June, 2011

Friend or Foe: Rihanna’s “Man Down”

Rihanna’s new video “Man Down” starts with a bang – literally, as she takes aim through the railings of a train station and her tears, steels herself, and pulls the trigger.

The explanation comes through a flashback to the day before, where a beaming Rihanna takes us through her day of greeting the elderly and drinking out of coconuts with straws…until she refuses a man’s advances at a party and he then rapes her in an alley.


To say the least, the internet response to the video has been mixed. While the Parents Television Council calls it excessively violent and is clamoring for a ban, blogs such as the Crunk Feminist Collective are applauding Rihanna for being frank about the severity of sexual assault.

I’ll admit it – when I first heard that Rihanna killed a man in her new music video, I groaned. I remembered writing about her collaboration with Eminem for “Love the Way You Lie,” which I hated for its domestic violence apologetics the more I thought about it (Eminem’s not exactly the poster boy for self-awareness). That video oversimplified a deeply complex issue, and pretended to represent both sides of the conflict while sidelining Rihanna to a single line: “Just gonna stand there and watch me burn, but that’s all right, because I like the way it hurts.” (Sure, Eminem. Real revolutionary idea, there.)

So: I went into watching “Man Down” expecting the worst, but now that I’m sitting here trying to piece together my thoughts…I can’t say I hated it.

As the Crunk Feminist Collective pointed out, the video paints a picture of sexual assault that’s just different enough for the pop culture canon to be significant: Rihanna’s dancing sexily at a party does NOT guarantee sex to the onlookers, nor should it. This seems like it would be a no-brainer, but as we’ve learned time and time again from our pop culture, we apparently can’t say it enough.

And yes, there is violence. But while the shooting, the body, and the sexual assault are disturbing as violent facts, I can’t quite understand why the Parents Television Council has singled  out  “Man Down” over, oh I don’t know, Kanye’s explicitly graphic “Monster” video. The radio silence from PTC over a video literally strewn with dead women’s bodies versus Rihanna’s video is deafening.

Is Kanye a lost cause, or is Rihanna held to a different standard? It’s hard to believe this disproportionate response doesn’t have anything to do with a) woman of color taking matters into her own hands or b) the infamous beating she suffered at the hands of then-boyfriend, now-and-always insufferable Chris Brown which, for better or worse, will be the incident through which many will always view Rihanna.

For my money, it’s both. But at the very least, I’m thrilled that she’s the one directing the conversation this time. She’s steering the discussion of her video towards recognizing the universality of sexual assault, the need to speak up and speak out and, perhaps most importantly, take it seriously.

Now that’s a stance I can stand behind.

Chicagoans organize around cases of police violence

Last Saturday, about 2,000 people filled the streets of downtown Chicago for SlutWalk, a global protest movement demanding an end to rape and the pervasive victim-blaming attitudes and policies that help facilitate violence.  It was the very first sweltering hot day of Midwest summer.  We talked excitedly about the power of bringing a public voice to this otherwise silent social problem, and we networked to organize for future events around sexual violence and institutional violence.  The energy and outrage from the crowd was absolutely palpable.  SlutWalk participants could feel that we were starting something much bigger than ourselves.

The symbolic reclaiming of the streets has a long history in liberation activism, and I think it’s an especially poignant act in Chicago, which still holds the coveted title of the most racially and economically segregated city in the United States.  Chicago’s history of systematic institutional violence once inspired Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to report from the city’s streets, “I have seen many demonstrations in the South, but I have never seen anything so hostile and so hateful as I’ve seen here today.”  At a recent workshop hosted by the Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP), Jerry Boyle from the National Lawyers Guild aptly described government-sponsored Chicago street politics as “low intensity warfare against marginalized groups,” especially organizers.

SlutWalk reminded Chicagoans: These are our streets, and we have the right to own them. And the message could not be timelier.

On June 1st, Chicago police officers Paul Clavijo and Juan Vasquez were both indicted on charges of criminal sexual assault and official misconduct for their actions against a 22 year old woman identified as Jane Doe.

While patrolling the 23rd District around Wrigley Field at 2am on March 30th, Clavijo and Vasquez saw the extremely intoxicated young woman crying and walking home alone.  They invited her into the marked squad car under pretenses of offering her a ride to her apartment two districts away in the Rogers Park neighborhood.  Jane Doe tried to take the back seat, but Clavijo insisted that he sit on his lap in the front seat, where he sexually assaulted her the first time while Vasquez went into a liquor store.   Clavijo and Vasquez then took Jane Doe to her apartment, where they sexually assaulted her until she pounded her fists on the walls and screamed for help, at which point a neighbor helped her.

Police reporting to the scene found Jane Doe “in a ‘hysterical’ state.”  The victim’s blood alcohol level was .38 by the time she received medical treatment at a hospital hours later.  That’s about five times the legal limit to drive in Illinois and, according to Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez, it’s not possible for someone that incapacitated to provide consent for sex.

Several elements surrounding the accusations against these officers reveal some unsettling inferences about the culture of impunity for police violence.  Clavijo and Vasquez were heavily-armed, on-duty, uniformed, and using a marked squad car to pick up a drunk woman in a public space.  That kind of abandon suggests that these law enforcement officers were completely confident that they would get away with their “misconduct.”  In fact, it should not surprise those readers with even a cursory understanding of sexual predators that Officer Paul Clavijo faces a second sexual assault charge for almost identical actions against another woman just twenty days earlier.  These elements tell us a great deal about the lack of oversight and accountability for police violence in Chicago.

This case is deeply disturbing, not least of all for its capacity to completely demolish the cultural conception of police as trustworthy and protective figures.  It’s hard to adequately describe the psychic violence suffered by an entire community when police commit violence.  Our New York readers might know what I’m talking about.  The queer people, trans folks, homeless youth, sex workers, and people of color targeted by police know what I’m talking about.

Results from a 2009 study by the Young Women’s Empowerment Project found that police misconduct accounted for 22% of reported incidents of institutional violence against girls involved in street economies.  At SlutWalk, SWOP’s Crash Crawford reminded attendants what this means for Chicago sex workers:

Predators are often reassured of their impunity by society’s attitudes towards such ‘whores’ and ‘sluts.’ Many a serial-killer has admitted to targeting sex-workers because they felt they were ‘easy targets’; that they ‘wouldn’t be missed.’ […]  Also to be feared is the all-too-common ‘un-sympathetic’ agents of law enforcement; abusers in their own right; often extorting sexual acts at the point of a night-stick, or by threatening arrest. Sadly, it is not unheard of for officers to attack sex-workers overtly, especially those also in the transgender community.

So what happens to police who abuse the citizens they’re paid to protect?

According to a 2007 study by Craig Futterman at the University of Chicago Law School, the odds that a Chicago police officer charged with abusing a civilian will receive any meaningful discipline is only two in a thousand.  In more than 85% of the abuse investigations analyzed, Futterman found that the accused officer was never even interviewed before complaints were dismissed.  Alarmingly, about 75% of officers with multiple charges of abuse never received any disciplinary action of any kind whatsoever.

On Monday, Mayor Rahm Emanuel started the first leg of his “anti-crime” PR project by moving 150 police officers from administrative jobs to beat positions.  Not surprisingly, Rahmbo didn’t say peep about plans to improve oversight while our tax dollars pay police to target minorities in our own streets and homes.  Meanwhile, given this rape case, the actions of Internal Affairs who allegedly threatened Tiawanda Moore for attempting to report a sexual assault by a police officer and the zeal with which our State’s Attorney has pursued felony charges against her, those of us who used to feel safe with cops around might feel differently the next time we see those blue lights flashing.

We are sick of being treated like enemies in a warzone when we walk down the street.  A lot of us are fed up and, in the spirit of SlutWalk, we’ve decided to do something about it.

Jane Doe has filed a federal lawsuit against the City of Chicago and the two police officers who allegedly raped her, charging ten counts of assault and battery, failure to intervene, and conspiracy.  Doe’s attorney told Chicago Public Radio,

The city shares some of the responsibility and some of the blame for not having a good system in place to deter misconduct because of the failure of supervision and discipline.

Chicago advocates and allies agree.  This author is working with a highly energized, passionate group to help organize around police violence.  We want effective, thorough investigations into every allegation, oversight, accountability, and an end to cultural impunity for violence.  We want Chicago to know that a victim of rape is never to blame — especially when the assailant wields a gun, a baton, a tazer, mace, and a badge.

If you experience harassment or abuse at the hands of a law enforcement officer, call the National Sexual Assault Crisis Hotline (1-800-656-HOPE).  You may want to consider filing a complaint against the offending officer with the Independent Police Review Authority, in which case you should contact an attorney immediately.  If you’re not interested in pursuing action through the justice system, contact this author to participate in victim-centered, community-based strategic action and organizing around police violence in Chicago.  And stay tuned for updates as Chicagoans organize!

Machismo and Rape: Cultures of Impunity.

A recent assessment from French women’s groups demonstrates that reports of sexual harassment have increased by 600% since Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s alleged assault of a hotel maid and subsequent arrest. Tracy Clark-Flory at Salon.com’s recent piece (republished below) on the correlation between assault and machismo raises some interesting questions about cultural attitudes towards rape and biological tendencies towards sexual aggression – there are certainly no easy, or standard answers that can be pinned down. Gray areas are difficult, and I’m inclined to suggest that Catharine MacKinnon’s definition of rape – that is, any time a woman feels she’s been violated, although not legally tenable, is a good way to open up the floor to the idea that assault is incredibly subjective. More than that, because experiences are based heavily in the cultures in which we exist, culture is a large influence on how someone can feel about their individual incidents.

Practically, however, Nancy’s recent post on a culture of impunity and the NYPD sees that although this is a longer conversation that can be had in time, accountability is still important for a society to enforce and that survivors who come forward must be taken seriously and empathised with, rather than shunned, or blamed. Similarly, persons who have been accused should not be excused as promptly or as easily as certainly as they have been, as the acquittal of officers Morena and Mata has shown – something that a culture of machismo might not be the certain cause of, but definitely encourages. There might not be one cause, or reason for violence against women, or sexual assault, but with that in mind, there is plenty to do to rectify the situation, and that is, to educate, to emphasise how important empathy, and thinking from different points of views are. Let’s start thinking, too, about masculinity and its enforcement through a culture that encourages machismo – cultural expectations are harmful to all, and perhaps we can try to rectify this through open dialogue. That’s the only way to fight a culture of impunity and its relationship to machismo – and recent events show how imperative this is, right now.

Does Machismo Cause Rape?

The arrest of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, and the conspiracy theorizing and sympathy he garnered in response, has reportedly inspired some cultural soul-searching in France. We’re told that French women will no longer put up with the sort of machismo that celebrated a man nicknamed the Great Seducer — not to mention Georges Tron, the junior minister who was accused of sexual assault by two women promptly after DSK’s arrest. At the same time, feminists have been quick to point out that there is a world of difference between womanizing and rape. Seduction is not sexual assault, not even in Puritan America.

All of this raises the question of whether there is an actual connection between an environment of machismo and rape. And that question taps into an even bigger query about how cultural mores influence sexual assault.

I went to Owen D. Jones, a professor of law and biological sciences at Vanderbilt University, for some insight. “Biology and culture are inextricably intertwined,” he told me by email. “While sexual aggression therefore cannot be disentangled from biology, cultures that disinhibit sexual aggression against women will have more of it.” To put it more simply: Cultures that accept sexual aggression against women will have more sexual aggression against women.

That seems incredibly straightforward, doesn’t it? Things get much more complicated, though, when trying to clearly define something like sexual aggression, which encompasses a vast spectrum of behavior. French philosopher Genevieve Fraisse, author of “On Consent,” told the New York Times, “Womanizing and rape are of course two different things,” but, as the Times paraphrases, “on a sliding scale from aggressive courtship to harassment to sexual assault to rape, the borders between each of the categories are much harder to pin down.”

I asked Jones, who has written extensively about how biology and culture influence sexual aggression, whether we might expect rape to be more common in a culture that embraces machismo. “Yes, if all else were equal,” he said. “But … all else is not always equal. For example, just to illustrate, you could have a culture of heavy machismo but also heavier than average penalties.” As it happens, there are more reported rapes per capita in the United States than in France. Of course, cultural mores also influence the reporting rate — which not only skews the data but also can affect the perceived risk to perpetrators, which in turn affects the likelihood of assault.

Jones explains that perps are influenced by the extent to which they think “they’ll actually be reported” and, if so, “investigated and charged.” There’s also their perception of the likelihood “that jurors might convict, as well as an estimate of for how long, if at all, a perpetrator might be sentenced. ” He says, “Although no one is suggesting that sexual transgressors think it through like a calculating machine, it is likely the case that the holistic assessment of how risky it is to assault someone is — for better or worse — affected by a wide variety of cultural factors.”

On the one hand, it seems only natural to assume that culture would have a significant impact on sexual violence. On the other, it can seem a disturbing excuse for inexcusable behavior; just consider the recent report blaming child sexual abuse by Catholic priests in part on the sexual revolution of the ’60s, or the claim by Roman Polanski’s wife that his “unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor” was simply a product of the “sexual liberty and permissiveness” of the time. Then again, what purported explanation for sexual violence isn’t in some way unsettling? Perhaps the most disturbing answer of all is that there isn’t any one cause.

This article initially appeared on Salon.com and s republished with permission. Tracy Clark-Flory is a staff writer at Salon. Follow @tracyclarkflory on Twitter. More: Tracy Clark-Flory

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