What are our responsibilities in navigating rape culture? On R. Kelly and separating art from life

Can we separate a work of art from the artist who created it? Can we separate artists from themselves? What is our role as consumers of art in relation to rape culture? What is rape culture?

You may have asked yourself some of these questions in recent weeks if you read the detailed article on R. Kelly’s history of sexual poaching and abuse of minors or if you saw Woody Allen’s son Ronan Farrow publicly accusing his father, on twitter, of sexually abusing his sister (Allen’s then seven year old daughter).

There are many other problematic artists of course (Roman Polanski and Norman Mailer come to mind), but perhaps none so widely loved and heralded by mainstream media as Kelly and Allen, who’ve not only been a permitted to continue living their lives and making their art with virtual impunity, but are still celebrated uncritically. It’s time to ask why and how we keep continuing this exercise of deliberate collective cognitive dissonance — wherein we are aware of rape and abuse that took place, yet continue to support the rapists and abusers.

The first step in answering these questions must look towards rape culture — what it is; how it works; and why it continues to be sustained and reproduced by cultural institutions, and let’s face it, ourselves.

So what is rape culture? Women Against Violence Against Women (WAVAW) quotes Emilie Buchwald, author of “Transforming a Rape Culture,” who defines the term as encompassing: “a complex set of beliefs that encourage male sexual aggression and supports violence against women. It is a society where violence is seen as sexy and sexuality as violent. In a rape culture, women perceive a continuum of threatened violence that ranges from sexual remarks to sexual touching to rape itself. A rape culture condones physical and emotional terrorism against women as the norm… In a rape culture both men and women assume that sexual violence is a fact of life, inevitable… However… much of what we accept as inevitable is in fact the expression of values and attitudes that can change.”

Rape culture perpetuates itself by establishing violence against women as not only a norm, but as an inevitable fact. When we eschew our agency and role in the continuation of this norm of violence, we are effectively conflating how the world ought to be, with the way the world is. Just because rape culture exists in the world does not mean it should exist in the world; nor does the pervasiveness of rape culture justify our washing our hands of trying to end its pervasiveness. To maintain these positions is to fall back on an appeal to nature, a logical fallacy at best; a willful and deliberate refusal to counteract the status quo at worst and in practice.

But what counts as violence? Language is partially responsible for maintaining our current rape culture: “politics is partly about a struggle over the language people use to describe social and political experience” (Young). Violence is all too often conceived as literal physical harm or damage to persons, but this is an all too narrow and incomplete definition — one that is often used by victim-blamers and rape-apologists to deny, silence, and trivialize women’s experiences of violence: “You weren’t really raped — you were just drunk!” “It’s not like he hurt you,” etc. A better, more accurate definition of violence — that actually takes into account what its victims say about it, what it does, and how it works — is absolutely essential if we want to end it. This more robust definition of violence must recognize the fact that violence operates through a wide range of attitudes and behaviours: whatever violates a person’s right to or sense of safety, security, consent, and dignity is an instance of violation against that person. If we want to end rape culture, we must define violence as any such breach against persons, whether explicit or implied, and also accept that this violence is what characterizes and sustains rape culture.

When we consume art made by artists who we know raped and abused girls and women, are we condoning rape culture, or even perpetrating further violence? The quick answer is yes. We’ve probably all participated in rape culture at some point in our lives. How could we not? We are entrenched within it. I know I have enjoyed R. Kelly’s music in the past, and have absolutely been obsessed with a number of Woody Allen’s films, but there should be some distinctions drawn between participation in rape culture, and active condoning/perpetrating of further violence within it.

With this distinction we can say that we participate in rape culture when we rewatch that downloaded rip of Manhattan privately in our homes knowing that its director and our consumption of his work is problematic. But when you are publicly consuming and celebrating a known rapist’s work, you are actively condoning rape culture and perpetrating further violence to the rapist’s victims. The distinction between mere participation and perpetration of further violence within rape culture depends on whether your choice to consume the material and your enjoyment of its consumption violates anyone’s right to and sense of safety security, consent, and dignity — as mentioned above.

There are dozens of women in the US right now who were allegedly raped by R. Kelly when they were as young as 14 who haven’t yet seen full justice for the crimes committed against them. The Village Voice’s Jessica Hopper spoke with journalist Jim DeRogatis (who’s been covering this story for 15 years) about what happened after he criticized Pitchfork’s decision to hire R. Kelly to headline their summer music festival:

One of Kelly’s victims called him in the middle of the night after his Pitchfork review came out, to thank him for caring when no one else did. He told me of mothers crying on his shoulder, seeing the scars of a suicide attempt on a girl’s wrists, the fear in their eyes. He detailed an aftermath that the public has never had to bear witness to… There was a young woman that he [R. Kelly] picked up on the evening of her prom. The relationship lasted a year and a half or two years. Impregnated her, paid for her abortion, had his goons drive her. None of which she wanted. She sued him. “The saddest fact I’ve learned is: Nobody matters less to our society than young black women. Nobody. They have any complaint about the way they are treated: They are ‘bitches, hos, and gold-diggers,’ plain and simple. Kelly never misbehaved with a single white girl who sued him or that we know of. Mark Anthony Neal, the African-American scholar, makes this point : one white girl in Winnetka and the story would have been different. No, it was young black girls and all of them settled. They settled because they felt they could get no justice whatsoever. They didn’t have a chance.”

It is a violation against these women’s right to safety and dignity each time we condone or celebrate their rapist’s work.

How are cultural institutions, and we ourselves, perpetuating rape culture?

A local example of how cultural institutions perpetuate rape culture is the upcoming showing of Kelly’s film, Trapped in the Closet, this Saturday at The Rio Theatre in East Vancouver. This beloved Vancouver cultural institution, owned and operated by women, is actively promoting and following through with a screening and sing-along of R. Kelly’s famous hip hopera despite concerns raised by numerous patrons of their establishment condemning their decision to support him and his work. Saturday will be The Rio’s second collaboration with The Action Pack, an interactive event production arm of Alamo Drafthouse Cinemas based out of Texas that’s been bringing the interactive R. Kelly experience to North American theatre-goers since 2009. Audience members are being sold on a fun night of entertainment:

this Sing-Along event will take TRAPPED IN THE CLOSET and give it the full Rocky Horror experience, with subtitles on screen to make it easy to sing-along (or just keep up with the story if you’ve never seen this majesty before), and props like Barettas, rubbers, spatulas and more to help make the magic moments on screen come alive in the theater.

TITC is being marketed as “the cinematic event of the century.” There are currently 3000 people invited to the Saturday showing on Facebook. Select criticisms of their decision to show Kelly’s work on their promotional event pages have been deleted.

When  I questioned their choice to continue showing this rapist’s work, Rachel Fox and Corrine Lea responded as follows:

Thanks for touching base. I do appreciate your concern, and it’s certainly valid. R. Kelly is definitely not unique as an artist whose life casts a shadow over their art – Roman Polanski, Snoop Dogg, Michael Jackson and even Woody Allen come to mind as being in a similarly controversial category. The Rio, as a venue, makes a distinction between the artist and their work. Artists are complicated people and we may not like all of them, but we may still appreciate their work” (Corrine Lea). Regardless, like any exhibition-based business (movie theatre, radio station), provides a product to an audience, and as a small independent business it’s necessary for us to cater to a broad one in order to survive. We screened this title in 2012 and had a big turnout, and are screening it again based on consumer demand. Popular consumption is a democracy, and the great thing about being in one is that you as a consumer *always* have the option to tune out those products that don’t appeal to you. Turn to a different radio station if you don’t like a Chris Brown song, choose not to purchase products from platforms (ie, iTunes/Apple) that sell content from artists (like R. Kelly) you have misgivings with, opt not to wear American Apparel if their campaigns don’t appeal you, skip certain movie genres that recycle tropes you take issue with, etc. As a programmer at the Rio I take what I do really seriously, and make a concerted effort to bring a lot of small, independent titles – many of which have extremely limited audiences – to the Rio. … Bottom line: What’s good for one person may not be for another. I won’t deny that R. Kelly as an artist is legitimately problematic, but I also can’t deny that TRAPPED IN THE CLOSET (has anyone here seen it?) was one of my favourite experiences at the Rio last year. And yes, absolutely, there’s conflict there, but there’s inherent conflict all around us, and everyone has to make decisions for themselves on what their own boundaries are. Personally, I think it’s fucked up how people revere Michael Jackson every year at Halloween and gloss over his sordid history… does that mean I think people who choose to dress up as zombies and re-enact the “Thriller” moves with abandon every year “condone” his history, whatever it may be? No, I don’t. I choose not to listen to his music and don’t actually own any. But that’s me, and those are my boundaries. That may not be you, or yours. (Rachel Fox).

This is rape culture in action. I think any of us can appreciate just how hard it is in this city to run and promote any creative/artistic venture, but one night of financial gain is surely an unwise priority to place above basic integrity. We all share a responsibility to ourselves and the victims of rapists to, at the very least, not perpetrate further violence against them. That it’s “really fun” is not an acceptable answer. Singing along, celebrating, paying for and profiting from the work of an alleged rapist (whose violations of dozens of young women are well documented in hundreds of pages of court affidavits) is further violating his victims and condoning the injustices of rape culture. In holding this event, The Rio is telling its patrons, as well as society at large, that even though they are well aware that this man has been accused of raping dozens of girls as young as 14, this is OK — that The Rio (and,in fact, everyone else, as the purpose of promotion is to reach as many people as possible) should still support his work and reward him culturally and financially.

Rachel Fox is right that what is good for one person may not be for another, but that’s not what is at stake here. If what a person does violates another, then it’s up to that person to refrain from whatever it is that may violate that other person. Just because we don’t think we’re doing anything wrong to ourselves, doesn’t mean we aren’t doing wrong by and towards others.

Another thing to think about is this: 51% of Canadian women report having experienced at least one incident of physical or sexual violence since the age of sixteen. And that is just what is reported. Undoubtedly, of the 3000 invitees to the R Kelly sing along event this Saturday, there will be, among them, women who have experienced rape. What is the message to women who’ve experienced rape who are then invited come out and sing along to R. Kelly? Rape and the culture that engenders rape is everyone’s business. It should behoove all of us to work against everything around us that encourage and perpetuate this culture, not celebrate it.

And “democracy” is a poor crutch of an excuse here. If we relied on “democracy” to sort out our basic human rights such as our right to safety and dignity we wouldn’t have any. A lot of people want to rape girls. If enough people want to, should we allow it? Majority rules? Should we condone and promote it? Should we sing-along to it?

There were no ballots or voting involved in The Rio’s choice to show Trapped in the Closet. Cultural institutions have the ability to make choices and with that ability comes power and responsibility. Profiting from the work of admittedly “problematic artists” who get away with rape is not only condoning that injustice but further violating those girls and women raped by these artists; as well as girls and women in our own midst who may be struggling with their own experience of sexual violation. What is the message we’re sending them and to society at large when we give our time and money to those who get away with rape? The message is: “you don’t matter, there is no justice for you.”

This is not acceptable. Let’s stop pretending that rape culture is some autonomous, nebulous thing out there in the world that we can’t quite grasp — we know full well what and where it is and how we directly engage in and perpetuate it in every sphere of our lives. We can take steps to stop supporting its manifestation and reproduction if we own up to what we already know: no matter how “fun” or “ironic” your participation in rape culture is, it’s wrong to partake in the violation of any person.

Jennifer Kim is a student, a writer, and a feminist living in Vancouver. Follow her on Twitter @Im2old4thisship.

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  • I really appreciate that you included in this the typical free market response to criticism of celebrating the work of men like R. Kelly. “If you don’t like it – don’t watch.” is one of the laziest forms of thinking. It supposes that the individual who goes against the societal grain really makes a difference when they don’t purchase a ticket. Its a drop in the sea approach. We all have to face the consequences of living in a world where sexually violent men are celebrated regardless of what we individually do.

    • Meghan Murphy

      Right? Also, leaving ethics up to the market/consumer demand has really worked out well for, like, the whole world, hasn’t it.

    • Missfit

      We often hear claims of democracy, in that people are free to decide what products they want to consume. As if people had equal access to a diversity of artistic products. The reality is that people, especially young people, will consume what is pushed and marketed to them. And it looks like the ones who have the means to distribute and market their products to large audiences are a bunch of pervert dudes in LA…

      We know we live in a woman-hating culture when misogynists like Eminem are acclaimed and rewarded.
      -But he’s so talented.
      -There are plenty of talented women out there we don’t hear of.
      -Well, maybe I can get a platform for one of them if she’s willing to show her boobs…

      • Meghan Murphy

        For sure. We market products to people and then refuse to be accountable when they consume said product. “Oh well, we didn’t force you to buy it! Just don’t buy it if you don’t like it!” Ugh.

  • There is a kind of romanticizing of artists going on here. We never say “It’s okay for that engineer to be a rapist because we love his work, we can’t bear to be without his wonderful work, so we shall just avert our eyes.”

    I hadn’t heard that about Woody Allen. That’s depressing but in a way not surprising.

    • Pulp

      Your comparison with engineers is a terrific example, though I would say it’s more a celebrity issue than an artist one. When we see a person’s face frequently our brains make us think we know them personally.

  • Thank you for explaining clearly how and why rape culture continues to be condoned. The usual excuses/denials have been deployed because the women owners of The Rio Theatre do not want to listen or accept they are perpetuating rape culture and mens’ pseudo right of sexual access to women and girls 24/7.

    Seeing clearly how mens’ rape culture is perpetuated is never easy but it is essential in order to see and challenge how what men claim is ‘art’ is really mens’ propaganda that male sexual violence against women and girls is not ‘male sexual violence’ but just mens’ pseudo sex right to sexually exploit/dehumanise women and girls.

    Male artists who promote/condone/justify male sacrosanct (pseudo) sex right to women and girls cannot be separated from their art work. This is how men commonly promote mens’ pseudo sex right to women and girls by claiming their work is ‘art’ and cannot be critiqued or challenged because ‘art’ is supposedly non-political and is not interconnected with mens’ views/beliefs that male sexuality is what supposedly ‘constitutes real sex’ and women exist merely to be mens’ disposable masturbatory objects.

    The art world is ‘littered’ with mens’ representations of male sexual violence against women and girls, but these art works are considered by men to be ‘art’ so therefore women must on no account challenge these male created perpetuations of male sexual violence against women and girls.

    The Rape of The Sabine Women is just one example of how men perpetuate rape culture and claim this work is ‘art’ not mens’ promotion of male pseudo sex right to female bodies. Male sexual violence against women and girls has always been promoted by men as ‘erotic and exciting’ because men have always claimed ‘male sexual domination/male sexual aggression against women and girls is what constitutes ‘real male sexual expression!’

    Eroticising male sexual violence against women and girls is what rape culture does and mens’ definition of what supposedly constitutes ‘art’ ensures men’s propaganda tool remains invisible.

    The facetious male created claim that ‘if you don’t like it don’t watch’ is nonsensical because imagine what would have happened if those brave women and men who challenged slavery were told ‘if you don’t like it – look away!’ Why slavery would never have been recognised for what it is; white mens’ pseudo right to enslave non-white groups of women and men. Racism too could be viewed as ‘well if you don’t like it look away.’

    But racism and slavery affects men so therefore this issue is real and important. But pandemic male sexual violence against women and girls does not negatively affect men, which is why men and their female handmaidens continue to utter that useless platitude ‘if you don’t like it look away/don’t watch it!’

    If the social issue doesn’t negatively impact men then said social issue is a non-issue – this is how mens’ rape culture is maintained because it is not men routinely being subjected to male sexual violence because they are men but women because they are female and hence not human.

    • Meghan Murphy

      “The facetious male created claim that ‘if you don’t like it don’t watch’ is nonsensical because imagine what would have happened if those brave women and men who challenged slavery were told ‘if you don’t like it – look away!’ Why slavery would never have been recognised for what it is; white mens’ pseudo right to enslave non-white groups of women and men. Racism too could be viewed as ‘well if you don’t like it look away.’”

      Yes! “If you don’t like oppression, don’t oppress,” isn’t good enough, ffs. It also makes oppression into a series of individual, single incidences, rather than about systems of power that need to be undone/challenged.

  • Indeed, this ranges the old question of artists (not only rapists) who are vile in their everyday lives, but may have produced worthy art.

    I was thinking of this when I watched a video of Polanski’s The Pianist, which was an extraordinary work about resisting horrific fascist-racist violence and oppression – I hadn’t rented or paid for the video, but in some way was responsible… or was I? In that particular case there is a bit character of a tough street kid in the ghetto who was a kind of self-portrait of Polanski. Was he attempting to provide clues to his manipulative and entitled rape behaviour? Certainly he had experienced all kinds of crap (which could well have included rape and survival sex) but that gave him no right to act the same to another kid when he was a successful adult.

    • sporenda

      “he had experienced all kinds of crap (which could well have included rape and survival sex) but that gave him no right to act the same to another kid when he was a successful adult.”

      In his view, it did. That’s the difference between women who were badly abused when when they were children, and men who were victims of similar abuse .
      Most of those guys choose to become abusers themselves when they reach a position of power that permits them to do so; they do to others what was done to them. Women rarely have that option.

      And very often these men were abused by men. But, as traditional masculinity is about preying on the weak, they take it out on women.

      • Meghan Murphy

        Right. Because abuse is a cycle — so, often, men who are abused grow up and abuse others… But women who are abused tend to grow up and continue to be abused… It’s certainly about power, accountability, who we support and who we let get away with what (or who thinks they can get away with what).

        • sporenda

          “who we let get away with what (or who thinks they can get away with what)”.

          So far, based on a number of famous cases, it’s obvious that powerful men can get away with rape and pedophilia.
          And since it’s their power and money that allows them to commit these crimes without consequences, it makes sense to strike at the source of their power and money by not watching their movies, not listening to their songs and not buying their books.

          I don’t go to see any movie by Polanski–for one thing, I don’t find his movies particularly good, so that’s easy.

          It’s more difficult for Woody Allen. He’s made a few good movies, some even recently, so the decision is more difficult.

          I just cancelled my suscription to a popular magazine that recently hired as a regular op-ed a writer who is not only an avowed pedophile but brags in his books about the excitement he gets by having sex with 11 years old boys in Thailand and campaigns for the decriminalization of sex with minors.

          You have to draw the line somewhere.

      • Sally

        Sporenda –
        ‘Most of those guys choose to become abusers themselves when they reach a position of power that permits them to do so; they do to others what was done to them. Women rarely have that option.’

        Is that something you just made up? I am a female survivor of childhood sexual abuse who does not abuse. I know lots of male survivors who also do not abuse. I am also aware of many women who abuse. Please learn more about *actual* social patterns of abuse before you make such ignorant and harmful statements.

        • Laur

          “I am a female survivor of childhood sexual abuse who does not abuse. I know lots of male survivors who also do not abuse. I am also aware of many women who abuse.”

          Everyone has anecdotal evidence for something. “My uncle was a chain smoker and lived to his nineties.” etc. Feminism is about looking at societal patterns and power structures. Overwhelmingly, the ones who engange in sexual abuse are men. When women are afraid to go out at night, it’s not because we’re worried that a woman is going to attack and rape us; we fear men, and with good reason; they have been raping us for thousands of years.

        • Lo

          I agree with Sally, it’s not because you’ve been abuse that you’ll become an abuser. And vice-versa: not all abusers were victims first.
          I was a victim too, and I’ll never hurt anybody. And I’m sure many victims feel this way: I’ll not hurt others the same way I’ve been hurt (maybe not every victim think this way, but many of them do for sure).

          Moreover those abusers don’t have any excuses, the law is quite clear, which means they choose to act how they want, they don’t care about the law. And because they’re popular and rich, the law is kind of powerless when it shouldn’t be (but this is another subject).

          What can explain his behavior is clearly the rape culture, and also the position of women and children in patriarchy: they’re not considered as equal to adult men, they’re objectified and seen as inferior: dehumanize.

          (I won’t develop more, even if I’ve my own theory, because I think we don’t have enough studies about the psychology of human beings who dehumanize other human beings. But if we had more, this would be really interesting and complete the psychology of opressors.)

  • masterblaster

    It’s a crazy world where you can pee on a 15 year old and still be a national hero.

  • Laur

    People find reasons to defend whatever they want to show, whether that be a film with a sexual abuser in it, speakers on pornography, or whatever. It seems that it’s preferable for both men and women to rationalize having showing films by sexual exploiters and/or having sexual exploiters speak. Sometimes they say it’s in the name of “free speech.” Yet many of these same people oppose the right of certain feminists to speak. For example, Lierre Keith has an analysis of trans. She is scheduled to speak at a major environmental conference, PIELC and people are writing the conference organizers to get her booted. Never mind that she is going to be speaking about the environmental catastrophe! A difference of *opinion* is enough to get her booted.

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  • Maria Luisa

    You know, I was chatting via Facebook with some women regarding some men artists, I think Henry Miller was one of them. He was, like so many, a sexist pig. Anyway, these women literally could not get their minds around the fact that yes, many men artists may be very good at what they do, but they are literally misogynists, and have treated the women in their lives like shit.

  • Maria Luisa

    And the letter you received (Rachel Fox and Corrine Lea) is total bullshit. I bet if they had been one of the victims of R Kelly they would have felt differently. I know I would be horrified, hurt, humiliated if I saw my rapist being celebrated this way. But then, it’s one of the things the patriarchy does, to turn woman against woman…

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  • Meghan Murphy

    Really awful, yep.