Policing rape culture



Gleaner column 3/1/2018

Looking back on 2017 one thing stands out. Jamaica was way ahead of the curve in what would become the most significant social disruptor, globally, in recent years—breaking the silence on sexual harassment and rape culture.  As far back as early 2017 a young local activist, Latoya Nugent, had the gumption to start the #SayTheirNames campaign in Jamaica accompanied by a list of offenders who had been named by young girls and women as their violators. For this she was vilified and treated like an enemy of the state, with six assault rifle-bearing members of the Major Organised Crime and Anti-Corruption Agency (MOCA) descending on Mary Seacole Hall at the University of the West Indies to arrest her.

The actions of Latoya Nugent, and her close allies Nadine Spence, Taitu Heron and others gave rise to what is now known as The Tambourine Army because in accusing the then leader of the Moravian Church, Paul Gardner, Nugent tapped him on the head with a tambourine. This caused several senior activists and journalists to harshly criticize the tactics of the younger generation of activists, on the grounds that their modus operandi was too militant and they were using violence to make their point. Never mind the far more serious violence these women were protesting, assault with a tambourine became a thing in Jamaica.

In India too a young lawyer named Raya Sarkar started a growing ‘hall of shame’ list of names of sexual predators leading to a remarkably similar fallout between an older generation of feminists and a younger, more impatient one, tired of waiting for ‘due process’ to trip in. Like Nugent’s list in Jamaica care was taken to ensure that complaints about sexual predation were registered based on evidence corroborating the accusation. The difference was that the Indian list came in the wake of the phenomenally successful US-based #MeToo campaign in October 2017 whereas the Tambourine Army and the #SayTheirNames campaign in Jamaica were already in full swing by February 2017.

The problem of rape in Jamaica is not new. According to artist Judy Ann Macmillan her mother, Vida J. Macmillan, did her best to change the rape laws of Jamaica in the 70s with continuous letters to the Gleaner. The punishment in her day for raping a child was twelve lashes. Judy Ann grew up on the story that her mother had even tried to talk to Edna Manley about it and Edna’s response was “If you are about to be raped dear I think you should lie down and enjoy it.” Mind you those were the days of the ideology wars and Vida and Edna came from opposite sides of that divide.

The sheer number of women and children routinely being sexually violated even today points to a pervasive ‘rape culture’ that is so deeply ingrained and accepted that there is hardly any outcry against it. Most women don’t even bother to report their rapes because of the tortuous procedures involved that make them relive the trauma in the process of being interviewed by police and legal personnel bristling with disbelief and completely lacking in empathy. Nor is this a local problem only. As @LauraOlin tweeted “Why women don’t report: 60 women give the same account of Bill Cosby and a jury still can’t agree that he raped anyone.”

Latoya Nugent was ahead of her time in the stellar championing of victims’ rights to call out their aggressors by name. So important did a similar movement become in the US only months later that Time magazine named as its persons of the year, The Silence Breakers—the women who had the courage to speak to the New York Times about their sexual exploitation at the hands of Hollywood mogul, Harvey Weinstein.

Meanwhile I heard a local journalist complaining that he preferred the hashtag #MeToo to #SayTheirNames because the latter was too confrontational. Yet as a vice.com article titled The Trouble With Saying ‘Me Too’ pointed out: “For each of us who have been raped, assaulted or harassed, there is at least one rapist, at least one abuser. These are the people who need to be held accountable, instead of survivors being put on trial to prove their assaults were bad enough to count for something.” In France, the campaign used the hashtag #BalanceTonPorc – roughly translated as “snitch out your pig” a far more hard-hitting and unflattering tag than #SayTheirNames.

Naming those who injure you is important, breaking harmful silences is crucial. Let the Tambourine Army do its work. As an anonymous supporter of Nugent’s said, “Men will hear tambourines shake in their heads anytime they feel tempted to touch a woman or child, and they will think twice. They are the ones who will be afraid.”

The “Me Too” Phenomenon

Gleaner column of October 18, 2017

“If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me too.’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem,” read the Facebook update. So said, so done. Within a couple of days the #MeToo hashtag gathered so much momentum that women who didn’t post #MeToo as their status update on Facebook were in the minority.

It was the logical outcome of a wave of outings of famous men who have systematically assaulted women, using their power to extricate sexual services from their victims either without consent or by manufacturing it. Whether it was the drugging of victims by Bill Cosby or demands for sexual favors in return for Hollywood stardom by Harvey Weinstein, the public outcry has made it clear that such blatant abuse of power has to stop. If not  the perpetrators will be named and shamed in no uncertain terms.

Interestingly there were many who rushed to Cosby’s defense insinuating that he was the victim of a plot against black people, and that the increasing number of women accusing him of sexual abuse were lying. In the Harvey Weinstein case one has yet to hear of sinister plots against Jewish Hollywood producers but no doubt its a matter of time. In the meantime he is being pilloried in no uncertain terms, losing contracts, respect and prestigious positions left, right and centre.

Note too, that all of this is without benefit of police charges, trials in court and conviction by jury as was demanded by the Jamaican public when a small group of women here insisted that it was time to expose sexual predators by naming and shaming them. In the Weinstein case it was the New York Times that broke the story, after in-depth investigation and interviewing of some victims.

The outing of Weinstein is not only loosening the tongues of his victims, it is pushing other women around the world to talk out about the routine sexual harassment they face, particularly in show business. A former member of popular American band the Pussycat Dolls has claimed in a series of tweets that the girl group operated as a ‘prostitution ring’, with the members forced into sex with entertainment executives. “’To be a part of the team you must be a team player. Meaning sleep with whoever they say. If you don’t they have nothing on you to leverage,’ tweeted Kaya Jones who spent two years as a band member.

It’s bad enough to be sexually exploited but far worse to face denial and vilification when you try and report or talk about the offense committed. Instead of receiving help and sympathy the victim is often hounded and disparaged as Kaya Jones found out. In India Sheena Dabholkar, a Pune-based writer and blogger, started a thread on Twitter highlighting the harassment she experienced at popular bar and hangout spot High Spirits, as well as the response she got for calling it out.

Sheena’s tweets elicited social media testimony from many other women who had experienced the same disgusting behavior from the bar’s owner, Khodu Irani, who has been accused of groping, sending lewd messages, fat-shaming and harassing multiple patrons/employees of his cafe.

Sexual exploitation is not just an occupational hazard of show business and entertainment however. It abounds at universities too. John Rapley, who worked at University of the West Indies for many years, wrote an interesting blogpost titled ‘The Weinstein Syndrome’. Said Rapley:

“I once worked in an environment where this sort of thing was rife – a university, where most of the students were women and most of the teachers, men. The students were in the full flower of youth and the teachers, well, were not. But they had something more potent. The authority and aura that go with scholarship sometimes suffice to bring young students tumbling into a lecturer’s lap; but for those who lack charisma or charm, there is plain power. They determined grades, they assigned scholarships, they controlled promotions. And enough of them were ready to use that power to impose themselves on reluctant young women that it became what Weinstein called ‘the culture.’”

There is no institution that is immune from the abuse of power. Earlier this year the founders of the Tambourine Army and others found themselves the subject of hostile media attention after outing members of the Moravian Church for preying on underage girls. It is astonishing that outrage is reserved for those who find the courage to name and shame rather than the perverts who commit the crime of sexual exploitation.

“‘Humankind cannot bear very much reality,’ declared T. S. Eliot. But bear it we must, and stand alongside those for whom reality is too often a punch in the gut. I looked at my many sisters and friends declaring “me too” on their Facebook walls (knowing that for every “me too” said aloud, there are thousands-upon-thousands whispered or left unsaid) and I am floored. It shouldn’t be a surprise—and in many ways it isn’t—but to see the avalanche of evidence rushing down… Reality does feel like too much.”

If only more people thought like Garnette Cadogan, quoted above, one of the few men to respond compassionately to the #MeToo confessions. There is simply no excuse for demanding that women (or men) remain silent in the face of systematic sexual depredation.