(/sites/default/files/uploads/2013/08/posters.jpg)Attending the opera in Ottawa a few months ago, I had the kind of experience that once galvanized women to speak out against the sexist put-downs that passed for humor in an earlier era. This time, however, the putative humor was at the expense of men.
“Please silence anything in your possession that may be annoying to those around you,” said our host, an affable radio personality with Canada’s public broadcaster, “That includes cell phones, other electronic devices, your husband …” An approving chuckle ran through the crowd.
How times have changed. Forty years ago, a few stalwart feminists might have walked out of the auditorium to express their (justified) annoyance at gender discrimination if the wife had been the annoying appendage to be silenced. Now the feminists in the audience made no noticeable protest.
So unquestioned is the anti-male animus of our time that the only pain considered worthy of attention or collective action is women’s pain.
The pervasiveness of feminist ideas about female innocence was vividly on display a few weeks ago in Edmonton, Alberta, when two rival poster campaigns garnered media attention. “Don’t Be That Guy,” an anti-rape campaign by a coalition of women’s groups in conjunction with the RCMP (the Royal Canadian Mounted Police), met with general approval in the mainstream media while outrage greeted “Don’t Be That Girl,” an anti-false-charge campaign by Men’s Rights Edmonton (which one reporter snidely dismissed as a “so-called men’s rights organization”). The difference in the posters’ reception tells us a good deal about the enormous social power of the woman as victim theme in Canada today.
The anti-rape posters show various scenarios in which sexual assault can occur. A young woman is passed out on a bed, a man standing over her reaching for his pants’ zipper: the caption reads, “It’s not sex … when she’s passed out. Sex with someone unable to consent = sexual assault.” In another, a drunken woman is helped to a cab by a man, her body supported by his: the caption reads, “Just because you helped her home … doesn’t mean you get to help yourself.” In another, a young woman is laughing and drinking with friends at a bar, smiling invitingly at a young man, but “Just because she’s drinking … doesn’t mean she wants sex.” There are five other such scenarios, all involving white men and women (multicultural representation for once having been completely—deliberately?—neglected); one scenario involves two white men (“It’s not sex … if he changes his mind”). None of the pictures shows a man in a position to be sexually abused by a woman.
Despite the almost jocular wording in some of the posters, the insulting message is clear: young white men are so morally obtuse about sex and so prone to commit assault as to require a public finger wagging and calling-out: Don’t be that guy! Don’t be the guy who violates an unconscious or unwilling victim. The average white man is presumed to need elementary instruction in how to treat a woman.
As a sexual assault prevention strategy, the posters’ efficacy is dubious—would a hardened rapist reform after seeing them? It seems unlikely—but they are undoubtedly effective in libeling all men as potential abusers despite the fact that the vast majority of men (94-95% according to feminist statistics) bear no blame for sexual assault.
The poster campaign is unsettling for its insistence that no matter what a woman does—no matter how careless and irresponsible—she is always innocent. While every reasonable person would agree that an unconscious woman cannot consent to sex, the various drunken scenarios raise complex issues of accountability. One is not supposed to ask what a girl is doing getting herself so drunk that she needs assistance home (in fact, of course, part of the posters’ message is that such questioning is itself quasi-criminal—that encouraging women to take responsibility for their safety is misogynistic).
The “anti-rape culture” of these posters is about prohibiting all such questions. One is not supposed to ask how, if a girl is so drunk that she needs help getting home, she will not be too drunk to remember that she did not consent. One is not supposed to ask how her drunken memories of what happened to her will be more reliable than the defendant’s report of what happened. Her drinking doesn’t mean anything, according to these posters, other than greater-than-usual vulnerability and greater-than-usual exemption. And what of the young man who is probably also drinking too much: does he not receive any exemption from responsibility? Apparently not. Although the posters squarely target the “guy” in question—whose guilt is the whole point—the creators of the posters aren’t interested in his feelings and responses, and certainly not in his potential difficulty in ascertaining consent.
Thinking along these (unacceptable) lines, Men’s Rights Edmonton created “Don’t Be That Girl,” a poster campaign that uses one of the poster’s images but changes the wording to express men’s concern about false allegations of assault: “Just because you regret a one-night stand … doesn’t mean it wasn’t consensual.” Highlighting the scenario of young women and men drinking at a bar, the posters focus on women who use alcohol as an excuse to be sexual without responsibility, or who turn an error in judgment into a criminal charge. Though criticized for making rape a “joke,” the poster strategy is serious and straightforward, and is not about rape at all—but about false charges. The point is that sexual assault is wrong, but so is the idea that all men are potential rapists and women always innocent victims.
All too predictably, “Don’t Be That Girl” caused an uproar. Edmonton mayoral candidate Don Iveson tweeted that the posters’ message was “morally indefensible, condemnable, and contemptible.” The Calgary Committee Against Sexual Abuse said the men’s campaign was “100% incorrect.” Twitter came alive with assertions that the posters proved the existence of a “rape culture” in Canada, and Anu Dugal, the Director of Violence Prevention at the Canadian Women’s Foundation, denounced the posters’ putative suggestion “that women are responsible for sexual assault.” Karen Smith, executive director of the Sexual Assault Centre of Edmonton, claimed that assault victims “just don’t lie about that.” Even the police department joined in the righteous chorus, with one officer, Acting Inspector Sean Armstrong, coming forward to dismiss the concerns of the men’s organization by noting that “after 4.5 years of working as a sexual assault detective, he had seen only one false report” out of numerous files.
One wonders about Inspector Armstrong’s certainty. His and the other responses make clear that under the reign of feminist orthodoxy—which reaches even, one is dismayed to note, deep into the police department, supposed to be an impartial organization that does not pre-judge cases—it is not enough to agree that sexual assault is wrong. One must also commit to the doctrine that women never lie about it.
But we know that women do lie and that false claims of abuse, whether sexual or physical, are a reality. Karen Straughan cites the case of Soner Yasa, an Edmonton cab driver who was saved from a false allegation only by the camera in his taxi, which proved his accusers’ story to be a vindictive fabrication. In other cases, women have dodged criminal charges by claiming to be victims of abuse. One thinks immediately, to take the most egregious Canadian examples, of Karla Homolka, who participated with her husband in the sexual torture and murder of her sister and two girls whom she lured to their home; or Allyson McConnell, who drowned her two sons in the bathtub after her husband left her; or Nicole Doucet, who hired a contract killer to murder her husband. What these three have in common is that all claimed to have been victims of (unsubstantiated) abuse, and all received reduced sentences or, in Doucet’s case, no sentence at all because of the credulity of justice system officials about female victimization. The problem is not, as Anu Dugal of the Canadian Women’s Foundation claims, that Canadians tend to “blame the [female] victim”; on the contrary, Canadians are often afraid even to question her for fear of being accused, in the feminist lingo, of “re-victimizing.”
Acting Inspector Sean Armstrong’s proclaimed trust in women’s word about sexual assault is likely the outcome of years of feminist advocacy and training within the force, which insists that when assault of any kind is at issue, men are the perpetrators and women the ones who have been harmed. Whether Armstrong’s position reflects a genuine belief or an empty genuflection, it is disturbing to hear it coming from an officer of the law whose job it is to investigate crime rather than implement feminist rule. If I were a man getting a knock at the door over a false allegation, I would dread to have Armstrong, or anyone like him, investigate my case.
One of the points made by the “Don’t Be That Girl” campaign was simple and brilliant: both men and women commit crimes, and men are tired of being singled out for condemnation while women’s culpability is denied. There are many crimes and social problems that might be targeted by posters (fetal alcohol syndrome, home invasions, shoplifting) but groups other than white men never receive such defamatory attention.
Can you imagine “Don’t be that Muslim” in a campaign about Islamic jihad? Or “Don’t be that Aboriginal Mother” in a campaign about fetal alcohol syndrome? Or a poster campaign about black rapists? Critics would charge that an entire group of people was being unfairly targeted for the actions of a few—and in a manner more likely to induce public humiliation than behavioral change. The same is true of the image of white men promoted in “Don’t Be That Guy,” and yet men are not even allowed to say so without incurring further outrageous accusations.
It’s time for frank discussion and an end to the knee-jerk stigmatization of male sexuality.
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