Saturday, March 6, 2010

On the question of violence: in which Buffy is applicable to every post ever

“She got all red-faced, which in Jas’s case is very red indeed. It made me feel much better. Violence may be the answer to the world’s problems. I may write to the Dalai Lama and suggest he tries my new approach.”
—the estimably wise Georgia Nicolson

In response to Z's v. good post (read it first!):

[Trigger warning; probably implicit.]

I’m all for getting rapists out of safe spaces, and, hell, most spaces in general. The benefits are too obvious to elucidate. Take the example of rape on a college campus where both survivor and rapist are students: for the survivor’s (and other students’) safety, one of them has to leave, and it sure as hell shouldn’t be the survivor. Because these are our goals, yes? Safety and prevention.

I have some thoughts on logistics and specific suggestions (because really, do I ever not have thoughts on a subject?), but I'd rather talk about strategy and philosophy more broadly. With oru primary goals--safety and prevention--in mind, I'd like to talk about violence.

Some of the violent measures Z described may appear purely punitive, but punitive measures are also preventive, or at least they’re supposed to be. We put rapists in jail because 1) while they’re there, they can’t rape anyone else, and 2) the fact that we put rapists in jail deters other men (and these men after their release) from committing rape. A memorable statistic from Michael Kimmel’s Guyland suggests that this works: depending on how you ask the question, about 15-45% of college men admit that they’d commit rape if they knew they wouldn’t be caught. And most of them don’t, apparently due to fear of punishment.

But we can’t discount the third, Old Testament-y reason we put rapists, and murderers, and thieves in prison. Imagine that we could sentence rapists to receive an injection that prevents them from ever committing rape again. (And don’t say, “Yeah, it’s called a lethal injection.” That’s a whole different post.) Would we be satisfied with just giving them the shot and letting them free, go and sin no more? My instinct tells me no. Because we have this instinct as a culture, perhaps as humans: Rapists/criminals/bad people should be punished for their crimes. (Other thing I will not be getting into: the gross cultural trope that celebrates prison rape as a rapist or other criminal’s just deserts, which falls under either Codex Hammurabi or Codex Sublime.) One term for this belief is “accountability.” Another is “revenge.”

(By the way, I’m sure S knows a lot more about the prison stuff than I do, and hopefully she will weigh in.)

And you know, I love all that Gandhi shit about nonviolence and peaceful solutions and “makes the whole world blind.” But sometimes you get sick of sit-ins and tertiary prevention and consciousness raising. Sometimes you want to get medieval on somebody’s ass.

Believe me: I get that. And it’s tempting, oh so tempting, to think that beating up rapists will fix the problem.

This brings me, improbably but inevitably, to Buffy.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer is widely lauded as a feminist show, for many good reasons, partially because it’s grrl-power wish-fulfillment fantasy. Buffy is a petite blonde teenage girl who happens to possess superhuman fighting abilities. And it is so, so damn satisfying every time a few creeps corner her in an alley, leering and threatening her, and she ends up kicking the shit out of them. Get it? They thought she was a defenseless girl, they’re ready to victimize her like they’ve victimized so many before her—and this time, they’re getting what they deserve.

In general, Buffy (the slayer and the show) is firmly in the “Violence is, in fact, often the answer” school of thought. The show lampshades this constantly. Whether confronted with the season’s Big Bad or just another monster of the week, Buffy often cuts off librarian Giles’s lengthy explanation of the new creature’s habits and mythology with a blunt question: “How do we kill it?”

And in Buffy, this is literally the solution: the demons are slain, and that’s the end of it. Heck, when she stakes a vampire, it turns to dust—no clean-up required. At most, the school might have to be rebuilt, the furniture repaired, Willow sent to England for a few months. But the problem is not a culture that encourages, condones, and perpetuates violence, which is committed by individual humans. The problem is the such-and-such demon, the so-and-so vampire, the Master, Adam, Glory, the First—each an indisputably evil being. Once the creature is destroyed, the problem is solved, and Sunnydale is safe (until next episode).

The real fantasy in Buffy isn’t that the good guys are powerful. It’s that the bad guys are monsters.

Rapists, however, are not monsters. Rapists are men, women, boys, girls, human beings. It is our responsibility as fellow human beings to remember this.

I cannot accept that the solution to dehumanization is more dehumanization. I cannot accept that the solution to violence is more violence. We may as well be fucking for chastity, as a previous generation of idealists pointed out.

Should rapists be held accountable? Absolutely. Are they fully responsible for their crimes? Absolutely. Do we have the right and responsibility as a community to prevent them from raping again? Absofuckinglutely.

But our response to rape—our interventions, our preventive measures, and even, yes, our punishments—has to be grounded in the recognition that rapists are human. And if we’re fighting to end all violence against all people everywhere (and aren’t we?): well, you can follow the logic.

I have exactly zero sympathy for perpetrators of sexual violence, but I’m trying, really trying, to have empathy. Because I know we have to understand violence in order to prevent it. Because I am a human being, an anthropologist, a feminist. And because a nice, clean staking is not an option.


  1. Relevant: and Buffy never, ever kills a human, no matter how evil he/she is. In the Buffyverse, humans have souls.

  2. I am going to speak to my experience, perceptions and intentions for a moment, though I know they often exist in opposition to the realities of power, specifically the power to dehumanize. I am continuing to think about the points you make in this post.
    I have no doubt of [person I have in mind's] humanity. Their humanity, particularly the fact than it is so much greater than my own, overwhelms me. I see their side of the experiences as a default, and have to work to get back to myself. The thing with sexual assault, coercion, what have you, is that it is about asserting one personhood as more whole, more valid, more worthy, than another. One way to survive sexual assault is to accept that you are less whole, less valid, and less worthy. Because of this, the possibility that I might dehumanize this person does not even occur to me. It seems like an impossibility.

    What I want to do, what is at the core of all of my "revenge" fantasies, is showing how much of a human I am, too. I want thus person to be unable to avoid what a whole fucking person I am now, in spite of him. I have thought about doing this with logic, humor sarcasm, physical beauty, sex, social groups, personal accomplishments, and yes, violence. I have tried most of these. They continue to fail. Violence might be the only language we have in common, and the only way to get a point across. I know that will never work, either, and am avoiding the fragmented thing I become by no longer being in contact with this person. It's not as satisfying as breaking their ribs would be.

    So, the empathy: I can't get away from it. I have much more of it for others than I have for myself. This is why I spoke of the importance of having a space for visceral expression.

  3. Aaaah I have trouble responding to this in a way that is productive and is not just, "...Damn. That is a way good point." My #1 criticism: this is too valuable to be disguised as a comment and should be its own post. Dialogue!

    I originally had this giant introduction that was full of, "Blah blah, this is all pretty much from a public health/legal-type perspective, as this is all I have been thinking about for two months straight" (thanks, Violence Against Women class), but then I realized it was written as if I had some broad audience beyond... um... us... (and also the post was already too long) so I took it out. But one thing that bears clarifying/amplifying: this is, indeed, from a pretty systems-level public-health-type analysis, all of which tends to fall apart in (or pale next to) individual situations.

    More thinking necessary, of course, on my part.

  4. Agh, but there are so many typos! This is what happens when I write Important Things while trying v. hard to not miss a bus. // It probably should have been its own post, but because it's as honest as it is, putting it on the front page feels pretty scary. // From a public healthy/legal perspective, I am totally with you. I think "empowerment!!" is shorthand for the contents of my comment, and there's no empowerment for the survivor in the [lacking] systems we have set up, whether they punish/acknowledge the rapist or not. Which is why we take it to community accountability and direct action! Still worth working within the systems to try to make what we have the best that we can, though. This is why I'm a SARP advocate.

  5. Agh but our systems are THE WORST, is the problem! (Well. Not the worst, in that they have actually improved significantly, but the bar was not low, precisely, so much as it was stored in someone's moldering basement.) And making better systems is haaaaard, but there are so many things we need. I FEEL ANOTHER POST COMING ON. See, you would just end up buried under the deluge of my words, no problem.

    But really, I appreciate and value your honesty and all the things you say. (That is so hard to say in writing without sounding insincere. Just know that I mean it.)

    Basically I alternate between reading all this stuff on legal reform, and just throwing my hands up and saying, "You know what? Mandatory castration for everyone. IT'S THE ONLY WAY."

    This is why I am not allowed to make laws.

  6. I am all for empathizing with the humanity of the perpetrator. Many of our social problems are rooted in the fact that we too quickly dehumanize people instead of dealing with the more complex issues. It's so difficult, though, with sexual violence, because for most of history society tended to (and still tends to in many instances) blame, dehumanize, even criminalize, the survivor as much as, or even more than, the perpetrator. Hell, if we can't even treat the survivor as a whole human being, how can we ever face the perpetrator as such?

  7. This post, and the one before it, is really important and I'm glad you ladies are trying to find non-violent ways to stop rapists.

    (I'd *LOVE* for there to be a magical, painless way to turn rapists into non-rapists, though. Not everybody feels like evildoers have to be punished; some of us hate the idea of punishment as bad as we hate the evil deed that's hypothetically being punished!)

    Also, I'm not sure about either of your Reasons We Put Rapists in Jail --- lots of men in prison rape (and are raped by) other men, and are only further brutalized by the prison environment, so once they get out they're probably even *more* likely to go rape someone else.

    (You're also spot on about the fantasy in Buffy being that the bad guys are monsters. Great insight.)

    Anyway, thanks for writing this, it's something I think about a lot, too, and haven't been able to make much headway on.