This week, the Feminist Blogosphere erupted in controversy, over some difficult questions that we may never find a way to answer. For example: If a stranger finds a way to look into your bedroom, against your wishes, and watches you fuck and/or get naked, whether because they wish to masturbate over you or simply because they dislike you and wish to exert some form of power over you (scorn, humiliation, control, etcetera), aren’t this stranger’s actions totally all your fault???? Okay. But what if your partner invited the stranger to look, again without your permission or knowledge, as a means of revenge, or of cutting you down a peg due to your career success, or of earning some cashy green dollars, or whatever? That is definitely all your fault, right??? I mean, you willingly dated a person who wound up betraying and abusing you! In either case, people have been known to pretend that they didn’t want such peeping to occur in the past. So if it happens to you, we can just assume that you are also pretending, and in fact all the people (and especially women) it’s happened to are just pretending, and that you therefore secretly wanted it no matter what you say to the contrary or whether you take any of the perpetrators to court, right? Anyway, do any of these questions even matter? Because even if you don’t turn out to secretly want it, it is still totally all your fault. Truly, these extremely difficult questions are perplexing to any feminist!
Wait. What’s that you say? These aren’t difficult question to answer at all? And that, in fact, the above paragraph is a pretty unambiguous description of sexual assault* and blaming the victim of a sexual assault? Sexual assault victims being people whom feminists typically place some great degree of emphasis on not blaming? Okay. So, I guess the really difficult question is, when this form of sexual assault occurs via the medium of tape and Internet download, why don’t people get this?
Spare us the outrage at how you feel sooooo betrayed, how you have no idea how this could have fallen into the wrong hands. At least Jesse James admitted that, deep down, he wanted to get caught. This whole pretext of “I didn’t really make and distribute my own little porno here” so you can give the public something that appears furtive and dirty and secret while still showing off how weird you look in night vision? Enough. And if you are actually dumb enough to make a sex tape and think it won’t get leaked, you are too dumb to ever have sex again.
Look: Mary Elizabeth Williams (the author of the above quote; our bylines have appeared in the same place, but I can’t recall ever interacting) is not some evil victim-hating monster. She’s taking the standard line on sex tapes. (“The video prompted debates about whether news channels should air the footage and if Andrews, a statuesque blonde with rabid supporters, had encouraged her peeping tom by cultivating a ‘frat house’ fan base.” Encouraged him. The man of whose criminal stalking sentence she said, “Thirty months isn’t enough.” Encouraged him by being a sportscaster who was popular among male sports fans.) She’s taking the “OMG famewhores!” line, the “how could they be sooo stupid” line, the line that makes you look sophisticated and superior and above the crass and vulgar machinations of attention-getting, when the reality is you’re going to write about the sex tape because the thing about the sex tape is going to get pageviews because it’s your job to get pageviews (attention!) just like everybody else. The problem, I mean to say, is not with Mary Elizabeth Williams; the problem is with the standard line. Because that line completely ignores any issues having to do with consent. And, you know, that consent not being present. As bloggers, it might be our job to write stuff that people will pay attention to, but as feminists, it is pretty much our job not to just repeat the general cultural consensus when it comes to issues of consent. It’s our job to interrogate that consensus, to push it, to examine it closely and say things about it that we know will make people call us radical misandrist bitchwhores upon occasion. Because the standard line, we seem to have pretty much established, is often sexist, harmful, and just plain wrong. It’s our job to do better. Doing better: That’s kind of what feminism is about.
And now, after this afternoon’s sermon, Amanda Hess of The Sexist and I will attempt some better-doing!
SADY: Well, good morning! Who wants to discuss… THE EROTICIZATION OF NON-CONSENT????
AMANDA: Oh me! Me! Wait … I believe I am meant to feign disinterest in this discussion, in order to make it hotter. THE CHAT THEY DIDN’T WANT YOU TO READ.
SADY: Perhaps you should hire a lawyer to stop me from chatting with you, so that I might go ahead and continue chatting anyway!
AMANDA: For that is the consequence of having a Gmail account.
SADY: EXACTLY. And we all know that, however many verbal and/or legal refusals a woman may utter, she SECRETLY WANTS YOU to do whatever the hell you want and/or will profit from, anyway. If she didn’t WANT you to release her sex tape, why did she make a sex tape? If she didn’t WANT you to penetrate her vagina, why did she have a vagina? And so on! And so forth!
AMANDA: Right? So, the whole wink-wink “taboo” behind the “leaked”-but-not-actually-leaked sex tape doesn’t bother me so much – I know that some people get off on the idea of watching people have sex on tape who don’t normally have sex on tape. . . as long as all parties are actually just playing the “leak” card for its erotic potential. The problem is that the people who are selling, downloading, and writing about these things don’t appear interested in differentiating between “leaked” sex tapes and. . . leaked sex tapes.
SADY: Right. That’s the thing. And the assumption, among people I’ve talked to, is that these things ARE leaked purposefully. Thus making their subjects total sluts! But when one brings up the idea that maybe, JUST MAYBE, someone like Kendra Wilkinson may be repeatedly saying that she doesn’t want people to sell or view her sex tape because SHE DOESN’T WANT PEOPLE TO SELL OR VIEW HER SEX TAPE, then the reply that comes back is, all too often, “well, then she’s just stupid.” Stupid for making the sex tape, stupid for not thinking strangers would jerk off to it without her consent. Which MAKES the non-consent involved in your jerk-off time… okay? Because you think she’s not smart? How does that work? As far as I can tell, we value consent no matter who it comes from. It’s not like you have to pass the SAT in order to decide whether or not you want a certain sexual experience. You just want it or you don’t, and if you clearly don’t, it’s not okay for anyone else to proceed with that against your will.
AMANDA: Right. I am also confused as to why some people assume that people who fight the release of their sex tape in court are simply doing it for publicity purposes? Because I have been involved in a civil court proceeding like one time on a relatively minor matter and it was hugely inconvenient and horrible! And I imagine that when a video of you having sex is involved in evidence collection it is even more unpleasant!
SADY: Right. And the fact is, even when we all assume the release of the tape was fully consensual — instigated by both or all of the people in it — the idea of it not being consensual IS kind of eroticized, by the people selling it. That, I am actually NOT okay with — the way there were, according to Tracy Clark-Flory, mocking speech bubbles over Kim Kardashian’s face on the packaging of her own sex tape, reading like, “OMG!” or “PWNED” or whatever. The idea that you’re dominating this specific woman — er, excuse me, stupid fauxlebrity bitch, I believe, is the term we for some reason think is appropriate when discussing her — and doing something sexual to her against her will IS CAPITALIZED UPON. As is the idea that legal court proceedings are just cute little gestures of resistance so you won’t think she’s a slut. That, to me, is exactly what rape culture looks like.
AMANDA: It is. And it’s also this really weird phenomenon where even people who are OK with other people having consensual sex the way they want to get all confused once that sex is transferred onto videotape and commence with the slut-shaming again. Like, one of the biggest arguments I’ve heard against people who make sex tapes and then don’t want them released for strangers to jack off to them, is that they don’t understand the “consequences” of sex. REALLY? Because while I understand the practical concerns involved here, and think everyone should be educated about the risks of sexual intercourse, people who trump up “personal responsibility” while doing no fucking work to help make bad “consequences” of sex any better just essentially think people who have sex OUGHT TO BE punished for it. These are the same arguments against abortion, the same arguments against working to stop HIV, the same arguments against working to stop rape.
SADY: Right. It’s the “well, she’s stupid, so she deserves it” argument. And people can make sexual tapes or photos or whatever for a lot of reasons, aside from being stupid. They can be young, they can be drunk, they can be getting off on it, they can be trying to get their partner off better, they can have trusted their partner’s multiple protestations that he’ll never in a million years show it to anyone and in fact he’ll erase it once he gets home HE SWEARS and… whoops, your partner lied. As far as I can tell, “you trusted your partner and then he lied to you and hurt you” isn’t a “consequence” of sex. It’s a “consequence” of your partner being abusive. And we’re placing the onus of guilt on the victim.
AMANDA: Exactly. And I just want to give a shout out to Amanda Marcotte and Lena Chen here, who have written about this stuff a lot, and I really wouldn’t understand any of the dynamics at play here if not for their work.
SADY: Yeah, Lena Chen really clarified a lot of this in her own writing, as far as my reading goes. Because she’s experienced this form of assault first-hand. And the shaming that goes along with it.
AMANDA: One of the things Lena spoke to me about in an interview I did with her is that at Harvard, where she blogged about sex, she would get so much slut-shaming from other college students who were also having sex, and also probably had taken some photos during sex at some point, but who a) didn’t write about it publicly, and b) didn’t have some douchey ex leak those photos on a blog. The assumption being made by all of the people shaming people who make sex tapes is that it would never happen to them because they’re not idiots. When really, it probably won’t happen to them because they’re not targets. Lena was a target because she talked about sex; Kim Kardashian was a target because she has a name that could sell copies. If random Internet Commenter makes a sex tape, they will likely never see the “consequences” of having sex on tape, because no one is particularly interested in watching random Internet Commenter do it, and yet they glean some sort of moral superiority out of that.
SADY: Right. Another thing that crops up, in these discussions, is the idea that if the woman ALREADY has expressed some of her sexuality in public, ALL of her sexuality belongs to the public. Like, Megan Fox is shooting a nude scene in a movie — where she probably has a carefully worked-out deal about how much is going to show up on screen and how it will look, or whatever — and that’s assumed consent for some random douche to take a photo of her for the Internet. Lena Chen blogs about sex, so that’s assumed consent for people to leak and/or look at sexual photos of her. Kendra Wilkinson has made porn, so therefore anything she does on film can be distributed as porn. Whereas the reality is, if someone as comfortable with being naked on-screen as KENDRA FREAKING WILKINSON is saying “no, I don’t like this, this is hard for me, don’t sell or watch my tape,” I think that REALLY, REALLY SUPER-DUPER MEANS that she doesn’t want you to do those things.
AMANDA: Exactly. Christ. It’s that really awful anti-sex impulse rearing its head again. Like, you’re allowed to make a sex tape – as long as you stay married to the other person in the sex tape forever and ever and never betray each other until you go to Heaven. Or you can make a sex tape – as long as you keep your head down and never make a name for yourself, because people who reach some level of success deserve to be shamed for having sex.
SADY: Exactly. They’re successful, and they’re often already “impermissibly” sexual, so the whole “humiliation” — we can see your cleavage! We think you’re skanky! You belong to US now, whether you give consent or not — is really just about scaring women out of being sexual. Again.
AMANDA: And people who give the “skank” treatment to celebrity women? They’re actually talking about all women, everywhere, but they use the fame as a convenient excuse. We all hear these messages.
SADY: Exactly. No matter how comfortable you are with your own sexuality, no matter how well you think you can set your own boundaries, you don’t belong to you: You belong to the people looking at you. They decide what to do with your sexuality, not you. So don’t flirt at the bar. Don’t wear that short skirt. Don’t go to the bar. Don’t go out. And when you’re in the house, don’t make a sex tape. Because we’ll find it if we want to. I mean, so many people don’t even watch this stuff to get off: They watch it to mock. To feel superior. They watch it, pretty bluntly, to shame.
AMANDA: It’s just really sad to me that when it comes to “sex tapes,” we can’t even reach the level of common courtesy of your standard Girls Gone Wild shoot, where at least the women being videotaped expect what it’s being used for, and are generally forced to sign a contract stating as much. Like, that’s a really really low bar.
SADY: Yeah. I mean, there’s basically no responsibility at a GGW shoot. Girls are young and girls are WASTED. GGW goes over the line of consent pretty continually. BUT AT LEAST THERE IS THE ILLUSION OF CONSENT, you know what I’m saying? When we, the American public, hold ourselves to a lower standard than Joe “Alleged Rapist” Francis, things have gone pretty far in the direction of Hell.
AMANDA: Yeah I’m pretty depressed about this whole human enterprise right now. Thank Christ for Lena Chen.
SADY: Dear Lord. Woman is sharp and woman is strong. She has dignity like I will never in a million years have. Although, right now, I am also developing a real affection for Kendra W.
AMANDA: For real.
SADY: In conclusion: YAY for the survivors. Especially the ones who keep telling us that this is fucked up even though occasionally real live grown adults keep finding reasons not to listen.
AMANDA: I know. I am seriously proud of them for being brave enough to speak out about this. Even though they know people will turn around their honest commentary about how fucked-up this situation is in order to accuse them of trying to make money off not consenting. UGH. I’M LOSING IT AGAIN.
SADY: “SURELY YOU ARE NO ORDINARY SLUT! SURELY YOU ARE A MONEY-HUNGRY SLUT AS WELL!” “You only want your rapist to go to jail because you support the prison-industrial complex!”
SADY: “Something something! No legal recourse for slatterns! Something something word barf!”
AMANDA: Someone get FEMINIST HULK on this.
SADY: FEMINIST HULK NOT KNOW MUCH ABOUT HOW TO APPROXIMATE NOT-HULK TALK. FEMINIST HULK STILL PROBABLY UNDERSTAND WORD “NO.”
* Leaking a sex tape without the consent of all parties involved is, of course, not legally recognized as a form of sexual assault. I recommend we do what feminists have always done about forms of sexual assault that are not yet legally recognized as such: Totally ignore it or participate in shaming or blaming its victims. Which, of course, is why all those stupid wives who get themselves raped by their husbands still have no legal recourse.
Oh. Wait, they totally do! MY BAD.