I know women of the Left who have been raped. And who were they raped by? By men of the Left – their partners, lovers, friends. Did these cases ever reach court? No, to my knowledge they were never even reported to the police. Why not? Well, political objections to police and their function in our society aside, the women involved were hardly prepared to go through the humiliation and trauma of making their cases public.
I know women who were sexually assaulted and abused as children and teenagers. And who did this to them? Generally, men they trusted, in positions of authority – their fathers, relatives, teachers. And did any of these cases ever reach court? Only once, to my knowledge. I was a witness for the prosecution. It was a rattling experience.
Far from a vast conspiracy dating back to Socrates and forward to Julian Assange, of ‘wowser-feminists’ attempting to discredit powerful men via false allegations of sexual misconduct, my experience as a woman – and I would venture to guess that I’m not alone here – is that women who are the victims of such behaviour tend to keep silent about it. And so it has been throughout history. We’re taught to expect it, you see, because men are ‘just like that’, or because we lead them on, or because it’s our responsibility to control their behaviour, or because we resisted but not successfully (too bad that, better luck next time). Women who do make the courageous decision to speak out about their experiences can expect to be shamed, scorned, labelled as sluts and liars, and have their sexual histories and employment records and financial circumstances and any psychiatric illnesses raked over, for evidence that they might not be the spotless, virginal lambs that our society demands of its female victims.
It took me about two hours to read through Bob Ellis’s incoherent, virulently misogynist diatribe for the Drum, John Birmingham’s response in the Brisbane Times, and the respective comment threads, in which Ellis not only tried to defend his indefensible argument but proffered increasingly wild, speculative, paranoid and offensive elaborations of same. It would be tempting to ignore Sideshow Bob, whose definition of the Left seems to include any public figure who is not now or never has been Richard Nixon, but the central question of his argument – ‘Has feminism gone too far?’ – is one I’ve seen asked disturbingly often in recent months, by commentators of both genders and various political persuasions. The question itself often seems to imply that women’s rights are a delicately calibrated instrument: fiddle too much and patriarchy might just collapse, and then what chaos would we be in!
The high-profile rape allegations involving Julian Assange and Dominique Strauss-Kahn are both ongoing legal cases – as I write this, Assange is facing his extradition hearing in the British High Court – which doesn’t stop Ellis from declaring that both men were ‘framed’. He describes the former case as merely ‘surprise sex’ and the latter as ‘a big lie’ told by a ‘dodgy hooker’. It’s hardly the first time in history that a man has diminished, degraded or plain disbelieved a woman’s claims of assault in order to avoid asking himself some difficult questions about patriarchy, the legal system, institutional sexism, and the sheer prevalence of rape as a crime. Both cases are legally complicated (most rape cases are), and ill-served by speculation. So here is some information, on the record.
● Assange’s legal team in the High Court are not seeking ‘to challenge whether [the two accusers] felt Assange’s conduct was disrespectful, discourteous, disturbing or even pushing at the boundaries of what they felt comfortable with.’ In other words, Assange’s legal team is not claiming that the events in question did not take place. Their argument revolves around consent, the differences between British and Swedish law regarding sexual assault, and discrepancies they allege exist between the Swedish arrest warrant and the women’s witness statements.
● ‘Unambiguous evidence of a sexual encounter’ between former IMF director Strauss-Kahn and an unnamed Sofitel hotel maid is also not in dispute. The possible collapse of the prosecution case against Strauss-Kahn has much to do with the maid’s credibility as a witness, particularly with regards to her US asylum application and alleged links to drug dealers in the US. Prosecutors also allege inconsistencies in her police statements. The maid in question maintains that she was attacked; further legal proceedings have been postponed until at least 18 August.
Oh, and the accusation that the hotel maid in the DSK case is a ‘dodgy hooker’, to use Ellis’s charming phrase? She’s suing the Murdoch-owned New York Post for that – and on current form, I wouldn’t be placing any bets on the journalistic integrity of Murdoch reporters. Not that it seems to bother Ellis, who repeats the slur without compunction. (Among the madness, Ellis has one valid point to make about the hypocritical morality of the tabloid press, intruding into the private details of public figures in order to sell newspapers. To which one might say: Murdoch and his publications are no friends to feminism. The intrusive, predatory ‘journalism’ that characterises News International has everything to do with profit and unchecked political power, and absolutely nothing to do with gender equality.)
And what would it signify, were the woman in question actually a prostitute? Do sex workers not get raped? Or if they do, does it somehow not matter? And why am I bothering to phrase these questions in response to a man who believes, with contemptible arrogance, that ‘there is no such thing as “forced” oral sex’, unless a weapon (‘a knife, a gun’) happens to be involved? And that the remedy for a woman who finds herself subject to such an attack is to ‘bite it off’? Bob, are you that naive, or simply that callous?
I’m a touch bored with having to repeat this old feminist mantra, but here we go again: rape is about power, not desire. Ditto sexual harassment, abuse, and the ‘unconsensual groping’ that Ellis appears so nostalgic for. Sexual crimes are perpetrated by all sorts of people against all sorts of other people, and I don’t discount for a second the seriousness of sexual crimes committed against men, but for the sake of brevity I’ll restrict my argument to men who perpetrate these acts against women. In the vast majority of cases, women know their rapist. Too often, the public perception of rape as a serious crime coheres only around one narrative: a masked assailant hidden in the shrubbery, a weapon, and a passing woman who is subject to a violent and random attack. This scenario certainly occurs, but it is rare – far, far rarer than the rapes which women endure at the hands of men they trust, and even love. Moreover, this ‘stranger rape’ scenario shifts responsibility for rape onto a sociopathic, deviant other (preferably black where his victim is white, which bolsters continued racist constructions of hyper-aggressive black male sexuality), rather than allowing us to see rape as an all-too-common abuse of power.
Ellis maintains that he ‘never mentioned rape’ in his original article, but that’s because he was busy performing all sorts of linguistic contortions in order not to have to use the word: ‘debauchery’, ‘deflowering’, ‘attempting foreplay’, ‘male piggery’, and in one follow-up comment, ‘vigorous wooing’. George Orwell is turning in his grave, Bob. And speaking of Orwell, there’s a prime example of a man whose sexual politics never measured up to his socialist principles. Does this mean that I wish he had never written Homage to Catalonia? No, it does not. Does it mean that I wish Orwell had not been blind to his own prejudices? Yes, of course it does. The two thoughts do not cancel each other out. ‘Good men’, to use Ellis’s phrase, are more than capable of behaving badly.
Ellis clearly believes that his parlour game philosophy – does a man’s work excuse his deeds? – is the rock on which his argument rests, because he keeps falling back upon it. Leaving aside the weakness of his examples – as many people have already pointed out, Oscar Wilde’s prison sentence and Lord Byron’s exile had precious little to do with feminism – his moral arithmetic is specious. Women’s lives are not a counterweight with which to balance the scale of men’s achievements, though men have often written history as if this were so, and no matter of it. With this in mind, let me indulge in some hypotheses of my own …
What artistry might Catherine Dickens have achieved, had she not been raising ten children while her husband wrote his novels? What of Sophia Tolstaya, who raised thirteen children and copied out her husband’s manuscript of War and Peace seven times in longhand? What if Thomas Jefferson’s slave, Sally Hemings, who bore six of his children, had had the means to write her autobiography? What if enslaved women the world over had not been regarded as the property of their male owners – what unknown and unrealised female novelists and mathematicians and philosophers were among them? What if the approximately 40 000 women executed as witches from the fifteenth to eighteenth centuries had lived – what unknown female poets and explorers and painters died among them? What, as Virginia Woolf once wrote, of Shakespeare’s sister? What if Virginia Woolf had not killed herself? What if Billie Holiday had not died at the age of 44 with a pitiful seventy cents in her bank account, having been swindled out of her earnings? What if Marilyn Munroe had had not killed herself? Or Sylvia Plath? What if Caroline Herschel had not been effectively apprenticed to her brother all her life? What if Dorothy Wordsworth, from whose diaries her brother William took so many of his famous lines, had been able to live and write independently? What if Dora Wordsworth, the poet’s daughter, had not been forced to keep house for her father, who refused to let her marry for so long that she starved herself in protest? What if those rock ’n’ roll groupies who, Ellis believes, were treated by famous musicians in ‘the way they request[ed] to be’ had picked up their own guitars and sang? What if all the women currently living in abject poverty thanks to IMF austerity measures (Strauss-Kahn a socialist? Give me a break) were not living in poverty? I could go on like this for, oh, about a century. If Bob Ellis wants to play at counter-factuals, he might start not by imagining gaps in men’s history that do not exist, but by taking a good hard look at the erasures and silences of women’s history, which do. It is a silence not of our own making.
Bob Ellis conveys the distinct impression of an aging chauvinist who believes that men are simply obeying their biological instincts when they attack or harass women – and that prudish, frigid ‘wowser-feminists’ are spoiling everybody’s fun in taking such liberties seriously. So next time some arsehole uses the cover of a crowded room to put his hand on my breast or backside, I won’t regard it as a violation and feel shocked and humiliated and obscurely ashamed. I’ll just chalk it up to the great rough-and-tumble of Eros, shall I Bob? I want to bite my tongue here, and be a grown up, but oh, how I ache to say it – fuck you, Bob Ellis.
Sexual assault is not inherent or inevitable behaviour and it is never trivial. Let me take the historical speculations just one step further. What if we lived in a world in which so many men did not believe that it was their right to abuse, harass, and rape women? What if, one day, women’s liberation is fully achieved and women are unafraid? What might that world look like?
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