On consent.

On consent.

When we were growing up, my sister accidentally signed up for a “record of the month” club.

It began with an innocent mistake. She saw an advertisement asking if she’d like a free copy of an album that she really wanted. So she sent in the little card and checked the box to say that, yes, she would like a free copy of that album!

But then the company kept sending more records … bad records … music that she didn’t want, and quite possibly that nobody wanted … and she had to return them or else get billed … but she had to pay shipping to return them … and, after agreeing to receive that first free album, it was excruciatingly difficult to take her name off their mailing list.

She did say “yes” … but the thing that my sister thought she was saying “yes” to, and the thing that the sleazy record company thought she was saying “yes” to, were very different.

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In a recent New York Times editorial, Peggy Orenstein cited data from a study that asked college students what they’d “expect to happen next” if they went home with someone they’d just met and danced with at a party. In this scenario, someone is saying “yes” … in response to the question “Do you want to go back to my place.”

But many college students assume that the “yes” suggests impending consent to something other than a late-night stroll. Almost half the men surveyed thought that vaginal sex was likely in that scenario; only a third of women thought so. This disparity suggests that there are a whole lot of pairings out there where somebody thinks that a woman’s “yes” is consenting to a lot more physical intimacy than she desires.

Indeed, a third of the women surveyed had previously been pressured into unwanted sex because they’d wanted to do some fooling around – touching, groping, kissing – but a partner persistently tried to do more even after being told “no.”

Why keep going? Perhaps somebody thought that his partner was simply mercurial – having said “yes,” at first, then “no,” perhaps he figured that she’d soon say “yes” again. Without stopping to think that her original “yes” was consenting to less than he assumed.

And without stopping to think that, even if she had said “yes” to activities that they’d collaboratively, explicitly described, she’s still allowed to say “no” later. Refusing to respect her right to maintain bodily autonomy – even after previous consent – makes for assault.

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One flaw in Kate Harding’s otherwise lovely Asking For It is her repeated assertion that “you cannot prearrange consent.

This statement is obviously false, because all consent is prearranged. Asking precedes doing. Otherwise, there wasn’t consent when the doing began.

The phrasing from Franklin Veaux and Eve Rickert’s More than Two is preferable: that all people “should have the right, without shame, blame, or guilt, to revoke consent to any form of intimacy at any time.

In Asking for It, Harding elaborates with the idea that:

A sleeping person cannot consent to sex. This should be the most obvious thing in the world, and yet it seems to be the place where a lot of folks get hung up.

In some cases, it’s because people don’t want to think of themselves or their lovers as rapists. Every time I’ve made this point online, commenters have rushed to tell me that they enjoy waking up their partners with penetration or vice versa, or even that they have a standing agreement that it’s okay to do so.

Personally, I would feel weird about fooling around with someone who was asleep. Active participation from all parties makes things more fun, and someone who was asleep would be passive to the extreme.

But “a standing agreement that it’s okay to do so” means that the parties involved did arrange consent. “Do you want to have sex with me right now?”, “Do you want to have sex with me in an hour?”, and “Do you want to have sex with me while you’re asleep?” are all valid questions. Strange, but valid. Someone might be interested in responding “yes” to any or all of those.

And of course, per Veaux and Rickert, that “yes” can be retracted. At any time, for any reason.

Although I enjoyed most of Harding’s book, this distinction is important. We are causing real harm when we equate strange but valid practices with assault – in doing so, we give people more opportunity to rationalize assault. If we incorrectly narrow the definition of consent, we empower others to incorrectly expand the definition.

And that – the ability to explain away crimes – is one reason why these assaults are so prevalent.

From Orenstein’s editorial:

When Nicole Bedera, a doctoral candidate in sociology, interviewed male college students, most endorsed the current “yes means yes” standard, which requires active, conscious, continuous, and freely given agreement by all parties engaging in sexual activity. Yet when asked to describe their own most recent encounters, even men who claimed to practice affirmative consent often had not.

When they realized that their actions conflicted with that benchmark, though, they expanded their definition of consent rather than question their conduct. Their ideas of “yes” were so elastic that for some they encompassed behavior that met the legal criteria for assault.

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In jail last week, we read Fatimah Asghar’s “When Tip Drill Comes on at the Frat Party,” alternately titled “When Refusing to Twerk Is a Radical Form of Self Love.” I’m a sucker for narrative poems that talk about consent, precisely because so many men end up in jail for violating consent.

And Asghar’s poem is excellent:

Sometimes it’s as simple as the boys, howling
under bright lights, who only see the dissected
parts of you –
nose, wrist, nape of neck, nipple –

that which can be held down, pinned back, cut open

Photo of Fatimah Asghar by S L O W K I N G.

Asghar writes about the way young women at collegiate parties must learn to enforce the boundaries of their “yes.” Although a woman has said that “yes,” she wants to dance, or to drink, she did not consent to the “sweaty nails pushing / gritty into your stomach, the weight of claws ripping / at the button on your jeans.

People in jail experience a dramatic loss of personal autonomy. Whenever the men walk to or from my class, they must stop, spread their legs, place their hands upon the wall, and wait for a guard to grope with gloved hands over every contour of their bodies.

Perhaps this sense of violation helped them to understand Asghar’s perspective:

Sometimes it’s as simple
as standing still amid all the moving & heat & card

& plastic & science & sway & say:
No.
Today, this body
is mine.

On gerrymandering (a prequel).

On gerrymandering (a prequel).

I’ve written about contemporary gerrymandering, the effort to tweak our voting rights such that certain people’s opinions matter more than others’.

A preferred strategy to suppress votes is to draw district lines that allow one political party to narrowly elect many representatives, while the other party elects a small number of representatives with overwhelming majorities.  When this happens, votes in the landslide victories are “wasted” – those people’s preferred candidate only needed 51% of the vote, after all – which can allow a political minority to retain control.

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For example, each congressional district in Michigan represents approximately 700,000 people.  In the 14th, a serpentine district designed to suppress the influence of African-Americans by confining their votes to as few districts as possible, candidates can carry 80% of the vote.  This congressional vote represents the interests of approximately 560,000 people (700,000 * 0.8).

In other Michigan districts, candidates typically win with 55% of the vote.  In these districts, a congressional vote represents the interests of 385,000 people.  Their opinions are treated as time-and-a-half more important.

(With the sad corollary being that, in a representative government, the opinions of people who ascribe to minority political philosophies within each district are basically irrelevant.  My own congressional representative surely knows that I didn’t vote for him, that I won’t vote for him in the next election, and that there’s only a small chance that anything I say will sway the opinions of people who did vote for him.  So he shouldn’t care about my beliefs at all.)

Many people feel that the districting process is crummy.  In Michigan, citizens are attempting to wrest control away from professional politicians, but they’re fighting an uphill battle.  After all, our country was founded on the principle that some people’s voices opinions do matter more than others’.

That’s why we have a constitutional republic instead of a democracy.  In a democracy, the uneducated rabble could undermine the will of the self-styled luminaries who wrote the constitution.

Women couldn’t vote.  Black people (“others,” who counted as 60% of a human being when doling representation) couldn’t vote.  And although it’s anachronistic to use the term “gerrymandering,” the United States Senate was designed to bloat the voting rights of those intent on dastardly evil.

Almost everyone involved in writing the U.S. constitution believed that rape, murder, torture, and abduction should be permissible (as long as the victims matched certain criteria).  But some of the signatories were more enthusiastic about these practices than others, and those individuals worried that the nation’s citizenry might eventually decide that rape, murder, torture and abduction shouldn’t be allowed.

1024px-Cotton_field_kv17After all, not everyone held a monetary stake in the nation’s predominant industry. It’s easier to justify torture when we’re making money off it – we still do.

So they invented the Senate, a legislative body in which the opinions of people from sparsely-populated southern states would matter more than the opinions of people from densely-populated northern states.

Voting in this country was never meant to be fair.  Lo and behold, it still isn’t.

On genetic inheritance and sexual assault.

On genetic inheritance and sexual assault.

How does evolution work?

Each child receives genetic information from its parents.  Some of this information conveys distinct traits.  And some of these traits increase the chance that an individual will have children of his or her own.  If those children are also good at having kids, the underlying genetic information will spread.

The DNA sequences that evolution enriches don’t necessarily make a creature better – in fact, they often accomplish the opposite.  A gene that made its bearer 10% happier would not spread through the population.  Happy people are less fearful and more likely to be die in tragic accidents.

800px-JH_Dolph_Cat_Mouse(Infection with Toxoplasma gondii seems to make mice happier.  The parasite produces a rate-limiting enzyme for dopamine synthesis to increase the chance that Toxoplasma-infected mice blithely stroll along and get eaten by a cat.)

All that evolution “wants” is for a gene’s bearer to have children who have children who have children, and so on.  This necessitates survival, yes – you can’t have kids if you’re dead, and in many species, orphaned children are less likely to ever have kids of their own.  But evolution doesn’t need a gene’s bearer to be clever – brainless starfish evolved from a bilaterally symmetric forebear that did have a brain.  Evolution doesn’t need a gene’s bearer to be nice – bullies seem to have plenty of children, and sexual assault is an instinctual mating strategy in many species, including ducks and orangutans.  Maybe humans, too.

So, who controls which genes are passed on?

In most species, whichever parent puts the most effort into raising children gets to choose.

prumIn The Evolution of Beauty, Richard Prum describes the experience of tropical birds, like manakins, who live in regions where food is plentiful.  The female parent raises children entirely on her own – males reside elsewhere in fraternal performance troupes.  And so the female birds have absolute say in deciding who will and will not fool around.  The females visit large numbers of males and decline most of their overtures.  Why should she settle for anything less than the absolute sexiest gentleman in the forest?  She’ll find him eventually, and since he never helps any of his children’s mothers with child-rearing, she knows he’ll be available.

Male smooth guardian frogs protect their fertilized eggs and young tadpoles.  Large choruses of females will surround and serenade each available male, hoping to sway his desire.  Since males do all the parenting, they are very selective.

That’s the usual system – you do the work, you get to choose.

It’s a nice idea.  After all, choice means the ensuing activity is consensual, and the opportunity to consent is sexy.

Unfortunately, in many species, others attempt to subvert mate choice.  You know – those ducks.  Orangutans.  Humans.

meanMyriam Gurba’s Mean is alternately comic and horrifying.  In a chapter titled “Omnipresence” (after the trauma, danger seems to be everywhere), Gurba writes:

A stranger chose me to rape.

There was no nepotism involved.

Basically, I got raped for real. (I’m being cheeky here.)

Stranger rape is like the Mona Lisa.

It’s exquisite, timeless, and archetypal.

It’s classic.  I can’t help but think of it as the Coca-Cola of sex crimes.

 

You never predict that rapists are lurking in the sun, sky, and trees.

 

In The Evolution of Beauty, Prum writes:

prumOf course, it has long been clear that sexual coercion and sexual violence are directly harmful to the well-being of female animals.  But the aesthetic perspective allows us to understand that sexual coercion also infringes upon their individual freedom of choice.  Once we recognize that coercion undermines individual sexual autonomy, we are led, inexorably, to the discovery that freedom of choice matters to animals. 

Sexual autonomy is not a mythical and poorly conceived legal concept invented by feminists and liberals.  Rather, sexual autonomy is an evolved feature of the societies of many sexual species.  As we have learned from ducks and other birds, when sexual autonomy is abridged or disrupted by coercion or violence, mate choice itself can provide the evolutionary leverage to assert and expand the freedom of choice.

Many of the trappings of human civilization exist solely to subvert mate choice.  Powerful males did not want human females to exercise sexual autonomy, because what if she picks someone else?  And so men made marriage, Biblical commandments against both adultery and thinking about adultery, and a propensity to murder (or, on contemporary U.S. playgrounds, heckle) loose women.

Human males wanted to control the flow of genetic information without doing the work of parenting.  Just like ducks, whose females evolved corkscrew-shaped vaginas because only those individuals with complicated genitalia could exercise free mate choice amidst generations of rape culture.

Rape culture isn’t specific to Homo sapiens, after all.  It’s a disease of any species in which those who don’t put in the work decide they ought to make choices for others – and nobody stops them.

(Humans do perpetrate more sexual violence than other species, especially violence against non-humans.  Interspecies sexual assault strikes most people as outlandish, unless it’s being done on our behalf.  Farms, puppy mills, and zoos are major assault factories.  We assent to forcible fertilization because it produces large-breasted chickens, cute puppies, and caged “wild” animals for our screaming children to ogle.)

Not all species rape.  In some, coalitions of females defend each other.  In others, males enforce fairness.  Those who believe in justice can punish interlopers, providing females with the right to choose.  Feminism isn’t the exclusive provenance of females.  Injustice hurts everyone, and anyone can feel aggrieved by it.

On clarity, Matthew Zapruder’s “Why Poetry,” and reading Bruce Weigl.

On clarity, Matthew Zapruder’s “Why Poetry,” and reading Bruce Weigl.

Some people approach poems as though they are puzzles.  My high school English teachers implied that poems are full of symbols that we must decode.  Which simply isn’t true.

Billy_Collins_Poet_at_San_Diego_State_UniversityIn Billy Collins’s “Introduction to Poetry,” he exhorts his students to enjoy the experience of reading a poem, of feeling each sound leave the mouth and spill outward into the world.  His students balk.  That’s not how they were taught to read poetry!  Instead, Collins writes,

 all they want to do

is tie the poem to a chair with rope

and torture a confession out of it.

 

They begin beating it with a hose

to find out what it really means.

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Matthew-Zapruder-Why-PoetryMatthew Zapruder began writing Why Poetry to explain the difference between the idea of symbolism taught in high school – a one-to-one mapping between words on the page and the author’s veiled intent, a parlor trick like the parallels between James Joyce’s Ulysses and Homer’s Odyssey – and actual symbolism employed by regular ol’ human poets.  In Zapruder’s words:

If what we mean by “symbol” is a word or phrase that has some specific, hidden, secret meaning, then we don’t really find those very often in poetry.  The idea that we do is inimical to a true experience of reading it.

When language in poetry becomes resonant, and charged with meaning, it achieves a symbolic status.

Zapruder is saddened that readers think writers would intentionally hide the meaning of their words.  Let alone that writers might actually do it.

Clarity for me in poetry is a kind of generosity, a willingness to be together with the reader in the same place of uncertainty, striving for understanding.  To give the impression that something important is happening but that the mere reader cannot, without some kind of special, esoteric knowledge, have access to it strikes me as deeply ungenerous, even cruel.

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Our poetry classes in the jail have had high turnover recently.  New Leaf New Life previously ran a “recovery dorm” inside the jail.  The dorm was a miserable little space – an underground concrete room with a shower, a toilet, twelve bunks, and two tables for eating, no exterior windows, just a view of central booking and the elevator – but people chose to live in there, sometimes for years, to have a modicum of autonomy and access to volunteer programming.  Things like our poetry class, AA meetings, a weekly game night.

We were able to work with the same group of people for long stretches of time.  We could provide a full curriculum and work on revising our own writing.  Everyone who wrote for the recent Monster House Press publication was incarcerated in this dorm.

Since this program was canceled (replaced with court-mandated rehab), we’ve been teaching poetry classes only for general population, for people in one of the rowdier cell blocks.  One week, our class was totally derailed by a group of roughnecks extolling the gang control they’d imposed on the block.  Other weeks people come just to grab a pencil and a few sheets of paper, then promptly ask if the guards can come and take them back.  Or, when their block was on lockdown every day for weeks, pushy dudes who didn’t want to read or write would fill the sign-up sheet just for the chance to stretch their legs on the walk down the hallway to our classroom.

Some weeks class falls flat.

I don’t blame them for signing up.  I’ve never lived inside a jail, but it sounds like the pits.  I’d sign up for programs I didn’t care about, too, just to break up the monotony of days.

Still, some weeks we get lucky and have a room full of (unlucky) dudes who really want to read and write.

Since we’ve been seeing so many new people, we’ve been reading poetry by Bruce Weigl several times each year.  Weigl writes powerful narrative poems that deal with trauma and violence.  We begin with “The Impossible,” which opens:

Winter’s last rain and a light I don’t recognize

through the trees and I come back in my mind

to the man who made me suck his cock

when I was seven, in sunlight, between boxcars.

 

I thought I could leave him standing there

in the years, half smile on his lips …

This is a hard poem for guys in jail to read.  It’s a hard poem for anybody to read, but in our classes, particularly, whomever is reading it out loud first might stop at the third line.

AR-160539927The opening is perfect, though.  As with Proust’s mind flooding when he stumbles over a pair of uneven paving stones, or hears a long-forgotten tone, or smells tea and cake exactly like his aunt used to eat, Weigl’s memories swell unbidden when he glimpses light shining through tree leaves in a particular way.  Once, when I was seven, there was just this light … and … and …

He thought he could forget his trauma.  Thought he could “leave him standing there / in the years.”  He was wrong.

Many people who have survived abuse try to forget and move on.  But the memories can fester.  After class one week, a man lingered, asking a guard “Can I … can I talk for him a minute …” and, when the guard nodded, said to me, “Like, something happened to me … kinda like that poem we were talking about … do you … do you think there’s a way I could get some help with that?”

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spotlight.jpgIn Tom McCarthy’s film Spotlight, a character finally agrees to be interviewed about the priest who raped him.  He is asked how he coped.  He turns out an arm riddled with needle tracks.

Most men in jail suffered disproportionately before they were locked up.  Many began taking drugs in lieu of the psychiatric care they needed but couldn’t afford; now they are addicted.  And behind bars.  Beneath fluorescent lights for nineteen hours a day.  Somehow they are expected to heal there, inside the jail, with even fewer resources before.

“The world needs to know,” we tell them.  “Write about that.”

They balk.  “I can’t write about this shit.”  It cuts too deep, the pain’s too raw … and they feel ashamed.  Our society has a tendency to blame victims.  In an interview with Blast Furnace, Weigl says that his father “was shocked that it had happened because I didn’t tell him at that time.  He said, ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’  I said, ‘Because you would’ve beaten my ass for letting it happen,’ and he knows he would have, too.  That would’ve been his response, Why did you let someone do this to you?

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But Weigl wrote openly of his trauma, and his words help others come to terms with abuse.  It must feel nauseating to re-live certain experiences in order to write them down – but that act of generosity could save someone else.  And in “The Impossible,” Weigl teaches us how to write about the things that seem impossible to write about.  The poem ends,

Say it clearly and you make it beautiful, no matter what.

On horror, healing, and Joanna Connors’s ‘I Will Find You.’

On horror, healing, and Joanna Connors’s ‘I Will Find You.’

amsal_pbDuring a recent writing class, we discussed Bonnie Jo Campbell’s “The Trespasser” (reprinted in American Salvage, in case you’d like more). We’ve been discussing a lot of literature themed around addiction and recovery, and in this short story a family walks into their summer home to find the wreckage left by a quartet of trespassers who broke in and used the place as a meth lab.

The family — especially their thirteen-year-old daughter — feels violated.  Their belongings rearranged, their kitchen charred, a mattress ruined, their sense of security shattered.  But the piece doesn’t dwell on the family’s reaction.  Instead the story presents, through a series of contrasts to the thirteen-year-old’s life, the horrors that may have led one of the trespassers — a sixteen-year-old girl, violated in turn by the men she was with, who stayed alone in the house to hide in a closet and shoot up until the family arrived — to make the choices she did.

There is a sense of forgiveness to the piece.  Because, yes, the sixteen-year-old’s actions were wrong.  She should not have broken in to the house with those men.  She should not have stolen methamphetamine they were cooking from them.  She should not have stayed living in another family’s home, rearranging their possessions, dragging comforting items to a closet, dragging a mattress — emblematic of her own violation — outside.

And yet.  Campbell presents the ways in which that sixteen-year-old trespasser has already been punished, brutally so, before she committed her transgressions.  She did wrong.  Perhaps some punishment would be appropriate.  But she was punished, arbitrarily so, by the universe at large.  Born into a life where she was violated by her mother’s boyfriends, burned by cigarettes, treated as worthless so long that she may have begun to believe it.  Those preemptive punishments were quite likely the reason why she committed her later crimes.

It is human to want vengeance against people who hurt us.  It is especially human to want vengeance against people who hurt those we love.  But something that’s often missing from our criminal justice system in the United States is an acknowledgement of the punishments already doled out to innocent children, punishments that harmed their developing minds and may have increased the likelihood that they’d be tangled up in future crimes.

71O975JXqtLJoanna Connors’s I Will Find You is a hard book to read — a beautifully-written exploration of a bleak topic — but she presents this contrast perfectly.  If you can handle reading a detailed, nuanced investigation of a sexual assault, I highly recommend it.

Connors was hurt.  Connors, as best I can tell, is hurt.  The psychological effects of torture can linger for decades, and sexual assault, despite the inappropriate term (personally, I far prefer using the phrase “violative assault” to better distinguish it from sex, but then people sometimes don’t know what I’m talking about), is an act of torture.

She was, from the perspective of a prosecutor, the perfect witness.  She was educated, sober, unacquainted with her assailant… and a white woman assaulted by a black man.

All those characteristics make it easier for the state to win a conviction.

(A quick note: though she was harmed, Connors was a witness, not a defendant.  That’s how our judicial system treats the victims of sexual assault.  At least that’s better than the old system, in which Connors’ husband would be considered the defendant because his property — his wife — had been tarnished through unauthorized use.)

Indeed, Connors’s assailant was convicted, was sentenced to many years, and eventually died in jail.  A rarity, as most of us now know.

But Connors’s pain did not go away.  A corrections officer at one of the prisons where her attacker was held told her — in an attempt to cheer her — that her attacker was probably brutally abused while incarcerated.  That particular prison, the correction officer acknowledged, had a well-deserved dismal reputation.

Hearing that the man had suffered more did not help Connors heal.

And so Connors decided to learn about her attacker: What was his life like?  Why had he ruined hers?

Indeed, the innocent child who would grow into the man who raped her was wretchedly abused.  Connors could not interview her attacker — he had died in prison before she began this project — but she met with the man’s siblings.  One wondered what he had done to be born into a life of such misery.

Everyone in the attackers’ family had been raped.  Repeatedly.  Connors cried alongside the attackers’ sisters.  I was stupid, I deserved it, each said in turn.  The exact words with which Connors had castigated herself after she was assaulted.

Those words were not true in Connors’ case.  And they were not true for the attackers’ sisters.  No one deserves to be tortured.

And, in contrast to the outraged response from her family and from the criminal justice system after Connors was assaulted, no one cared about the crimes perpetrated against the attacker’s family.  Connors does not belabor this point.  She was white, well-educated, graced with the sobriety that comes easily to those with no childhood demons to escape — she received justice.

Others, who through no fault of their own were born to uncaring, abusive, impoverished parents, did not.

On self-immolation.

On self-immolation.

A lovely young woman from my home town died recently.  Another suicide.  Recent college graduate, Fulbright scholar, compassionate, and sufficiently clever that no one realized the pain she was in.  My wife has the good fortune of working with many wonderful students, but it’s awful that some of the best & brightest pour their all into making sure that no one knows to offer help.

I try to be upfront with people — especially the young students I volunteer with — about the workings of my own mind.  That my own mind is wired such that the world often looks bleak.

depression_by_thecruelone-d48z40t
Depression by sensum on Deviantart.

Part of the misery of growing up with depression, after all, is the mistaken assumption that you alone are broken.  Most people you see from day to day are either not sick that way, or have found ways to accommodate their troubles.  Otherwise you wouldn’t be seeing them out & about!  This is the same reason perusing social media often makes us feel worse about our own lives.  There is “positive selection bias.”  People chose to post pictures and experiences that make themselves look good, and the algorithms choosing what lands at the top of somebody’s feed aggravate the problem.  Other people are getting married, running marathons, cavorting on the beach, birthing beautiful babies!  And nobody’s clicking “like” for your kid’s screaming tantrum video on a day you got sacked.

In my writing, I try to address the philosophical problem of suicide in a non-hokey yet life-affirming way.  It’s true, there is a lot of pain inherent in being alive.  Watching a toddler cry while teething triggers in me a panoramic vision of generations upon generations of teary-eyed kids who’ve suffered the same.  And for secular, science-y types, there isn’t even an externally-imposed meaning to life that would make all that suffering seem necessary.

If things get bad enough, then, yes, the idea of nothing might sound like a step up.  This is described in a darkly comic passage about optimism from Primo Levi’s If This Is a ManAnd I think it’s important to remember, when reading this, that Levi pressed on until he was quite old.  Knowing that he could end things gave him the strength he needed to persevere:

Primo_LeviIt is lucky that it is not windy today.  Strange, how in some way one always has the impression of being fortunate, how some chance happening, perhaps infinitesimal, stops us crossing the threshold of despair and allows us to live.  It is raining, but it is not windy.  Or else, it is raining and is also windy: but you know that this evening it is your turn for the supplement of soup, so that even today you find the strength to reach the evening.  Or it is raining, windy, and you have the usual hunger, and then you think that if you really had to, if you really felt nothing in your heart but suffering and tedium — as sometimes happens, when you really seem to lie on the bottom — well, even in that case, at any moment you want you could always go and touch the electric wire-fence, or throw yourself under the shunting trains, and then it would stop raining.

Knowing Levi’s history — the fact that, despite all the horrors he’d seen during the Holocaust, he did choose to live, adds power to the final phrase.  He didn’t need to stop the rain.  He needed only hope, the knowledge that the rain could be stopped.

Knowing about David Foster Wallace’s life is also what adds so much power — the other way — to my favorite passage from The Pale King.  I love the accountant’s description of heroism; if you’re interested, I’ve written about it here.

Given our world, I imagine I’d feel compelled to write about suicide even if I personally did not suffer from depression.  The death rate in the United States is rising, largely driven by acts of self violence… and that’s even if you consider our epidemics of suicide and drug overdose as separate phenomena.  There’s a compelling argument to be made that these stem from the same root causes, in which case the problem seems even more dire.

The risk isn’t distributed equally.  Like the beloved young woman from the introduction to this essay, suicide takes many of our best and brightest.  It also claims the lives of many who’ve already made tremendous sacrifices on our behalf — the suicide rate among returning veterans is heartbreaking.  We, as a people, are doing far too little to help them.  I’ll include more about this next week when I write about David Means’s Hystopia.

51PqvC8KySL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgI found myself thinking about the problem of suicide — again — while reading Robin Coste Lewis’s Voyage of the Sable Venus.  Her poetry powerfully investigates racial and gendered violence, but I was struck by a strange allusion she chose for “On the Road to Sri Bhuvaneshwari.”  Lewis watches as a buffalo is forced to sniff her stillborn calf during a trip to India, then parallels this tragedy with her own venture into motherhood years later.  Given that my own family is expecting another child, it was a scary poem to read.

The lines about suicide come early in the poem.  Here Lewis is being driven around Uttar Pradesh, a state in northern India.  She will visit a temple celebrating one of the fallen fragments of Shiva’s wife — according to myth, pieces of her body were scattered during Shiva’s grieving, and the sites where they fell became sacred:

I sit behind the driver, admiring

          his cinnamon fingers, his coiffed white beard,

                   his pale pink turban wrapped so handsomely.

                             Why did it take all that?

I mean, why did She have to jump

          into the celestial fire

                   to prove her purity?

                             Shiva’s cool — poisonous, blue,

a shimmering galaxy —

          but when it came to His Old Lady,

                   man, He fucked up!

                             Why couldn’t He just believe Her?

I joke with the driver.  We laugh.

This is such a strange passage because Lewis, who has a master’s degree in Sanskrit and comparative religious literature, is substituting the suicide of Sita, Rama or Vishnu’s wife, with that of Sati, Shiva’s wife.  In a book about racial violence, this is a striking reversal.

To a rough approximation, Shiva is most often venerated by darker-skinned Indians, people who have suffered racially-motivated injustice at the hands of lighter-skinned north Indians.  Shiva is often depicted as an exceedingly grungy god — he chills in cemeteries, his hair is tangled in dreadlocks, he believes in austere living.  In mythology, one of Shiva’s most famous worshipers is Ravana, the scholarly vegetarian south Indian king who is the villain of the Ramayana.

Kalighat_Shiva_mourns_SatiAccording to mythology, Shiva’s wife did commit suicide.  Although Sati loved Shiva, her family thought he was beneath them.  He lived like a dirty hippie!  They didn’t want that grunge-ball to come visiting.  And so, when Sati’s family threw a big party, they didn’t invite Sati or her husband.  Sati, ashamed that her family would slight the man she loved, committed suicide.

This isn’t a story about which you’d write “Why couldn’t He just believe Her?”

But Sita’s suicide?  She was married to Rama, a north Indian prince, but then Ravana, angry that Rama had assaulted Ravana’s sister, kidnapped Sita in retribution.  Rama then gathered an army of monkeys and went with them to destroy the south Indian kingdom.  If you think of The Iliad, you’ve got the basic gist.

Sita lept into the flames because her husband, after rescuing her, considered her tarnished by rape.  Because she had lived away from him, she was no longer fit to be his wife.

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From Sita Sings the Blues.

Here’s Rama’s reunion with his wife:

          As he gazed upon [Sita], who stood so meekly beside him, Rama began to speak, as rage simmered in his heart:

          “So here you are, my good woman.  I have won you back after conquering my enemy in battle.  Whatever there was to be done through manly valor, I have now accomplished.

          “I have wiped clean the affront, and so my wrath is appeased.  For I have eliminated both the insult and my enemy at the same time.

          “Today, my manly valor has been witnessed.  Today my efforts have borne fruit.  Today, having fulfilled my vow here, I am once more master of myself.

          “You were carried off by that wanton [Ravana] when you were left alone, but now, through manly action, I have expunged that affront brought about by fate.

          “What human purpose can man serve if his spirit is so feeble that he will not wipe clean through his own blazing energy an insult he has received?

          “The leaping of the ocean and the razing of [the South Indian kingdom]–today those praiseworthy deeds of [Hanuman, the most powerful monkey,] have borne fruit.

          “Today, through their valor in battle and their beneficial counsel to me, the efforts of [the monkey king] and his army have borne fruit as well.

          “And the efforts of [a south Indian defector], who abandoned his evil brother and came to me of his own accord, have likewise borne fruit.”

          As Rama was saying these words in that fashion, Sita, wide-eyed like a doe, was overcome with tears.

          But as Rama gazed upon her, his anger flared up once more, like the raging flame of a blazing fire drenched with melted butter.

          Knitting his brows on his forehead and glancing at her from the corner of his eye, he spoke harshly to Sita there in the midst of the monkeys and raksasas.

          “In wiping away this affront, Sita, I have accomplished all that a man could do.  In my wrath, I have won you back from the hands of my enemy, just as, through his austerities, the contemplative sage Agastya won back the southern lands that had been inaccessible to all living beings.

          “Bless you, but let it be understood that it was not on your account that I undertook the effort of this war, now brought to completion through the valor of my allies.

          “Instead, I did all this in order to protect my reputation and in every way to wipe clean the insult and disgrace to my illustrious lineage.

          “Since, however, your virtue is now in doubt, your presence has become as profoundly disagreeable to me as is a bright lamp to a man afflicted with a disease of the eye.

          “Go, therefore, as you please, [Sita].  You have my permission.  Here are the ten directions.  I have no further use for you, my good woman.

          “For what powerful man born in a respectable family–his heart tinged with affection–would take back a woman who had lived in the house of another man?

          “How could I who boast of my noble lineage possibly take you back–just risen from Ravana’s lap and gazed upon by his lustful eye?

          “I have recovered my reputation, and that is the purpose for which I won you back.  I do not love you anymore.  Go hence wherever you like.”

(Note: I replaced the term “raksasa,” occasionally, with “south Indian.”  This isn’t entirely accurate.  The word “raksasa” is often translated into English as “ogre,” a race of fantastical shape-shifting creatures, and it would be foolhardy to believe that there is a literal correspondence between this myth and prehistorical events like the conquest of south India by invaders from the north.  But I’m of the belief that it would be equally foolhardy to believe there is no connection between mythology and real-world events.  If you’d like to see the original Sanskrit text of this scene, it’s available here, and my previous essay touching upon the racial implications of the canonical Ramayana is here.)

In traditional mythology, Shiva’s wife did not commit suicide after claiming to be pure and being disbelieved by her husband.  That was Sita.  The wife of the light-skinned oppressor, not, as Lewis alludes, the wife of the dark-skinned oppressed people’s god.

(Another note: according to the myth, Sita survived jumping into the fire — it refused to burn her because she was pure at heart.  Rather than launch into an analogy comparing this to the tests used during the Salem witchcraft trials, I’ll just say that she was briefly accepted back by her husband, then kicked out again, and successfully committed suicide several years later by leaping into a temporary crevasse.)

I agree that the story of Sita’s suicide is more powerful.  Even now, here in the United States, one reason so few sexual assaults are reported is because many victims feel ashamed.  There is a fear that friends, family, and lovers will consider a victim of sexual assault to be damaged.  Tarnished.  Many victims fear that others’ reactions will only aggravate the initial trauma.

They’re often right.  Look what happened to Sita.

Agni_pariksha

It’s unlikely that this underreporting problem will go away until prevailing attitudes about sexuality change.  And, yes, even now the victims of sexual assault are at much higher risk of suicide.

Which, if you’re thinking about it: please wait.  Talk to somebody.  The world’s not perfect.  But it gets better.

On Jon Krakauer’s Missoula

MISSOULA-3DI am obviously thrilled that Jon Krakauer’s Missoula has been getting so much press.  There are still a wide variety of pernicious misperceptions out there, and Krakauer does an excellent job of addressing them in a very accessible format.  I hope lots of people read his book, and, like Nicholas Kristof, encourage their friends and family to read it too.

Until I read Kristof’s editorial, I intended to write an essay highlighting some of David Lisak’s research; one of the most compelling segments of Missoula is where Krakauer describes these findings and the Montana defense attorneys’ attempts to discredit them ad hominem by portraying Lisak as an effete outsider, not to be trusted.  Plus, the re-enactment video that Krakauer and then Kristof in turn call attention to (sadly it’s known as “the Frank tape,” after the pseudonym of the interviewee) is indeed unsettling.

The DVD is entitled “The Undetected Rapist,” and despite being only seven minutes long, depicting Lisak mock interviewing an actor who mimics the lines and delivery of a prior videotaped research subject (obviously it would be unethical for Lisak to release that actual research footage), it comes on its own disc, in its own case, accompanied by a pamphlet emblazoned with large-font warnings on every page: “[This] is a powerful and disturbing DVD which may be triggering for viewers.  Do not watch it alone, and do not show it without a skilled facilitator.”

I watched it alone.  Sans facilitator.  But that warning wasn’t meant for me.  I’m lucky in that I don’t have these particular horrors lodged in my brain for memory to dredge up.  And I’ve already done so much awful research that whatever misery might be sown by the disc has presumably already taken root.  Yes, it’s powerful to see and hear the actor depicting this type of rapist’s doublethink — things like stressing that he targeted extremely naive, inexperienced women, but when describing the culmination of his “conquest” he justifies his actions by saying she’d probably done this thousands of times before, etc. — but that was something I expected.  These people don’t think of themselves as evil.  There is always some justification, some story they can spin to rationalize what they’ve done, if only to themselves.

b88d3b232eac40c38bf6b132cb51865bGiven that I’ve written several essays about research practices and scientific essays, though, I’d like to draw attention to one quote from the pamphlet that accompanied the DVD.  The pamphlet was prepared by the National Judicial Education Program and includes a question and answer section near the end:

“Q: Did the researcher who conducted the interview tell Frank that he had committed rape?

A: No.  The same federal laws governing the treatment of human subjects in research prohibit a researcher from saying anything to a subject that might significantly change that subject’s view of himself.  In this case, telling Frank that he was a rapist would clearly have been prohibited.”

To me, this is slightly strange.  Not the idea that it’s worth protecting research subjects — that’s vital, and it’s awful, as a scientist, to read about cases where that wasn’t done (one such story you may have heard about is Carl Elliott’s arduous, ongoing struggle to change the University of Minnesota’s research practices, and although Dan Markingson’s death came about due to particularly egregious policies, these problems are definitely not isolated to that university).

Personally, I think the research subject should have been informed.  I can imagine ways that such information could be delivered gently and even therapeutically, with the intent of improving the subject’s future quality of life.  And, to me, it seems like it would be much more devastating for that individual to be shaken of his illusions about his actions by reading a popular press report about that re-enactment video.

Wouldn’t all this press about that re-enactment trigger some recollection for someone who had been interviewed by that David Lisak fellow?  Maybe the doublethink depicted in the video would still prevent the former interviewees from really understanding the ramifications of their actions — there are many new excuses to give, especially excuses involving alcohol, or someone’s mood on one particular night, or an ambiguous relationship with one particular person — but I still think that, if a study’s publicity might convey psychologically unsettling truths, it’s worth the researchers attempting to deliver that information in a therapeutic setting first.

It’s possible that Lisak was unaware that his study would draw so much publicity.  After all, his study was published over a decade now and it wasn’t until I’d read Krakaeur’s book that I walked to the library to borrow that re-enactment DVD.

Which, right, that’s precisely why I’m so thrilled about the existence of Krakaeur’s book and all the press it’s getting.  Because resolving these problems requires so many people’s behavior to change (leaving aside the ideal solution where only one class of people’s behavior changes, i.e. the rapists’): friends, parents, police, district attorneys, juries.  The more people read these books, the more likely we are to have that change.

Honestly, the only complaint I had about Krakaeur’s book was the title.  It seemed to imply that these problems were particular to the named city… but even this complaint was addressed before the end:

“It should be reiterated, moreover, that the deficiencies at the heart of the Missoula imbroglio were not unique to western Montana.  The DOJ investigation identified 350 sexual assaults of women that were reported to the Missoula police during the fifty-two months from January 2008 to May 2012.  The Bureau of Justice Statistics estimated that in 2010, the annual rate of sexual assaults of women in cities with populations under 100,000 was 0.27 percent, which for Missoula equates to 90 female victims per year, or 390 over a period of fifty-two months.  This suggests that, rather than being the nation’s rape capital, Missoula had an incidence of sexual assault that was in fact slightly less than the national average.  That’s the real scandal.”

On violence against women (part three): rape, evolution, and the dangers of partial truths.

IMG_0430-0This is third in a series.  Read Part 1 and Part 2.

Were you sired by a jerk?  Don’t worry!  You can still be good!

I’m mostly familiar with two theories addressing the question, “Why do men rape?”  One comes from feminism, like the thesis put forward in Brownmiller’s Against Our Will: violence against women is intended to keep them from overstepping boundaries.  This theory, to me, doesn’t provide a great rationale for why specific individuals would be rapists, but seems compelling when viewed from the perspective of culture, i.e. rape culture flourishes to subjugate women.  The second theory is from evolutionary biology; the main gist is that because human females make larger contributions toward the success of offspring than males, females have the upper hand in choosing mating partners.  Therefore males who are would seem to be poor choices for mating (because they’re unattractive, or unintelligent, or otherwise would make poor genetic sires) have an incentive to rape because it’s the only way they can pass on their genes.

I tend to think this latter theory is hogwash.  But I’m pretty biased against evolutionary psychology in general.

One thing I appreciate about the evolutionary biology theory, though, is that it addresses the individual perpetrator.  Especially the idea that rapists are motivated by sexual desire.  What I think the feminist theory gets right is that rapists are aided and abetted by a culture interested in suppressing women, but I imagine individual rapists to derive pleasure from their violence.

The thing I’m unconvinced by is the idea that there is an evolutionary explanation for rape, that this propagation strategy has been sufficiently “successful” over enough generations to now have a significant genetic driver.

Which is important to think about, for a couple reasons.  Like, more studies are published all the time in support of the evolutionary biology rationale.  The latest is from Langstrom et al., “Sexual offending runs in families: A 37-year nationwide study.”  And the second reason why I think this is an important topic to think about is more pernicious.  Because if the evolutionary biology explanation isn’t correct, but we as a society allow the trappings of science to convince us that it is, then there’s less incentive to rectify all the cultural problems that I feel are the major culprits behind violence against women.  Like, if we believed the problem was simply encoded in some people’s genes, why work hard to fix it?

Honestly, I don’t know of any work, in any species, that’s provided compelling evidence for rape as an evolutionary strategy.  Which isn’t to say that the idea is bad; I’d be pretty surprised if there were no species that had evolved a split set of mating strategies including the options 1) be attractive or 2) rape.  Because there are several species wherein males seem to be genetically programed to follow one out of a possible menu of many mating strategies, and the aforementioned split is just as reasonable as a split between 1) appear masculine, control territory or 2) appear feminine, mate with females in secret while scuttling through another male’s territory.

And, I’d like to think that I shouldn’t have to state this, but the fact that a certain behavior occurs somewhere in nature, perpetrated by some species or other, is obviously not a reason why we shouldn’t consider it loathsome.  Child neglect, bullying, cannibalism, murder, etc., are all perfectly valid evolutionary strategies.  My point in writing this essay is simply this: I saw a new scientific study with that attention-grabbing headline about sexual aggression running in families.  I wanted to put their findings and methodology in context.

Rape as propagation strategy seems to be best studied in orangutans.  If you’ll excuse me a moment of anthropomorphism here, it sounds very crummy to be a female orangutan.  Males exist in two forms: as juveniles their faces are “unflanged,” and after reaching sexual maturity they can either remain unflanged or proceed through a unidirectional transition to become “flanged” males, with hemicircular outcroppings of flesh from their temples to their jowls.  As a flanged male, their faces look somewhat reminiscent of stingrays (apparently female orangutans think this is quite attractive), and they are asserting bad-ass-itude; once flanged, a male will have to fight for its territory.  The transition is only worth making, therefore, once a male orangutan feels that it could successfully fight the other nearby flanged males.

Females voluntarily mate with flanged males; they pick whomever suits their fancy when in estrus, he protects them and mates with them.  But flanged males seem not to care much about the wellbeing of females at other times.  When not in estrus, females are on their own, and while they’re foraging they might be raped by unflanged males.

This is the closest I’ve stumbled across to a clear evolutionary explanation of rape within a species.  Even here, though, there are caveats: as far as I know, any male could transition to the flanged type, and no one has documented sexual violence by the flanged males.  So it seems that any orangutan might grow up to be a rapist, as long as he’s living in a region where all the other males are bigger and burlier than he is.  I don’t think anyone has shown a correlation between genetic factors influencing male build and sexual aggressiveness.

In other words, they’re all bad, but those who are lucky enough to think they can get what they want without violence don’t resort to it.  Or, wait.  No.  Because the flanged males still have to bash each other’s heads in.  So I guess it’s, there’s a developmental switch between using violence against women to propagate, versus using violence against other men to win mates.

See why I thought it was silly to mention the caveat that just because something happens in nature doesn’t mean it’s good?

The only other evidence I stumbled across is from chimpanzees, like in Feldblum et al.’s study “Sexually coercive male chimpanzees sire more offspring.”  What they found wasn’t rape, however.  They found that it takes being a violent jerk full-time for a male to increase his rate of paternity; aggressive behavior only while females were in estrus was not enough.  And, sadly, because this means reproductive success driven simply by a personality trait — a full-time propensity for violence — rather than a particular mating strategy, this is something that’s much easier for evolution to enrich in a population.  Because evolution is a sloppy process; it can only take what’s already present and make more of it.  But if there are genes that confer a predilection toward being a violent jerk, and being a violent jerk helps a chimp have more chimplets, then, yeah, over many generations it’d be easy for those genes to become prevalent.

Of course, that last claim was not addressed in the Feldblum et al.’s study.  And it’s important.  To build an evolutionary argument, it’s not enough to find that a certain trait confers reproductive success; you also need to ascertain whether that trait can be passed on to children.

And that, in particular, is what Langstrom et al.’s study addresses, which is why I thought it was important enough to write about.  If, in humans, the tendency to rape runs in families, perhaps it could have a genetic component.

Not that it does, mind you.  Religious sect also runs in families.  Language use.  Voting record.  Countless aspects of culture.  And it’d be silly to claim that all of those are dictated by genetics instead of going with the more parsimonious explanation that there are genetic contributions toward the use of language in Homo sapiens and that language usage allows us to pass on bits of culture through a parallel but separate evolutionary process (which is the underlying principal behind Richard Dawkins’ coining the term “meme.”  Which he originally applied to long-lived ideas like particular religious precepts, not pictures of kittens with silly captions.  But his word, like all words, evolved).

So, especially with small effects like what Langstrom et al. observed (feel free to glance at this editorial about the research to get a sense of why a “Five Fold Increase!” isn’t as meaningful as it sounds when the absolute numbers are very low), I’d worry that the issue is simply that growing up in a culture conducive toward violence against women might sway someone toward perpetrating further violence.  No genes necessary.  They did attempt to control for this by computing genetic relatedness for sets of children raised together, but I find it hard to imagine that half-siblings, for instance, could be expected to receive near-identical environmental exposure.  Which makes me predisposed to discount their findings.  Somewhat unfair, I know; except with retrospective data analysis, how could anyone test something like this?

Well, maybe we can’t.  I mean, honestly, we still don’t even know what  people should eat in order to be healthy.  (Click away.)

Or you might imagine that, even if there is a genetic predisposition toward sexual violence, that it could be explained away by postulating a genetic contribution to impulse control.  Perhaps that is the simplest explanation for Langstrom et al.’s results, since nearly half of their sample set of convicted sex offenders were also convicted of other non-sexual violent crimes.

Still, despite my qualms about this research, I wanted to write about it.  Because, whether correct or not, the publication of results like this can change our world.  If we convince men that they’ve evolved to be sexually aggressive, or that sexual aggression is a biologically reasonable response to cultural constructs in which they are relatively powerless in terms of attracting partners, we make it that much more likely that these bad behaviors will continue.  If we convince women that this is simply how men are, they’re much more likely to tolerate malignancy (consider that amongst victims of assault, a quarter have subsequent sexual relations with their assailants).

And, sure, if you trawl the literature you can find studies that claim the promulgation of these theories won’t make violence against women more common, but there is a big difference between a university student soberly contemplating a fictional scenario and actually behaving badly while drunk and at a party.  To me, it’s still an open question (to which I’m inclined to answer “yes”) whether believing that they’re genetically predisposed toward evil makes people more inclined to do evil.

Which leaves me with a conflict.  As a scientist, I care about truth.  I want people to know about our world.  But then, what should we do if the very act of spreading truth might make the world worse?

The whole truth wouldn’t — the idea that, sure, maybe your genes would have you do this, that, or the other thing, but even then, you still have a choice — but I honestly don’t know what to think about the risk of people learning only dangerous partial truths.

On violence against women.

On violence against women.

This is the first in a series.  Read the second one here.

Quick caveat: this essay will be unpleasant. Given the title, you can probably guess the nature of the impending unpleasantness. So, if you think that’s a topic you shouldn’t be reading about right now, then you should skip this. IMG_0430

But it’s something I figured that I should eventually write an essay about. Because a major theme of my work is violence against women.  And this is a topic that I can’t easily claim I’m writing about just because it’s important in the Ramayana – my plan from the beginning was to write about violence against women, and a major incentive for me to work with the Ramayana was that it provides a good scaffolding to do so.

And I should also apologize right from the beginning that some of this will sound sacrilegious. Because, yes, the relationship between Rama and Sita is often put forward as the ideal. And it can seem crumby to have aspects of your religion analyzed in a critical light.

But for this project, I am trying to engage with The Ramayana as mythology first, rather than as a religious text. In the same way I’m engaging with The Bible as a collection of stories, and I’ll try to include some of that in this essay too: obviously the text underlying Christianity has many troubling instances of violence against women as well. As a minor justification for this view, I’d like to quote A.K. Ramanujan from his essay “Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation,” in which he compares and contrasts many of the Ramayana variants that exist throughout South-east Asia.

“Thus, not only do we have one story told by Valmiki in Sanskrit, we have a variety of Rama tales told by others, with radical differences among them. Let me outline a few of the differences we have not yet encountered. For instance, in Sanskrit and in other Indian languages, there are two endings to the story. One ends with the return of Rama and Sita to Ayodhya, their capital, to be crowned king and queen of the ideal kingdom. In another ending, often considered a later addition in Valmiki and in Kampan, Rama hears Sita slandered as a woman who lived in Ravana’s grove, and in the name of his reputation as a king (we would call it credibility, I suppose) he banishes her to the forest, where she gives birth to twins.”

So, even when considering only the Valmiki Ramayana (the other variant mentioned in the quote above is typically referred to as the Kamba Ramayana, which was written in Tamil much later than the Valmiki Ramayana. I hope to write an essay about south Indian variants soon — other than its engagement with violence against women, the other biggest draw toward working with the Ramayana, for me, is the generally-discredited theory that it reflects historical conquest and was promulgated as a means of subjugating the conquered peoples of south India), there are multiple “texts.” And in some of them, Sita is not treated well. Honestly, my personal belief is that she isn’t treated well in any of them, but there are issues with viewing ancient stories through the lens of modern feminism.

Like, okay, here’s a passage from Sheldon Pollock’s translation of the Ayodhya Kanda (book 2 of the Ramayana), and I don’t think anyone from any culture would still agree that this inequality is something to celebrate:

“[Anasuya], too, felt delight when she saw how illustrious Sita was following the way of righteousness, and she cheered her, exclaiming, “How fortunate you have such high regard for righteousness! How fortunate you should abandon your kinfolk, your pride and wealth, proud Sita, to follow Rama when he was banished to the forest. A woman who holds her husband dear–whether he is in the city or the forest, whether he is good or evil–gains worlds that bring great blessings. To a woman of noble nature her husband is the supreme deity, however bad his character, however licentious or indigent he might be.”

Okay. Well. That was a pretty long preamble. But I think I might finally be ready to start writing this essay.

The basic gist of the Ramayana is that Sita was stolen away and Rama ventured forth to take her back, employing the aid of an army of monkeys. But unlike The Iliad, in which Menelaus was roughly innocent when Helen was stolen away (unless you count being a crumby husband as a valid transgression; in the text, that is not. But it’s probably fair to quote Churchill’s “History is written by the victors,” and point out that Menelaus was on the winning side. So Homer could stuff lines like “Brother-in-law of mine — of the bitch that I am, / a cause of evil, a curse and abomination — / it would have been better that when my mother first bore me / some evil storm wind had suddenly whirled me off / to the mountains or into the swell of the load-roaring sea / where the waves would have swept me away before all this happened.” into Helen’s mouth (this was taken from Stephen Mitchell’s translation — I wasn’t super keen on his rendition of The Odyssey, but his Iliad is fantastic. I think a lot of why I liked his Iliad much better than his Odyssey is that he writes action so well; the Iliad obviously gives him a lot more of that to work with), which does not seem like something she would have said. Equivalently, Rama is the victor in the Ramayana, which I think allows us to view Ravana’s dialogue, and even Sita’s attitude toward Ravana in the myth, with a skeptical eye), Rama and his brother clearly provoked the abduction of Sita.

Rama, his wife, and his favorite brother were living in a forest. Ravana’s sister, a sexually-empowered woman, happened by and thought the brothers were cute. Most variants of The Ramayana feature this woman, Surpanakha, propositioning the brothers in turn. Which obviously had to be punished: it’s unacceptable for women to be so wanton! (I should emphasize that I’ve referred to Supranakha as a woman, and generally refer to Ravana as a person also, even though they are often termed “ogres.” My word usage reflects that same oft-discredited theory that Ravana’s people are stand-ins for the Dravidians of south India, who were conquered by Caucasians from the north at about the same time as The Ramayana was written) Here’s a quote from Bhatti’s poem “The Death of Ravana,” translated by Oliver Fallon:

“He is without a wife; I am married. He will be a more fulfilling husband for you,” said Rama. “Go to him and do not leave him.” She lusted after Lakshmana and came at him again like a cow to a large bull, her mind unbalanced by the flight of Love’s arrows. As she sat splaying herself, Rama drew his sheathed sword ready to slash and rendered her face noseless.

To me, that passage brings to mind Susan Brownmiller’s thesis from her work “Against Our Will.” The idea that violence against women, particularly rape, is used as a tool to keep them from exceeding certain sphere’s of life that’s it’s deemed acceptable for them to participate in. Brownmiller has a lot of astute analysis in her book, along with a number of citations from literature to provide examples for her case; for instance, here’s a quote from “Miss Lonelyhearts,” Nathaniel West’s bleak novel about a newspaper advice columnist in New York, that Brownmiller brought my attention to:

One of them was complaining about the number of female writers.

“And they’ve all got three names,” he said. “Mary Roberts Wilcox, Ella Wheeler Catheter, Ford Mary Rinehart…”

Then someone started a train of stories by suggesting that what they all needed was a good rape.

“I knew a gal who was regular until she fell in with a group and went literary. She began writing for the little magazines about how much Beauty hurt her and ditched the boy friend who set up pins in a bowling alley. The guys on the block got sore and took her into the lots one night. About eight of them. They ganged her proper…”

“That’s like the one they tell about another female writer. When this hard-boiled stuff first came in, she dropped the trick English accent and went in for scram and lam. She got to hanging around with a lot of mugs in a speak, gathering material for a novel. Well, the mugs didn’t know they were picturesque and thought she was regular until the barkeep put them wise. They got her into the back room to teach her a new word and put the boots to her. They didn’t let her out for three days. On the last day they sold tickets to n—–s…”

Miss Lonelyhearts stopped listening. His friends would go on telling these stories until they were too drunk to talk. They were aware of their childishness, but did not know how else to revenge themselves.

Obviously this is an extreme example. But Brownmiller’s general point is that whenever men feel like the perquisites of their gender are threatened, sexual assault has generally increased. And the strategy often succeeds: a response to the well-publicized cases of sexual assault in India was to curtail the freedoms of women, ostensibly for their own protection. And even more often, women curtail their own freedoms out of fear. In that article, women discuss feeling compelled to dress more conservatively than they’d like. They stay in at night. They curtail other behaviors: Koss & Dinero studied predictors of sexual aggression in college males and found , unsurprisingly, that most sexual assaults were preceded by consensual kissing. As I think most people expect, the biggest dangers for sexual assault against women aren’t from strangers, but from people they know. Which is awful: for instance, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network has tips on reducing your risk of being assaulted, but a major piece of advice is “avoid isolated areas.” That can be tricky on dates. It can be tricky if you’re not safe at home: here’s a passage from the end of dream hampton‘s beautiful, harrowing essay in the volume “Black Cool“.

“Marvel and two other tall boys were yelling through our heavy wooden locked door, through the thunder and rain, for my brother to open up. I told my brother he better not even think of it. My brother looked at me, on the stairs, and then again through the window, where Marvel was threatening his life should he not open the door, and he did something that still makes my heart sink: He opened the door and let the outside in. The three boys, who were all older than sixteen (I’d learn this later, from Friend of the Court documents) pushed my brother aside the moment he cracked the door and chased me upstairs, where I was hoping to lock myself in my room and use the fire escape ladder my dad had bought me to run to my neighbor Ms. Erma’s, across the street. I remember having that plan in my head. But they ran faster than I did. And were stronger. And they threw me on the bed in the playroom, where Bo sat frozen, and pulled off my panties. There was an attempt, many attempts, to pin me down, to keep my legs from kicking, but I would not stop kicking. I kicked and I punched and I screamed and I spat and I squirmed. …. …. I’ve told this story three times. To my two best friends and to a lover I trust. In my sister circle where I sit, or the many friendships where my girlfriends have asked me to witness the telling of their own rape stories, I’ve stayed silent. I always feared my not being raped because I refused to stop fighting would seem an indictment of their stories. But I don’t feel that way. I don’t believe they weren’t strong enough or should have fought if they didn’t or that their rapes were in any way their fault. But I never tell my own story, because of a kind of survivor’s guilt. That, and the deep contempt I hold for Bo and my brother.”

Then, of course, there is the fallout; will a victim of sexual assault have even the minor consolation of seeing her assailant brought to justice? Which obviously has important implications for the safety of others: those who commit sexual assault tend to be very likely to do it again. But reporting sexual assault has been very difficult throughout history, has often resulted in further harm done to the original victim, and rarely results in justice. Here’s a single example to start off with: submitting a rape kit is an arduous process, but some victims go through with it hoping to keep others safe. DNA testing is relatively inexpensive and could identify patterns of repeat assault and in some cases directly identify criminals. Unfortunately, ending sexual assault has not been a high priority for police departments in the United States, judging by their behavior. After women went through the ordeal of submitting a kit, many many kits have gone untested in this country. That is, police put the bagged samples onto a shelf in the back of their evidence room and simply forgot about it.

Or there are the trials themselves, if a sexual assault case even makes it to trial. Which, right, because women have often been considered property and not people in U.S. law, has its own set of peculiarities. Like, if you’re a victim, you don’t get a lawyer. You are simply a witness on behalf of the state: the government charges the perpetrator on your behalf. And there are no rules regarding the sort of personal information that can be raised about witnesses in the courtroom. Witnesses have few protections, any and all personal details about them may be introduced in the courtroom, and in many sexual assault trials they can be sharply berated — while crying — on the witness stand. I discussed some of this for trials with child witnesses in an earlier essay about a similarly horrible topic; you should feel free to read that too if you’re not yet miserable enough. But, right, defendants, i.e. those who commit crimes and then go to trial, have many more protections. For instance, even if a defendant’s past shows behavior that might persuade the jury that this person might be inclined to commit sexual assault — such as past instances in which the person did commit sexual assault — that information is not allowed to be introduced into the courtroom. Despite all the data showing the prevalence of repeat offenders, a jury is not allowed to know whether the accused in fact is a repeat offender.

But the trials are less horrible for victims than they used to be: here is a passage from Martin Van Creveld’s “Wargames“:

The most famous case of this kind unfolded in France in 1385-6 and is known to us from Froissart as well as numerous other sources. The story started when Marguerite, the young and beautiful wife of a Norman nobleman, Jean de Carrouges, told her husband that during his absence from their chateau she had been raped. The perpetrator was one Jacques Le Gris, another nobleman well known to the couple. Though inferior in rank, he was wealthier and well-connected. Carrouges’ first step was to ask for justice at the hands of the local count. Having failed to get it, he went to Paris, consulted a lawyer, and begged the youthful King Charles VI to allow him to confront his enemy in battle. The matter was ferred to Parliament which launched a formal inquest, and after several months’ deliberations granted the request: clearly it was felt that, in the absence of witnesses, combat was the only way to find out the truth. Preparations were made to hold the event at Saint-Martin-des-Champs, a well-known Paris monastery. Its extensive grounds included a large field long used for the purpose and capable of holding as many as 10,000 spectators.

On December 29, 1386 a huge crowd gathered. In attendance were the king, his uncles, members of the high nobility, senior prelates and magistrates, and thousands of others. The most important spectator was Marguerite herself. Dressed in black and seated in a black carriage, she would face immediate execution (by burning) for bringing false accusations if her husband lost his fight.

Right. Let that sink in a moment.

And, here. As a tiny treat — because, look, I realize this essay is unpleasant, but I’m actually showing a good deal of restraint in terms of not citing numerous other unpleasantries — here are a few details about how the above contest would transpire, also from Van Creveld’s work:

“In all this, great care was taken to ensure equity and what today might be called transparency. Each protagonist had to swear a solemn oath that his case was just [which, right… minor note… you noticed, I assume, that it was the victim’s husband who was involved in the “trial” in the preceding passage, right? That’s because his property was damaged. It’d be senseless for the woman to testify on her own behalf because she was an object, owned by her father if unmarried and owned by her husband if married. Widows have often faired ill through history, and had a strong incentive to remarry]. In case he lost, that meant he would automatically be held guilty of perjury as well. Things were so arranged that neither combatant would have the sun in his eyes. The use of concealed weapons was prohibited. So was wearing magic prayers and charms on one’s body; if it is true that the combats were understood as the judgement of God, it is also true that supernatural interference was forbidden and, to the extent possible, prevented.”

Okay. The ancient judicial system strip-searching people for charms to make sure that no angels or demons would interfere with a fight… that’s something I can contentedly ponder. Much happier than thinking about Marguerite having to watch her husband fight her rapist to the death, knowing that if her husband lost people would declare her accusation to be slander and burn her alive.

Which, just in case you were wondering, her husband won. She lived.

But others didn’t.

Of course, in my own work I’ve permitted myself a little fantasy in making my world less bleak than our actual world has been and, in many ways, still is. Because it’s crushing, honestly: so far I’ve managed to type out only about a third of my planned essay on violence against women, and that feels like more than enough for today. So, yes, there’s this horrible stuff in my book, but it’s unrealistic in that it’s not awful enough. I hope that’s okay.