A headline in the Irish Times reads, “Ulster Rugby ‘needs to explain’ why it revoked Jackson and Olding contracts.” That Brian Hutton, the writer of this piece, needs a primer on why men should be punished for sexual assault speaks volumes in terms of what is at stake after last month’s Belfast rape trial verdict wherein Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding were found not guilty of raping a woman at a house party in 2016. Jackson was also cleared of sexual assault in this verdict. But as many women know all too well, “not guilty” does not mean “innocent.” Apparently, Shane Logan, head of Ulster Rugby, understands this as well, stating, “[A]t the end of the day, having looked at all those things, the decision was based on alignment with what it is we stand for, in particular the value of respect.” The #IBelieveHer hashtag that trended three weeks ago is finally echoed by an institution which carries a heavy — if not unexpected — blow to these men.
Nonetheless, every time a woman speaks out against sexual harassment or attends a trial to give testimony about being raped, we hear about male “victims.” Earlier this month, Karl Lagerfeld had harsh words for the #MeToo movement as it is applied to women in the modeling industry who have been sexually assaulted:
“If you don’t want your pants pulled about, don’t become a model! Join a nunnery, there’ll always be a place for you in the convent. They’re recruiting even!”
Contrary to his aims, Lagerfeld’s words demonstrate why every industry needs the #MeToo movement. If his only response to sexual harassment and assault is to command women to head to the nunnery, we can rest assured that Lagerfeld’s notion of women’s rights is tantamount to chainmail for the fashion world.
Similar to Lagerfeld’s unfortunate reaction to sexual assault and harassment in his industry, American self-help guru Tony Robbins responded to a sexual abuse survivor in the audience at one of his shows in San Jose, California, Nanine McCool, when she brought up the #MeToo movement, saying she felt he misunderstood it. Robbins responded, saying, “Anger is not empowerment,” and explained:
“I’m not knocking the #MeToo movement, I’m knocking victimhood. If you use the #MeToo movement to try to get significance and certainty by attacking and destroying someone else… all you’ve done is basically use a drug called significance to make yourself feel good.”
Robbins frames victimhood as a weakness — something antithetical to his self-help narrative — as well as a state of mind that is self-fulfilling, and that sets women up for failure if they don’t harness the right attitude.
This attempt to individualize responses to sexual harassment and assault is exactly what needs to be challenged with regard to our cultural approach to women’s human rights today. Instead, we are presented with “feminists” like Christina Hoff Sommers, who educate women about “the excesses of #MeToo,” and with those who believe women forced to exchange money for sex are “empowered,” whereas those who resort to exchanging sex for rent are “exploited.” While it is important that women and girls are empowered to fight back against physical aggression, to instruct women about the importance of female trailblazers in technology and STEM, and to discourage women from self-objectifying, the focus should not be on how girls or women ought to respond to attacks or harassment. The blame for rape and sexual harassment against females should firmly be planted at the feet of males.
Why do males rape? That is the question for our age which is too often avoided in both media reports and public debate.
For every act that involves the subjugation of almost entirely female bodies, there will inevitably be a counter-narrative explaining it away. This is why the young woman victimized by the Ulster rugby players knew that going to the police was a waste of time. In Northern Ireland, a woman’s sexual history can still be taken into account in rape trials and it is has been demonstrated time and time again that a “promiscuous” female is reason enough to acquit a suspected rapist. These men were acquitted despite having sent text messages to each other about their being “top shaggers,” bragging, “There was a lot of spit roast last night.”
In a country where 42 per cent of women have experienced some form of sexual abuse, where there has been a 40 per cent increase in the number of rapes reported in Northern Ireland over the past five years, and where prosecutions hover at an eight per cent conviction rate, there needs to be vast improvements to women’s human rights, beginning with their right to not be sexually harassed, raped, or objectified.
The question of how to address rape culture is far more challenging than simply observing the many documented cases of sexual assault and harassment, as evidence that rape happens to individual women.
Though Robbins addresses porn addiction in his self-help seminars, similar to his views on #MeToo, he sees “victimhood” as a weakness and fundamentally “disempowering.” Robbins maintains that in order to deal with addiction to pornography one must “rewire the mind,” a discourse mired in the politics of self-empowerment which relies on denying victimhood — as well as the larger context for and purpose of pornography — as a part of these conversations. When we individualize things like rape and pornography as personal issues, best dealt with by “rewiring our minds,” we risk avoiding addressing the reality of the terrible things that males do to females and a culture that has normalized, institutionalized, and sexualized those things.
Activist and author, Gail Dines, argues that pornography is a “public health crisis,” wherein porn culture dominates countless aspects of society, entrenched through capitalism and a wide range of media sexualizing women. As a result, we see not only a multi-billion dollar industry that rests on the violent expression and sexualization of structural inequalities, but that this mindset and imagery infiltrates almost every aspect of our culture, from advertising to marriage.
Why must every rape verdict where a Brock Turner is given a pathetically minimal sentence or where the Ulster rugby players escape conviction despite the manifest evidence that a rape took place, result in women having to explain the obvious? When a woman is unconscious she cannot consent and the lives of rugby players who gang rape a woman out of desire to act out pornographic fantasies on her are not more important to protect than those of their victims. Why are men’s reputations still in 2018 more important than women’s lives?
In a recent interview with Vulture, Isabella Rossellini says the #MeToo movement demonstrates “the subtle ways women can be diminished.” Though many would like to think so, the sexualization of the female body isn’t just about “men’s nature,” but is also very much about power and humiliation. Rosselini points out that the routine degradation of women doesn’t only happen in overtly violent ways, saying:
“Rape is a way of being hurt that everyone can recognize. There are other ways. It could be your boss saying, ‘I like your skirt on you.’ It’s a compliment, but it makes you feel diminished.”
Within this global conversation about sexual violence against women, from Ulster to Weinstein, is also a demonstration of pervasive efforts to deflect the conversation into one about how men suffer when women speak out are.
Jurors being vetted for Cosby’s sexual assault trial were interrogated about their opinion on the #MeToo movement by the judge. There is as much irony as pathetic counter-logic here: that in order to participate in this jury, one must not understand and be critical of the systemic and widespread nature of sexual harassment and assault in our culture. In vetting women who support #MeToo during the jury selection process, the expectation is not only that the female juror is be objective, but that she should not take a hard line with regard to women’s human rights. What are 59 women who have spoken out about being drugged and sexually assaulted by Cosby when a man’s reputation is on the line?
Across the world, courtrooms are the same. Women are guilty for the assault they faced and for the crime of speaking out about it. The good news is that men are starting to wake up — hopefully this awakening will effect real change for women, ensuring our choices are not limited to “convent” or “rape culture.”
Julian Vigo is a scholar, filmmaker, and human rights consultant. Her latest book is Earthquake in Haiti: The Pornography of Poverty and the Politics of Development. Contact her via email: [email protected].