Chinese Manufacturing Part 2: The Workers

20 March, 2012 § 3 Comments

This is another guest post by Alexis S.

The most wince-inducing and problematic part of Daisey’s monologue was his characterization of the factory workers. It plays to some old, old racist tropes. We have an image in our culture of the Chinese worker. He used to wear a queue, and maybe one of those hats, then a Mao jacket, and now just some sad tattered clothes (or a Mao jacket or queue, because political cartoonists are lazy). He (or she, nowadays) is sexless, faceless, not an individual. He is a they, part of the Chinese Borg. (The computer game Alpha Centauri made this metaphor explicit.) If you’re worried about American jobs, you worry about the Chinese because they have an unfair advantage against us: American workers need food, sleep, health insurance. Chinese workers will work for five cents an hour until their hands drop off and their eyes fall out, and as soon as they break, they will be swapped out for a new one from the teeming masses. If you care about human rights, you feel sorry for the Chinese, who lack the power and knowledge to stop themselves from being exploited. They need your help. If you, like Mike Daisey go to China and just talk to the workers (with a translator), hear their individual stories and give them yours (in translation), make that human-to-human (to-translator) connection, you could see them as real individuals, give them the voice they lack (translated), and rescue them. Even if you don’t hate or fear or distrust the Chinese, the idea that they are ignorant voiceless masses waiting to be uplifted by a white American making an impulse trip to Shenzhen is as condescending as it is inaccurate. Look at this story from the TAL episode.

I talk to an older man with leathery skin. His right hand is twisted up into a claw. It was crushed in a metal press at Foxconn. He says he didn’t receive any medical attention, and it healed this way. And then when he was too slow, they fired him. Today he works at a woodworking plant. He says he likes it better. He says the people are nicer and the hours are more reasonable. He works about 70 hours a week. And I ask him what he did when he was at Foxconn, and says he worked on the metal enclosures for the laptops, and he worked on the iPad. And when he says this, I reach into my satchel, and I take out my iPad. And when he sees it, his eyes widen, because one of the ultimate ironies of globalism, at this point there are no iPads in China. Even though every last one of them was made at factories in China, they’ve all been packaged up in perfectly minimalist Apple packaging and then shipped across the seas, that we can all enjoy them. He’s never actually seen one on, this thing that took his hand. I turn it on, unlock the screen, and pass it to him. He takes it. The icons flare into view, and he strokes the screen with his ruined hand, and the icons slide back and forth. And he says something to Kathy, and Kathy says, “he says it’s a kind of magic.”

Here we have the ignorant worker, abused and exploited by the companies and government alike. He is a broken man, his hands twisted beyond recognition, all in the service of your iPad. And what does Mike Daisey do? He shows the man a complete iPad, not yet on the market in China, the object that this man destroyed himself to make. The man doesn’t hold a grudge against the iPad; instead, his face lights up with childlike wonder, and he runs his broken hands over the touchscreen and says, “magic.”

I told this story to a friend from Hong Kong and he just laughed. The idea that anyone in Shenzhen, even the poorest most ignorant laborer, had never seen or used a touchscreen tablet is funny. Even if this man had never been into the section of the factory where they turn the iPads on to test them, even if he never saw any iPads owned by Hong Kong visitors or mainlanders who bought one in Hong Kong or abroad, he still lives in Shenzhen, a city designed to bring in international business and advanced technology, one next to both the cosmopolitan city of Guangzhou (Canton) and the even more international Hong Kong. By the time Daisey made his trip, Shenzhen was full of tablets: legitimate iPads, “oops, it fell off the conveyer belt” or “it didn’t pass quality control” iPads, stolen iPads, and “no really, this is totally a real iPad!” iPad knock-offs. Plus non-Apple branded tablets from all the other American, Japanese, Korean, Taiwanese, Hong Kong, Chinese, and European companies that have their goods manufactured in Shenzhen. I’m sure there are people in Shenzhen who have never used a tablet. I could probably go around New Jersey and find someone who has never used an iPad or similar tablet. But neither person is going to think it’s magic. Chinese laborers just aren’t that ignorant.

Nor are they that ignorant about their rights. Laborers in southern China (what Ching Kwan Lee calls China’s “sunbelt”) are actually pretty knowledgeable about their legal rights. Workers talk to each other, share legal information and strategies. When they protest publicly, or go to the capital to petition, many workers can and do cite specific laws that are being violated. Remember when I said I would explain why the laws are important? That’s why. Even when they aren’t enforced, they give workers a clearer idea of what to demand, and give them specific language to use. Protestors in China draw on the language and concepts of modern Chinese law, on old Communist promises, and on imperial Chinese petitions. And, because they are savvy political actors, they say what Beijing wants to hear: that they only blame the local officials and factories, and they trust Beijing to make it right. It doesn’t always work. Sometimes there is backlash, sometimes there recompense is inadequate, sometimes workers get nothing and they also lose their jobs, or get beaten by police, or thrown in jail. Even when that happens, workers share the knowledge and experience they gained by going through the process, in order to better facilitate their rights in the future.

As a group, Chinese factory laborers are intelligent, strategic, and adaptable. They know their rights and share their knowledge and experience. Chinese laborers also tend to be strategic as employees. When they can, they seek out factories with better pay and working conditions. Many of them are working not just to feed themselves, but to save up and start businesses in their hometowns. Treating Chinese workers as ignorant victims is wrong, both factually and morally. It’s also bad entertainment. The story becomes one about the magical white American attaining enlightenment and spreading the new cause. This is not exactly an original story. It could be Chinese factory workers, handicapped people, the mentally ill, African-American schoolchildren, Tibetan monks. The lies replace a compelling story with stereotypes and self-absorption. So why not tell the truth instead?

Suggested resources:
China Blue, a 2005 documentary about a factory that makes jeans. You get to see the workers’ lives, and also what happens when they take action. Kind of the same concept as Daisey’s performance, but focused on the workers, and more nuanced. The PBS page for the film {} also contains an extensive list of sources.

Against the Law (2007) and Gender and the South China Miracle (1998), both by Ching Kwan Lee Against the Law is a study of the ways laborers in different parts of China advocate for themselves. It’s a good combination of hard data and human stories, the result of extensive interviews conducted by Lee. Gender and the South China Miracle is about factory culture in Hong Kong vs. mainland South China. Lee not only conducted interviews there, she actually worked undercover in the factories.

“Hope for Protection and Hopeless Choices”: Labor Legal Aid in the PRC by Mary Gallagher from the book Grassroots Political Reform in Contemporary China, ed. Elizabeth Perry and Merle Goldman and “The Moral Universe of Aggrieved Chinese Workers: Workers’ Appeals to Arbitration Committees and Letters and Visits Offices” by Isabelle Thireau and Hua Linshan in The China Journal The titles are probably self-explanatory.

With the exception of China Blue, these are all academic works, not light reading. I would suggest some more popular books, but I don’t know of any. If you’re read or written one, please recommend it!

Chinese Manufacturing Part 1: The System

19 March, 2012 § 1 Comment

This is a guest post by Alexis S.

Alexis has a formal academic education in Chinese government, politics, and economics, is fluent in Chinese, and has lived in China*. As it happens, I have these credentials as well, and I’ll be fielding questions in the comments (although, if she likes, Alexis is welcome to as well.)

(* I say this to establish her credentials to talk about this topic, not to shut down discussion. Feel free to disagree with us.)

I (Ben) have edited this essay. I take responsibility for all errors.

If you follow news about China or NPR, you have already heard the recent story about Mike Daisey. If you haven’t, you can go here or here to get details, but the quick summary is that monologuist and Apple fan Mike Daisey wrote and performed a one-man show called “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” where he told stories of traveling to Shenzhen and interviewing workers at Foxconn, the Taiwanese-owned company that Apple and other tech companies rely on for much of their manufacturing. The show got some attention, but the real surge seems to have come after This American Life devoted an episode to it, airing an excerpt from the show and then interviewing Daisey. They included some corrections, but overall presented the show as true. And then yesterday NPR Marketplace and Ira Glass admitted that they had discovered some problems: some of Daisey’s stories were exaggerated, some were second or third-hand stories he had recast as personal experience, and some were just not true. Daisey says his stories are entertainment, not journalism. A predictable fuss has occurred.

I had only gotten around to hearing the TAL episode two weeks ago, and the problems I had with the show are largely unaffected by the veracity of any given story of Mike Daisey’s. When I heard the episode, I assumed his anecdotes were his actual experiences, and the things that felt wrong or inaccurate to me were because his experiences were filtered through the mix of confusion, prejudice, patronizing sense of superiority, racism, and deep ignorance that characterizes so much of the American debate on China. Now we know many of these stories are false, so the personal experiences are removed from the equation, but all the issues remain, and those are what I want to discuss.

This is the story Daisey tells: Since Deng Xiaoping came to power, the Chinese Communist Party has sold the bodies and souls of Chinese workers in exchange for the trappings of wealth and modernity. The workers are cruelly and needlessly exploited by factory owners out of a combination of laziness and greed, until the workers are crippled or killed. The American companies turn a blind eye because it keeps costs down, and American consumers remain ignorant because we want cheap phones and iPads, and because somehow it never occurred to us to think about where our products were made.

This is a compelling story, because it tells us what we want to hear and it reinforces beliefs many of us already hold. But it’s not true.

First, the CCP. It’s easy to hate the CCP. They block wikipedia and the New York Times, imprison artists, threaten Taiwan, and commit all manner of atrocities against Tibetans (and against the Xinjiang Uighurs, not that anyone pays attention to a bunch of Muslims). It’s natural to implicate them in the labor abuses. So what’s wrong? A couple things: the CCP is not a monolithic entity, and the CCP actually takes steps to help and protect workers at times.

We like to think of China as a dictatorship (Daisey calls it “a fascist country run by thugs”), where the evil Communists (or evil ex-Communist traitors, depending on the politics of the speaker) control everything with an iron fist. Hu Jintao probably daydreams about that being true, but it isn’t. Beijing isn’t aware of everything that goes on at the local level, and Beijing’s priorities don’t necessarily match up with the priorities of local cadres.

Nor is the central government completely uniform. The CCP is comprised of anti-corruption reformers, of hardline authoritarians, of economic growth proponents, Mao nostalgists, hawks (especially on Taiwan), urban and rural partisans, and others. What they share is a desire for the CCP to stay in power. This means no rebellions, no military coups, no invasions. Setting aside coups and invasions, which aren’t the focus of this piece, the central government knows they need to keep people happy enough that the country won’t break out into revolts. That’s one reason China tries to keep a tight grip on economic growth, keeping the economy growing, but not too quickly. It also means that when workers do get angry at local cadres (small-level government officials) or factory owners, the central government will often step in and throw money at the workers to placate them. And then sometimes they arrest the leaders of the protests, because they’re also a threat to stability. The central government’s role is complex, and there are plenty of times when siding with laborers against factories is in its best interest, so that’s what it does. Corruption, size, and structural inefficiencies all make it hard for the central government to have the local control they would like, so they’ve adopted a strategy of waiting until things get bad, then coming in with a combination of harsh scapegoating for obviously corrupt officials and potentially powerful organizers, and compensation and apologies for everyone else.

So the government sometimes sides with workers. They even passed a labor law in 2007 to give more protections to workers. Do you know who fought long and hard against that bill? If your knowledge about the issue only comes from that TAL podcast, you probably don’t, because it never mentions one of the major anti-labor forces in China: the foreign business lobbies. The US Chamber of Commerce and the US-China Business Council argued against worker protections such as restricting non-compete clauses and limiting periods of unpaid on-the-job “training.” The European Union Chamber of Commerce made regretful noises about being forced to leave China if their workers were granted these basic rights. I’m all for blaming the CCP for their part in human rights abuses, but it strikes me as unfair and inaccurate to call the body that passed labor reforms “thugs” and never mention the Western interest groups that fought to weaken those reforms. If we, as Americans, are going to condemn the abuse of workers in China, why don’t we blame our own civil society groups?

(Some of you may be wondering whether a labor law is actually important, or if it would just be ignored. The laws are important, for reasons I explain more in the next part.) (ed: the next part will be posted tomorrow.)

Another cause of labor abuses in China that often goes uncriticized is the structure of manufacturing in China. I have some sympathy for Daisey here– it’s hard to critique a system and still be entertaining, and entertainment is his priority. Nonetheless, this system is important. Much of Chinese manufacturing, both high-tech stuff like computers and low-tech stuff like shirts, is subcontracted. Apple does not own the factory that makes iPads. Foxconn does, and also makes electronics for other companies, including laptops, cell phones, and video game systems from American, European, and Asian companies.. This strongly limits the amount of pressure Apple can bring to bear on Foxconn. Foxconn isn’t going to want to lose a major client, but they have to balance the demands of multiple clients. If Apple is the only company pressuring them for reforms, and all the other companies are still pressuring for speed and cheapness above all, they may decide that labor reform is a bad decision.

Meanwhile, Foxconn and similar companies are themselves insulated from the labor abuses. These are not companies run by Mainland Chinese passport-holders. Most of them are companies in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Korea, or Japan. They are less subject to the pressures that a Chinese company would feel. In some cases these companies are basically just middlemen: an American shoe company hires a Taiwanese company to find a factory in China to produce their shoes. Not only can the shoe company maintain plausible deniability for any abuses, but the company they hire can, too. This is more common in the garment industry, where the manufacture requires less skill and fewer proprietary technologies. This extra distance is one reason why the garment and toy industries tend to have some of the worst abuses. For Chinese factory laborers, places like Foxconn are actually considered some of the better places to work: There is less distance between the western company, the manufacturer, and the factory itself, and thus less likelihood for abuse.

A lot of hostility is aimed at the Chinese government, at Apple, and at Foxconn. The main effect of this is to make the critic and his audience feel better. The Chinese government is the wrong target, and probably doesn’t care what you think anyway. Foxconn doesn’t really care what you think either, unless you’re one of the companies investing it it. Criticizing Apple might get them to make changes, but unless you’re going to go after every electronics company that sells in America, you’re not going to make any substantial change. If you do feel the need to go after individual companies: garment and toy companies are a more deserving target. But, if you really want to make a substantial change, go after the big business lobbying groups such as the American Chamber of Commerce, the US-China Business Council, or your local equivalents. Form counter-lobbying groups for Chinese workers’ rights, or organize a boycott of every member of these organizations, or publicly shame them for their aggressive anti human rights practices. At the very least spend as much time and energy calling them out as you did Apple.

Why People Rape

25 February, 2012 § 7 Comments

Rape is a human experience. It is something that people do, to other people.

This seems like a trivial statement, but yet a lot of our cultural narratives are pretty much dead set against it. Pretty much every cultural narrative about rape, particularly about rapists, seems to be laser-focused on either dehumanizing the rapist — turning them into a motiveless, inhuman monstrosity — or on delegitimizing the rape by using the humanity of the rapist as some sort of moral counterweight.

In a previous post, bq gives a perfect example of this: “i got upset when people on my first/ex accountability team said stuff about how they didn’t want to “demonize”/”excommunicate” him from org spaces, and pointed out that perpetrators sometimes lash out because of traumas from their own past, people aren’t good and evil in terms of black and white, etc. so sometimes i get really wary when the conversation starts to look like that.” Basically this argument boils down to “he’s human, so obviously his raping you doesn’t count as real rape, which is only done by monsters.”

This argument gets morality exactly wrong. In the absence of choice — if we can imagine for a second a ravening monster that really could do nothing but rape — there nothing really evil… dangerous, yes, but not particularly evil. The evil thing is when a human chooses to rape another human.

This is very uncomfortable. As humans, we really don’t want to recognize our own capacity for evil. And so, to avoid this, we make excuses. We either dehumanize rapists, excusing ourselves from having to share a species with them, or we delegitimize their rape, arguing that since they are humans with redeeming qualities, they clearly can’t commit rape. Or we take some other tack, like claiming that rape is mostly accidental or strictly the result of cultural messaging or dehumanizing the victim and so on and so forth. Anything to avoid the truth: that rape is something that humans do to other humans, for their own human reasons.

If we want to seriously confront rape, in order to take action against it, we need to be able to banish these excuses and confront reality. This will be hard. I am trying, in this essay, to start myself on that.

Rape is violence, and thus if we want to look at the causes of rape and the motivations of rapists, we should look at the causes of violence and the motivations of the violent. Rape is, of course, a particular subset of violence, sexual violence, and so it will have its own particularities but it does behoove us to first look at the general case.

Violence is often shown in the media as a crime of uncontrolled emotion. In the case of non-rape violence, this is usually shown as uncontrolled anger. In the case of rape, this is usually shown as uncontrolled lust (when it is ascribed a human motivation at all: most rapists in fiction are simply portrayed as inhuman). Rarely, we might see non-rape violence as an expression of power.

In reality, violence is rarely a crime of emotional incontinence. It is much more likely an expression of, or claim over, power over others. To have power over someone is, in a lot of respects, to be able to do socially-tolerated or even socially-sanctioned violence to that person. Likewise, in a certain sense, to do violence to someone is to claim power over them, justly or unjustly.

The relationship between power and violence is, in most circumstances, one of potential violence rather than actual violence. Lots of people have power, and don’t express it via violence. So what’s the difference between the minister and the minister who rapes his ministry?

Often people commit violence when they are uncertain of their power, and want to reify it. This sense of power uncertainty can come from a lot of places: low self-worth, genuine power uncertainty, PTSD or other pathologies, and so on.

By committing an act of violence, an abuser is creating a space wherein they have the power, control, authority, and respect of others. There are any number of reasons to seek this out, but I want to now talk specifically about rape.

Sex is, in a lot of ways, terrifying, particularly for someone who is uncertain of their power. Consensual sex creates bonds of intimacy and trust, and bonds of intimacy and trust are absolutely corrosive to power relationships*. Sex is also really terrifying for a host of other reasons, not the least of which include disease, pregnancy, social stigma, and, for some, traumatic history.

Rape presents a solution to this, albeit a horrible one from a moral standpoint. A rapist isn’t breaking down their power, they’re reifying it. Rape provides the rapist with sex** in a means which is “safe” for their own self-image. It’s a means of sheltering the self from the emotional consequences of sex.

To some degree, I think that this is a bad strategy. Rape, like most acts of violence, does emotional damage to the perpetrator as well as the victim. But I think that the attraction, to a rapist, is the idea that you can “get sex” without having to give up your power (in fact, it’s a means of gaining it) or debase yourself by associating on a peer level with a lower-status person.

Additionally rape, like all violence, provides a to establish power over someone in a more trivial and direct sense. Rape is particularly useful in a lot of situations because it is much more likely to be kept secret than other forms of violence, both because it has less obvious physical signs than a beating and also because the victim-blaming, rapist-excusing trappings of our society strongly dis-incentivize reporting. This is particularly the case for rape committed by an intimate partner or acquaintance, but it extends from there pretty directly to all forms of rape. Even rape that our society will acknowledge is evil, and is rape, is something that most people don’t want to hear about, and don’t want to believe exists within their sphere.

Of course, these two things tie together pretty directly: to someone whose self-worth is tied up with their power over others, rape becomes a pretty convenient means of indulging that power. Likewise, to someone with that viewpoint, consensual sex is a pretty terrifying thing, and rape provides a functional (better than functional) alternative to it.

In the future, I’d like to talk about what this means, in terms of culture, society, and reducing instances of rape. There are a lot of directions where this goes: racism and misogyny are definitely two, as well as just the general structuring of power in our society (and other societies: I just talk about ours because I’m familiar with it, not to imply that these issues are not trans-social.)

But for now, before zooming out, I want to leave it here, at the individual level: Rape is something humans do, to other humans, for their reasons. If we want to be serious about understanding rape, and fighting it, we need to understand the motivations at play at a deeper level than “bad people do bad things.” Rapists rape because it makes them feel safe, secure, because it expresses and indulges and creates their power over others, because it is a way to have sex while keeping your disdain for the other intact.

* I really should do better than assert this. Another essay.
** I’m not actually sure about this. I will probably contradict this point later.

Thank you to Charles, Alice, and Alexis for providing emotional, logical, and logistical support for this piece.

Compassion for Evil

24 February, 2012 § 16 Comments

So I have been working on an essay, titled “Why People Rape,” which starts from the basic premise that both rapists and rape survivors are human, and works out from there some of the ramifications of what that means for rape as a decision. It’s hard to deal with, which is why it’s taking a while to write (I have to write part of it, step away and emotionally recover, come back and see if I wrote anything horrible, then take on the next part.)

A lesson I’ve learned, mostly from my friend Vincent, is that when writing something is hard, it behooves you to connect it to your personal experience. Both because writing from personal experience is far easier than writing from universal principle, and also writing from personal experience forces you into honesty that is often elusive in higher-level material. So, on that vein, let me do that.

There is no one in our society more broadly dehumanized than pedophiles (the only group I can think of that come close are the severely mentally handicapped.) Pretty much the only use we have for pedophiles, at least in terms that we express, is that they die a tortuous and perhaps ironically appropriate death. Acknowledging the humanity of pedophiles will get you some pretty awful looks, some pretty awful words, and some pretty awful threats of physical violence.

(To be clear: a pedophile who rapes children has done something very, very evil. I’m not an apologist for the practice of pedophilia.)

Dehumanizing pedophiles is a very useful thing, in terms of maintaining a strong self-image. If you de-humanize someone, you don’t have to come to terms with the fact that you have the potential for enormous evil, as well. You also don’t have to come to terms with the fact that some of your friends, mentors, leaders may be pedophiles or rapists: their humanity attests their innocence. I’m going to have more on this in the next post.

I often find myself in a position of defending the humanity of pedophiles. This is … shit. I can’t even describe. It’s unjust. Of all people, I (and survivors like me) should have a right to be bigoted about this. It’s appalling to me that our society is so extreme in its denials that I’m the one who has to defend the humanity of people like my maternal grandfather.

But I do. And here’s why.

I was raped well before the age sexual maturity, and I was conscious of it a few years before. Being a precocious little brat, one of the first things I did is read up about what this would mean for me, going forward. One of the key things that I learned is that people who were sexually abused as children are much more likely than the general population to become pedophiles.

There are a host of psychological and social reasons for this, but I don’t really have to expertise or inclination to get into them. If you have insight, post in the comments. What I’d rather discuss is what it meant for me.

What it meant for me is that, for a couple of years in my pre-adolescence, I was wrestling with “what do I do if I’m a pedophile?” I wanted to be prepared for it. I reviewed strategies, thoughts, and feelings. I was pretty clear that actually raping kids was not an option. But what would I do? Be celibate my whole life? Try to marry someone who had a child-like appearance? I knew even then that I wanted to get married and have kids. But could I trust myself around my own children? Would I be able to tell people about it, even people I loved and trusted, or would I have to cope entirely alone?

I didn’t resolve this, because it is impossible to resolve. There is not a good answer.

(I’d like to take a moment to say that there are some people in this situation — possibly a lot of people in this situation — who deal with their pedophilia in the right way, by not raping any kids. These people are fucking heroes and it is a damn shame how little support we have for these decisions in our society.)

Fortunately, and by the grace of God (or luck, for the theoallergenic), I turned out not to be a pedophile. You have no idea what a relief this was for me, and honestly continues to be to this day. But, like, a slightly different psychological maladaptation, a tweak instead of a twonk in my subconscious, and things would have worked out very differently.

This is hard to deal with. I want to have the luxury of dehumanizing pedophiles and other rapists. I would like to pretend that I would never be like that, never do something like that. But I can’t. That informs a lot of my writing here.

We should, when talking about horrible evil, maintain compassion for those who commit it. Not for their benefit — honestly, fuck those guys — but for our own. By dehumanizing evildoers, we do damage to our own humanity. The fact of the matter is that any one of us can choose to do evil, not because we are monsters, but because we are humans. Inasmuch as we do not, that is a good thing, and something we should feel happy and joyful about.

Rape is Violence

7 February, 2012 § 7 Comments

It is slightly depressing to have to write this post. Maybe it’s just that I was raised in a particular political environment (amongst a very liberal rural population by a self-critical second wave feminist mother) but my feeling is that, when I was younger, the dialogue around rape as a crime was “rape is not a crime of sex, it’s a crime of violence.” In other words, rape is not “sex gone wrong” it’s “violence gone sexual.”

More recently this has seemed considerably more muddled to me: I see a lot of people who are putatively anti-rape and pro rape survivor using “sex gone wrong” formulations (most egregiously and omni-presently the vile Men Can Stop Rape meme.) This lends to me a distinctly panicky and frustrated feeling when in anti-rape discussions: that I am actively losing ground, and having to fight basic definitional battles with people who are at least claiming to be my allies. It’s tiring.

(I think that there are particular reasons for this ideological shift, but they’re off topic for this post. Foreshadowing!)

So let’s be clear, here: Rape is not a form of sex, it’s a form of violence. Rape is no more a form of sex than beating someone with a baseball bat is a form of sport.

One of the most positive developments in terms of how our society handles rape and, thus, rape survivors, is the decrease in the use of the term rape in criminal codes and the increase of the considerably more precise term sexual assault. Despite this, I use the term rape in my own discussions, mostly, because it has an emotional and cultural impact that the more clinical term sexual assault lacks. But, culturally, sexually assault is simply the better term. I have seen it repeatedly argued, for instance, that men can’t be raped and that women can’t commit rape. I’ve never seen it argued that men can’t be sexually assaulted or that women can’t sexually assault someone. Likewise, for instance, the horrible “are you SURE it was rape?” meme is exposed as the vile shit it is when you rephrase it as “are you SURE it was sexual assault?”

The best thing about sexual assault as a term is that it places the adjective and noun in their correct places… what we are talking about here is assault — direct physical violence — with sex as the means of perpetuating that violence.

Apologies for the rather blah essay: this is really a preliminary, but I want to make sure that we’re clear on this and to have it to refer back to in the future. It is something that I want to make sure we are all absolutely motherfucking clear about.

Note 1: This essay was very heavily pruned: the discussion topic has a lot of tangents coming off of it and I had to only allow myself to go down one or two. So I apologize in advance if it’s somewhat incoherent in the segues. If you do notice weird jumps of either logic or style, please let me know and I will fix them up.

Note 2: Because of the cultural dialogue around things like “rape rape,” “forcible rape” and “honest rape” that de-legitimizes non-ideal rape victims, I feel the need to add this: my discussion of this absolutely, irrevocably and completely includes date rape, rape by coercion, and other forms of rape that do not include additional components of physical violence. They are no less sexual assault than jump-out-of-the-bushes rape. Rape is not “sex + physical violence” it is “the mechanics of sex as a form of physical (and emotional and social) violence.”

Who are rape survivors?

28 January, 2012 § 6 Comments

Recently I commented on twitter “Ironically, a post about making safe spaces for abuse victims made me feel so unsafe, as an abuse survivor, that I’m afraid to post.” The exact discussion isn’t important (and, in fact, linking directly to it is probably counterproductive) but I want to talk about some of the social forces at play, because this sort of alienation from actions putatively in our name is not uncommon for me and, I imagine, is not uncommon for other survivors of rape. I dunno. Maybe it’s just me. Tell me in the comments!

On the surface, social activism / action on behalf of rape survivors is pretty much completely unobjectionable. We are a pretty needy group, in terms of both immediate resources and care and also long term support, and we’re socially seen as very pitiable and in need of help (there’s a separate issue here, but not the one I’m driving at.) It makes for a good cause. But, of course, the reality is much more complicated.

When choosing to help a problematized group, such as rape survivors, an activist can take two options. They can either attempt to help the group in total, which is pretty much the legitimate, morally valid choice, or they can choose to help only the subset of the group that subscribes to their social prejudices and preconceptions, which is pretty much despicable in its effect, regardless of how well intentioned the actor is.

A lot of the speaking on behalf of rape survivors that happens in parts of the internet I frequent is the latter, not the former. There are groups that do the former (Rape Crisis and RAINN, as institutions if not always in specific instances, are really great institutions and wholly deserving of your respect, as well as your moral and material support), but they’re not what I want to address here.

When you choose to deal with rape survivors, you don’t get to only deal with ideal rape survivors. Rape survivors, are, as a class, are not ideal. Compared to the general populace, we are more likely to be criminals, drug users, drug addicts, alcoholics, depressed, have PTSD, have other mental illness, have socially or politically problematic sexualities, be unemployed, be homeless, be socially maladjusted, suicidal, and more prone to, ourselves, be rapists. Further complicating things, rape survivors form an enormous cross-section of our society, coming from all social classes, races, genders, and biological sexes. Rape survivors are, in short, not an easy group to work with.

If a would be actor is made uncomfortable by this, there are three possible responses. The first, totally admirable, is to mold themselves until they are comfortable seeing rape survivors for who we are and working with us on our own terms, whatever those are (and, given our enormous diversity, that’s likely going to vary survivor to survivor.) The second, also totally admirable, is to simply take that altruistic urge and use it towards a different, more comfortable form of activism, or in a role removed from direct interaction with other people. This is great as well. The last, and seriously problematic reaction, is to simply discard any rape survivors that the actor sees as “unacceptable” by any means, to void them of their legitimacy and often of their very existence. This is not acceptable, and it’s actively harmful not only to the rape survivors that it dismisses, but also to rape survivors as a class, because it paints a dangerously erroneous portrait of us, usually one based in patriarchal values and rape culture.

The traditional (patriarchal) view of rape is that it is a crime committed by monsters against innocents, and that monsters and innocents are not legitimately intersecting groups. See nifty venn diagram, below (I worked hard on these Venn Diagrams: if you want to get brownie points with me, praise them.)

In this view of rape, activism on behalf of rape victims, and really anti-rape activism in general, becomes a matter of sheltering the innocents from the ravages of the monsters. See next nifty venn diagram.

This ranges everywhere from the KKK putatively protecting white women from rape at the hands of liberated black men to a modern feminist blog attempting to make a putatively safe space for rape survivors by ostracizing all men, or (in another example) anyone who has a problematic sexuality or problematic sexual history.

The idea is that the activists, as knights in shining armor, are here to protect the delicate rape survivors and would-be rape survivors from the ravages of the horrible rapists. It’s a highly motivating narrative, partially because it casts the activists in a wholly noble role, and frames the entire action in a clear Mannichean duality between good and evil.

It is also wrong.

Here is an actual view of rape survivors and rapists.

In this view, which is considerably more troubling, rapists and rape survivors are both humans, not innocents and not monsters. Thus, there can be (as there actually is) an overlap between survivors and perpetrators. When an activist holds this in their head, and really understands it, the role of activism changes dramatically. It cannot be the role of activist to protect would-be and present victims from the ravages of the monstrous rapists. It must be the goal of activism to provide comfort for anyone who needs it and, in a strategic sense, to shrink the entire diagram whether by psychological support, social change, or other means.

This is much, much harder. I understand not wanting to accept it: if I were in a position not to accept it, I would clearly reject it, on two grounds. First, it creates a lot of headaches for me. Second, it massively conflicts with social indoctrination about what rape is, who does it and to whom. But if we’re going to be see clearly, if we’re going to actually address the problems of rape in a single person’s life, let alone in all of society, we have to be able to formulate our world views in this more complex and more difficult way.

That means that, for instance, safe spaces for rape survivors must also be safe spaces to express problematic sexuality and problematic sexual history, up to and including talking about rape that a survivor committed. I’m not saying that there should be support for actually raping people in the present, and the victims must be acknowledged, but a space in which having done something wrong (whether it be rape or some other violence) 10 years ago invalidates your presence in the space is not a safe space for rape survivors, because, for many of us, it means not being able to address the effects of rape in our personal lives directly and clearly and honestly. Likewise, a space where, say, being a BDSM fetishist is unacceptable similarly leaves no room for honesty. And, without that honesty, there can’t be healing.

Ironically, such spaces are perfectly fine for people who are rapists and actively continuing to be perpetrators. Such people are not particularly interested in self-reflection or honesty, and are often perfectly capable of negotiating the rules (whatever they are) of the space while still silencing victims and recruiting more.

A last point I want to add, which is kinda particular to me, is that the contrasting views of rape above are, explicitly, sexist and patriarchal, even as they are reified and propagated in feminist spaces. It is not by accident that we culturally paint most men as rapists, and most women as victims. To that end, I’d like to just throw up two more diagrams, for discussion and dissection either in the comments or at a later date.

(Note: None of these diagrams are to scale.)

Three ways to talk about rape

23 January, 2012 § 2 Comments

I’ve run into some real stumbling blocks talking about rape, previously. To some degree this is simply unavoidable: for both personal and cultural reasons rape is an incredibly emotionally fraught topic, and naturally people’s dander gets up when you talk about it. The other is that rape functions at multiple levels in society, and people feel a strong sense of “ownership” over the issue depending on their relationship to it. So I’m going to lay these out early on to have a post to refer to later.

1) Rape as an individual crime, with a perpetrator and a victim, including causes and effects. This is the baseline of experience, and when we talk honestly about rape to some extent we need to talk about this. In particular, I think that we don’t often talk about the motivations of perpetrators in any coherent sense. This is because the dialogue around rape is so culturally fucked that we feel a need to dehumanize both perpetrators and survivors: thus, talking about motivations and effects as things which are done by humans to other humans becomes very difficult. I’d like to talk more about this, upcoming.

2) Rape as a social institution. Rape isn’t an aberration: it happens in every human society throughout all of human history. It is fundamentally built into our social structure, and it forms an important part in both generating and enforcing social norms. If we’re going to take serious action to confront and reduce rape in our society, we’re going to have to address the ways it is part of our social structure. In contrast to “rape culture” we might call this “rape society.” I don’t think a lot of people talk about this, at least not in the corners of culture I frequent, so if anyone has any reading links please toss them out. I would like to eventually get to a point where I can analyze and discuss this level, but I’m not there yet.

3) Rape as a cultural concept. This is separate from the above, because it’s not about the actual practice of rape, but the idea of it and the use of the threat of rape to enforce and perpetuate social norms. A lot of anti-rape activism exists at this level: this is where the gender differences are most pronounced for instance (as a guy, for example, I have never been told that I shouldn’t walk home alone at night because I might be raped, but I have been told that if I break the law I will be punitively raped in prison.) This is where “rape culture” lives.

Of course, these things are actually so interconnected that placing them in three bullet points is misleading. Individual acts exist in a social and cultural context, the cultural context is not separate from the social hierarchy, and so on. But I think that confusion about the differences here leads to a lot of mistakes and mis-steps. When a feminist activist who is not a rape survivor tells me, a male rape survivor, that “I can’t understand rape,” she’s talking about the cultural level, where rape is strongly gendered and I will never have the female experience of it. (This is a charitable reading: she also might be a male rape denier or just ignorant and bigoted.) If I hear her as talking about the other levels, where I clearly have experience and understanding, I’m not going to take it well. So having this laid out will hopefully avoid some of those problems.

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