The conversation about sexual violence and abuse against women is reaching a tipping point in North America, largely due to a perfect storm of all-too-common demonstrations of such behaviour hitting the media almost simultaneously.
Just weeks after video of Ray Rice knocking out his now wife in an elevator, the general public started to become aware of of Gamergate, where female gamers are being threatened with physical violence and forced out of their homes for stating feminist opinions on misogyny in games.
Last week, non-profit grassroots group, Hollaback released a now infamous video exposing the everyday harassment women experience at the hands (and mouths) of men from all walks of life, based on 10 hours of video footage of a woman walking around New York City. It was instantly viral.
Many women were very enthusiastic to receive this affirmation of what they experience everyday, many men were receptive, too. Of course, there are also men who think the video demonizes the entire gender, or who actually believe that stalking women is just in man’s DNA. That wasn’t that surprising. Certainly not as surprising as A-List feminists endorsing Funny or Die’s supposed “support” for ending street harassment with a parody video.
Where Hollaback’s contribution was meant to demonstrate the fact women are unable to walk the streets of their city unharassed as men can and do (“Street Privilege”), Funny Or Die’s video featured a “white man walking the streets of NYC.” People go out of their way to stop this white guy to call him “Power,” offer him sunscreen, and eventually outfit him with a crown and throne.
It’s funny (and I do mean funny-ha-ha) that Hollaback’s video is (rightfully) under scrutiny for what at least appears to be unintentional omission of white guys as harassers, but Funny or Die’s video is not under scrutiny despite being only (and specifically) about the street privilege of white men.
And not just that, but their entirely contrived, supposedly accurate representation of how white men understand their experience on the street somehow omits the reality that they, too, harass women. While Hollaback’s video does have an unfair representation of who’s doing the harassing, it offers a pretty accurate depiction of who is intervening. The answer is no one. No one intervenes. Not even King Whitey, despite clearly witnessing it.
In fairness, though, maybe white men are just too distracted by all these strange men stopping them with networking opportunities, job offers and free lattes, to actually notice women at all.
It’s not funny-ha-ha that the woman in the original Hollaback video is now receiving rape threats, and Will Ferrel’s team at Funny or Die is receiving attaboys and profitable clickthroughs, while white boys share their video on Facebook like digital high-fives – because even they don’t understand exactly how it’s meant to be a response (appropriate or otherwise) to Hollaback’s offering. That conversation ended. Hollaback is discredited in the eyes of those it was meant to impact. Funny or Die is lauded. By women.
The week hadn’t even ended when word of Jian Ghomeshi’s firing from the CBC began to break here in Canada, followed by a surge of nobodies (and somebodies) leaping to defend the radio star who was surely being unfairly persecuted for being into BDSM. I admittedly was one who said I hoped the media would treat him with the same courtesy and respect for his privacy that was demanded for the starlets whose photos were hacked in October.
And then I saw his now famous Facebook post and recognized textbook crisis PR, clearly strategized for months and with language approved by a legal team. Ghomeshi proactively called potential accusers liars, saying he had their consent, he blamed the token “jilted ex.” And I changed my mind.
Women were swiftly criticized hand over fist for not publicly coming forward – to the press, to the public, and even to the police, reaffirming exactly why we don’t in the first place. And that was the point – for a star so big, so rich, and so profitable to his network, that it would be nearly impossible for any victims to come forward without having their credibility and careers demolished by one of Canada’s favourite sons.
But then this amazing thing happened. More and more women spoke up. They shared their stories online, in print, and at the police station – some with their name on the record, and some not, but each one brave.
First was Trailer Park Boys actress, and Royal Canadian Air Force captain, Lucy DeCoutere who recognized that people with Ghomeshi’s kind of power often abuse it, and are given the benefit of the doubt while nobodies are ignored. She shared her allegation of a violent sexual encounter with Ghomeshi that occurred over a decade ago, and in doing so appears to have opened the floodgates on reporting a crime with no statute of limitations. Immediately after her interview, Twitter blew up with #ibelievelucy tag, and then came more victims.
Each woman who came forward simplified things for me. I have spent years saying that, while I believe in equal rights across the board, I am not “a feminist.” Not because I hate feminists-I have immense respect for the sacrifices of true feminists-but because I can’t find many examples of mainstream (popular) feminists I would align myself with. I can’t reconcile the double standards spouted by default celebrity activists like Beyonce and Lena Dunham.
Mrs. Carter took the name of a guy who sings about convincing women to do drugs in hopes he’ll score a threesome with them (the CeeLo Green school of date rape). She’s touring with him. But she says she’s feminist and, in fact, there was a big sign in giant letters behind her that shouted “FEMINIST!” So clearly she meant it. And good for her. And good for us?
Lena Dunham is a head scratcher to me. I haven’t seen much of her work. Mostly, people ask me what I think about her, about her first world problems view of the world, and most recently about the lack of racial diversity in her hit HBO show Girls. I haven’t read her book, Not That Kind of Girl. I know people find her to be a very talented writer and I’m sure that’s true.
I also know websites like Jezebel and HelloGiggles (who shape the views of today’s young women), and traditional press alike treat her like she was a Suffragette. I know that she’s writing a series of Archie comics. But I didn’t get a say in her becoming a millenial role model, feminist or otherwise, anymore than the rest of you did. She was thrust upon us because she made a few good points about body image at a time the zeitgeist was crying for it. Timing is clearly everything.
Still… I. Don’t. Get. It.
When nude photos of celebrities were stolen-an unquestionable act of sexual violation-Lena Dunham took the hardline: Anyone who talked about how unsafe “the cloud” is, or the reality that nudies and sex tapes never seem to stay private anymore, was a victim-blaming slut-shamer. She was pissed when jokes were made at the victims’ expense. And, at least that I’m aware of, she didn’t acknowledge the men who were victimized, like Dave Franco.
I have to wonder – does Lena feel the same way about recommending online banking passwords, shredding financial documents before trashing them, locking doors, checking back seats for rapists, or giving a friend details about a guy you met online before going on a date with him? Because they’re all ways to keep people and the things they value safe, they’re not misogynist acts. They’re evil-proofing against those who would do us harm.
Putting these two celebrity personas aside, it’s real people who were changing my mind about feminism last week. I was able to clearly see this underlying, unbreakable, unthinkable bond of sexual harassment, violence and the oppression of victims.
No matter our skin colour, age, or size of our bank account, most of us have experienced harassment or assault at the hands of men (or women). Some of us have experienced all of the above. #ibelievelucy became #ibelieveReva when Canadian author and lawyer, Reva Seth told her story alleging sexual assault by Ghomeshi, also approximately a decade ago. That evolved into #ibelievethem. And then the whammy: #BeenRapedNeverBeenReported, which made it undeniably clear that there is far more that unites us as women than divides us.
By the time the ninth allegation against Ghomeshi was reported, the spotlight turned to The Machine that creates these monsters and protects them – along with the investment made in them. This includes employers, publishers, colleagues, celebrities and “personalities.” We saw victims immediately dismissed outright by those who needed to justify their association with Ghomeshi. They were friends, colleagues, bandmates. They’d blurbed his book. He blurbed their book. Plus penises. And girls lie!
We learned Ghomeshi’s violent behaviour and predatory predilections were the worst kept, best protected, secret in Canadian media, and that the collective silence and blind eyes turned by a massive group of people enabled him to prey on young women, rather than, like, stopping him.
It appears that even our beloved, tax-funded CBC was willing to stand by him for months, only cutting ties after Ghomeshi showed them video footage he claimed proved consent, but clearly depicted violence against women. One alleged victim resigned from her hard-to-come-by job in media working for Ghomeshi after she reported him for sexual harassment and her supervisor suggested she find a way to make her work environment “less toxic” for her, instead of file a report and make his star answer to the accusation. Because his behavior was already institutionalized. It was expected.
As more news came out, making his innocence less likely by the minute, Ghomeshi’s Facebook likes started to drop, and his supporters skulked into the shadows. Women were united, sharing their traumatic experiences out loud, and listening to each other. And I wanted to say, “I am a feminist.” Officially. And I was going to.
Until Lena Dunham’s “memoir” came out. Not That Kind of Girl is a collection of essays about life lessons learned by a 28 year-old white girl born to a famous, rich person. It fetched a nearly 3.5 million dollar advance, before it was even complete. Because Lena Dunham has a hit show on HBO, and a ton of social currency.
That’s all well and good on its own, but this book was immediately predicted to be the future of feminism (at least for white women). It was gushed about by all the women’s magazine, blogs and talk show hosts before they’d even read a dust cover. Many Capital F feminists accepted a seat on Lena’s train, lending their names and credibility to what is essentially her diary, undoubtedly hoping for a little social street cred in return.
The Machine? Also responsible for Lena Dunham. And its running around with its head cut off right now trying to protect and defend her (and themselves) against criticism of her book, some of it pertaining to her own description of sexual behaviours toward her much younger sister that she herself jokes are predatory. With few exceptions, and most notably by those who have an affiliation or previous endorsement of Dunham and/or her work, people seem to be glossing over realities, and making things harder for young people who have faced, or will face, sexual abuse – even at the hands of a woman. Here’s the conversation between Lena and her mother.
“Do we all have uteruses?” I asked my mother when I was seven.
“Yes,” she told me. “We’re born with them, and with all our eggs, but they start out very small. And they aren’t ready to make babies until we’re older.” I look at my sister, now a slim, tough one-year-old, and at her tiny belly. I imagined her eggs inside her, like the sack of spider eggs in Charlotte’s Webb, and her uterus, the size of a thimble.
“Does her vagina look like mine?”
“I guess so,” my mother said. “Just smaller.”
One day, as I sat in our driveway in Long Island playing with blocks and buckets, my curiosity got the best of me. Grace was sitting up, babbling and smiling, and I leaned down between her legs and carefully spread open her vagina. She didn’t resist and when I saw what was inside I shrieked.
My mother came running. “Mama, Mama! Grace has something in there!”
My mother didn’t bother asking why I had opened Grace’s vagina. This was within the spectrum of things I did. She just on her knees and looked for herself. It quickly became apparent that Grace had stuffed six or seven pebbles in there. My mother removed them patiently while Grace cackled, thrilled that her prank had been a success.
So, according to Lena, while most one year olds are still mastering walking and speaking in full sentences, Grace was a prank prodigy who overheard this exchange about anatomy and immediately hatched and later executed a plan to deftly shove not one, but multiple pebbles in her vagina, happily waiting for her sister to, you know, inevitably and “carefully spread open her vagina” to check for eggs?
I don’t know about you guys but, to me, that is impressive. It almost makes me forget that, for this to happen, Grace would have had to have been left diaperless (that’s parenting on the edge) outside, unsupervised long enough that she could insert multiple choking hazards into her vajayjay. Seems legit.
We have to take Lena’s word for it, though. Why? Because she’s Lena Dunham. She’s the female face of HBO. And white feminism. But mostly because one year olds don’t remember shit. You know what else one year olds don’t do? They don’t have the ability to understand a conversation about the reproductive system that a seven year old can barely grasp, or the foresight, guile, and cunning, to turn it into an epic prank requiring great digital dexterity. I mean, it took me a few tries to get the hang of tampons – and I was fourteen.
Lena describes this and other questionable behaviours toward her sister over the years, including bribing her physical affections. “…anything a sexual predator might do to woo a small suburban girl I was trying.”
Yet she’s confounded when people who read her words dare to agree with her own characterization of her behaviour.
“Raging” after it was suggested that she sexually abused her sister, Dunham tweeted, “Usually this is stuff I can ignore but don’t demean sufferers, don’t twist my words, back the fuck up bros.” To be clear, she doesn’t like it when men make jokes at the expense of victims of sex crimes, but it’s okay for her to do it if it sells books.
Because The Machine is equal opportunity. Women are protected, too. As long as they’re incredibly famous and haven’t yet plateaued, meaning that as long as where there is money to be made, connections to be had, and coattails to ride, there are defenses to be made!
It turns out that Lena shouldn’t be shamed for being honest about her actions as a child. Why? Because her sister (now an adult) says she doesn’t feel abused… today. There are some problems with that logic.
1. The beliefs or intent of the person committing questionable behavior doesn’t override the reality of what they’re doing. A lot of pedophiles think they’re entitled to young bodies, they think it’s natural for them to sexualize them. They tell children this as a way to keep them silent. And we want them dead. A lot of men think they’re complimenting the women they harass on the streets, and most of those women are conditioned to think that’s true. I wonder how that starts…
2. Minors aren’t allowed to give consent – even after the fact. If Grace says she doesn’t feel abused now, we have to take her word for it, of course, but the reason laws exist to prevent minors from making judgment calls about the sexual nature of various situations is the fact they are vulnerable to those who are older them, not just adults, and including those (especially those) who claim to love them.
Many of Jian Ghomeshi’s alleged victims who have now come forward say they didn’t realize it was abuse or assault at the time. So, so, so many of those who bared their souls in #BeenRapedNeverReported said the same thing – they didn’t know it was assault or abuse until later. Some not even until this year! And many still feel the need to protect their abusers.
3. Lena’s groupies aren’t experts – even if abuse survivors themselves. They aren’t addressing the incredibly complex issues of sexual abuse. They’re making excuses, talking about intent and degrees of abuse the way white men in the 2012 presidential election talked about degrees of rape. They, like Lena, are heaping all of the responsibility onto her sister to decide whether or not she was the victim of inappropriate or illegal behaviour.
Here’s a story about me: When I was seven years old, a close family friend was watching my siblings and me for a few days while my mother was away on business. My sister, who was nine, and I showered together that week, and she made sure I bathed myself and kept me safe. And thank god.
Because that family friend decided to open the shower door and watch us. My sister instinctively hid my body with hers, with no clue what else to do. Fortunately, our older brothers were downstairs and realized what the creep we called “Uncle” was up to, and staged a distraction so one could draw his attention while the other got my sister and I out of the shower and clothed in our bedrooms.
Months later, so it turns out, he was found with multiple albums of kiddy porn under his bed. So, yes, my sister (who has authorized my telling this story) and I were the victims of a pedophile. But I am not an expert on the subject anymore than I am on sexual harassment or assault despite being victims of those, too.
I am not saying that Lena molested her sister at any point during their childhood. I really don’t know. I am saying that had this story been relayed by a boy, a man, a woman of colour, a queer person, or basically anyone with no “real” celebrity credibility, they would be found immediately guilty in the court of public opinion. No margin of error, no degrees of abuse and intent, no waiting to hear how the alleged victim feels, and nobody would tolerate those coming forward to defend the alleged abuser.
It. Just. Wouldn’t. Happen.
People wouldn’t be saying it’s in the general nature of kids, or in the specific nature of a juvenile Lena Dunham, who claims being a weird kid as her defense for her behaviour. This is no better than when men give their nature responsibility for catcalling and intimidating a woman on the street, or for helping themselves to sex.
Have we just set back all the progress made in the perception of sexual assault, set a new precedent in child abuse that says we take the word of the famous person, or wait a couple of decades to see if the alleged victim “feels” abused now?
Because I’m with President Barack Obama who, in answer to white men quibbling over what qualifies as sexual assault back in 2012, said, “rape is rape.”
Abuse is abuse.
A minor is a minor.
No matter which way you slice it, Lena Dunham and the Origin of the Vagina Pebbles sounds like fiction. Maybe Lena shoved those pebbles up there herself, maybe it was her prank inspired by her mother’s revelation about eggs being up there! Or maybe it didn’t happen at all. Maybe she has told Grace the story so many times that she believes it, maybe Lena even believes it, too. But can we please talk about the total implausibility of her story in the first place?
No. Everyone just wants to make sure that the hen that lays the golden, body-confident eggs remains profitable without dragging down everyone attached: HBO, her co-stars, talk show hosts, feminists, and authors, etc. Sound familiar.
For the release of Not That Kind of Girl, Lena Dunham was interviewed by Jian Ghomeshi on his show Q. (That’s them pictured above.) And I can’t help but imagine Lena’s shock upon hearing the allegations, and whether she immediately believed the victims, or if she felt the need to defend her ticket to Canadian women. I wonder if she privately voiced her distaste and disgust for the patriarchy, and Ghomeshi’s team of sycophants who didn’t hesitate to defend him, who took his side, who wanted to protect the future of the CBC. And I wonder if she realizes the irony that the exact same thing is happening to her (and for her) right now.
No, I won’t be claiming my spot as a feminist today. I am too disgusted by watching The Machine throw a gigantically confusing wrench at young people. Like men in 2012, we’re now talking about “degrees” of abuse. We are making it sound like siblings never abuse siblings. Like minors understand abuse in full context. Like women don’t abuse anyone. And like people who “love” us would never hurt us, but that even if they did, it wouldn’t be intentional – it would just be in their nature.
We sound like those men we can’t stand.
Ladies, please get yourselves together. Decide what equality actually is, because in my eyes, it also means standing up and taking your lumps when you know you’re wrong – just like we expect men to.