Shame, Pleasure and Affirmative Consent
Credit: Reuters / TPG
originally published: 2018/10/11, The New Lens International – Society
Speaking up about sexual assault amidst the patriarchal structures we are entrenched in has shown itself to be inconsequential. Also irrelevant were the psychiatrists and neuroscientists vouching for the validity of not wanting to come forward and yet having such vivid memories of the traumatic event – for a lifetime. Of course, I am speaking of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee.
As nefarious as the results of the U.S. Senate hearing and Federal Bureau of Investigation inquiry may seem to most people, the greatest evil is the attempt to placate the global audience with promises of justice being served through not “ruining a good man’s name” – to paraphrase Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s chief defender, the Republican Senator Lindsey Graham.
Heaven forbid we ruin a good man’s name.
But let’s stop and think for a moment: Who, now that Kavanaugh has been seated, will feel the ramifications? The women. The victims. Those brave enough to stand up against the system. They will be ruined.
For the survivors of assault, there is no such thing as erasure. Whether they confront or not, the slate will never come fully clean, and the best they can hope for is a higher ratio of acknowledgment of their pain than cynicism from those who protect the assailants.
Please keep this in mind as we move from the outrage that has unfolded in the U.S. and focus on the manifestations of these deep seated issues here in Taipei.
Having sat down in a small dark room, I adjusted my position to better keep an eye on the man in front of me as he maniacally leapt from one dingy hotel twin bed to the other. A knot began to form in my throat. I was to remain silent for the next 75 minutes despite numerous urges to shout or gasp – but there was no intermission in this production of “Tape.”
The spectrum of emotions and the intensities of memories each audience member experienced will remain undisclosed. For some, however, this dramatization acted as a catalyst; people in Taipei have started talking a lot about rape.
There are numerous resources for meaningful discussion (such as this and this), which do not situate all masculinity as pure evil, but instead deconstruct its insidious influence throughout societies, and those should be explored.
For a more radical discussion of masculinity as a construct – written by men – this interview is worth your time. And in light of the recent developments regarding the #MeToo movement let us not forget, “It is far easier to assign blame to the broad category of men than it is to reckon with the myriad ways power manifests itself in the structures that connect human beings to one another.” This is not merely about gender or gender roles; this is about our patriarchal societies, false entitlement, and misdirected shame.
Instead of rooting this exploration in toxicity and power, I propose looking toward pleasure for an answer. I have come to regard consent, shame, and pleasure as inextricably linked, though infrequently mandated as such.
Those who feel entitled to their own needs and pleasure without having a firm grasp on their counterpart’s considerations promulgate systemic evil. Consent is not clearly understood because our fundamental understanding of a pleasure devoid of entitlement and power has not been taught or explored.
This is not merely about gender or gender roles; this is about our patriarchal societies, false entitlement, and misdirected shame.
Anchoring this consideration and approach to conversations already underway here, I was lucky enough to talk with Michelle Kao, the actress in the recent production of the drama “Tape” held at the Butterfly Effect theater. I have also interviewed Bianca Lin, who was the Administrative Director of the theater.
Other voices came forward, too; this time for much less fortunate reasons. There was a recent rape within the foreigner community here in Taipei. I know both parties involved, and the victim has given me permission to incorporate her public statement.
By exploring the plot line and characterizations in “Tape” to the dialogue taking place in real time here in Taipei, the inadequacies of our understanding burst through the seams of the discussions we are enabling.
To respect the privacy of some parties involved, some names have been omitted.
Before we enter into discussion of victim blaming, or the dismissal of shame that victims (and even perpetrators) may feel, we need to investigate where this shame comes from. We need to better understand that shame itself is a product of the very institutions and structures espousing patriarchy, restricting dissenting voices, or silencing these trauma narratives all together.
Mr. Klein, a psychotherapist writing for The New York Times, explains in his opinion piece ‘What Men Say About #MeToo in Therapy’: “Shame is the emotional weapon that allows patriarchal behaviors to flourish. The fear of being emasculated leads men to rationalize awful behavior. This kind of toxic shame is in direct contradiction with the healthy shame that we all need to feel in order to acknowledge mistakes and take responsibility.”
Most importantly, the shame must be laid at the feet of the abusers – not the survivors.
So shame – as an innate emotion – is not a bad thing. From feeling shame simply because of being a man or being ashamed of past actions which would be considered assault, to feeling shame because you’re a survivor of assault or being ashamed to admit your loss of agency in such situations, this is not a cut and dry emotional response.
Yet any healthy version of it would indicate internal change. So though shame itself is perfectly natural, a line between humility and humiliation must be societally acknowledged in order to make space for redemption. And most importantly, the shame must be laid at the feet of the abusers – not the survivors.
For Kao, the issues surrounding this sense of shame relate to victims first: “I think shame plays a huge part in not feeling like you can reach out for support or justice after something like sexual assault has happened. Whether it is a product of social stigma or culturally, women tend to blame themselves first, even if they are clearly a victim. It’s easy to be blinded by shame and not see the fact that something out of your control is wrong.”
Kao was fortunate enough to have spoken up during an incident in her teenage years. When she acted upon her discomfort after a male camp counselor made sexual comments to her, she was assured “even just passing comments...was considered a form of sexual harassment.” She had every right to speak up and there were ramifications for his actions. “In the past, when I got sexually harassed on public transport, I just got angry inside but wasn’t brave enough to say or do anything. This is why I think education or conversation early on in adolescence would have been hugely helpful.”
For Bianca Lin, many issues in Taiwan have to do with the fact “education (from family and the society) is still dominated by men’s point of view.” Despite patriarchal views opposing empowering efforts, “we are trying really hard to educate young girls that they have their own right[s over] their own bodies.”
When asked what they would say is the opposite of shame, both Kao and Lin cited being “comfortable,” while Kao took it a step further to say feeling “supported” as well. This comfort and support should come from our partners, yes. But it also needs to stem from society.
Permission and pleasure
If we don’t discuss what sex should be – directive, communicative, pleasurable explorations of others’ desires – how can we expect to destroy the structures in place protecting perpetrators, shaming victims, blaming accusers, and confusing all of those on this spectrum? How can we instill the importance of consent, if we don’t discuss what we are giving permission for?
I’m not alone in proposing this type of education as an antithesis to the confusion sadly still circulating around consent. Using the benchmark of: “1. Do I feel safe saying no? 2. Is my pleasure as important as his? 3. Does the sex end when he does?”, Andrea Barrica wrote an article for The Establishment earlier this year embracing a similar argument. Consent cannot be discussed without pleasure being understood.
In Taiwan, this is where the ‘Only Yes Means Yes’ campaign comes in. This affirmative consent campaign, reportedly based on foreign models, is taught through the Modern Women’s Foundation (MWF), which has been working towards gender safety and equality in various guises since 1987.
Kao explained: “In Taiwan, when cases are reported or are in court, so much emphasis was placed on ‘well, did you actually say no?’ Most time and energy was focused on hashing out details and figuring out what constituted ‘No.’ The goal of the ‘Only Yes Means Yes’ campaign is to shift the focus of investigation and interrogation, to where only ‘Yes’ means consent. So in consensual sex, there needs to be a clear invitation to have sex by one side, and a clear ‘Yes’ of consent from the other side.”
Lin added: “It’s too much in the culture if you don’t say anything, people just assume you agreed to something you don’t want to do…[and while] victims might have some physical reaction...it’s just a normal response, [but] doesn’t mean it’s consent.”
Another affirmative taking the internet – and bedrooms – by storm is OMGYes. Emma Watson praises it, a thousand women have contributed to it, and serious research supports it. The subscription based website not only educates women about their own bodies and the possibilities of their pleasure using language hitherto unavailable, but even men have had their expectations exceeded when it comes to educational and practical information. So perhaps in a place like Taiwan, where revolutionary sex education in the classroom is a far off concept, the privacy and discretion OMGYes can offer could very well be the way forward. (And yes, it’s currently available in 12 languages, included Traditional Chinese).
Kao answered with a resounding “YES” when I asked her if she agrees education about consent should come with education about pleasure; as did Bianca – but with less capitalization. For Kao, however, the question prompted memories of fear, which she felt would have been lessened if education like that had been the norm, along with some retrospective but unpleasant recollections. “Wow, I’m just remembering again, the bruises. He didn’t know what he was doing either, and I didn’t know better.”
#MeToo and the manifestations in Taipei
Amid allegations against known feminists – from a #MeToo figurehead, Asia Argento, to academics and a UN official, Avital Ronell, Michael Kimmel, and Ravi Karkara – concern about discrediting a movement meant to reveal and destroy the power structures and systemic abuse latent in such hierarchies is mounting.
As I was in the midst of reading through articles exploring the nature of support and its denial for some of these aforementioned feminists, a friend alerted me to the recent rape in Taipei. There will be no officials involved. No one will be entered into an ever growing database of allegations. And yet, a statement was made. The victim came forward on her social media to explain the assault and name the accused. (Later, the perpetrator also came forward to attempt a public apology on his own social media.)
Because the woman who was assaulted was still unsure if she was going public, I was informed of the situation before I knew who the victim was. I had worked closely with the accused. I had a meeting with him in a few hours, which I was hoping he wouldn’t have the audacity to show up to. I had many more questions than I had answers, but I was certain my foundation had been rattled.
A cognitive dissonance occurred; I was being forced to compartmentalize during my interaction with him, and the only way I made it through without addressing the issue head-on was by reminding myself how many perpetrators are being conversed with every minute, unknowingly. At least because of that victim’s bravery, I was aware. Out of respect for her voice, I held my tongue.
This brings us back to the play, “Tape.” If you are unaware of the plot, here’s a quick summation: Two best friends since childhood, Vince and Jon, reunite, only to have Vince exact his plan to audio-record Jon admitting to having raped Vince’s ex-girlfriend, Amy, back in high school. Soon Amy arrives on the scene, and the trio’s strained conversations oscillate between skirting around and tackling head on the issues of consent, shame, and redemption – the seething storyline forcing the audience to remain uncomfortably on edge the entire time. In the end, Amy chooses to reclaim some power by misleading the men to think police are on the way. Jon sits still – awaiting the justice he now realizes he deserves. In the end, it is revealed Amy only feigned making the call, but lessons have surely begun to take root.
The play highlights not only the denial perpetrators may face, as what is seen as “rough” to one is certainly non-consensual to the other, it also brings to light the interplay of shame: from Amy’s inability to admit it was rape for all these years – amid hints at the damage it had done to her body image, to Jon’s ultimate acceptance of his criminality and shame. Lastly, and especially relevant, is the victim’s choice to not report the crime to the authorities, but to instead invoke her own authority in order to deal with the crime via conversation and communal acknowledgment.
Michelle Kao, who played Amy, commented: “I have thankfully never been sexually assaulted. But from my past experiences with PTSD (in relation to suicide), calorie counting in college, being cheated on, and having a very rocky introduction to sex and intimacy, I can imagine just how destroyed Amy, in ‘Tape,’ would be after being date raped by someone she really cared for and trusted. The road to recovering a sense of self worth and purpose is long and difficult. Being betrayed both physically and emotionally is detrimental to having a healthy body image, and when you feel ashamed and can’t talk about the trauma, it’s easy to turn to an eating disorder.”
Grappling with how to feel about Jon’s character was more complicated. Should we feel relief that he sat waiting for the authorities? Are we right in feeling disappointed that justice wasn’t served? The only certainty is that it’s up to the victim how to deal with exacting punishment for the assault – but this was a fiction, meant to spark conversation about our own sympathies.
As far as we – the audience, the readership, the periphery, or even the friends – should react in real life situations, I draw a thick line.
I witnessed a woman (and a friend) get up to bat for the perpetrator; she even helped him draft his two week late public apology. She reasoned that his version of the evening was very different from the victim’s, and he therefore needed guidance in order to learn and grow. Despite all logical arguments I could muster, her defense remained. Not that he didn’t do it. Not that he didn’t deserve to be called out on it, even. But that we – as women, as victims ourselves of the systemic abuse – owe it to him and all perpetrators to help.
Coddling abusers in their path to healing is fundamentally patriarchal.
To this I scream: No we do not! And as recently, via a Vox article, I now have the validation of a male screaming it along with me. (So, you know, maybe the sentiment will be taken seriously and the “demographics that may be reachable by a dudely voice that are not being reached by female voices” can be tapped into.) In David Roberts’ words: “Talking about the perpetrators ‘moving on with their lives’ at all, much less with sympathy and solicitude, is a clear signal that the moral weight and severity of the crisis has not sunk in. We’re still not taking this shit seriously.”
Coddling abusers in their path to healing is fundamentally patriarchal. It has been ingrained in us, sure; that makes it lazy, not logical. It requires no emotional response and no advocacy beyond a pat on the well-worn back of the shamed perpetrator.
The online community’s ardent support for the victim here in Taipei – despite the assaulter’s acceptance of responsibility and wrongdoing – seemed for some uncalled for. If he’s admitting to it, shouldn’t we stop trolling him? I didn't mince words: We should not be applauding people who sexually assault other people for agreeing that they have sexually assaulted someone, and we certainly shouldn’t be applauding them for doing so after they have had to have it spelled out to them, pushed to offer an actual apology.
We should not be applauding people who sexually assault other people for agreeing that they have sexually assaulted someone.
At the same time, a witch hunt is not what the victim wanted, and for those reasons we should act only for our own hurt, not in the name of someone else’s. In her words: “I would like to make it clear that my goal here is to encourage conversation, not to trigger a witch hunt, campaign of hate, or any sort of violent reprisal.”
It is up to each individual how they choose to express their disapproval, allyship, and/or solidarity. There is no one right way. There are, however, quite a few damaging and backward paths one could choose. Acknowledging the truth in an accusation does nothing in isolation, especially when this abuser was an ally. In the woman’s words: “He is a respected artist in the community, someone who makes things happen, someone who empowers the people he sees potential in.”
He is a supporter of the #MeToo movement and of feminism in general. I mention this because even people who represent themselves as allies are capable of this evil. It is good we are having more conversations about rape and consent but obviously there is still much to do.” And yes, there are steps that can be taken even for delusions as deep as this.
Also in the realm of counterproductive responses were discussions that went a bit like this: "Well, it’s not really rape – shouldn’t we find another word for it?" And, to be clear, I’m not above any of this. I was raped years ago, and have only recently been able to call it what it was. In fact, I was assaulted more than once, and the impending shame of discussing it or even naming it kept me from saying anything.
During these conversations, women recalled situations in which things were hazy, consent wasn’t given, “but nothing violent happened.” They gave in, so they say it wasn’t rape-rape. They wondered about over-using the term. They felt it should be reserved for that small percentage of women so brutally attacked that they do become a statistic and a newsreel presence.
It is in the more sweeping definition that so many people will find themselves sitting – 81 percent of women, in fact. But no one ever asks to be a victim, which is why conversations have shifted to refer to these women (and men, as the term applies to all those assaulted) as survivors. Victim or survivor, the fact remains that unless we call the crime what it is – that uncomfortable word rape – then we do not have a chance in hell to stop the abuse. The word has more power than these perpetrators will ever have. We must use it.
In the words of the victim discussed herein, “Our voices can become weapons of dissuasion and tools of empowerment.” The first step then is to name it.
The word 'rape' has more power than these perpetrators will ever have. We must use it.
It is a shameful word not because victims should be ashamed, but because the power wielding, entitled, aggressors should be. And just because a handful of them are, in retrospect, self-aware enough to admit their criminality, this in no way indicates the issue is resolved.
Also from the woman’s post: “Of course, it is for the victims of assault to choose for themselves whether to speak out or not, according to what they think is better for them...but the ones who speak up shouldn't be the ones left to live in shame, guilt, and fear. The perpetrators and the ones who protect them are the ones who should be carrying this burden.”
And with this burden, what will help is open conversation, professional therapy, uncomfortable knowledge, more frank discussion, and ever expanding awareness.
In both the fictionalized drama “Tape” and the virtual discussion in Taipei, the shame shifted from victim to perpetrator. Yet, was that going to happen with or without his admission and apology? And will this always be the case? Depending on where someone is located and the support he or she has, probably not.
While these narratives and reactions are surfacing, simultaneously we must be shifting conversations and education to pleasure.
Therefore, the doubt when these questions are asked needs to be obliterated. It is only due to the multilayered nature of sexual abuse and abuse of power that we even have to stop and think about this. And it’s going to take a lot more discussion to reach the point at which the knee-jerk reaction has nothing to do with gender or sexuality, has nothing to do with geographical location or the time of day, the outfit worn or the blood alcohol content, but does have to do with a victim using immense bravery and power despite the trauma to use his or her voice.
While these narratives and reactions are surfacing, simultaneously we must be shifting conversations and education to pleasure. The fact that a #MeToo supporter was allegedly unable to understand what consent really looked like, although he has read up and commented on the issue, points to the reality of consent not being taught (if not something much more sinister). Consent is so much more than the nod of the head – and it is certainly not when the shake of a head finally stops. It is a dialogue. And it must be expounded as such.
The affirmative action ‘Only Yes means Yes’ campaign is certainly a starting point. Perhaps more discreet educational programs, like OMGYes or small workshops offered at places like MOWES can also help fill a void, especially in a culture where sexual education is not up to the task. Kao explains, as a teacher here in Taipei: “The #MeToo movement in itself of course encourages conversation. But I have also found that just the being able to reference the phrase ‘#MeToo,’ instead of saying rape or date rape, make it easier for me to talk about the issue with students and male colleagues.”
And hopefully, in time, more discussions will be had and progress will be made. But in both the play and the rape‚ there were foreigners involved: foreigners who are typically better versed in these topics or more exposed to discussions of this nature.
The people I spoke to – mostly friends and some women, artists, feminists – appalled me again and again throughout my conversations. Lazy thinking and easy resolutions, especially while living in a patriarchal and traditional society such as this one, are nearly as malignant as those who commit the crimes.
Whether through the use of physical art or virtual spaces, we must grow in our support of these conversations. We must keep reading and asking and listening. We must learn how to helpfully respond to victims who come forward. We must stop pandering to abusers because we’re used to doing so, and that makes it easier than standing up for those around us. We can surmount the barriers around these treacherously enabling perspectives and destroy these damaging monologues – foreigner or local, here or abroad, feminist or not.
TNL Editor: David Green