Despite the ongoing pandemic of violence against women, the threats online and the harassment on the streets, women’s voices assumed an unprecedented power in 2014, writes Rebecca Solnit
I have been waiting all my life for what 2014 has brought. It has been a year of feminist insurrection against male violence: a year of mounting refusal to be silent, refusal to let our lives and torments be erased or dismissed. It has not been a harmonious time, but harmony is often purchased by suppressing those with something to say. It was loud, discordant, and maybe transformative, because important things were said – not necessarily new, but said more emphatically, by more of us, and heard as never before.
It was a watershed year for women, and for feminism, as we refused to accept the pandemic of violence against women – the rape, the murder, the beatings, the harassment on the streets and the threats online. Women’s voices achieved a power that seems unprecedented, and the whole conversation changed. There were concrete advances – such as California’s “ Yes Means Yes ” campus sexual consent law – but those changes were a comparatively small consequence of enormous change in the collective consciousness. The problems have not been merely legal – there have been, for example, laws against wife-beating since the 19th century, which were rarely enforced until the late 1970s, and still can’t halt the epidemic of domestic violence now. The fundamental problem is cultural. And the culture – many cultures, around the world – is beginning to change.
You can almost think of 2014 as a parody of those little calendars with the flower or the gemstone of the month. January was not for garnets; it was finally talking about online threats, and about Dylan Farrow’s testimony that her adoptive father had molested her when she was seven. The conversation in April was about kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls, and a Silicon Valley multimillionaire caught on video battering his girlfriend. May wasn’t emeralds; it was the massacre of six people in Isla Vista , California, by a young misogynist and the birth of #YesAllWomen, perhaps the most catalytic in a year of powerful protests online about women and violence.
September wasn’t tourmaline; it was the release of a videotape that showed the American football player Ray Rice knocking out his fiancée in a lift, and a renewed public conversation about domestic violence, accompanied by #WhyILeft and #WhyIStayed. October brought, at last, a substantive conversation about street harassment, and an overwhelming response to the claims from 15 women that Canada’s most famous radio host, Jian Ghomeshi , had assaulted them.
Not all the allegations listed above have been proven true. But in some cases crimes that rarely received much coverage, if any – or had been treated as isolated incidents, or dismissed in various ways – were finally being recognised as part of a pattern of violence that constituted a genuine social crisis. Enough women were speaking up and being heard that the old troubles could no longer be dismissed. Thus it is that the circle of who has rights and who is heard widens, and though the two are not quite the same thing, they are inseparable.
In Wanderlust, my book on the history of walking, I described my own experience as a young woman: “It was the most devastating discovery of my life that I had no real right to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness out of doors, that the world was full of strangers who seemed to hate me and wished to harm me for no reason other than my gender, that sex so readily became violence, and that hardly anyone else considered it a public issue rather than a private problem.” I was given advice about how to modify or limit my own life – rather than an affirmation that this was wrong and should change.
It was, and still is, a sort of blame-the-victim framework, this insistence that women modify their presence in public space, or just give up and stay in, rather than that we transform public space (or men) so that women have the right to walk down the street unharassed. The same blame has been applied to women in nearly every situation in which they are attacked by men, as a way of not blaming men. If I’m exhilarated this year that I’ve read more rape trial transcripts, victims’ testimonies, accounts of murders, beatings and threats and rape tweets and misogynist comments than in probably all my other years put together, it’s because violence against women is now a public issue. At last.
Waiting for the watershed
Why has this issue finally come to the fore? Why has something that’s long been tolerated become intolerable – or rather, why are the people for whom it’s intolerable finally part of the conversation? Why is it possible to talk about what has long been hushed up, glossed over, trivialised and dismissed? I have been waiting for decades.
Twenty years ago, when Nicole Brown Simpson was found murdered in June 1994, and her ex-husband’s extensive history of battering and stalking her was revealed, I hoped we would have a real conversation about domestic violence and misogyny. But OJ Simpson hired a platoon of high-powered lawyers, who made him out to be the victim. Then the racism, corruption and incompetence of the Los Angeles police and legal system let him off despite a monumental amount of evidence against him. (He was later found responsible for the murder in a civil trial.)
Throughout the televised trial, which dragged on for almost a year, there was little public discussion of domestic violence. As one advocate said following the trial: “There were some juror comments after the verdict that said, ‘Why were they talking about domestic violence when this is a murder trial?’ When I realised the jurors didn’t understand the connection between domestic violence and homicide and didn’t know why domestic violence was being described to them, I realised that we were not doing a good enough job to get people to understand that this is a pretty common outcome.” Globally, 38% of all women murdered are killed by their intimate partners, according to a recent World Health Organisation study.
Four years later, in 1998, the murder of Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyoming, brought worldwide attention to homophobia (though the role of Shepard’s sexual orientation in his murder has more recently been questioned). A year before Shepard’s murder, a 15-year-old named Daphne Sulk was found dead outside Laramie – nude, bludgeoned, and stabbed 17 times. A 38-year-old man who had been her lover (or her molester; she was below the age of consent) was convicted of voluntary manslaughter – not murder – shortly before Shepard’s death. There was no national outrage over Sulk’s murder, nor over the rape and murder of an eight-year-old Laramie girl, Kristin Lamb, that summer.
All three of these deaths were monstrous, but two were barely news: business as usual like many thousands of other violent crimes against women. If these crimes were addressed at all beyond the inner pages of a newspaper, they were treated as isolated incidents – the crimes of aberrant individuals. There had been titillating coverage of murders of white girls and women, but never the kind of indignation seen this year– the public assertion that this is part of a pattern, and the pattern has to change.
It’s always something of a mystery why one particular incident becomes the last straw: why the suicide of Mohammed Boazzizi in Tunisia, in late 2010, set off the Arab Spring, rather than another event; why the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, set off months of protests across the US in a way that previous police killings of young black men did not. It’s the breaking loose of cumulative tension, the exhaustion of patience, the work of rage at what has been and hope that there can be, must be, something better. I live in earthquake country, and here we know that the sudden shake-up is preceded by years or decades or centuries of tension. But that doesn’t mean we know when an earthquake will come.
For violence against women, the long silence was ruptured late in 2012 with three stories: the sexual assault by a group of high-school boys on an unconscious minor in Steubenville, Ohio; the unprecedented public account byAngie Epifano, a student at Amherst College in Massachusetts, of being raped and essentially punished for reporting it, while her assailant went free; and the attack on a young woman on a New Delhi bus, a rape so violent that the victim died of her injuries. Why did the earthquake come when it did? I can see several reasons.
The world in which these incidents happened had already changed. Thanks to the groundbreaking work of earlier generations, feminist voices on crucial issues have become normal and more or less mainstream. They appear in major newspapers and magazines, not just women’s media or small progressive sites. And that has created a bulwark often able to resist the mischaracterisation, trivialisation, and silence on issues of concern to women.
Another factor is the rise of social media. The internet is a strange place, where trolls, misogynists, and haters run rampant, from 4chan to Reddit to revenge porn sites to the fake indignation and real hate of Gamergate . Twitter has become the world’s most effective delivery system for rape and death threats aimed at silencing and intimidating outspoken women. But at its best, social media is what its users make of it, and from the Arab Spring to this feminist insurgency, activists have created a sort of Greek chorus to the dramas of our lives and world.
Sometimes at big political demonstrations – against the war in Iraq in early 2003, for example – the thousands of placards with handwritten statements, jokes, and facts, for all their brevity, constitute a cumulative critique that covers a lot of angles. Social media can do the same, building arguments comment by comment, challenging, testing, reinforcing and circulating the longer arguments in blogs, essays and reports. It’s like a barn-building for ideas: innumerable people bring their experiences, insights, analysis, new terms and frameworks. These then become part of the fabric of everyday life, and when that happens, the world has changed. Then, down the road, what was once a radical idea becomes so woven into everyday life that people imagine that it is self-evident and what everyone always knew. But it’s not; it’s the result of a struggle – of ideas and voices, not of violence.
The most transformative such moment I witnessed this year was after the Isla Vista mass shooting – you remember, the incident in which a young man poisoned by pick-up artist misogyny and possessed of a sense that all and any women owed him whatever he wanted, and that he had the right to administer collective punishment to the gender, killed six others and wounded 13 before he took his own life. He had set out to massacre members of a sorority but ended up killing anyone in his path, including other men. Many in the mainstream media rushed to assert that this was an isolated incident due to mental illness, and both the strong individual voices and the great collective roar on social media pushed back, hard, to insist that it was part of a pattern of misogynist violence and mass shootings. Feminism succeeded in framing the story. A young woman coined the hashtag #YesAllWomen, was hounded into silence and invisibility for a while, but what she started was unstoppable. Women began telling their stories of harassment, threats, violence and fear, reinforced by each others’ voices. Change begins at the margins and moves to the centre; social media has made the edges more powerful, and the transit from margin to centre more swift – or maybe even blurred the distinction, as mainstream media sometimes scurries to catch up to a vibrant public debate in social and alternative media.
The public conversation about violence against women had begun to change: all of a sudden, the world was talking about how common such violence is, what excuses are made for it, and calling out the men who were more concerned with excusing themselves than addressing the violence. (Thus it was that their aggrieved refrain, “Not all men …” – as in, “not all men are rapists” – mutated into #YesAllWomen, as in “yes, all women have to deal with rape in one way or another”.)
Many men who took the time to listen to what women were saying – on social media and elsewhere – realised for the first time what women have long endured. And the presence of actively engaged men was another sign of what seems to have been new and transformative this year – which is key, because changing the world for women means changing what is acceptable and admirable among men, where misogynist behaviour has long been, in some circles, something to boast about. Some men wrote publicly about their realisation of what kinds of hostility and danger women face, and how shocked they were to finally face it. For decades, feminism was supposed to be women’s work, though women can no more mitigate sexism without engaging men than people of colour can address racism without the participation of white people.
After the rules change
There is no better sign of how changes in the conversation changed the rules in 2014 than the treatment, late in the year, of the allegations against Bill Cosby and the charges against the Canadian radio star Jian Ghomeshi. The two men seemed to think the old rules still applied, and found that the world had changed since they last checked. Watching them try to brush aside the avalanche of claims against them was like watching a wind-up toy that has reached the wall; their wheels spun; they weren’t going anywhere.
Ghomeshi was fired by the CBC for workplace sexual harassment this October. He filed a wrongful termination lawsuit, demanding $55m Canadian (£30m), and hired a fancy public relations firm. Most loudly, he issued a preemptive strike against potential accusers with a longwinded, widely circulated Facebook post that claimed “I’ve been fired from the CBC because of the risk of my private sex life being made public as a result of a campaign of false allegations pursued by a jilted ex girlfriend and a freelance writer.” He claimed that the writer and the ex-girlfriend were distorting his perfectly consensual sexual activities out of malice, and that he was being attacked for being a sexual minority, a person into sado-masochism. In other words, he was the victim. It backfired.
The very language raised red flags for some readers, because the framework of viciously vindictive women who just lie to get men into trouble is maybe the tiredest stereotype around. It has been key to the routine discrediting of women who testify that they were assaulted. Ghomeshi’s public gesture pushed the Toronto Star to publish a report based on testimony by four women about activities that were not consensual and not conventionally sexual (though they seemed to excite Ghomeshi). They claimed he had assaulted them, brutally and suddenly. The women withheld their names, because they knew they would be attacked, and their accounts were extensively attacked at first.
The consequences of going public with allegations are usually unpleasant. Needing to tell your story or wanting to see justice are motives that can override that reluctance. In the Ghomeshi case, more women came forward, five more immediately, then several more after that. Perhaps the most remarkable was respected actress and Royal Canadian Air Force captain Lucy DeCoutere, the first but far from the last to go on the record: “All of a sudden he choked me and slapped me in the face a few times,” she said of a 2003 incident. “It was totally bewildering because I’ve never had anybody slap me in the face before. It’s not a pleasant feeling to be choked and it came out of nowhere. It was unprovoked.” By that time eight women had said they had been throttled and struck, and that the violence was not consensual sex play. By the accounts of these women, Ghomeshi was a man who desired to strangle and club women against their will, and often did.
If Ghomeshi is guilty of these assaults, he must have believed that he could get away with them for ever, and his preemptive strike against the credibility of his victims must have been premised on the confidence he would keep getting away with them. After all, men like Jimmy Savile had got away with it their whole lives. Savile’s was a stunning crime spree – after his death in 2011, more than 450 people testified that the BBC personality had molested, raped, or assaulted them – hidden in plain sight over several decades, predicated on the expectation that his own voice and reputation could crush them into silence, that they were no one, nothing. Perhaps Ghomeshi, who was charged with sexual assault in late November, had made the same gamble, but lost. He was not immune. The rules had changed. The silent had voices – at last.
The entitlement to be the one who is heard, believed and respected has silenced so many women who may never be heard in so many cases. Because as these stories come to light, you have to remember how many more never will, in cases where the victims died silent, as they have over generations, or have not yet found an arena in which they dare to come to voice, or have spoken up and only been mocked, shamed, or attacked for so doing. DeCoutere remarked: “The past month has seen a major shift in the conversation about violence against women. It has been an overwhelming and painful time for many people, including myself, but also very inspiring. I hope that victims’ voices continue to be heard and that this is the start of a change that is so desperately needed.”
The allegations against Cosby had been hovering in the wings for years, and even decades. A 2005 civil trial had gathered 15 women who charged that he had sexually assaulted them, but the plaintiff settled out of court, and the case received only modest coverage. Most of his alleged victims had remained silent. Barbara Bowman, who reports being drugged and raped by Cosby in 1985, when she was 17, tells a typical story: “A girlfriend took me to a lawyer, but he accused me of making the story up. Their dismissive responses crushed any hope I had of getting help; I was convinced no one would listen to me. That feeling of futility is what ultimately kept me from going to the police. I told friends what had happened, and although they sympathised with me, they were just as helpless to do anything about it. I was a teenager from Denver acting in McDonald’s commercials. He was Bill Cosby: consummate American dad Cliff Huxtable and the Jell-O spokesman. Eventually, I had to move on with my life and my career.” Most of his alleged victims were young and vulnerable, with a vulnerability compounded by the lack of voice and credibility young women have always had.
This autumn, standup comic Hannibal Buress called out Cosby on stage: “Yeah, but you rape women, Bill Cosby, so turn the crazy down a couple notches.” Many complained that it took a man accusing Cosby to trigger a response – but perhaps Buress represented something else, a man who listened to and believed women and thought what happened to them was important. An extended discussion about why women don’t report rapes, about how they get, as Bowman did, discredited, shamed, blamed, put on trial, retraumatised, and how rarely rapists are convicted – had laid the groundwork for people to understand that it was very likely that these women were telling the truth and that the world had given them little reason to try to bear witness earlier.
It’s not really about Cosby or Ghomeshi. As we argued after the Isla Vista mass shooting, perpetrators of violence against women aren’t anomalies or exceptional. They’re epidemic. At best these celebrity cases give us occasions to discuss the meaning of these kinds of crimes, to investigate the larger social questions and shift the framework a little. Women who are assaulted by celebrities matter. So do the Native women in the US and Canada who face exceptionally high rates of sexual assault, rape, and murder; the women raped on campus, raped in the military, in prison; the sex workers who face exceptional difficulties when they are victims of sexual assault. So do the women who are raped by police, of which there have been a great many accounts and a few criminal convictions recently. This year at least some of the people who think going to the police is a tidy solution may have learned that the police can be incredulous, unresponsive, abusive, or ineffective. Only a small percentage of rapes are reported, and only a small percentage of those reported result in convictions.
What matters most in celebrity cases may not be that a few are belatedly held accountable for past crimes. It’s the message that these cases deliver: that the age of impunity is over; that in the future, committing such crimes will not be so easy to get away with. In other words, the world has changed enough to change the odds for victims and perpetrators. Women have voices now.
This month, a successful arts professional I know decided to speak up, 44 years after the fact, about how, when she was 19, despondent, on a drug overdose in a seedy hotel, she was gang-raped by the men she had asked for help and then humiliated by a doctor who blamed her for what had happened. She recalls the doctor told her: “I was in no position to be pressing charges,” and so came four decades of silence. This winter felt like the right time to break it.
Shame has been a huge factor in the silence of women – and men – who are victims of sexual assault. Shame silenced people, isolated them, and let the crimes continue. The names of rape victims were traditionally not reported by the media, to protect them, but it had the additional effect of insisting that they had been shamed and keeping them invisible, isolated, and silent. “Who would want this 15 minutes of – not fame – shame?” said one of Cosby’s accusers, explaining why she hadn’t spoken up before. Rape is an assault not only on the victim’s body, but on their rights, their humanity and their voice. The right to say no, to self-determination, is taken away; shame perpetuates this silencing. Shame, says a website for survivors “involves destruction of self-respect, the deliberate efforts by the attacker to make her do things against her will, to make her feel dirty, disgusting, and ashamed. Feelings of shame may also affect her decision to report the crime to the police or to reach out for help … She may also believe her previous sexual experiences and details of the assault will be scrutinised.”
“He said/she said is always about discrediting she said,” a campus professional who handles sexual assault cases told me the other day. It worked really well, until now. The tables have turned. When Jennifer Lawrence’s nude photographs were stolen and distributed online, she started on the usual route of being ashamed and apologetic, but then she revolted: “Anybody who looked at those pictures, you’re perpetuating a sexual offence. You should cower with shame,” she thundered. A couple of months later, a California man went to prison for a year for using nude photographs to harass and humiliate his ex‑girlfriend in front of her employers and others; California is one of 13 states to have passed revenge porn laws since 2013.
Shame kept people silent and isolated; speaking up has formed communities and sparked activism
Emma Sulkowicz , an art student at Columbia University in New York, whose response to the lack of legal or institutional remedy after she accused a fellow student of raping her in her own dorm-room bed has been to carry a mattress every moment she’s on campus, began with a more conventional reaction. Her first response was to stay quiet, her second to ask the university to adjudicate the situation, but neither that nor going to the police offered her a response she considered meaningful. So she turned to art, and as a fellow student said, she “cracked shame not only for herself but cracked shame in all of us”. It must be very unpleasant to find out you’ve violated a brilliant artist whose public performance about you has drawn international attention and widespread support. Shame kept people silent, often for decades or a lifetime, and isolated; speaking up has formed communities and sparked activism. It’s hard to imagine Sulkowicz’s defiant gesture without the extraordinary campus anti-rape movement, including campus rape survivors become activists such as Andrea Pino and Annie Clark and organisations such as Safer (Students Active for Ending Rape), that has challenged universities across the United States.
Sulkowicz’s genius was to make her burden tangible, and in so doing make it something others could share. Solidarity has been a big part of this feminist movement against violence, notably the many women coming forward to support each others’ stories in the cases of Cosby and Ghomeshi. In Sulkowicz’s case, you could actually carry that mattress. In late September, I watched her coming out of a school building with a bearded blonde student helping her until a group of young women swooped up to take charge of the mattress for a few hours. They hoisted the long blue mattress high, like pallbearers with a coffin, for a few hours one beautiful autumn morning at Columbia, giggling and chatting like young women anywhere, but also ferociously intent on solidarity in the form of transporting this symbol of conflict up stairs and along walkways. Sulkowicz made rape a visible burden, and though she will carry her mattress as long as both she and her alleged assailant are at Columbia University, she marks the return of shame to its rightful owners.
In one of the most conservative corners of the United States, Norman, Oklahoma, three high-school students reported being raped by the same fellow student. The alleged rapist, like the high-school boys who documented their sexual assault of a fellow student in Steubenville, Ohio, in 2012, and like so many others, circulated a video of the latest of these assaults this September. It appears that the video was supposed to boost his status and perpetuate the shame of victims. In other cases young women have been hounded into suicide by peers who took up the project of humiliation and ostracism after the initial crime. That rape is something for rapists to boast about is the very essence of rape culture. In Norman, as with so many previous high-school cases, the alleged victims were mocked and bullied by peers and unprotected by administrators, who encouraged them to withdraw from school. Up to that point, it was like too many cases before.
Then the tide changed: another male student, distressed by the alleged rapist’s account of his actions, recorded what amounted to a confession as well as a boast, and earlier this month the alleged rapist was charged by the police . A group of women, including a fellow high-school student, Danielle Brown, took up the cause, launched the hashtag #yesalldaughters and made demands on the school. On 24 November, hundreds of students walked out in protest as part of a demonstration said to have reached 1,500 people. Maybe we won’t have to read the same story over and over; maybe young men won’t think that such crimes enhance their status or that they have impunity. Maybe shame will be returned to its rightful owners, as it has in the cases of Cosby and Ghomeshi.
Many of the year-in-feminism stories will mention Beyoncé in front of the giant word FEMINISM in lights, Malala Yousafzai’s Nobel peace prize, Allison Bechdel’s MacArthur Genius award and other awesome moments for prominent women. There are other encouraging stories, such as the fact that Chile, Argentina, and Brazil continue to have left-of-centre women heads of state, and discouraging stories, such as the war on reproductive rights in Texas and other states. There are remarkable feminisms going on around the world, from India to Trinidad. The North American stories I’m telling here are about a shift in power that is partly a shift in whose story gets told and believed, and who does the telling.
This has not been not a harmonious year, and male rage is definitely part of the landscape – the trolls, men’s rights movement misogynists, Gamergate ranters, and the perpetrators of the actual violence, which has not stopped. The histrionic response to California’s “Yes Means Yes” campus consent law shows that some heterosexual men are alarmed that they will now have to negotiate their erotic and social interactions with human beings who have voices and rights backed up by law. In other words, they are unhappy that the world has changed – but the most important thing is that it has. Women are coming out of a silence that lasted so long no one can name a beginning for it. This noisy year is not the end – but perhaps it is the beginning of the end.
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