I do realize this post might seem a tad ironic in light of the events of the last few weeks (aka Lobstergate)… but it isn’t. Not even a little.
Last Wednesday, Suzanne Moore published a piece in the Guardian on the education policies of the UK’s ruling Tory party, specifically focusing on a controversial series of reforms presently being pushed (quite aggressively) by UK education secretary Michael Gove. Those reforms consist in part of a new exam system as well as the development of so-called “free schools.”
I’m not so familiar with the details of the UK system, but in the US we have a perhaps similar move to charter schools that are more independent of the traditional public school system. These schools have yielded mixed results, at best. While not all charter schools are run for profit, this transition can be viewed as part of a larger (and very questionable) move towards privatization of the education system in the U.S. It’s also no coincidence that the state with the greatest number of charter schools is Louisiana, as rightwing ideologues used the disastrous aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to push through new policies that would have been strongly opposed under ordinary circumstances.
In a blog piece at the Telegraph, British journalist Toby Young responded with a critique of Moore’s Guardian article. While I’m pretty certain that Young’s critique is wrong (see a deconstruction of his argument based on actual data here), that is not the primary focus of the present blog piece.
The primary point here is that Young’s colleague, climate change skeptic James Delingpole, wrote a tweet in support of Toby Young that alluded to Young having metaphorically raped Suzanne Moore. While Delingpole has since deleted his tweet, it was quoted by Moore herself:
“@toadmeister [Toby Young] gives Suzanne Moore such a seeing-to she’ll be walking bow-legged for months”
While Delingpole quickly apologized and later deleted the tweet (shortly after Moore pointed it out to Telegraph editor Tony Gallagher), he was quick to anger when approached about discussing it further, claiming in part he had “appropriately” used that type of language in reference to men before but that here he had just inappropriately used it against a woman. (See here for details of the twitter exchange between the primary parties to the conversation, including Toby Young’s attempt to deflect criticism of Delingpole’s comments).
Delingpole is wrong in every aspect of this, and what’s more his claim that such humor is acceptable when directed against men is entirely invested in misogyny and a rape-permissive culture.
For starters, one could point out that even in the context of a debate between two men, the joke minimizes the serious and under-reported crime of male-on-male sexual assault.
However, there is a much more subtle point to be made here.
There are those (Delingpole himself, I would guess) who will probably respond to these statements by claiming that I am attempting to act as the “language police” here. But let me ask this: what other types of violence would professional journalists commonly allude to as one person having gotten the better of another? While I do think there are some such statements that would be considered accepted in professional contexts, these would usually be vague statements like “she took him down with that argument!” that don’t really mean much in the mind of the listener other than “she won the debate.” (Maybe something like “he knocked that guy out cold with that retort,” would be a slightly more graphic example, but even there that presumably refers to the controlled violence of a boxing ring).
Delingpole’s comment however is significantly more explicit than these examples. It does not simply refer to the act (a “seeing-to”), but it actually refers to the violent repercussions for the victim (“she’ll be walking bow-legged for months”).
Think about this: if someone went around using descriptive, violent analogies for when they thought someone had won an argument with another person, would they be able to get a job in any serious professional context? What if someone went around regularly saying in public, “Oh dude, that guy cut you so hard, your face will be bleeding for weeks!” would that person be hired or held on staff at a major paper? Then why is it that a violent analogy including a description of the after effects of rape might be considered acceptable in some contexts?
The fact is that I am not acting as the language police when I call out Delingpole for using this type of phrasing. Most people simply know that referring to this kind of violence against other human beings, especially in a professional context, is just inappropriate. In fact, I think most of us figure this out sometime around early grade school?
Hence, those of us who are calling Delingpole out for saying this kind of thing (not just against Suzanne Moore, which is particularly horrible, but against men as well) are essentially asking the question: why are so many people (mostly men) in our society willing to make an exception to this rule and allow for the use of violent rape imagery in a supposedly professional context?
As I said, I’m not acting as the language police. In fact, I’m not even opposed to making jokes about rape: just I think that the jokes about rape that are actually funny are those based on how absurd it is that one human being would actually believe that they deserve to have such intimate control of another human being’s body. (And I notice that Moore herself has previously tweeted similar sentiments about rape humor).
So all we are really saying is that the ordinary rules most people understand (that graphic discussions of violence used as an insult are inappropriate) should apply regarding rape as well. Given that actual rape is the one violent crime that is vastly under-reported and commonly used to humiliate the victim (and likewise Delingpole uses the joke to imply that Young has humiliated Moore), I have no idea why we would make an exception for rape (of all crimes!) in this regard.
And speaking of humiliation, regarding the question of using the joke against a man, why would the image of a man raping another man be potentially conjured up as some kind of victory lap for male dominance in the first place?
Recall here that actual rape is much more so about power than it is about sex. In fact, this is made clear by Delingpole’s “seeing-to” analogy in itself: if he were to use the analogy in a case involving two men, I seriously doubt that it would mean he believes that the man “in charge” is actually gay and looking for a freebie. On the contrary, the “joke” is all about one man’s supposed superiority over another.
What’s more, the insult clearly operates on the suggestion that one man has supposedly bested another man by “reducing” the latter to the receiving partner in the sexual relationship. Given that women are typically associated with that role in sexual relationships, one could easily argue that the joke is misogynistic no matter against whom it is directed.
And of course, there is another point that must be made from a trans feminist perspective: the insult can be viewed as a distant cousin of trans-misogyny. After all, that is a large component of how trans-misogyny works: it assumes that someone who was previously assigned “superior” male status is reducing herself when she begins living socially as a woman. And that is used to justify using slurs like “tranny” and “shemale” against certain women (mostly trans women, but sometimes cis women as well). It is also used as a justification or dismissal of violence (including sexual violence) committed against trans women.
And it is in that very spirit of misogyny that Moore’s friend Julie Burchill gleefully refers to trans women as “having one’s nuts taken off.”
Understand that when she says that, she’s not just insulting trans women. She’s actually insulting all women. (And appropriately enough, one Toby Young was the man to come to her defense!). And of course, Moore and Burchill both attempted to insult trans women by referring to their supposedly “mutilated” genitalia.
I’m still furious over all of that, for the record. After all, trans women are an incredibly tiny part of the general population, yet have a history of experiencing some of the most brutal violence our misogynistic society can dream up. That includes actual cases of trans women having their genitalia literally mutilated or cut off by angry men. I know trans women personally who have experienced this kind of extreme violence. And although I myself have relative privilege as a white trans woman with middle class roots, even I have experienced being threatened with having my body cut up on the streets of Toronto.
This stuff is real for us. That’s why it isn’t ironic at all for me to condemn comments about sexual violence directed at Suzanne Moore. Because the casual endorsement of violence against women in general acts as a component of the same casual endorsement of violence against trans women in particular.
So here’s the deal. No matter what I feel about the nasty things these two women have said about women like me, I will continue to call out disgusting rape culture wherever I see it, any time, any where. Even if Moore and Burchill continued to make the comments about trans women’s genitals being “cut up,” “chopped off,” whatever, I will still condemn any threats of sexual assault or “jokes” directed at either woman, or for that matter, any woman on this planet.