What do a gang rape and murder on the other side of the planet, a police investigation on prostitution at Spokane “health spas” and Lena Dunham’s Emmy outfit have in common?
Other than that they’re contributing to my current heartburn situation: What they have in common is that our, and my, reaction to all these stories is rooted in shame and fear. Shame and fear muddle the difference between what we should see as sexual perversion — non-consentual sex — and what we often regard as such: sexual decisions by others that make us feel uncomfortable.
Our local media last week published a “Johns List” of clients who ran credit cards at local “Health Spas,” several of which are under investigation for prostitution. I was very angry that they published it.
Then I scoured the list for names I recognized and felt very angry toward those acquaintances, despite that I theoretically affirm their right to pay for sex as much as I affirmed the right of people to smoke a J before it was legal, because some things we’re just slow on the ball with and legalizing prostitution is one of those things.
Paying for sex is illegal, but that’s not why we’re mad. We’re mad because these men are assumed to be cheating on someone and lying about it (and they are, in many cases). We’re mad because the half of the time that we’re not victim-shaming prostitutes who end up dead in a ditch for their poor life choices, we’re lumping all prostitutes into the “victim” camp. All these things are possibilities, and we’ll know more about the conditions of the women as the investigation goes on, but it’s all speculation now.
My biggest fear as I read the Johns List was the chance that I’d see names of men I love and respect. I don’t want to be lied to, of course, and that is reasonable. But I also don’t have any business knowing deets about everybody I know’s sex life.
Our focus when it comes to this issue should be on the work situation of the women. There’s a whole spectrum of situations in the world of prostitution. Some straight up empower the women to earn a good living using their bodies as they choose. Others subject them to horrible abuses.
Nonetheless, it’s tempting to focus on shaming the men for paying for sex, because that in itself is regarded as perverse. And because examining at how we, as a community, deal with the reality of prostitution requires that we take some responsibility for our negligence in preventing and confronting true abuse.
When I found out a friend of mine was a connoisseur of strip clubs a while back, I felt revolted. Upon further examination, my disgust had nothing to do with strip clubs, their patrons or their employees. It was about fear. I felt intimidated. Yep. Afraid that a male friend might have a standard for my body that I cannot achieve. It’s much more comfortable for everyone when men feign disinterest in or disgust toward attractive women who choose to earn money by putting their bodies on display.
We don’t have to compete with that any more than the men in our lives have to compete with Ryan Gossling or the cute barista we flirt with. That’s easy in our heads, because we know being attracted to other people doesn’t cut into our feelings about them. Finding other people attractive is only a threat to a relationship or friendship that’s already hindered by jealousy, mistrust and other fear-and-shame-related perspectives.
In this blog post from xoJane, the writer blames our own insecurity for our and the media’s collective hatred of Lena Dunham, writer and actor for the show “Girls.”
Gossip rags and reputed publications alike report daily on Dunham’s ongoing crime of Being Fat But Actually Not That Fat In Public And Also On Television And Also Successful, And Subjecting Us To Video Footage Of Her Exposed Body Parts And Press Photos Of Her In Various Outfits, All Of Which Fail To Satisfactorily Cloak Her Shameful Body In A Stylish Way.
She’s basically a girl similar in size and shape and age and chronic un-coolness to my friends and I, and she shows up at awards banquets and appears on her self-directed TV show looking like that. She writes in romantic suitors for herself, which The People don’t seem to think is realistic given that her friends on the show are much hotter and try much harder to appeal to men.
The blogger writes:
There is also an element of anger in our reaction: How dare Dunham get dates and have sex without working as hard to deserve them as other women have? Why does she feel so entitled? She has no right to such confidence. What good is being “beautiful, nice and kind” (as the New York Post writer identifies another “Girls” actress) if it doesn’t ensure you will always have more gentleman callers than women who only qualify as one of the above?
Of course, the truth is that women like Dunham — and ones even less pretty and more imperfect — get laid with very little effort, every single day. This flies in the face of what we’re taught about female attractiveness, but it’s true. So when you add to this the fact that a great many American women are culturally brought up to understand that our relationships with other women are always going to have an undercurrent of competition — how do we compete with Lena Dunham, who refuses to play? There are no RULES to this game. And so we get angry.
It’s understandable, if ridiculous.
At least we have some power to work toward the normal kind of female idea set out for us: soft curls, clear skin, standard issue unreasonable proportions and fashionable boots.
We can maybe get there or close-ish by spending more time, money and energy on our looks. We can drink more Diet Coke and eat less pizza. We can work out more. We can cock our head and smile sweetly for the camera, then scour the images for the one that showcases our flaws the least, then employ the “retouch” tool on our photo editor.
Competing with “fuck you, I feel attractive as I am” requires an exactly opposite set of efforts, and is a longer, more arduous path along a lifetime-long stretch of self-undermining behavior. It’s daunting and riddled with regret.
An honest look would find our cultural handling of issues surrounding sex to be equally primitive to those we pompously denounce. We shame women for showing their bodies, while celebrating other women for doing so. We shame women for not showing their bodies, if it’s for religious reasons (think: Christian prudes and women who choose to wear a hijab). We tell all the “relevant” details about a sex crime, only to draw our own expert conclusions about whether or not she asked for it.
Which is exactly what’s happening in India, as the defense blames a gang-raped and murdered woman for not asking her attackers nicely to please not rape her.
The murder is giving voice to Indian (and other) women fed up with the bullshit silence around their systemic victimization, thanks to the fact that the woman was appropriately well-to-do and therefore the crime received the sort of attention all gang rape/murders should. And, according to The American Media, due to The American Media making women in other countries aware of their own power to speak out against injustice.
A cursory survey of the internet revealed that we’re still convinced nations that live in women’s rights dark ages would be best served by following our example, because we don’t systemically suppress rape victims’ allegations or shame and blame women for sexual crimes. Wait.
Despite missing the log lodged in our own eyeball, our speaking out via social media is super important to drawing attention to injustices that happen in countries including and other than our own who are failing to adequately address violence against women. It’s also maddening how easily we’re lured into focusing on peripheral issues.
In this case, the discussion has revolved around whether or not to release the rape/murder victim’s name — symbolic of the struggle between a culture in which her family might experience shame in connection with her fate. I of course don’t think they should feel ashamed. It’s a valid point. Her being memorialized as an individual, rather than a miscellaneous Indian woman, helps to humanize a member of the masses of unnamed victims of similar crimes.
But we live in an individualist culture, so that’s easy for us to say. And in our individualist culture, we dehumanize victims through a lens of individualism by highlighting their race, less-than-savory profession, or the content of their bloodstream at the time of the incident, even while knowing their names. The rationale goes that if she put herself in that situation, rather than pulling herself up by her goddamned bootstraps, maybe she wouldn’t be dead, or some more PC version thereof. (Although again, when having a meta conversation about prostitution, we then make a blanket assumptions that all prostitutes are victims.)
Naming a victim isn’t the same as humanizing her. Reducing the conversation to how primitive this woman’s culture is to try and mask her identity (even when the motive is, at least to some extent, not to dehumanize her, but to protect her family, which sounds like a sham but makes sense in the context of a more collectivist culture) allows us to overlook the similarity between this incident and the ones that occur in our midst. It also takes the focus off the actual offenders and onto the additional victims of the crime: the young woman’s family.
Sexual abuse originates in the mind of the perpetrator and isn’t anybody else’s fault. Healthy sexual expression that brings us discomfort tempts us to blame those who make us uncomfortable.
When we separate those who should be punished for sex crimes — people who commit sex crimes — by untangling them in our heads from people who struggle with shame about their sexuality or whose healthy sex life makes us feel grossed out, we’re confronted our participation in a culture that’s confusing the two.
We could curtail cycles of sex abuse by taking reports of sex crimes more seriously, even if they’re coming from “unsavory” individuals. We could create a culture where men aren’t emasculated for speaking out against their own victimization and women aren’t slapped on the wrist for putting themselves in asking-for-it circumstances.
We could further highlight the distinction between “okay, but maybe weird” and “not okay” by eradicating professional and social consequences of being openly different — polyamorous or masochistic or gay or whatever else fits into the realm of consensual sex between adults where honesty and safety are paramount.
If we are going to form a judgment on how societal norms permit rape to go unaccounted for, we need to start with our own culture. To do so requires resisting the urge to shift the focus. Forcing women to wear modest clothing has its own problems, but it is not equivalent to sanctioning rape. Desiring to mask the identity of a murder victim has its own problems, but it’s not equivalent to sanctioning rape.
If we’re going to make a meaningful distinction between abuse and what simply makes us uncomfortable, we’ll need to take a look at our own fears and shame.
Erika Prins writers for The Spovangelist.