22 May 2015

Random sex scandal stories mentally intersected

Probably shouldn't be, but I don't know enough about either story on its own to fully address either.

The Duggar scandal. - I tend to break these kinds of stories (and there are lots of them) into a couple standard elements

The presumption that "godly" or "god-fearing" or otherwise ardently religious people are good, decent people and thus incapable of heinous abusive actions clouds the reaction with a lot of "but he seemed like such a kind, decent person" reflexes. My operating assumption isn't just that ardently religious people are assholes, but that most people are. Even, or perhaps sometimes especially, the "kind, decent" people that I barely know. I don't assume they're incapable of anything unless there's a lot of evidence to the contrary. Most of us do not know this family and its various members, just as we do not know many other 15 minute TV celebrities or politicians and so on. So the inflection of these characters with special decency, or special hatred (as is often the case) is bizarre. As I said back during Tiger Woods' story some years back, we don't know them just because we watch them play golf and let them sell us Buicks on TV commercials. So the idea that we should just assume they are all wholesome goodness is absurd. This is particularly rich for someone like me when it is suffused with a lot of religion as in this case (as though this automatically removes the prospect of guilt and destructive actions against fellow human beings), but the argument holds across virtually any sector.

I think that interacts with the Cosby rape allegations over the last many years in a disturbing way. Namely that we are slower to see it when we have established this person as a social role model. We should be able to separate out the social role model, the character that a person has crafted and presented to the world, from the actions of the human being and hold them accountable. Many of America's founding political philosophers/lawyers owned slaves. This does not automatically invalidate their political views. It means they are flawed in a nearly fatal to the country way which was partly resolved some decades after their deaths. But the arguments are no less sound simply because they were not at the time applied to all men (much less all women). If we have to do the same now with a musical performer, or a comedian, or a TV star, maybe people can do that and still enjoy their art (or whatever it is that reality TV shows are portraying). But if someone is actually a slime ball of a human being who has abused and assaulted women, that can matter to our calculations of how we appreciate and enjoy their art, and it certainly should mean that we will still want to find them accountable for any actions they've done.

Huckabee has taken a somewhat forgiving stance in his public statements so far. I'm not sure I begrudge this if it existed on its own as it's probably an outgrowth of his general religious faith. But there are problems with it. First, that he wastes little time blaming and socially insulting or assaulting people whose cultural views he does not agree with for their actions (eg, liberals), but then also wastes little time forgiving his cultural allies. That's convenient selectivity for his purported desire for forgiving people (if he's going to waste as much time as he does attacking Beyonce for basically being a good capitalist, it doesn't make much sense to defend this guy in other words. But then, I didn't quite understand where he was going with the Beyonce stuff in the first place). Second, that the problem with the story isn't that he did something awful and could or should not be forgiven for it (some people won't be able to, but some would), but that he did something awful and nobody did anything about it, so far as can be shown, and then is to be forgiven for it now with nothing having been actually adjudicated so far as anyone can tell, either in a court or a psychologist's office or whatever. It seems like he went and did some yard work and it was otherwise swept under the rug for quite some time even before that occurred. This is not the way one deals with a problem like child molestation. It is somewhat understandable that a family might be slow to pull the trigger to turn in a family member for conducting horrifying indignities upon young women, but this all seems like nobody ever took it that seriously. Including Huckabee in his public statements about it after the fact. That should be worrisome both for Christians in how it portrays a continued lack of concern for the well-being of women and in general that we seem to be comfortable according a certain lack of concern for both the victims and the perpetrators of sexual violence (when underage like this story implies, it suggests they may also have been victims too of course, which is a further problem).

At the same time, I've been vaguely following the Columbia mattress art project story. And I can't really make heads or tails of it. I suspect that's why the university didn't do anything either, despite a lower standard of guilt required than a court of law. What that tells me isn't that we don't take women seriously when they make accusations of sexual assaults, though that might be true in many respects, but that we don't always have a very clear means of adjudicating those complaints in a manner that clears it up for all parties in a decisive and satisfying way. Applied to the Duggar case, it isn't obviously clear what we should have preferred we do. Register him as a sex offender for life? We have lots of problems with how that system allows people to re-integrate into society, or seek any necessary treatment and atonement for what they did, in a manner that is disproportionate even in a society that makes such reintegration difficult. Prosecute him for sexual assault? That can be difficult if the victims do not want to cooperate with police and prosecutors, as it may be likely in the case of family members (for example). Nor does a conviction mean that the victims of such assaults like molestation are automatically healed and may go forth without incident or harm to their development as people. There are intermediate steps here to resolve these cases most likely that we could have chosen that may not satisfy every gawking audience but may have worked fine for victims in this or other cases.

But I suspect one of the problems is that we don't do very much as a culture to give people a way to communicate about sex in general, and sexual abuse in particular (and this includes, perhaps especially, evangelical Christians like the Duggars). We do not have a very clear grasp of sexual consent and the language both physical and spoken involved, and that means it is difficult to teach children about it as something they could defend themselves against, or might wish to complain to an adult or parent about if it were to happen (not that we spend much time doing so). It becomes more difficult to navigate and adjudicate complaints between possible couples or one-night stands in a college dorm in a way that feels like justice. And it becomes easier to dismiss dozens of complaints against famous celebrities by generally ignoring the story because we previously enjoyed the celebrity and their performances being held at fault more than we wish to provide a means of justice and resolution for these harms and injustices committed upon them.

Maybe this is because some of us don't really think these are harms or injustices deserving of serious attention, as might be the case with many devoted fans of the Duggars or Bill Cosby, or just some random student at Columbia who we maybe aren't sure did anything that should be considered illegal or not (and so far as the university was concerned, didn't). Maybe this is because some of us think these are people incapable of being improved, for lack of a better term, and by extension reducing the incidence of these types of sexual criminal acts by giving such people (mostly men in these examples and cases) a manner of relating to women as individuals and human beings rather than just objects of sexual desire. Or in the case of child sex abuses, there are treatments and therapies available for that as well. Maybe this is because we just don't like talking about sex, gender politics, sexual communication, and sexual abuse, and we'd prefer someone else handle all of that (if anyone as again evangelicals seem especially prone to ignoring the valence of these as subjects demanding conversation).

Passing the buck isn't really an option here. In part because it doesn't seem like there is a clear expert on which we should trust an opinion on all matters of sexual confusion, much less disturbing sexual abuses. We have to take some responsibility for not wanting to discuss these things with our children, or our friends, or our families. Not all of it needs to be aired out in public for all the world to see, or even our close friends who we might talk about all manner of things instead, but there needs to be somewhere to start. But in large measure this is because these are some of the most intimate forms of abuse one can construct. They often involve very trusted friends or family members or family friends (or other trusted authority figures, like celebrities can often be). Without some architecture for understanding what is even happening, without some method of reporting what has happened, it will go on. And without some one stepping in and saying, "no, that's not appropriate", or even "no, that is wrong", it will go on. In order to do any of that, we will need to be able to talk a little more about what we are not sure about.

Sex is basically a form of physical communication for human beings. Even if it is inappropriate or unwanted it is still a communication. It is at that point saying "I can do whatever I want to your person" and also at some level "your body is what I want, so I will do whatever I want to it", which is a terrifying or horrifying message to want to communicate. It is inherently dehumanizing and stripping another person of agency, desire, and the capacity of communication of anything in response, physically or spoken. One response to this would be to tell people to want to communicate less horrifying, "better" messages instead using their bodies (and by extension communicated with other people's bodies). At some level that shouldn't have to be a message we have to explain to other people but we may have to start at this basic level and build up. It doesn't appear we're making a lot of headway by compiling "yes means yes" policies and trying to explain things like obtaining affirmative consent (using words) or by establishing draconian penalties for sexual abuse and wrapping in a lot of inappropriate nudity (streaking or peeing in public for example or mixed age teenage sexuality, or teens just sending nude photos to one another), or by generally ignoring complaints of sexual abuse and misconduct for years at a time. Start at the beginning and move forward from there.

A further and perhaps more important point might be what should we do about the victims in the meantime. It isn't clear the Duggars did anything (as little as they did with the molester among them, this isn't that surprising). Cosby's various accusers haven't gotten a day in court that I can tell and there doesn't seem to be any hurry to provide one. Columbia let one form a complicated performance art stunt to complain. That may be an option even if all it really tells us is someone is maybe an asshole.

Addendum: TLC or any other network could pull a reality TV show off the air for pretty much any reason and I would not complain. But this seems like a fairly reasonable response is to kick off the air a family that has a lot of offscreen moral and legal trouble going on right now, even if the response wasn't designed as a penalty (it undoubtedly is, but still). For the main reason that it portrays the network (and the family it is airing a TV show about) with a certain aura of hypocrisy for proclaiming some sort of "family values" notions when at least one member of that family has a now admitted history of abusing other members of it. But also because this sort of attention isn't something that needs to come to focus for his victims (if they don't wish to be a part of it). People do not always want to be defined as victims of a sexual crime and that would be difficult to avoid with a TV show in the public forum. They may prefer to be known for other things. I'm inclined for their sake to let them try to do so.
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