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Just Joking: Notes on the Comedy of Hannah Gadsby By Jack Halberstam

9 Aug

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In an interview with Indie Wire recently, Hannah Gadsby ripped into the now-disgraced comedian, Louis C.K.: “He’s a joke now,” she said, “and it is important to keep making that joke.” This, in A very large nutshell, is the essence of Hannah Gadsby’s comedy – time’s up fellas, the joke’s on you! While, I am not the biggest fan of Nanette, I recently went to see Hannah Gadsby’s latest comedy show, Douglas, in New York City. The parts of Nanette that I loved were the relentless pressure on white men to “pull their fucking socks up,” the critiques of gay pride (“the pressure on my people to express our identity and pride through the metaphor of party is very intense”), the quick dismissal of the download-1rainbow flag (“very shouty”), the exasperation with white male rage (“what have they got to be angry about”) and the attempts to reveal the absurdities of white patriarchal logic.

The parts of Douglas with which I was less enamored were the dog references, all of them, and the homilies and life lessons collected from around the edges of comedy – “Punch lines need trauma because punch lines need tension, and tension feeds trauma.” Punch lines need trauma? Hmm, not sure, but maybe comedy in general does. Or how about: “we think it’s more important to be right than it is to appeal to the humanity of people we disagree with.” Or: “Ignorance will always walk amongst us because we will never know all of the things.” In other words, the pedagogical impulse is strong in Gadsby, sometimes too strong, you could even call her “dogmatic” (that is my one and only dog joke, I promise): “I need to tell my story properly because you learn from the part of the story you focus on.” This sense that we should learn something from Gadsby perhaps interrupts the humor and the ‘gazing into the abyss’ moments in the show more than I would like (“I believe we could paint a better world if we learned to see it from all perspectives”). In fact, the really effective pedagogical moments in Gadsby’s show come from her ability to wrap audiences around her finger, to pull us to the brink of hilarity one minute and drop us down into the plough of despond the next. I like that she drops us into those deep holes without promising rescue, I appreciate that pleasure is not her only objective, and I love that she is still angry.

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downloadGadsby’s show, Nanette, was a surprise hit last year on Netflix and it has garnered her thousands of fans (including celebrities, like Emma Thompson) and not a few detractors. The fans loved Gadsby’s open repudiation of the stand-up comedy genre and they were moved by her brutal honesty about what it is like to grow up gender-queer in a small place – Tasmania in her case. Her detractors, most popularly Hilton Als in The New Yorker, felt emotionally manipulated by some of her work and saw not a truthful performance but a performance of authenticity. Fans laughed and they cried; detractors claimed Gadsby was not even funny. So, what is the popular appeal of Hannah Gadsby and should we be suspicious of it? Is she a TERF (a Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist) as some have claimed (and the term is used promiscuously online to signify everything from a 70’s cultural feminist to a transphobic parent to, apparently, a lesbian comedian) or is she, like Alison Bechdel, one of the very few butch artists to access mainstream success? Is her stand-up wholly original or just a new take on a very formulaic genre?

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So just to get the obvious stuff out of the way – yes, Douglas is funny and brilliant. No, you do not laugh at every line because that is not how stand-up works. Is Gadsby a TERF? Well, not in terms of arguing for essential womanhood, nor in terms of bashing trans women, nor in the sense of investing in women-born women spaces. But,  she has a TERF-y focus on the harm done by men to women and a tendency not to place that harm in larger context involving race and class. No, I do not think Gadsby is a TERF, but how about a BARF – Butch Autistic Radical Feminist? Is she really autistic? This is another question thrown about online. As she says in Douglas, Gadsby’s autism is self-diagnosed. In the show, she lists the symptoms of autism as: an inability to read social cues, a struggle with intimate relations, a preference for a cup of tea over a sex party in a dungeon, a tendency to lose her temper and “blow up like a puffer fish” when angered, emotional limitations. I am not an expert on autism, but I am an expert on butches and can I just say that the symptoms for autism in Gadsby’s case and the characteristics of old-school stone butches bear an uncanny similarity!? Gadsby’s autism is “real” inasmuch as she experiences it as a set of debilitating symptoms. But, it is also by now a large part of her very lucrative public performance.

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Finally, on the unfair critique front, is Gadsby boring, unfunny or a trauma queen? No, no and maybe. I think it would be very hard to say that a stand-up comedian who keeps most of her audience on the edge of their seats for nearly two hours is boring. And while, I often find comedians funny but rarely laugh out loud during a show, I laughed out loud during Douglas several times and the audience around me was often in stitches. As for the trauma queen or, in this case, king – yes, Gadsby is quite enamored with her own trauma – “punchlines need trauma.” And sometimes, the problem with trauma is that it has a telescoping effect, making it hard to see around one’s cone of pain, hard to relativize your struggle, hard to see the world beyond it. As Hilton Als wrote in his gentle take-down of Gadsby: “Gadsby, in her work, espouses a kind of puritan-minded radicalism in which someone else is always to blame for how messed up she feels. But isn’t that messed-up feeling life? And what about other lives? What about the millions who have it worse, who are fighting to survive?” Ok, not so gentle, but Als hits the mark on what is missing from some of Gadsby’s riffs – namely, the ability to situate her trauma in relation to the trauma of others and the “messed-up feeling” that we call “life.”

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Hand drawn sketch style Tasmanian Devil isolated on white background. Vector illustration.

When I was in Tasmania recently, indeed, I met several wonderful butches, butches who, like Gadsby, felt traumatized by the homophobic environment of a place that did not repeal its anti-homosexuality laws until 1997! These other butches (“my people,” Gadsby might say) gave a context for Gadsby and she suddenly seemed less unique, less like a rare bird in the wild and more like a solid member of a fairly robust species. Tasmania is a place knee-deep in trauma but not all of it attaches to queers. Indeed, white queers in Tasmania can easily be placed within another national context, a different inflection of “my people,” and in relation not to a punch-line but what is called there “the black line.” The National Museum of Australia explains, that when European settlers arrived in Tasmania in 1830, the native population fought back against the occupation of their land. In response, the museum notes with no hint of condemnation: “Lieutenant-Governor George Arthur ordered thousands of able-bodied settlers to form what became known as the ‘Black Line’, a human chain that crossed the settled districts of Tasmania. The line moved south over many weeks in an attempt to intimidate, capture, displace and relocate the remaining Aboriginal people.” This “black line” was basically a genocidal project and part of what was called the “Black War.” The colonists sought to eliminate Aboriginal people from their own land and by 1847, only 40 native people remained. By 1876, they were all dead.

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This is a grim history, a deeply traumatic history, and it is one from which all white people in Tasmania have benefitted. And I don’t link Gadsby’s show to this history simply to force a trauma comparison. Rather, the world view of the settler colonial both informs Gadsby and is an important part of the ideology that presumably she wants to shatter. And so, the fact that this history plays no role in her show, means that we get a snapshot of homophobic Tasmania but no sense of the carnage that laid the foundations for decades of settler colonial violence and for this particularly brutal form of national homophobia and toxic white masculinity. Remember, it is Gadsby who says: “I believe we could paint a better world if we learned to see it from all perspectives.” One wants to answer that there’s a pretty big perspective missing from the picture she paints.

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Trauma in Gadsby’s world then is real but possibly much more layered and multi-faceted than she lets on. And, on account of this, the strength of her show – her take down of white men – might also be its weakness: her targets, it seems, are only misogyny and homophobia but colonial racism is nowhere to be found. This is in part the critique launched by Hilton Als. In his widely circulated review of Gadsby’s Douglas, Als, complained that Gadsby’s shows only play to and in anticipation of the white-male critical voice. He comments: “The idea that a Black gay writer like me would come from New York to see and appreciate her performance doesn’t figure into her sword-wielding.” Als goes on to accuse Gadsby of lacking nuance, of “puritan-minded radicalism,” and of sounding like she is “spewing undigested Andrea Dworkin.” These are tough critiques especially lodged within an even harsher evaluation of the whole show as “solipsism masquerading as art.” But, Als nails something about what is missing from the show and what might be lost by this exclusive, blinkered take on homophobic violence.

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If Gadsby’s trauma makes her short-sighted, her autism, as she proposes, allows her to see patterns where neuro-typical people see only disorderly displays of power. And her imagesqueerness offers her a refuge from heteronormativity and therefore space from which to diagram misogyny and sexism. Some white queers and feminists may deeply appreciate the takes on white masculinity and patriarchy but many audiences of color may feel their limitations. Part of the responsibility for Gadsby’s myopia falls squarely on her own shoulders, but part of it, and this is the part that Hilton Als ignores, emerges from the nature of stand-up comedy itself – and here Gadsby can be commended for wanting to quit a genre that forces her to base her humor on constitutive exclusions and offers pleasure only by asking that your pleasure come at the expense of others. But she can also admired for taking the genre and twisting it away from its hetero-white male roots and turning it into a platform for a queer feminism that alternates between cheeky and rageful.

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What is funny depends upon perspective and humor draws some audiences in even as it cuts other audiences down. And so, while Gadsby lets loose on her unabashed man-hating, straight women comedians often target the indignities of heterosexuality or the inadequacies of their male partners. And Black male comedians, such as Dave Chappelle, regularly attack white masculinity and white power in their comedy, but, they also find humor in homophobic material on swishy gays and pushy transgender women. In the Chapelle show I watched there were about 17 rape jokes for example.

Punchlines need trauma, says Gadsy. Maybe they do. Comedy is a violent sport and the field is littered with blood and guts at the end of many of the best routines. All too often, self-conscious comedians like Gadsby and Chappelle tell us, the laugh is hard won through sacrifice, caricature, erasure and simplification. Gadsby recognizes this and finds in comedy an analogue to her art history training where she was led through the history of Western art only to find out that this history is actually just the trajectory of white male gazes – to wit, naked women abound: “Art history taught me, you know, historically, women didn’t have time to think thoughts. They were too busy napping, naked, alone, in the forest.” Art requires naked, empty women. Masculine stand up has tended to require abject queers and transgender people. And so, some feminist stand-up requires its own roster of dead bodies, mostly male. Gadsby lets Picasso stand for the white man she comes to slay: “I don’t like Picasso. I fucking hate him. I really– I just– He’s rotten in the face cavity. I hate Picasso! I hate him!” Staving off the inevitable charges of man-hating levied at lesbians, she comments: “All my life, I’ve been told that I’m a man-hater. I don’t hate men, I honestly do not. I don’t hate men. But… there’s a problem. See, I don’t even believe that women are better than men. I believe women are just as corruptible by power as men, because you know what, fellas, you don’t have a monopoly on the human condition, you arrogant fucks. But the story is as you have told it. Power belongs to you. And if you can’t handle criticism, take a joke, or deal with your own tension without violence, you have to wonder if you are up to the task of being in charge. I’m not a man-hater. But I’m afraid of men.”

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When she steps out of the magic circle of comedy here, leaves out the punchline and instead descends into a rant, Gadsby, believes she is leaving a shitty genre behind. But in fact, ‘the love it and leave it’ mode she performs IS the genre. Other comedians like Dave Chappelle for example also struggle with the choice of whether to perform comedy or to walk away from it. And so the very piece of Gadsby’s show that audiences found so incredible – her claim that she was leaving comedy – is in fact part of the struggle that all comedians who are not white and male must face. The appeal of Gadsby then is not her moral sense of needing to walk away from comedy nor her pedagogical lessons that are used to justify her continued use of the genre. Her appeal is simply this – she is a fucking brilliant stand-up comedian no matter how much she may deny it and like Dave Chappelle she takes a white man’s art and uses it magically to deconstruct the genre and in the process to remake it!

Indeed, watching Gadsby’s Nanette and Dave Chapelle’s Age of Spin back to back recently I noticed how much they have in common: Gadsby and Chappelle are both angry comedians. Chappelle and Gadsby also feel, and often reject the burden of having a community for whom they speak and a mainstream audience whom they believe needs to hear their shit. They both telegraph where the show is going: at the start of Douglas, Gadsby warns that she will eventually tell a Louis C.K joke, but that it will come so late that the audience will have forgotten it is coming. Chappelle, on the other hand, warns his crowd that he will have four stories O.J. before the show is over. These forewarnings offer clever internal scaffolding for the comedy routine and serve as rhetorical breadcrumbs for the audience picking their way through the routine. Chappell and Gadsby both veer between stand-up routines and canned lectures – Chappelle has material on World War 2, colonial emasculation, civil rights and Gadsby has mini lectures on the representation of women, art history and queer politics. Both mention Bill Cosby.

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The point is, Gadsby is not so original in terms of the form of her stand up but nor is she unique in her ability to pinpoint the problems with the genre. Chappelle’s rape jokes serve exactly this purpose. In the Age of Spin, a routine that has been heavily critiqued for perceived misogyny and homophobia, Chappelle recounts pitching a potential super-hero movie to a Hollywood type. The premise is that the super-hero can only access his super-powers by touching a woman’s pussy. But, the guy in question is too unappealing to get such access and so, at a critical moment, he has to force himself upon a woman in order to save the world. He asks the audience to decide whether the rape is justifiable: “That’s the dilemma” he says, “Because he rapes, but he saves a lot of lives. And he saves way more than he rapes, and he only rapes to save. But he does rape.” The rape here is a kind of metaphor for comedy – is it ok to save people by using violence or to entertain them by trashing others? Gadsby turns the rape joke and the question it asks around. And this is where her anger is so powerful. She asks whether it matters to his legacy that Picasso fucked an underage girl:

“Let’s make art great again, guys. Picasso fucked an underage girl. And that’s it for               me. Not interested. “But cubism… We need it.” Marie-Thérèse Walter. She was 17                 when they met. Underage. Legally underage. Picasso was 42, married, at the                          height of his career. Does it matter? Yeah. Yeah, it actually does. It does matter.”

The rape might be justified for Chappelle if it serves the greater good. The legacy must go for Gadsby if it involves questionable sexual ethics. Both Chappelle and Gadsby are fundamentalists, both try to destroy the genre within which they work, both labor to reveal the messy innards of comedy, its deep secrets and its incredible power and violence. Both return to the genre like a lover who cannot leave but who also cannot stay away.

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Hilton Als felt left out of Gadsby’s show, unaddressed and invisible. And, I can honestly say that lesbians and trans men do not exist for Chappelle. But this too is how comedy works – the comedian speaks from a location, the comedian makes jokes at the expense of others and therefore needs an other (“take my wife…please”) to lambast. That other, until Gadsby, was rarely the white man. At the end of Nanette, Gadsby says: “To the men in the room… who feel I may have been persecuting you this evening… well spotted. That’s pretty much what I’ve done there. But this is theater, fellas.” This is theater fellas, she is saying, it is not real life. In real life you are still king of the hill, so loosen the fuck up and learn how to take a joke! Gadsby and Chappelle are unique in their love/hate relation to the genre of comedy, their mastery of a form that they must destroy and their overt commentaries on the violence that mastery requires. “Sadism demands a story,” wrote Laura Mulvey decades ago in another feminist essay dedicated to the destruction of pleasure. And whether you follow Gadsby down the chute of her trauma or applaud Chappelle for turning a rape joke back onto the audience, you leave the show convinced that the show is well and truly fucked and that the show must go on. And here we arrive at the flawed genius of Gadsby – she is not politically pure, she too racks up as body count in the gladiatorial contest to make strangers guffaw, but she finds humor in her own rage and even as she delivers the death blow: “Pull your fucking socks up!” She finds an opportunity for a cheeky moment of self-awareness: “How humiliating. Fashion advice from a lesbian!” Then back to the meta narrative: “that is your last joke.” But it wasn’t, it isn’t and we know in the end that she was just joking and the show, dogs and all, will go on.

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Reitman vs. Ronell: Rethinking the Role of Gender and Patriarchy in Sexual Harassment Cases

7 Sep

By Nefertiti Takla

[NOTE: DEAR READERS – BULLYBLOGGERS HAS HOSTED A LONG SERIES OF ARTICLES ON “BAD SEX.” TITLE 9, AND SEXUAL HARASSMENT. WE DO SO NOT TO PARTICIPATE IN THE CURRENT POLARIZING STRUCTURE OF DEFENSE VS. CONDEMNATION BUT IN ORDER TO BROADEN THE CONVERSATION ABOUT #METOO, TITLE IX VIOLATIONS, THE EXPLOITATION OF GRADUATE STUDENT LABOR, THE SHIFTING CONDITIONS OF LABOR IN THE UNIVERSITY, PUBLIC INTELLECTUAL DISCOURSE, TENURE/TRACK STATUS AND ELITE PROFESSORIATES. 

WE REMIND READERS AND FOLLOWERS OF THIS BLOG THAT THE “BULLY” IN OUR NAME CAME FROM THE LATE José Muñoz’s BELOVED DOG, LADY BULLY. WE DO NOT CONDONE BULLYING, OR MOBBING. 

WE WELCOME YOU TO THE SITE AND ASK YOU TO READ THE ESSAYS HERE AS REPRESENTATIVE OF THE AUTHOR’S OPINIONS AND NOT NECESSARILY REPRESENTATIVE OF EVERYONE INVOLVED.] 

THE ESSAY PUBLISHED BELOW BY NEFERTITI TAKLA ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON HER OWN BLOG “FEMINIST INTERVENTIONS.” WE REPRINT IT WITH A FEW CHANGES WITH HER PERMISSION. 

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The recent Title IX lawsuit filed by Nimrod Reitman has brought to light existing debates in the feminist movement. In a patriarchal society, is sexual harassment simply an abuse of power that can be perpetrated equally by men and women, or is it a product of institutionalized sexism and violence against women? Should gender be ignored in cases where a woman is accused of sexual harassment by a man, or is gender always a signifier of power? (By woman and man, I am referring to the legal recognition conferred to either sex within a binary gender system in relation to the context of the law. I am not referring to social, cultural, and biological categories that are always shifting in extra-legal contexts.)

Historically, sexual harassment has been theorized as a form of patriarchal violence that is directed at women collectively because of their gender. As Abigail Saguy explains in her book, What is Sexual Harassment? From Capitol Hill to the Sorbonne, Title IX and Title VII were laws created to fight gender discrimination, not sexual harassment. In the 1970s, feminists fought to have sexual harassment legally recognized as a form of gender discrimination due to its role in reinforcing institutionalized sexism. Gender has therefore long been central to our understanding of sexual harassment as a social and structural problem that reproduces the collective disempowerment of a particular group in society. Reitman’s lawsuit and those who support it represent a new movement to redefine sexual harassment as a gender-blind abuse of power, which effectively dissociates the problem from the framework of institutionalized sexism and patriarchal violence against women.

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As someone who filed a Title IX lawsuit against my university in graduate school, I believe that every student – both male and female – has the right to an education free from unwanted sexual and romantic advances. However, as a feminist who believes that the academy is still a patriarchal structure that reproduces male superiority, I believe that Title IX should remain a law that protects women and non-conforming genders from sexual harassment and institutionalized sexism. What Reitman experienced should be theorized as abuse that stems from labor exploitation in the academy, not the structural sexism and sexual violence that stems from patriarchy. Reitman’s attempt to seek justice through a law that was created to fight sexism on campus has negative legal implications for the feminist movement because its success would mean that men can also be victims of gender discrimination perpetrated by women. It would also mean that gender is no longer relevant to our understanding of sexual harassment. Therefore, regardless of his intentions, his lawsuit paves the way for Title IX to be used by the backlash against the feminist movement.

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On one level, I feel a connection to what Reitman has experienced. As graduate students, we felt exploited and abused by our advisors, and we felt betrayed by our institutions and their failure to protect us from this abuse. Our advisors represented the power of the academy and its ability to exclude us and destroy our livelihood at a whim. The pressure to comply with an advisor’s wishes or else drop out are rising in a neoliberal academy that intentionally creates more cheap labor than it can employ. Graduate students’ anxiety about labor precarity leaves them increasingly desperate and vulnerable to their advisors’ demands. Most graduate students are doing whatever they can to remain in their advisor’s good graces, hoping that after they graduate, their professors will fight to keep them in the system. The threat of adjunctification has made the relationship between advisors and advisees increasingly coercive and exploitative, making consensual sex or romance nearly impossible.

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On some level, abuse has always been an integral part of the patronage system in the academy. Graduate students have long endured abuse and stayed quiet about it in order to secure a position after they graduate. In a patriarchal academy, male graduate students are not only less likely to be subjected to abuse, but can afford a higher tolerance for it because they know that in the end, when they have a position, they will assume a dominant role in the structure. But the longstanding patronage system of the academy is incompatible with its current neoliberal restructuring and its transformation of graduate students into a pool of disposable wage laborers. One could argue that neoliberalism is destroying academia’s feudal structure, giving way to a class system in which professors at top universities are seen as the elite of the academy (with their critique of the moralizing middle class and its “sexual paranoia”), professors at teaching institutions as the middle class (with their critique of the debauchery and corruption of the elite), and graduate students and adjuncts as the working class (with their growing resentment at their inability to make a living). The fact that graduate students are now willing to break their silence about the longstanding abuses of the patronage system suggests that this system can no longer sustain itself. What Ronell appeared to have promised Reitman was a patronage relationship that is becoming increasingly impossible in a neoliberal academy.

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The ultimate solution to this problem is not to identify and uproot “predators” who are exploiting core features of the system, but to restructure the system in a way that gives graduate students the power to say no to their advisors’ demands without fearing the loss of their livelihood. The system enables abuse, and we cannot create a fictional divide between abusers and non-abusers. Demanding that everyone self-police through sexual assault training – or police each other through mandatory reporting – does nothing to address the structural causes of the problem. What we need to do is to fundamentally change the system to halt the trend towards adjunctification and ensure graduate students funding and employment both during and after their studies.

Although Reitman experienced an abuse of power, his experiences do not represent the structural sexism that the feminist movement has long been fighting. When I filed a Title IX lawsuit against my university in June 2015, my goal was to contribute to both the graduate student struggle against labor exploitation as well as the struggle of women against sexism in the academy. My decision to file the lawsuit came at the end of a fruitless, two-year battle to hold my former advisor accountable for sexual harassment. His sexual harassment was not a one-time offense but rather part of a longstanding pattern of sexism directed at female students and professors in general. When I first started working with him as a graduate student, he told me that he believed women only came to graduate school to marry their professors. He would comment on the looks of every single female professor we ever read in his class. Other witnesses noted that he would talk about buying underwear for his girlfriend in TA meetings. His sexual harassment of me and of other female students and professors cannot be divorced from his sexism. He believed he was entitled to our bodies, and no matter how often we said no, he continued to make sexual advances. His behavior was therefore central to the reproduction of structural sexism in the academy.

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The way in which my university handled my case normalized this male professor’s violation of female bodies. In response to the Title IX report that I filed with my university in June 2013, my former advisor received a “slap on the wrist” that resulted in no harm to his career. During its nine-month investigation, the university found that two other women in my department had also been harassed by this professor, yet their reports made no difference to the case. Instead of issuing a finding of sexual harassment, the university settled with the professor, allowing him to keep the case confidential and avoid any official mark on his record. This normalization of my former advisor’s behavior was a manifestation of structural violence against women. By protecting his career and reputation, my university left me and other women vulnerable to further harassment and retaliation.

431957_1This protection of men over women is one of the hallmarks of patriarchy. NYU did not attempt to protect Avital Ronell in the way that UCLA attempted to protect Gabriel Piterberg. Ronell was not given the opportunity to negotiate a secret settlement with NYU to protect her career and reputation. She did not take a leave of absence or resign as other male professors like Colin McGinn and Peter Ludlow did when they were accused of sexual harassment. She was immediately stripped of resources and status, and the media has been merciless in ways that we did not see in the Piterberg or Ludlow cases. Patriarchal structures shield men from the law while making sure that it comes crashing down on women. Patriarchy insists that the law must be gender blind, when in reality it is not.

The ultimate irony of this case is that the law that came crashing down on Ronell is a law that was designed to protect women from gender discrimination. Yet gender discrimination is central to the adjudication of legal cases regardless of whether the woman is a victim or a perpetrator. While NYU saw Ronell’s behavior as sufficiently abnormal to warrant discussions of her termination after the first offense, UCLA reached yet another settlement with Piterberg five years after I came forward, in response to another student’s Title IX report. Although this final settlement terminated his employment with the university, it is unclear how much money he received in exchange. The difference between these cases makes it clear that patriarchal structures normalize violations of women’s bodies until we speak out in collective anger. It takes a multitude of women to get some semblance of justice, while all it takes is an individual man. In a patriarchal society, the law cannot be gender blind. Insisting that it be so will only reinforce patriarchy.

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Lonely Planet

5 Sep

José Quiroga

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    1. From the onset, lawyers for the plaintiff argued that “Ronell created a false romantic relationship between herself and Reitman and by threat of, among other things, not allowing him to advance his Ph.D., asserted complete domination and control over his life.” The link between this “false romantic relationship” and the domination she exerted over this student is not entirely clear. But the same point is made in the “factual evidence” section of the lawsuit, where once again the “fictitious romantic relationship” is linked to “complete domination and control” over Reitman’s life. For any student of literature, the main problem with this argument is how conservative its notion of authorship is. For the “romantic relationship” just happens to unfold over emails both parties wrote separately, and then exchanged. One could imagine that in a different court of law—say, copyright law—the plaintiff would have argued for his rights as co-author. In such a case, Reitman’s lawyers would have insisted that he deserved a share of the profits of Future Miniseries X given the considerable efforts taken, on his own account, in order to keep up the narrative momentum. At this point, twenty or thirty years ago, any graduate student would have quoted Stanley Fish: “Disagreements are not settled by the facts, but are the means by which the facts are settled.”  One text understood as authored by one person is used as evidence of control and domination in a sexual harrassment case. The same text (sic), understood as a collaboration, has multiple authors that deserve to be credited in copyright law.
    2. I don’t recall a teaching assistant ever telling me that sometimes “analysis is simply denial with more words,” nor do I recall an administrator cutting graduate lines in the Humanities arguing that interpretation was unnecessary since “the text just means what it says it means.” This is because most graduate students and some administrators understand that most of the times, the text never means what it says it means. The text in the Ronell / Reitman exchange could very well stand for the absence of any romantic relationship other than the one that takes place on the page. One does not need a PhD in Literature to know this, just as one does not need to be a lawyer to understand that when the lawsuit states that there was “groping, roughing, and kissing on a regular basis” or that “Ronell would touch, grab, fondle and kiss Reitman” it doesn’t mean that at each and every instance all of these acts took place. Not every author is a lawyer, but some lawyers are authors—and some can even recall the occasional undergraduate course on D.H. Lawrence. To put it simply: this is a case about the possibility that writing alone can create facts. Thus it is, ultimately, a case about literatureDH-Lawrence.jpg
    3. In the slow-moving August news cycle, the case caught on. Or, as rendered in the ominous lead sentence of Andrea Long Chu’s essay for the Chronicle of Higher Education, “[t]he humanities are ablaze.” Chu is referring here to what Jacques Derrida would have called the “dissemination” of the case. But as Derrida himself would have warned us—and Borges before him—dissemination tends to multiply errors of fact. This point is evident in the very first paragraph where Chu states that Judith Butler, Lisa Duggan and Jack Halberstam have defended Avital in writing. That no such thing ever happened as Chu has recounted it should be clear by the time you read this text online. And it baffles the mind to believe there is really a lot of abuse in expecting teaching assistants to read the work of their supervisor. Would you go to an interview at the NYT op-ed section without at least familiarizing yourself with the work of Maureen Dowd? Would you be an intern at The Nation never having read Katha Pollit? There are photocopier assistants at The Washington Post who know about Bernstein and Woodward although they were born decades after these two penned All the Presidents Men. And Chu’s complaints about life under Ronell pale in comparison to the treatment suffered by a young intern (Anne Hathaway) under the despotic rule of a famous fashion magazine editor (Meryl Streep) in The Devil Wears Prada.rs_500x206-160624105104-500-devil-wears-prada-thats-all-062416-1485457517
    4. In this sorry proxy for the death of academia we are all living, where the stakes are so low and so inconsequential, I find myself doing a lot of extra (uncredited, unpaid) labor: from reading stacks of tenure and promotion files for institutions around the country and abroad, to serving as external referee for academic journals, and making sure that—over and beyond their work in my classes–graduate students have peace of mind and time to do the work they want to do. Yes, graduate students teach courses, which means they are workers within the university. And yes, they are also students and they are mentored by faculty. For years I find myself directing four and five dissertations, writing untold number of rec letters, correcting innumerable dossiers, reading more than my share of tenure files, and recommending others for grants when I myself should be applying for them. That this is all entirely my fault it goes without saying. “I should be meaner,” I say to myself, “I should protect the little time I have. I should not cover for those who think that advising a grad student simply means reading a completed, camera- ready chapter that someone else has edited.”
    5. I suppose like many of my colleagues I am an obsessive advisor. I will push and push students, but I know that at some point I have to let them go. So even if I think the dissertation should have four chapters and not three, I understand the pressures of the job market, the very real anxieties of student loans, and the fact that when a good job shows up at the MLA and you have a good chance at it, we all have to make our way back to the reality principle pronto. Graduate school is a challenge on many levels in the new, corporatized university–with its mid-level administrative bloat and reduced faculty lines– and I don’t blame those students who think that I can give or withhold job offers. But I’m revealing no secret by stating that this is part of grad student myth-making. The reality is much more complex, which is something I imagine Reitman heard at some point because it’s something I tell all graduate students, again and again. Most often than not, at the other end of the interview process there is a department with ten or fifteen independent minds that need to achieve a consensus. And surely, the more of an “academic superstar” you are, the more there’s people out there who resent you for a lot of things that are really beyond your control. It’s not always in your best interest to have a superstar as mentor—everybody knows that, including “academic superstars.” Hence the tact shown by Avital Ronnell meeting with Andrea Long Chu in order to make sure that “you and I are OK.” But why does Chu then turn around at a moment of public humiliation for Ronell, and cast this as a cheap Game of Thrones-like scene? It befuddles the mind of anyone who ever suffered viewing the depiction of law school in The Paper Chase.the-paper-chase
    6. Like the majority of my peers, Ive been rejected from many jobs, accepted a couple,and I myself have rejected one or two–not without regrets. I’ve had better luck than many, and have done worse than others. The times in which I’ve been forced to choose between my ambition and my principles, my ambition has taken a hit. But then again, my principles have also taken a hit every once in a while. And yes, there have been periods when I’ve spent my life in purgatorio. That’s academia these days. All of us who have worked on gender and sexuality, or on “deconstruction” or even on telenovelas and popular culture, have had to navigate through a lot of difficulties and misunderstandings in our careers. But it hasn’t all been despair, and for that we have to thank students, both graduate and undergraduate. When nothing else makes sense, I go into a classroom where I have the rare privilege of sharing some time and space with twenty, or thirty different, diverse minds. Let me give just one example among many: when the “romantic fiction” that Ronell and Reitman created via email first came to light, I remembered the joy I felt when I suggested to a brilliant graduate student the work of a man, now deceased, who was the most important Cuban writer still alive then. For many years, as an older man, the poet worked as a bagboy in a Miami Publix supermarket, and then retired and lived in a modest Miami house with his wife and their middle-aged daughter. My student and the poet hit it off, and he proposed that they write a joint epistolary “novel” based on what he called the japanese principle of the “zuihitsu” in which, according to rules which he himself had set, he would start off writing something, and then the student would continue writing whatever she wanted, and vice versa. Now that the poet is fully recognized as one of the Great Poets in an island of superb writers, this work has assumed its place as one of the last books he wrote in his life. The young woman who at that point was my student took a risk and worked on this on her spare time, while teaching her regular graduate student courseload. I can’t promise all my students that this will happen to them. But sometimes good things happen if you are receptive to the possibility of being surprised by people—and that includes French intellectuals, German philosophers, and bag boys at Publix. Here is a link to the final entry of that blog a deux Margarita Pintado wrote with Lorenzo Garcia Vega: images-2.jpeg
    7. I wish I could produce an equally beautiful ending for the Reitman / Ronell saga. I’ll let the lawyers do that, since they always end up having the final word. And in the aftermath of the messy election of 2016, we seem to have abdicated everything to them. But let me just say one thing: given the chance at writing such a perfect volume as The Telephone Book, I’d give a couple of fingers of my right hand. Go and live in that book for a while if you can. Immerse yourself in that mess, take a chill pill as you plunge in the midst of its typography wildness, in the lunacy of its ideas that are also evidence of the highest philosophical rigor, brilliantly turned upside down. And thank the higher powers that you never wrote such a book just as you were coming out of grad school. Because yes, you’ve put your brilliance out for display, but we know how stupid that is, how naïve. For the challenging work of a sharp, young woman, thirty years later turns into fodder for twitterati attacks by one segment of what is thankfully a much broader feminism. Then again brilliance, like social media, was never meant to be aligned with justice. But that’s what we old farts are supposed to be doing, no? Reminding you about history, or juggling your memory. Some fuddy-duddy thing like that. While we solemnly open our dog-eared copy of a translated Borges and have you stare for the next hour at the following phrase from his story “Tlön Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”: “At first it was believed that Tlön was a mere chaos, an irresponsible license of the imagination, now it is known that it is a cosmos and that the intimate laws which govern it have been formulated. . . “

September 1, 2018

Hands on a Hard Body: Remarks on Graduate Advising as Emotional Labor

23 Aug

Guest post by Drew Daniel

When I was a grad student at UC Berkeley in the late 90s, S.R. Bindler’s documentary “Hands on A Hard Body” came out. The film is a gripping representation of a Texas truck dealership’s gimmicky promotional giveaway. Sternly coached and heartily cheered on by their supporters, twenty four contestants have to remain awake and standing as they keep touching a truck for as long as possible. With only brief bathroom breaks to relieve the mounting exhaustion, the person who can hold their position the longest gets to keep the truck. At the time of its release, as I squirmed and fretted through my PhD, the film struck me as a perfect analogical depiction of the competitive space of graduate school in the humanities generally, and the dissertation writing process in particular. As I saw it in the darkest hours of my most sleep deprived and over-caffeinated states of despair, grad school was about prolonged and labor-intensive suffering, a slowburn of masochistic commitment to a dubious ideal. More than a little quixotic and doomed given the actual job market that awaited, the squabble to secure the most prestigious graduate advisor and the race to write something that pleased their inscrutable whims was a humiliating competition for a scarce resource in which you sacrificed personal dignity as, year after year after year, you had to just keep on standing there, desiring and hoping, your fingers grazing the surface of something that might one day be yours, but probably wouldn’t be: an academic career.

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Movie still from the film, Hands on a Hard Body

Luck and fate have pried the hold of this analogy loose from me. Contrary to expectations and thanks to a lot of help and support from advisors who proved to be deeply sympathetic and generous people, I actually finished my dissertation, got a job, turned the dissertation into a book, and got tenure. In retrospect, my comparison of grad school to this degrading and grubby competition now strikes me as a bit too much. But I also know exactly how horribly smug my Pollyanna litany may well sound to the ears of people who are struggling to keep it together in grad programs right now, let alone to those working as adjuncts on the other side of filing. Besides, it’s a strained comparison at best: grad school is more like a shop class in which everyone makes their own car and some people’s cars have square wheels and some cars explode and other people realize cars are bad for the planet and ride away on a bicycle, etc.

However infelicitous it may be as a analogy, the stark vision of Bindler’s film has been on my mind as the Avital Ronell case materials have circulated and plunged much of the academic blogosphere into a nonstop reconsideration of the hothouse climate of need, competition, and yes, exploitation and abuse, in which graduate students continue to work and struggle to hold on at present. The Ronell case has attracted all sorts of responses: think pieces, petitions, diatribes, disclosures, jeremiads, apologies, critiques of the apologies, tweets and counter-tweets. Some strike me as smart and thoughtful, some seem opportunistic or inane. Given the seriousness of the charges, the heat is understandable, but in the process, something mundane but enduring has been largely fogged over: the actual everyday emotional and scholarly labor of graduate advising itself.

But before I say anything further about that labor, let me say this loud and long and clear: abuse of advisees is never okay. We can attend to structural questions, neoliberal procedural takeovers and note ongoing cultural surrounds of queer panic and misogyny and, while doing all that, we can still hold living breathing individual people accountable for their actions. So, once more, with feeling: abuse of advisees is never okay. Department chairs and colleagues need to create channels of communication with grad students so that individual faculty members who abuse their power, influence and privileges face consequences. The forms that accountability can take are sure to be messy and complex and the outcomes may well remain arguable, but it’s clear that without such structures in place things have been going very wrong, and will continue to do so until departments change.

Let’s start with another almost-truism: Every professor was once a grad student. This isn’t always true (consider art schools and MFA programs) and it may not remain true in the future, but for now, it is a reasonably consistent institutional norm. Ph.D. Programs that teach people how to get Ph.D.s are staffed by people who once needed to learn how to complete a Ph.D. Accordingly, professors need to remember how it felt to be a grad student, and should draw upon those memories as they work closely with people who are younger, less powerful, and more vulnerable than they are.

Fear and anxiety are the grounding affective conditions in academia because academia is a competitive workplace under capitalism. That’s the “Hands on A Hard Body” scenario: there aren’t enough jobs to go around, and everyone knows it, and whatever solidarity and emotional bonds academia affords must be fashioned in the shadow of that fact. Part of the task of graduate advising against that backdrop is figuring out how to modulate anxiety and live within a draining emotional ecosystem in a humane and productive way. In a best-case scenario, the omnipresent fear that one isn’t “good enough / smart enough” gets sublimated and you write your way through and out of that fear into something more personal and rewarding and particular. The nightmare obverse is that an emotionally manipulative faculty member exploits ambient unhappiness to serve their own selfish ends.

In my first few years of grad school, I took several courses with a distinguished faculty member only to gradually realize that I could not trust that person. While they were never sexually assertive towards me, they seemed cruel, vindictive, likely to demand a narrow sort of obedience, prone to lashing out when challenged. I had the luxury of being in a large department with other faculty members in my area of study and just worked with someone else. But I have never forgotten that experience of having to delicately extricate myself from a powerful person’s orbit of influence at a vulnerable point in my scholarly development. It was a close call.

Graduate advising is intimate and intense. You are forging a bond with someone that lasts for many, many years and has affective highs and lows. Over time, you learn to ride out both the emotional peaks and the depressive troughs. It is a partnership but it is also structurally, fundamentally unequal. One of you is learning how to do something; one of you is advising the other on how to do that thing based on prior experience and presumed expertise. Both parties are catalyzed by the changes taking place in a piece of grad student writing as it emerges in an intersubjective space between unequal collaborators. The advisor must help the grad student bring something new into the world which is the student’s own and which the advisor does not themselves already completely understand.

This is why even a purely scholarly interaction about what is and is not working in a given piece of writing can overheat quickly. Complaints about clarity and structure or criteria of evidence can be par-for-the-course professionalization intended to polish someone for the job market, but they can also impede breakthroughs and stifle creativity. To sing it in the key of Eve Sedgwick, “People are different from each other.” Feedback that is challenging but workable for one person may be crushing for another. What inspires one advisee may repel another. Mutatis mutandis, what bores one advisor may scintillate another. What looks publishable to one pair of eyes may appear deeply unsound to another. It’s complicated.

By divergent means, either party can sabotage the relationship. If a student doesn’t write or stops caring about what they write, the relationship fails. But if the advisor destroys the student’s trust and self-esteem by savaging that writing without holding out hope for improvement, the relationship also fails. There has to be something at stake for both parties, something in the other that appeals and solicits care and investment, some charge or cathexis. While this may not work for some people, in my opinion an advisor needs to be just scary enough to inspire you to write, but not so scary that the relationship becomes sadistic or harmful. Orthogonal to the “good enough” mother in Winnicott, the “scary enough” advisor frames expectations and provides stability without being draconian. Trust is essential, and it’s up to faculty to signal that they can handle pushback without becoming vengeful.

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Describing the perfect student-advisor relationship can verge upon an imaginary recipe for Goldilock’s porridge: too much autonomy and you feel ignored; too little autonomy and you feel suffocated. You need to check in with each other about where things stand: not so frequently that it’s oppressive, but not so rarely that it comes off as neglect or disinterest. When it works well, there’s a cumulative richness to what becomes a particularly luminous and inter-animating mentorship, and someone who starts as your student or teacher becomes, upon the filing of the dissertation and the dust settling after the defense, your friend. When it goes badly—well, you’ve now probably read the transcripts and briefs and press releases.

Ideally, the advisor is there to assist in their own critical supersession. My dissertation advisor Janet Adelman said that her goal as a teacher was to “disappear.” That is, a good advisor offers honesty and support, but also lets the student proceed beyond their reach to somewhere fundamentally unforeseen and new. What is a learning experience for the advisor can become a nightmarish dead-end—or worse– for a student who becomes a target for recrimination in a bleak job market. The essential inequality means that the advisee is more vulnerable and more exposed than the advisor to harm because of the institutional force conferred by their respective roles, the power difference at the core of academia as an institution. It’s a balancing act on a seesaw poised near an abyss.

Advising should be intellectually invigorating, but it can also be emotionally volatile. Janet was very supportive of me but also very hard on my writing when she felt it wasn’t clear or well-organized. She made me re-write one chapter five times, and I essentially spent an entire year on a single chapter. These were the bad/good old days when people could dawdle and take a decade to finish their Ph.D. if necessary, and as she herself joked to me as the demands for adjustments came neck-and-neck with praise and celebration, it was not for nothing that she was the author of a book titled “Suffocating Mothers.” Janet could be extremely tough in the margins of my chapters, but I also knew that she truly believed in my potential and wanted me to succeed. The same is true for Richard Halpern, my previous advisor before he transferred to NYU: not easy to please, but someone who cared enough about you to tell you the truth about where your writing stood, as he saw it. Sadly, a lot of people don’t get that kind of support, and their relations with their advisors are fraught with fear, intellectual theft, mistrust, neglect, or worst of all, emotional or sexual abuse. The Ronell case offers us one example of how quickly and thoroughly off the rails these interpersonal relationships can go. It should also force each graduate department to take a long cold look at its own policies of complaint, redress and inquiry. One way to determine the ethical orientation of a community is to examine how it treats its most powerless members: that is true of thought experiments about hypothetical nation states, but it’s also true of universities and departments.

I know this firsthand because I am a DGS in my department and oversee graduate advising. We make sure that grad students know that they can speak out to me when they are concerned about a faculty member, and that if someone is concerned about my actions they can speak to my colleagues or to my chair. A healthy department ought to be a space where personal accountability and critical honesty and emotional support and intellectual rigor are not seen as mutually exclusive values. That is the goal, and when people fall short of it, they have to be told. It’s awkward for everyone involved when that time comes, and can be frustrating, painful, and shaming in its aftermath, but I would rather there be some occasional awkwardness than for faculty members to feel that they have carte blanche to mistreat graduate students with impunity. No department and no faculty member is perfect, but it’s not asking too much to expect that graduate students be protected from bullying and abuse, and it’s not asking too much to expect that faculty get called out when their behavior is unprofessional. There should be procedures in place for how that unfolds, and plenty of skepticism and critical sunlight upon how those procedures play out too. As Jennifer Doyle’s “Campus Sex, Campus Security” makes plain, professors can become targets of harassment too, and institutional frameworks may be far from benign in how they adjudicate such cases.

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From top to bottom, precarious labor conditions enable abuse: graduate students who have a conflict with a professor are very likely to feel that they can’t afford to speak up because they don’t want to lose what is already a slim chance against the job market’s long odds by arguing with a potentially well-connected and hostile antagonist. There is also, I think, an ambient and understandable generational resentment about ongoing changes in the profession which is surfacing in the midst of the Ronell case and its aftermath. People who are professors now came up during an era in which there was both a carrot and a stick. The carrot was a letter of recommendation that was actually strong enough to get someone a job; the stick was the threat of a weak letter or, worse, expulsion if the work wasn’t strong enough. Now that the number of jobs has spiraled downwards while casualization of labor has risen, the carrot has withered but the stick remains. This is why professors can now seem both frightening and ridiculous in the eyes of grad students; they are seen as beneficiaries of a lost Golden Age of employment who can’t help you much but can definitely still hurt you.

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When you realize that it’s not worth it anymore, it’s time to walk away. This is true for car dealerships in Texas, and true for graduate programs, and it’s true for overstrained analogies and dead metaphors. Graduate advising is an asymmetrical force-field of needs and duties, crisscrossed by fear and longing: the fear of scholarly and interpersonal failure, the longing to create knowledge or to assist in its creation. We may not be able to control or predict the outcomes of each catalytic encounter, but we each have to do what we can to reshape the structures in which we work so that people can identify and redress abuse. It is up to all of us as individuals within academia to decide how to proceed in the wake of the Ronell case. But some of us have more power to do something about it than others, and dealing honestly with graduate advising has to start by clearly recognizing those lines of force for what they are. Who is sitting comfortably, and who is about to drop from exhaustion? For those of us who are faculty, I hope we learn to treat our own grad students with the compassion and encouragement that put us where we are today. But we can’t do so if we pretend that the world our students are entering is the same as the world we came from, and we can’t do so if we are tacitly silencing the very people we presume to educate.

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If you think this has a happy ending, you haven’t been paying attention!

THE FULL CATASTROPHE

18 Aug

by Lisa Duggan

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Sex is never a good idea. It is a mess. It is the scene of desire and fantasy, of power and abjection, of domination and mutuality. Sometimes all at once. It is a bad idea we pursue, avoid, rejoice and despair over. As #MeToo has gathered momentum, the social processes it deploys are also a mess. It is one part feminist social justice movement–calling the powerful (overwhelmingly men) to account for using sex as a tactic of dominion. And it is one part neoliberal publicity stunt. Why call it neoliberal? Because the accusations are focused through the press primarily on bad individuals, rather than structures of power, and because the mode of accountability is primarily corporate investigation and firing, and banning from the means of publicity (a Netflix contract, a TV appearance). This is not social justice feminism. It is rather a shift from neoliberal carceral feminism (beefing up the criminal justice system to “protect” women), to the privatization of feminism (a reliance on corporate boards to dole out consequences).

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The university is a particular kind of corporation. Even public universities now rely more heavily on tuition and private funding than on state support. But the state still has a heavy hand in university operations, via the distribution of federal funds. In the university, federally mandated procedures under Title IX govern procedures for adjudicating sexual harassment complaints. These mix with each university’s own procedures, outlined in faculty handbooks. The processes of investigation and punishment are wildly uneven, depending on the mix of procedures and the individual administrators charged with carrying them out. But the rule overall is confidentiality—those who accuse and those who are accused, and all university personnel, are bound to keep mum. The particular parameters of that requirement vary from school to school.

static1.squarespaceThe confidentiality requirements are supposedly designed to protect less powerful accusers, primarily students, from retribution from powerful faculty. But in practice they don’t really work that way. Accusers are often kept in the dark about any actions taken, or not taken, against the accused. The institutions frequently protect the accused. But we can’t know the facts, because confidentiality keeps us from collecting representative stories. In the end, confidentiality protects the institutions. Liability lawyers review cases to that end, not in pursuit of justice. We are unable to hold institutions accountable, which is the point. Corporations in general always like to impose confidentiality through non-disclosure agreements and other means to protect their interests. University confidentiality requirements should be viewed along those lines..

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I have been collecting cases of queer faculty accused of sexual harassment. My hypothesis is that queers are disproportionately charged, often by homophobic or sexually confused students, sometimes by queer students whose demands for “special” treatment are disappointed. I do think that queer faculty can be guilty, and should be held accountable! But the stories I’ve collected so far do suggest that many cases involve fantasies, projections, or revenge. Because queers are hypersexualized in the public imagination, they are targets for sexual accusations. For example, a queer femme accused of being seductive, for wearing skirts and speaking in a “throaty voice” in class. A trans man accused of inappropriate advances toward a colleague, not a student and not at the same institution. A faculty member charged for the content of a queer studies class. It is remarkable as well that the majority of cases in my small but growing collection involve faculty of color, particularly black faculty. But my cases have to be anonymous, because of the confidentiality requirement. I cannot assess how common or typical these kinds of cases are, or whether particular institutions are hot spots for them.

In a case involving black faculty accused by a black student, the administrative decision-making was focused on queer African American practices of mentorship. Black queer faculty and allies around the country were solicited to write letters to explain black queer practices of sociality to administrators. The informal networks and close relations that constitute “queer kinship” across status lines, and that have been crucial to black queer advancement in the university, could be regarded as violations of proper faculty/student boundaries. As Marcia Ochoa explained recently on Facebook:

“[There] is a change due to the institutional enfranchisement of marginalized communities that previously had to operate in coded ways. Our interpersonal modes of mentoring have not caught up with the institutional positions of power we are now in, and this has really happened within one “generation” of graduate students. Entering grad students are coming in with heavy expectations of solidarity (and a presumption that solidarity = unconditional and unqualified support), while institutional contexts are no longer allowing the kinds of informal networks many of us relied on to get through grad school.”

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This is the kind of clash of contexts that haunts the Title IX case and lawsuit against NYU professor Avital Ronell. Initially, Ronell was utterly handicapped by the confidentiality requirement. When NYU determined her not responsible for many of the charges against her, but responsible for sexual harassment via email and for nonsexual contact, they initially announced a decision to revoke her tenure and terminate her. She could not solicit support. When prominent academics organized a letter about her case (they were not solicited to do so by Ronell), they could not admit any knowledge that they had of the circumstances (through their networks, not via Ronell). The elitism of that letter, as objectionable as it truly is, was a hastily concocted weapon to persuade NYU to back up from a draconian penalty out of all proportion to the charges sustained. NYU administrators would understand and respond to power and status. The draconian penalty they at first considered was likely adopted to avoid a threatened lawsuit from the accuser (whose husband Noam Andrews is a member of a wealthy New York real estate family, presumably well able to fund lawsuits). The letter put them on notice that confidentiality would not fully cloak their actions. Caught between money and academic prominence, NYU backed down and put Ronell on a year’s unpaid leave instead.

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Then accuser Nimrod Reitman, a former graduate student no longer bound by NYU policies and disciplinary procedures, leaked documents to the New York Times. Initially Ronell had to seek permission from NYU to rebut specific claims through her lawyer. Then the media avalanche, based on the leaked documents, led to the lifting of the ban, allowing her to finally speak. What we see emerging is the full catastrophe, a huge mess, a clash of cultures, and issues of power and boundaries in academia.

Setting aside for the moment the question of truth, of whose version of events is more accurate, the case raises four important general questions:

1) The email exchange, dribbling out in excerpts via the New York Times article, Ronell’s press release and Reitman’s legal complaint, shows a two-sided correspondence of endearments, affection, and fond memories of shared intimacies. Even if these exchanges were fully consensual, and no indication of sexual contact, they raise the question of boundaries in advisor/student relationships. Can the tremendous power of the advisor ever be compatible with this kind of expression? If not, where is the line? This is a general question that commonly plagues academics.

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2) The nature of the email exchange resonates with many queer academics, whose practices of queer intimacy are often baffling to outsiders. A queer woman and a gay man in a romantic relationship? Romantic language that does not signify sexual desire? Forms of intimacy well outside the parameters of heterosexual (and, homosexual) courtship and marriage are commonplace among queers who not clearly separate friendship and romance, partnership and romantic friendship. The correspondence between Ronell and Reitman, full of literary allusions as well, can be read literally as an indicator of a sexual relationship. This is a culture clash. (Though that is not to say the correspondence is not “problematic” as we academics like to say, see (1) above, and it does not establish that there was not a sexual relationship either.)

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3) The selective demonization of queer and women faculty is very clear in this case. Not only was Ronell treated more harshly than many men accused of far worse infractions, but the personal attacks and demonization of her on social media is breathtaking. Accused male faculty rarely meet this fate, and when they do the cases generally involve multiple victims and physical assault. This is misogyny, of the variety pervasive on the internet. Misogyny is rife even among the queers and feminists posting personal attacks—they do not do this to similarly accused male faculty.

4) Critiques of the academic letter of support for Ronell have centered on feminist hypocrisy and double standards—the claim is that the signers are defending a feminist comrade, but they attack men under similar circumstances. This charge is rooted in gross ignorance about contemporary feminism. There are many strains out there—some all in for the #MeToo privatization, some are devoted to denunciation on social media and trial by publicity. But there are socialist feminists who analyze structures of power that condition harassment and who think seriously about institutions and due process, and sex radicals who point to a history of sex panics that contributes to the public mood. Some of the feminists who signed the letter (and the signers are not all feminists) represent a strain of academic feminism that has been critical of secret Title IX tribunals and #MeToo trial by publicity all along, not just when a feminist is accused. The letter does not represent hypocrisy. It is a reflection of division and difference among feminists on the issues of sexual harassment. We all oppose it! But we don’t all agree about how to identiy and confront it.

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We don’t need to know “what really happened” to confront these issues. Reitman says Ronell physically sexually assaulted him. NYU found her responsible only for harassment through email, and inappropriate non-sexual contact. Reitman wants us to take the email literally, as evidence of sexual desire and conduct. Ronell understands it as coded, not literally about sex. But why is sex the central factor anyway? The central issue is whether there were boundary violations that could be considered harmful. Advisor intrusions do not need to be sexual to be a problem. That is a broader issue. If we focus on this one case, these details, this accuser and accused, we will miss the opportunity to think about the structural issues. If we are social justice feminists and not neoliberals, we care about the broad structures of power, and not individual bad apples case by case. Perhaps we should begin to think about a restorative justice process that would center in departments, be transparent, hold faculty responsible, and assess the question of boundaries in local context? Perhaps impose confidentiality as the exception, not the rule—to be invoked when a need is demonstrated.

In this environment, I’m not holding my breath.

“LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, AND EVERYBODY ELSE” by Paul Preciado

26 Jan

This is a guest post by Paul Preciado, Philosopher. Preciado’s piece was first published in French in Liberation on January 15, 2018 under the title “Letter d’un homme trans à l’ancien régime sexuel.” On Jun. 16, 2018 an English and a German version were published in Texte Zur Kunste, the English translation was done by Simon Pleasance. Preciado’s piece responds to the backlash in France to #metoo which was decried by Catherine Deneuve and some other prominent women as “puritanical.”

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Caught in the crossfire of sexual harassment politics, I should like to say a word or two as a smuggler between two worlds, the world of “men” and the world of “women” – these two worlds which might very well not exist, were some people not doing their utmost to keep them apart by means of a kind of Berlin gender Wall. I want to give you some news from the “found object” position or rather from that of the “lost subject” – lost during crossing.

I’m not talking here as a man belonging to the ruling class, the class of those who are assigned the male gender at birth, and who have been brought up as members of the governing class, those who are given the right or rather who are required (and this is an interesting analytical key) to exercise male sovereignty. Nor am I talking as a woman, given that I have voluntarily and intentionally abandoned that form of political and social embodiment. I speak as a trans man. And I’m in no way claiming to represent any collective whatsoever. I’m not talking, and cannot talk, as a heterosexual or a homosexual, although I’m acquainted with and occupy both positions, because when someone is trans, these categories become obsolete. I’m talking as a gender renegade, as a gender migrant, as a fugitive from sexuality, as a dissident (sometimes a clumsy one, because there is no trans user’s guide) with regard to the regime of sexual difference. As a self-appointed guinea-pig of sexual politics who is undergoing the as yet unthemed experience of living on both sides of the Wall and who, by dint of crossing it every day, is beginning to be fed up, ladies and gentlemen, with the stubborn rigidity of the codes and desires which the hetero-patriarchal regime dictates. Let me tell you, from the other side of the Wall, that things are far worse than my experience as a lesbian woman let me imagine. Since I’ve been living as-if-I-were-a-man in a man’s world (aware of embodying a political fiction), I’ve had a chance to check that the ruling class ( male and heterosexual) will not give up its privileges just because we send lots of tweets or let out the odd scream. Since the sexual and anti-colonial revolution of the past century shook their world, the hetero-white-patriarchs have embarked on a counter-reformation project—now joined by “female” voices wishing to go on being “importuned and bothered”. This will be a 1000-year war—the longest of all wars, given that it will affect the politics of reproduction and processes through which a human body is socially constituted as a sovereign subject. It will actually be the most important of all wars, because what is at stake is neither territory nor city, but the body, pleasure, and life.

 

Untitled-Infographic-11What hallmarks the position of men in our techno-patriarchal and heterocentric societies is the fact that male sovereignty is defined by the lawful use of techniques of violence (against women, against children, against non-white men, against animals, and against the planet as a whole). Reading Max Weber with Judith Butler, we could say that masculinity is to society what the State is to the nation: the holder and legitimate user of violence. This violence is expressed socially in the form of domination, economically in the form of privileges, and sexually in the form of aggression and rape. Conversely, female sovereignty in this regime is bound up with women’s capacity to give birth. Women are sexually and socially subordinate. Mothers alone are sovereign. Within this system, masculinity is defined necro-politically (by men’s right to inflict death), while femininity is defined bio-politically (by women’s obligation to have children). We might say with regard to necro-political heterosexuality that it is something akin to the utopia of the copulatory eroticization between Robocop and Alien, if we tell ourselves that, with a bit of luck, one of the two will have a good time…

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Heterosexuality is not only a political regime, as the French writer Monique Wittig has shown. It also a politics of desire. The specific feature of this system is that it is incarnated as a process of seduction and romantic dependence between “free” sexual agents. The positions of Robocop and Alien are not chosen individually, and are not conscious. Necro-political heterosexuality is a practice of government which is not imposed by those who govern (men) on the governed (women), but rather an epistemology laying down the respective definitions and positions of men and women by way of an internal regulation. This practice of government does not take the form of a law, but of an unwritten norm, a translation of gestures and codes whose effect is to establish within the practice of sexuality a partition between what can and cannot be done. This form of sexual servitude is based on an aesthetics of seduction, a stylization of desire, and an historically constructed and coded domination which eroticizes the difference of power and perpetuates it. This politics of desire is what keeps the old sex/gender regime alive, despite all the legal process of democratization and empowerment of women. aline1This necro-political heterosexual is as degrading and destructive as vassalage and slavery were during the Enlightenment. The process of denouncing violence and making it possible, which we are currently experiencing, is part and parcel of a sexual revolution, which is as unstoppable as it is slow and winding. Queer feminism has set epistemological transformation as a condition making social change possible. It called binary epistemology and gender naturalization into question by asserting that there is an irreducible multiplicity of different sexes, genders, and sexualities. But we realize, these days, that the libidinal transformation is as important as the epistemological one : desire must be transformed. We must learn how to desire sexual freedom.

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For years, queer culture has been a laboratory for inventing new aesthetics of dissident sexualities, in the face of techniques of subjectivation and desires involving hegemonic necro-political heterosexuality. Many of us have long since abandoned the aesthetics of Robocop-Alien sexuality. We have learned from butch-fem and BDSM cultures, with Joan Nestle, Pat Califia and Gayle Rubin, with Annie Sprinkle and Beth Stephens, with Guillaume Dustan and Virginie Despentes, that sexuality is a political theatre in which desire, and not anatomy, writes the script. Within the theatrical fiction of sexuality it is possible to want to lick the soles of shoes, to want to be penetrated through every orifice, and to chase a lover through a wood as if he were a sexual prey. Two differential factors nevertheless separate the queer aesthetic from that of the straight normativeness of the old regime—the ancient régime: the consent and the non-naturalization of sexual positions. The equivalence of bodies and the redistribution of power. As a trans-man, I disidentify myself from dominant masculinity and its necro-political definition. What is most urgent is not to defend what we are (men or women) but to reject it, to disidentify ourselves from the political coercion which forces us to desire the norm and reproduce it. Our political praxis is to disobey the norms of gender and sexuality. I was a Lesbian for most of my life, then trans for the past five years. I am as far removed from your aesthetics of heterosexuality as a Buddhist monk levitating in Lhassa is from a Carrefour supermarket. Your aesthetics of the sexual ancient régime do not give me pleasure (don’t make me come). It doesn’t excite me to “harass” anyone. It doesn’t interest me to get out of my sexual misery by touching a woman’s ass on public transport. I don’t feel any kind of desire for the erotic and sexual kitsch you’re offering: guys taking advantage of their position of power to get their rocks off and touch backsides. The grotesque and murderous aesthetics of necro-political heterosexuality turns my stomach. An aesthetics which re-naturalizes sexual differences and places men in the position of aggressor and women in that of victim (either painfully grateful or happily harassed).

Extinct Species Heterosexual man,extinct 2042.

Extinct Species Heterosexual man,extinct 2042.

 

 

If it’s possible to say that in the queer and trans culture we fuck better and more, this is, on the one hand, because we have removed sexuality from the domain of reproduction, and above all because we have freed ourselves from gender domination. I’m not saying that the queer and trans-feminist culture avoids all forms of violence. There is no sexuality without a shadowy side. But the shadowy side (inequality and violence) does not have to predominate and predetermine all sexuality.

Representatives, women and men, of the old sexual regime, come to grips with your shadowy side and have fun with it, and let us bury our dead. Enjoy your aesthetics of domination, but don’t try to turn your style into a law. And let us fuck with our own politics of desire, without men and without women, without penises and without vaginas, without hatchets, and without guns.

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#DemandBetter Straight Sex! By Angela Jones

21 Jan

This is a guest blog by Angela Jones, Associate Professor of Sociology, Farmingdale State College.

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The year is 2018. A cis woman lies beneath her cis male partner. He grabs her naked thighs and thrusts his penis inside of her—in and out—in and out. He grunts and moans and occasionally speaks. “Oh, that pussy is so good!” Her face is cold, and her mind is racing—she lays beneath this troglodyte thinking about piled up laundry and how if he “finishes up” soon, she might just get six hours of sleep that evening. She did not cum, nor will she. After he cums, he excuses himself to the bathroom to clean off his weapon of mass dissatisfaction. She turns onto her side, her back facing the dimly lit bathroom, and she lies there thinking, “sometimes it just feels like he’s raping me. I know he loves me, but why does he have sex with me when he knows I don’t want to?”

This story is not fiction. It is based on a real experience a friend shared with me. I remember thinking to myself, “but why would you consent to sex you do not want?” When the now infamous Grace shared her story about Aziz Ansari, I thought about my friend again. Why do straight women consent to unwanted sex acts with men? If a man, such as Ansari keeps making advances that you don’t want, why do you stay? These questions have been swirling around the Internet, and so, in this piece, I aim to provide some answers that will serve as a new vantage point from which to continue these important discussions.

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Before the Dworkinites come for me with their pitchforks chanting that I’m a rape apologist, I want to share something personal. I have been both sexually assaulted and raped. When I was 11 we lived in the working class black neighborhood of Jamaica, Queens in New York. I was sexually assaulted by a worker in Farm Fried Chicken on Merrick Blvd. The worker pushed me in a corner, gyrated his hips against me while whispering his nasty thoughts in my ear. What hurt most about this was that kids in my neighborhood teased me about the encounter—as if I did something wrong. When I was in my early 20s I was raped in my own apartment in Bayside, Queens.  The guy who raped me thought having sex with my half unconscious body was legitimate because I was too drunk and high to say no and because he probably thought I wouldn’t mind since everyone knew I was a sex positive stripper. I have seen one too many sisters assaulted and harmed by men. So, believe me, I take sexual assault seriously and I know all-to-well the long term wounds that sexual assault can leave on our spirits as well as our bodies.

With this said, please stop calling what happened to Grace sexual assault. Please also stop reductively calling what happened between Grace and Ansari simply “bad sex.” What occurred was far more complex than either social media camp wants to admit. Moreover, this moment poses intriguing questions for those willing to push past binary social media talking points.

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The initial questions this scandal posed for me were:

First, related to the Ansari’s of the world, what social forces produce droves of cis het dudes who have no idea what passionate consent looks like? How can a man shove their fingers in a woman’s mouth or continually make sexual advances and be so ostensibly unaware that she isn’t feelin’ it? Like, seriously, what’s wrong with you bro; how can you not see that she’s disgusted?

Second, related to all the Grace’s out there, why do straight women suck dick and lie there getting fucked when they aren’t interested? If your male lover doesn’t make you cum, why don’t you show him how? Straight ladies, if your male lover wants to fuck you like you are in a porn, and that’s not what you want, why don’t you speak up?

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In this piece I am making a call to women to #demandbetter! I despise the idea that the only way to avoid these scenarios is for men to change. Of course men need to change, but guess what?–Most men won’t! I want to see more women standing up and demanding that the male-centered definition of straight sex be revolutionized into one that includes female pleasure. The reality that many women engage in regular sex that is not pleasurable, and at times violating, is unacceptable. It is time that straight women redefine sex on their own terms and stop waiting for men to do better. So, straight women: start demanding better for yourself and all women!

Sadly, that’s not what the Babe article accomplished. The Babe article did not help to advance the cause of bringing more women in to sex positive feminism at all. In fact, my observation of its aftermath suggests that, instead, the piece has created a victimization narrative that paints Grace, and all women in similar situations, as powerless and helpless. That is the narrative we need to change. While it is important to use political strategies that foster sisterhood among women, we must move past just saying #metoo, in the hopes that women’s pain might appeal to benevolent men. We can stand behind hashtags such as #enoughisenough or we can #demandbetter through action. Women can do that by asserting their voices to insist that their sexual partners respect their bodies and honor their desires. Now, to be clear, this may often be easier said than done.

The fear that we are going to be sexually assaulted can send lead into our legs, and instantaneously quiet our speech. Believe me, I know! Grace seemed caught off guard, and confused by the behavior of Ansari, who claims to be a feminist and a staunch supporter of #timesup. The problem was Ansari was enjoying this encounter while Grace felt attacked. Moving forward, more men need to ask women what they want rather than assume what they want.  And more women need to clearly articulate what they want rather than assume men are getting it. Because clearly, many men are not!

Before we can get to that level of communication, however, we need to understand—and eventually put a stop to—the ideologies at work in the scene that played out between Ansari and Grace. I am getting back to my initial questions: Why is it that men (Ansari) cannot see that their coercive behavior is unacceptable and making their date (Grace) feel uncomfortable and violated? And why do women (Grace) stick around and even perform sex acts that they don’t want to on their eager partners (Ansari)?

There are many ideological culprits contributing to these awful sexual encounters. Western discourses of love and monogamy, patriarchy and hegemonic masculinity, and heterosexual sex itself all contribute to and set the stage for the terrible drama we imagine played out in the Grace/Ansari scandal.

First, Western discourses around love and monogamy declare that love is a sacrifice. Women’s genitals, bodies, and dignity often get sacrificed on the altar of heterosexual monogamous love. Women, like Grace, often put up with sexual coercion in search of love, as my friend allowed herself to feel raped to maintain what she sees as love in her relationship.

Straight women may consent to sex that feels like rape because patriarchal family structures are characterized by a grossly unequal distribution of power. In this system, women are the sexual property of men. The antiquated norms of heterosexual monogamy mean that many women will go along with all sorts of bullshit out of an obligatory sense of devotion and love for another human that doesn’t actually see them as an equal. Also Grace’s story underscores that women often pay a feminine sex tax, both coming and going—that is, if she goes, she’s an uptight prude who led him on, and if she stays, well then she must knowingly consent to unwanted sex and it’s potentially harmful effects.

ansari 4So, my intent here is not to blame women. These discourses that prioritize heterosexual patriarchal monogamous love are ubiquitous. Remember the Disney film The Little Mermaid? As a refresher, Ariel, a mermaid, who is an avid singer is willing to give up her voice as well as her fins and family for the love of a man she had met two minutes ago. Every year, Hollywood spits up several nauseating RomComs featuring the very same themes Disney tried to force down our throats when we were kids. Western society force-feeds individuals an unrealistic and undesirable romantic dream that reifies the overlapping systems of patriarchy, heterosexism, and white supremacy—systems that provide privileges for cis white men and inequalities for everyone else.

 

ansari 5Under patriarchy, men also engage in the relentless pursuit of masculine validation—acts which men use to (often unconsciously) maintain their privilege. Hegemonic masculinity means that proving that they are a “real man” is often predicated on and facilitated through active misogyny and heterosexism. Tested by neo-liberal capitalism, many men’s ability to demonstrate manhood through property ownership and status proves impossible, and they seek out other modes of masculine validation. The system of global white supremacy means that men of color must also find other modes to acquire masculine validation. These additional strategies or modes of masculine validation often involve their bodies. They build up their muscles to show us—and their cocks play the leading role in their masculine performances. This is why Louis CK wants to show it to you in action, and why men everywhere want to text you unsolicited pictures of it—and every heart emoji sent back validates their internalized sense that their dick gives them power.

Thus, sex—heterosexual sex—is a primary mechanism men use to prove they are real men. Hegemonic masculinity then means that men must be in dominant positions in sexual encounters in order to feel like real men. The more they take charge, the more aggressive they can be—the more manly they feel. Remember, the sexual scripts within heterosexual sex are based on patriarchal norms. So that means, for example, no pegging if you are a real man!

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Under patriarchy, real men are sexual aggressors. They penetrate. They initiate. They dominate. For many men, their manhood is contingent on how many “bad bitches” they fuck and based on the status they achieve by “smashing” as many women as possible. For some men, they are oblivious, like Ansari, because their behavior is normalized by the systems of patriarchy and heterosexism, and the pervasive rape culture that buttresses these systems. Moreover, while dismantling rape culture is vital, I would also love to see far more critical dialogue around how we define rape culture. For example, when rapper Rick Ross said, “let’s get these hoes on the molly,” in the popular rap song Pop That by French Montana—this to me is a legitimate example of rape culture. But on the other hand, for example, anti-porn feminist Gail Dines sees porn as contributing to rape culture. Without necessarily drudging up the Sex Wars, we must deploy the term rape culture with far more precision, and in a way that leaves room for sex positivism.

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Briefly, I’d like to take my example of the Rick Ross lyrics a bit further. It is worthwhile to consider how Ansari’s and Grace’s respective races might have shaped their encounter. This is a missing element in much of the debate about Grace and Ansari. It is important to think about how race shapes our discussions of rape culture and sexual assault because of the negative stereotyping that often results.

In the US, there is a long history of racist cultural imagery that depicts black men as hypersexual and dangerous. So, when Rick Ross says if they get women intoxicated they can have sex with them—he is describing rape, and he is doing so within the context of these existing racialized discourses. While it is impossible for me to unpack here the different complex histories of systematic racism in the US, let alone the world, men of color have too often already been culturally marked as predatory.  “Predator” is also an all too familiar racist trope used in political discourse to criminalize men of color. Therefore, we should be mindful of how we deploy and use the word predator to describe men accused of sexually inappropriate behavior or sexual assault. The word predator is a racially and class marked term that when deployed capriciously may also reify racist stereotypes about men of color.

For centuries, for black women, sexual assault has been a part of racial terror. If a white man rapes a black woman, that crime should not be divorced from the historical legacy of white supremacy, and the centuries of rape that black women have endured at the hands of powerful white men. So, it is important to always racially contextualize sexual assault.

In the case with Ansari, he has said he is not religious but was raised Muslim, and he is an Indian American. By all accounts, Grace is white. There is ample research in the social sciences that empirically show that institutionalized white supremacy creates cognitive biases in individuals, and so it is crucial that we ask how these cognitive biases shape sexual encounters. For example, when white women accuse men of color of sexual assault, we must consider if and how these racist cognitive biases might be shaping perceptions of these encounters. We should use this an invitation to think through how race is affecting our conversation about sexual assault at the present moment.

Now, the accounts I have read about the Grace and Ansari case are missing one more thing—I have saved the best for last! I am convinced that part of the issue we are grappling with relates directly to how heterosexual or “straight sex” has been discursively produced. For many straight folks sex is defined solely as penile-vaginal penetration. In the Babe article, it said, “She says he then resumed kissing her, briefly performed oral sex on her, and asked her to do the same thing to him. She did, but not for long. ‘It was really quick. Everything was pretty much touched and done within ten minutes of hooking up, except for actual sex.’” Here, Grace, doesn’t see the oral sex they engaged in as “actual sex.” By ignoring the oral sex she received (even if unwanted) and the oral sex she gave, her definition of “actual sex” echoes so many people. The problem with this commonly employed definition of sex is that it places male pleasure at the center of sexual encounters.  Therefore, defining sex as penile-vaginal intercourse renders all other acts—which many women find pleasurable (e.g., cunnilingus)—not as sex but as some kinda added bonus (if it happens at all). Straight sex by this limited definition ensures male pleasure, and relegates all other female desires as unimportant.

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So, again, I’m left thinking that part of the problem is with the way many people define straight sex. The horn-dog, male centered, pushy Ansari is a manifestation of this definition of straight sex. Perhaps, then, what many women are pushing back against in this moment is straight sex (as it’s currently and commonly defined).

 

Now, generalizations suck! I am aware that people may read this piece and criticize me for generalizing straight sex, and by default, romanticizing queer sex. So, let me address this. Of course, there are straight couples who regularly have mind-blowing, mutually pleasurable, wake the neighbors up kinda sex. My feeling is, this good sex is occurring because they are actively doing the work of writing their own sexual scripts, and disrupting gendered sexual mores. This pleasurable, well negotiated, and more egalitarian sex is occurring precisely because many straight women do embrace and live by sex-positivism and because their male partners are actually feminists.

I also have no doubt that sexual scripts regularly map themselves onto queer sex. Yep, I’ve had enough queer sex to know. So, no, my suggestion is not that straight sex = bad sex and queer sex = good sex. Yet, straight folks could learn a lot from queer communities! For example, many straight people could learn a lot from BDSM communities and their emphasis on safe, sane, and consensual sex. Polyqueer communities emphasize the importance of regular and open negotiation between sexual partners. In my thinking about Grace, and women like her, I am saying that more straight women need to make sex with men conditional on meaningful discussion of her desires.

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So, yes, not all straight sex is bad, and not all queer sex is good. But straight sex, as it is currently defined, was not equally designed around’s women’s pleasure as it is around men’s pleasure. There needs to be a collective push to redefine straight sex through progressive sex education and other cultural institutional transformation.

In conclusion, I am hoping we can move past Ansari and continue to unpack all the complexities that this moment presents. I’m hoping we can push forward in a more productive direction—towards a future, where women #demandbetter straight sex! Where we don’t just #demandbetter of individual men, but we #demandbetter from our government and its agencies; where we #demandbetter of the institutions that perpetuate patriarchy, white supremacy, heterosexism, and cisgenderism; where we #demandbetter of ourselves, for ourselves, and for everyone.

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Bad Girls: On Being the Accused

21 Dec

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).

18817dlaqr49qpngAll 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.

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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.

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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.”

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

text-bad-girl-rose-temporary-tattooMy 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.

 9781563410864These 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.

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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.

The Predator and the Jokester

13 Dec

guest post by Lauren Berlant

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Al Franken has said he’ll resign.  If so, he will be gone from the Senate not because he was a vicious predator but because there was a bad chemical reaction between his sexual immaturity, his just “having fun” with women’s bodies, and this moment of improvisatory boundary-drawing that likens the jokester to the predator. What’s going on?

Lots of people are worrying about this.  Some are using the language of the “witch hunt,” which is a term people use when they feel women coming after men as though the worst guy is the typical one. Some queers are reviving the language of the “moral panic,” in fear that this moment justifies and amplifies erotophobia, an already pervasive hatred of sex that ends up harming women, LGBTQ-identified people—anyone whose sexuality or body or appetites have been historically disparaged by the state, the hygienic bourgeoisie and the religious.

Everyone has appetites: yet many people think their own aversion to sex or ways of managing desire are evidence of moral virtue. Nowhere is this more evident than in how they process the casual pleasures.

Here’s the thing about the jokester and the predator. Power shows its ugliest tentacles most clearly in these figures, yet they seem at opposite extremes. Where the predator creates a situation they can exploit, it is often cushioned by a menacing sense that they control the interactive space and that they’re unavoidable. When a goof performs a joke, which is mostly spontaneous and casual, it is shaped by the play of surprise and hard to process in the moment. Time and fresh awkwardness provide the jokester’s cushion, however slight. In both cases the target suddenly feels baffled or overwhelmed.

It is hard for people to get their minds around this.  It can seem like a false equivalence between the predator and the jokester.  Like all analogies, it’s partial. But now it’s powerful to link them, because both are clearly protected by privilege: by control over time and space and the framing of consequences in domains of capital, labor, institutional belonging, and speech situations where the structurally vulnerable are forced to “choose their battles” or just act like a good sport.

It’s not just women who must feel compelled to take it and eat it: it’s anyone institutionally less powerful, including men when they are. Structural power is expressed in such incidents.  Incidents add up to environments, toxic atmospheres: often people lower in the pecking order find ways to live in them by imitating some habits of the powerful while honing varieties of defensive stealth like sarcasm, gossip, self-harm, or dissociating. Usually they keep quiet about the cost of staying in the game by appearing to be game. This is why keeping things “in scale” is not possible: many forces converge in the intimate encounter with structural power, and they’re often not fully equivalent at the level of event.

But if everyone is vulnerable to harassment and teasing, the world of humiliation and dings, sexualized, racialized, and lower-rank workers are way more vulnerable. It’s not unusual to undergo these encounters as a predictable kind of unwanted overcloseness, whether or not it’s darkly predatory, jokey, or both.  It’s often both.

So, the predator has control of situations; the jokester induces one on the spot. Even the professional comedian, whom you seek out in order to be both surprised and confirmed, is there to jolt you with a pleasure you didn’t specifically ask for.  No one asks to be the predator’s audience: that is why we call their acts violence. We often do enjoy the comedian’s: but there are conventions for what kinds of surprise we’re in for, warm conventions of the inside joke to which comedians usually submit themselves. Spontaneous jokesters, in contrast, make the scene happen just by playing around with you. It’s a different risk, offering different joys too.

I liked Al Franken: I thought he could take Trump in the general election. Both entertainers, they’d argue policy by way of showman putdowns and sarcastic arguments. But Franken got caught on camera treating women as toys, and lost the high ground that protected his self-pleasuring casual power from seeming insensitive or exploitative. Here is how I learned to notice this.

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“He toyed with my body.”  This was said to me by someone who needed my help.  It was 1975, the year Against Our Will came out, when I was 18.[1] There was no “mandatory reporting” then, no public world for turning around the horrible privacy sexual violence pushes you into. People were mainly stuck living lonely with the consequences of other people’s predation at that time: as they largely still are.

I think of it often.  “He toyed with my body.”  I knew even then that “toy” was a complicated verb.  She meant, I wasn’t raped. She meant, I’m already bargaining and I might not be telling you the truth. She meant, I might have been raped. She meant, I might just be using the only verb I have to make the incident utterable. “He toyed with my body.” She meant, he just did enough to enjoy himself without breaking the law as he understood it. She meant, he didn’t know what he was doing either, because he was pretty young, though significantly older.  She meant, he had deniability. She meant, not much happened. “He toyed.” She meant, we were playing around and it got weird. What did he know and when did he know it?  It was clear that whatever he knew thwarted her confidence in whatever she knew.

I don’t know what she meant.  Out of love and care and rapid-firing fear I didn’t ask. I said, “what should I do?”  She told me what she wanted me to do and I did it. Occasionally we talk about it, when she wants to. She doesn’t regret the way we handled it. By avoiding going public she got not to be defined by the toying, giving it a shot at being a thing that happened rather than THE thing that happened.[2]

The conversation completely changed me, shaping different events over time. “He toyed with my body.” As it happens, now I study comedy. I take seriously the relation between aggression and pleasure. I don’t think it only means aggression. But I pay a lot of attention. Not just to jokes, but to the innumerable double-takes that ordinary encounters generate when people are trying to stay in relation. It’s not just in gestures and moments that casual power wields its force. In Chicago at Christmas women come to the city wearing their perfume and mink coats. I ask myself, how much does your pleasure cost, and who pays for it? I think the same thing when I imagine who stayed poor so I could buy a can of cheap cooked beans. Our pleasures can be very expensive when they’re protected by wealth, law and norm; our pleasures can add up when they are casual, too.

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art by Frances Stark

The next time you hear your voice bleat, “It was just a joke,” ask yourself: who made you the boss of genre? And when something affronts you, slow things down: who made you the boss of genre? This should be a genuine question: not a rhetorical one. I don’t mean to diminish your visceral response, just to ask what else. Things happen after the trigger and its flood or the bargaining that makes someone laugh it off or plunder language for words like “toy.”

You can know something at high speeds; you can learn something at slow ones. The joke might be, as Ralph Ellison wrote, a yoke.[3] But there could also be a difference among a disturbance, a tweak, a good surprise, and a harm. Sometimes, like now, a whole set of various “we’s” are tired of being better in the situation than the person or community that fouls us is. Sometimes, like now, revenge is the only efficient justice people feel they have, after all the gossip and HR fails. But reflexive revenge will surely not solve the problem of scaling social jostling, casual play, violence, intimacy: or sex. It’s a time to organize social ways of derailing toxic environments, along with the thrilled aha, scorn and whatever else continues to see sex as a dirty appetite that other people have.

Good play involves trust, but how do you build it at the same time as you’re saying NO! to a world that coddles the toying bully and the aggro one?  Maybe trust’s not a high priority now. It’s a problem. I’m not kidding.

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Thanks to Joshua Clover, Joe Fischel, Dana Luciano, and Tavia Nyong’o for helping me write to the tenth draft.

Notes

[1] Susan Brownmiller, Against our Will:  Men, Women, and Rape (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1975).

[2] I learned to notice this from Elspeth Probyn’s argument that the minimizing rescaling of assaultive events has been a powerful strategy in queer autobiography—and, clearly, not just queer. See Outside Belonging  (London: Routledge, 1996), 98.

[3] Ralph Ellison, “Change the Joke and Slip the Yoke,” in Shadow and Act (1958; New York: Random House, 1964): 45-59.

Thinking Bad Sex

4 Nov

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).

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Many of my students’ comments about sex have surprised me in recent years, and regrettably, this is not because they are introducing me to interesting erotic subcultures I haven’t yet encountered, or to inspired, new sexual terminology. No, it’s that some of them define sexual assault with such a broad brush that I nearly fall out of my chair. Some tell me that any sex involving alcohol or drugs is, by definition, non-consensual and potentially rape. Others tell me that all unwanted sex is rape (or “at least a form of violence “), including when someone offers to give a blowjob they don’t really want to give because they feel general social pressure to conform to hook-up norms, or when someone consents to have sex with their partner when they are tired and not into it.

Some students tell me that queer people my age are too obsessed with sex practices, and that queer liberation is about identity-based self-determination (the freedom to identify in multiple and evolving ways, mostly on the internet). I tell them I disagree with their framing of many of these points. I tell them about how sometimes people choose to have sex, and also choose to drink alcohol before they have sex. I tell them about Nicola Gavey’s distinction between rape and “unjust sex, “‘ and how heteronormativity and patriarchy set up the field of hetero sex to be a vast expanse of unwanted and unsatisfying sex for women. A rigged and unjust system? Yes. Rape? No.

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Rape is not a metaphor, I tell them. I tell them I think we need more and better language to describe the bad sex that many of us consent to, and that developing this language will also allow us to see that “consent ” is hardly the endgame when it comes to good, and maybe even ethical, sex.

Cultural flashpoints, like the recent news about Kevin Spacey’s pattern of sexual harassment, can throw these apparent divides into even sharper relief. Scrolling through my Facebook feed, I saw many queers posting with fury about how Spacey had set back the lesbian and gay movement by reinforcing the gay pedophile myth. They declared that his reference to being gay was a distraction and a manipulation. They said he was using being drunk as a way to excuse sexual assault. Some called him a rapist before any evidence of forced penetration had been presented. Again, I was shocked by how quickly queer people were making facile and confident conclusions—Spacey is the same as Weinstein! —with relatively little information and with what seemed to me to be an anachronistic sense that it’s our job, as queers, to anticipate and prevent straight people’s most outlandish fears about us (like that Spacey’s actions mean all gay men are pedophiles).

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The claim that Spacey had abused and sullied the otherwise beautiful act of “coming out” seems to me especially bizarre and off-the-mark. For one, everyone in Hollywood, Spacey’s social world, already knew he was queer, making this ineffective as a distraction within the industry. Spacey’s coming out was more likely an obligatory offering to the public, who demand that celebrities (and all people) account for their sexuality with an easily consumable identification and narrative. Had Spacey not explained himself as gay, the media frenzy about the homosexual element of the story would likely have eclipsed what was truly important: 1.) that Spacey sexually harassed a 14-year-old boy by drunkenly laying on top of him, scaring and later traumatizing him, and 2) that Spacey acknowledged the harassment, apologized, and said he was “truly horrified. ”

Before I had a chance to think through how I might draw upon the power of queer, feminist complexity to characterize what Spacey had done to Rapp, I was overwhelmed by the panic emerging from mostly gay white male commentators. Spacey is a pedophile! Spacey is gay! So now everyone will think gays are pedophiles like they used to! Given our history of criminalization and subjection to false accusations of child molestation, gay men and lesbians have good reason to be vigilant about how the public perceives our relationship to children. But wrapped up in this panic are also other presumptions fueled by assimilationist forces in the gay and lesbian movement and mainstream/white feminist responses to sexual violence.

The mainstream gay critique of Spacey’s “inappropriate timing ” to “finally come out ” seemed to me very clearly anchored in a belief I do not share—that coming out is a genuine moral obligation, a proclamation of tremendous significance, and an act of finally telling truth about oneself. What if you feel, as I do, that coming out is a tedious social requirement designed to appease straight people and dumb down the complexities of queerness by telling a tired story about how you always knew you were different, how you are just like straight people except for your “love of the same sex “, and so on? From that view, “coming out ” almost always diminishes us, even as it may feel empowering. It’s almost always “bad timing, ” because it is almost always timed to help straight people understand us—in other words, it is timed to accommodate heteronormativity. It makes perfect sense to me that in this moment of global attention to his sexual assault of boys and men, Spacey would believe this is precisely the time to do that discursive thing we require of people who are oriented toward the so-called same sex: tell a story that explains why he was attracted to boys and men in the first place.

Critiques of Spacey’s apology seem to be forged by the same blunt mainstream feminist instrument that my students often bring to their analysis of what counts as sexual assault. As Sarah Schulman has described so vividly, we are living in a time in which many young feminists are not interested in why sexual assault happens, because to even ask that question is to potentially extend a degree of humanity to the rapist, who should burn in hell or be locked up for life. I find myself wishing torture upon rapists as much as the next feminist, but I also want to see us undo rape culture systematically, rather than focus purely on how we can partner with police to lock up rapists one by one. Somehow, I have become afraid to ask in my classroom the very questions that I know we must be asking: what happened to men’s humanity, did they ever have it, and how can we repair them? How do we address sexual violence and oppose the prison industrial complex at the same time? Does restorative justice work in cases of sexual assault? (See INCITE’s The Revolution Starts at Home to begin thinking about this). How do we distinguish between rape, on the one hand, and all the other bad sex people have out of obligation, self-doubt, fear, and confusion, on the other?

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No one I know thinks that Kevin Spacey’s sexual harassment and possible assault of teenagers, or adults, is worthy of defense. That’s a given. Sexual harassment and sexual assault—by which I mean repeated, unwanted sexual propositions and forced sexual touching, respectively—are violations. And they are often, though not always, traumatic for the people who experience them. But the rush to meme-ify sexual harassment and assault with our righteous rage, and to reduce our thinking to the level of “what will straight people think??! ” is hardly our best way forward. For me the question is, as always, how do we draw upon decades of feminist and queer activism and theorizing to see our way through the complexities of sex and its intersections with violence?