The Risky Business of Sexual Violence

When I was in my first year of university, I went, as instructed, to one of my lecturers’ offices to pick up my graded final essay. It was study week and the campus was quiet. I needed the paper to study for the upcoming exam, and had gone to campus specifically to fetch it. The grade was good; the lecturer impressed. He asked me if I was really in first year, boosting my academic ego a little. “No, really,” he said, “This is one of the best papers I’ve read by any student.” I beamed. Then, he put his arm around me. It wasn’t an overtly sexual gesture. But it felt rooted in an affection that was out of place in this relationship, and in this context. It was framed as part of the reward for my academic skills. Here’s your A, and an inappropriate hug.

In the same year, on another part of the campus, my university residence held a fire drill. It was a chaotic, disorganised 11pm affair, full of ridiculous behaviours that, in an actual fire, would result in certain, fiery death. At one point, we were all standing in a queue, squashed together for some reason. A guy I’d met in those first few weeks of university took the opportunity to push himself up against me, and, brazenly, without any hesitation that I could discern, grab my left breast.

I don’t tell these stories to ‘out’ myself. I don’t write my #metoo tales to raise awareness. I tell them because it is a reclamation of my power and my self from the hands of these and other men. I also tell these two stories, instead of the countless others I could tell, because of what they have taught me about sexual violence as a systemic ill.

Both perpetrators were men who’d earned their left and activist credentials. My lecturer was one of the only senior academics of colour in a largely white department on a largely white campus. The guy in the residence was a first generation higher education student form the Cape Flats, studying medicine, and spitting socially conscious rhymes with a local hip hop collective. Both men were (and maybe still are) involved in the difficult work of engaging with and overturning some of the ugliest strongholds of white supremacy on campus and beyond. And yet. They did what they did, and I know what I know about who they are.

I bring this up because of the chorus of responses to the Harvey Weinstein saga, there have been some voices who have expressed confusion because of his progressive credentials. He donated to Hillary Clinton! He financed indie films! And so on and so forth. As a society, we are able to conceptualise and grasp the horrors of explicit violence, but we struggle with the violence that comes from unexpected places. Not that Harvey Weinstein, white, male, captain of capitalism is unexpected. But my lecturer was. My res mate was.

Hélène Joffe's 'Risk and the Other'
Hélène Joffe’s ‘Risk and the Other’

Academic Hélène Joffe argues that one of the ways in which we manage our identities and our sense of our selves is by projecting anything that presents a figurative or actual threat onto an ‘other’.  Joffe’s argument is that the ‘risk society’ in which we are constantly confronted with tales of horrors domestic and international, intimate and strange (on our phones, in our newspapers, on the radio) compels us to protect our own perceived safe identities by imagining that they happen to other people, not to us.

The actress Mayim Bialik’s devastatingly disappointing op-ed, in which she suggests that Hollywood’s casting couch problem can be avoided if women resist the narrow objectifying gaze of this industry, is an example of this ‘othering’. Read through Joffe’s lens, Bialik is telling herself – and some who may identify with her – that it only happens to other women, prettier women, who play the dangerous game of flaunting their sexuality.  She falls into the same trap as so many of us who are appalled at the capacity for misogyny within ‘our’ ranks. We tell ourselves it will not happen if we are dressed modestly enough, if we don’t drink too much, if we walk in groups, if we have our pepper spray and our keys-turned-makeshift-weapons at the ready. We tell ourselves that if we avoid ‘other’ men, we will be fine. So when the risk presents itself as clear, present danger, delivered by men we assume are mentors, friends, comrades, the violation feels especially brutal, and the attendant disillusion is even worse. When the violence happens in spite of all of the ways in which you have carefully followed the rules of patriarchy, and all of the careful boundaries you’ve built with your modest clothing and your unconventional beauty are breached, it is world shattering.

The risk spills over from other to self, threatening to drown what self has been maintained in the face of relentless misogyny. The only life raft I have is to join the chorus of women who tell their stories. Women who defy the risk by naming it and robbing it of its silence. I proclaim that, yes, #metoo, not so that I can educate anyone about the pervasiveness of sexual violence. I proclaim it to remind myself and this risk society in which we live: Yes, all men, even the one’s from whom you least expect it. And, yes, me too, her too, all of those women too, no matter where they went, with whom and what they were wearing and why.

 

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