First off, before I get all cranky, I should say that I enjoy Melissa McEwan’s writing, and I’ve empathized with her struggle to make a living as a blogger. The money issue is a matter of public interest, not just her personal problem, because for those who do it full time and well, blogging is more than just a hobby. Blogs have become a vital source for news and opinion. As conventional newspapers circle the drain, blogging will become more important, not less.
However. The latest dust-up at Shakesville makes evident that they’ve got issues bigger than money. The blog went quiet for several days, and then the contributors, sans Melissa, wrote a long post indicting their commenters (not their concern trolls or haters) for using “triggering” language and undermining the blog as a “safe space.” You can read their manifesto here, if you haven’t already. No, I didn’t read all 745 comments, but I read a reasonable sampling, enough to be disturbed at the emerging groupthink.
Apostate has a good discussion of the issues of “triggering” and “safe spaces,” so I won’t rehash that here, except to say I basically agree with her point – that while we ought to be kind and considerate, we can’t possibly anticipate everything that might trigger another person. She’s also got a long comment thread on a previous post that amply shows how arbitrarily the charge of “triggering” has been deployed at Shakesville.
What I’d like to discuss, instead, is the problem of “self-policing” that the Shakesville shakedown has brought to the fore. I happily agree with the Shakesville contributors’ call for commenters to “Think before you speak.” That’s just plain decency – and it makes for better conversations. I’d like to see progressives and conservatives alike follow this guideline. But their next principle makes me cringe:
Sure, people should follow the comment policy. Moderators have every right to ban those who don’t. But “police” yourself? Even if you don’t mind its Orwellian ring, “policing” tends to shut down good discussions. It squelches dissent. And that’s not good for feminist or progressive politics.
Now, my stake in this is as a feminist, not as a member of the Shakesville community. I read Shakesville daily but I don’t think I’ve ever commented there, mostly because I felt like I wouldn’t have a niche. During the primaries, I got a strong vibe of Hillary-as-victim and Obama-as-sexist, and I worried I’d be piled upon for supporting Obama. I also felt put off by the custom of referring to guest posters and commenters as “Shaker So-and-So.” I’ll admit I can’t get past the image of collectible porcelain salt-and-pepper shakers (Shaker Sungold? you’d need a Shaker Brandywine to match). But in a more serious vein, the term seemed to demarcate insiders versus outsiders. And I think that’s rarely a healthy thing. It squelches dissent and nourishes groupthink.
In recent months, I’ve had the impression that Shakesville’s standards for ideological purity have escalated. Here’s one example. I thought this post by Deeky conflated seduction with rape in ways that do a disservice to actual rape victims:
Does anyone here watch Hell’s Kitchen, Fox’s garish, ugly take on Top Chef? Season Five premiered last night and we were introduced to the Tool Academics that are this year’s contestants. It’s your typical crew of self-important, deluded gourmet wanna-bes and as per usual there are at least a couple (or three, or four, or twelve) misogynists in the bunch. And right off the bat we’re introduced to a real winner. Giovanni, an executive chef from Florida, in his little get-to-know-me moment confesses he has quite the way with the ladies:
“When I first started cooking, it was an easy way to get a girl to my house. Instead of taking ‘em out to dinner, I could get ‘em home—food is an aphrodisiac, then you pour a little wine onto that, and then you go on to the next [pause; smarmy grin] level.”And there it is, about five minutes into the episode, and we’ve a man practically admitting he rapes women, and it is presented unquestioningly, unblinkingly, as if it were the most normal thing in the world. It should be shocking and surprising to me, to everyone really, but it isn’t. Rape culture: you’re cooking in it.
(That’s the entire post; I didn’t want to take anything out of context, but I did add the emphasis.)
No! We don’t have “a man practically admitting he rapes women.” He’s talking about a certain approach to seduction that’s loaded with troubling baggage. He seems to be operating within a paradigm where the man seeks sex and the woman presumptively resists it. This conquest narrative is messed up, and it’s certainly woven into the fabric of rape culture. However, cooking a woman a nice meal and even serving her “a little wine” in hopes of getting lucky is a world apart from ‘fessing up to actual rape. No one is gets sent to jail for wining, dining, and lusting in his heart, as long as what follows is consensual. And that’s as it should be.
Furthermore, conflating seduction with rape disrespects the experiences of those who’ve actually survived sexual assault. An attempt at seduction may be creepy and unpleasant, if it’s unwanted and persistent. However, it’s not liable to inflict lasting trauma.
Hyperbole also isn’t going to help us win over those who aren’t already singing in the choir. It just provides cheap fodder for anti-feminists.
But no way was I going to wade into the comments on that post. (I’d recently had a dust-up here on my own blog when I challenged the conflation of rape with seduction and/or rape culture, and was subsequently accused of rape apologism.) Only a couple of men in that thread – neither of them regulars at Shakesville – challenged the conflation of date rape with mere wining and dining. At least one of them had MRA-ish credentials (he writes for Feminist Critics). They were skeptical of the basic notion of “rape culture,” and they were immediately dismissed as concern trolls. Maybe they were. But no one responded to an incontrovertible point that they made: the cheesy chef has not admitted to rape. He hasn’t even said he gets women drunk in order to take advantage of them. He mentions “a little wine,” which is a far cry from, say, doing shots of tequila.
OK, I’m asking in all seriousness: how is this ‘rape culture’?
I see that he’s a tool. I see the sexism, I see the misogyny. But rape?
“we’ve a man practically admitting he rapes women,”Really?
He admits that he likes to use cooking as a way of attracting women.
He admits that he uses the “cooking dinner” date over taking a woman out.
He admits to serving “a little wine” with the meals he cooks as part of romance/seduction.
Where’s the violation of consent? Where is he “practically admitting” to rape?
Don’t misunderstand me. I see that it’s a cheap, sleazy behavior, part of a sexist worldview that’s harmful to both men & women, but I don’t see the connection to rape.
Is it the “get a girl into my house” line that makes it ‘rape-culture’? Because most folks who are dating will, at some point or another, desire a private location like someone’s house.
Is it the “food is an aphrodisiac” line? A well cooked meal is sensual, and I don’t see how that can be seen as a violation of consent, or an objectification of a person, or as part of a denial of autonomy to a person.
Is it the “…pour a little wine into that”? Sure, getting someone to an intoxicated state so as to exploit impaired judgment can qualify as rape, but that’s generally farther out along the drinking continuum than serving wine with a meal. Is “rape culture” to include any use of alcohol in a social setting where sex might be an outcome?
“…and then you go on to the next [pause; smarmy grin] level.” OK, this is a sexist statement, devaluing both women and sexual intimacy by reducing it to a conquest, and this guy is obviously a tool for attempting to boast at his romantic prowess, but I ask again, how is this rape?
Steven Tyler saying he’s never been rejected because he doesn’t take “no” for an answer, that I can see as “rape culture”.
Using violence against women as fashion statement, or really in any context that glamorizes it? Absolutely I can see the connection to “rape culture”.
Tool bragging about using his ‘Hey I’m a chef, let me cook you a gourmet meal’ routine as a way to seduce women? I don’t see the connection. There’s no violation of consent, no violence, no dehumanizing of women or disrespecting their autonomy.
Explain the connection to ‘rape culture’ for me. The sexism, misogyny, and general chauvinism are clear, but I’m not seeing the jump from that to rape or rape culture. Or maybe I just don’t understand what’s meant by “rape culture”; I assumed it referred to social attitudes that denied women their autonomy, rejected the idea of their sexual freedom (including the right to consent), and generally dehumanized them.
I’m trying to learn. What am I missing? What am I not understanding here? What do I have wrong?
getting women drunk so they can no longer give consent is rape.
I don’t know if Rodeobob’s questions were disingenuous, but even if they were, the question of “how is this rape” remains a fair one. It’s one I asked, too, when I read this, and I’m a committed feminist who’s wholly convinced that we live in a rape culture. Of course Deeky’s response is true in general, but it doesn’t respond to Rodeobob’s specific and legitimate questions. Nor does it have any relation to what the chef actually said on the teevee. Even if Deeky preferred to ignore the larger question of “how is this rape,” he might have at least responded that rape ≠ rape culture, and that the idea of sex as conquest feeds a rape culture. Instead, he implicitly distorted the chef’s remarks by suggesting that he intended to get women drunk. That wouldn’t be my reading of “food is an aphrodisiac, then you pour a little wine onto that.”
I’m in no way endorsing everything the male skeptics wrote on that thread. But I also wouldn’t want to endorse the way the commenters (including Melissa and Deeky) refused to engage thoughtfully with them. I sympathize with how frustrating it can be to field 101-type questions, though I don’t see that thread as an instance of this; potentially useful questions were raised about how, exactly, we define a rape culture, and how we can understand the relationship between the conquest narrative and sexual assault. I also totally get that it’s way more fun to end with variations on the word “douche.” That is precisely what happened: commenters let off some steam by trying to trump each other (douchebucket, douchevat, douchetower). However good this might feel to the posters, it just doesn’t change any minds – and hey, even if you write off the vocal skeptics off as MRAs, concern trolls, or douchebuckets, let’s not disregard the much larger audience of lurkers who might be persuadable.
Also, it really doesn’t look good for feminism when the ensuing post at Feminist Critics comes off as more reflective and reasonable. (That’s not my usual sentiment; some thoughtful people post at Feminist Critics, but plenty of MRAs feel at home there, too.) In a nutshell, that’s why I – as an apparent non-stakeholder in the past and future of Shakesville – care very much how it evolves. It still represents feminism very publicly on the web. If it fosters groupthink and brooks no dissent, it makes all feminists look closed-minded.
So I hope for the sake of the people in that community, including Melissa and all the regular contributors, that the blog stops being such an evident source of personal stress and pain, whether that means new rules or a hiatus or whatever.
I hope for the rest of us, the casual readers and passers-by, that Shakesville’s future includes a greater tolerance for dissent – and not just an imperative to police oneself.