment charges she has long denied.
We celebrate as the Weinstein monster is, we hope, blocked from wielding his shockingly unchecked power over not one more woman and her career. Let this, too, be the fate of President Trump, Russell Simmons, and anyone else who may be proven to have used their power to rape, assault, and repeatedly harass.
And yet in many other cases, truly different kinds of cases, we demand a deeper, historically-informed, intersectional analysis of the problem and its solutions. These include cases involving consensual sex between employees or students, unwanted kisses or touches that ended as soon as the uninterested party said no, sexual propositions deemed inappropriate or unprofessional by institutions but not by the people actually involved, the presence of sex or desire in places that some people would rather it was not present or between people disciplined into believing they are not supposed to desire one another (cross-racial desire, queer desire, cross-generational desire, etc.), and messy conflicts between people that may have a sexual element.
Queer people have good reason to fear any cultural turn in which these sorts of situations are collapsed under the same zero-tolerance umbrella as rape and sexual assault. Because while they are coming for Al Franken now, we recall that they have come for us, and we know they may come again.