On being explicit

Note: towards the end of this post there are some examples of sexually graphic and threatening language.

It’s almost exactly a year since I first read Emma Jane’s book Online Misogyny: A Short (and Brutish) History. It does exactly what it says on the tin: in just over 100 pages it tracks the development of online misogyny from the late 1990s to the present. And it doesn’t spare us the details. On the very first page we’re given several examples of the distinctive register Jane calls ‘Rapeglish’. To the question she knows some readers will be asking–‘why didn’t you give us a content warning?’–she replies that there was no warning for the women these messages were sent to.

Jane believes that if we’re serious about tackling online misogyny, we need to know what it looks like and what it feels like:

We must bring it into the daylight and look at it directly, no matter how unsettling or unpleasant the experience may be.

This point doesn’t just apply to online abuse. In recent weeks, sexual harassment has been high on the mainstream news agenda; and this has sparked debate on what kind of language to use in reporting it.

As regular readers may recall, in early November I published a post criticising the mainstream media for their endless repetition of the formulaic phrase ‘inappropriate behaviour’–a bland, all-purpose euphemism whose effect is to minimise the seriousness of the issue. I feel the same about another media favourite, ‘sexual misconduct’. This is slightly less mealy-mouthed than ‘inappropriate behaviour’ (since it doesn’t totally erase the sexual element), but it’s still an affectless, catch-all term which allows us not to look directly at what the perpetrator actually (or allegedly) did.

Not long after I wrote my post, Vox published a piece entitled ‘The complicated, inadequate language of sexual violence’, in which the journalist Constance Grady laid out the dilemma she faces when reporting on sexual harassment:

You can make your language clinical but vague, or you can make it graphic but specific. … I have found that the less specific my language is, the more invisible the violence becomes. But I also worry that the more specific I get, the more sensationalized my language feels.

There is no easy solution to this problem. Grady doesn’t want to downplay the violence, but being specific in this context means being sexually explicit, and that can cause problems of its own:

A survivor…could easily be triggered; even if you’re not a survivor, reading multiple graphic images…can be emotionally trying or even numbing. Such descriptions can also swing the other way, and become luridly fascinating in a way that feels exploitative, as if I am writing pornography rather than reporting on a sexual assault case.

‘Respectable’ mainstream news outlets do generally try to avoid sexually explicit language–not because they share Grady’s feminist concerns, but for more traditional reasons of ‘taste and decency’. Hence their fondness for such bland, generic formulas as ‘inappropriate behaviour’ and ‘sexual misconduct’.

This isn’t just a journalists’ dilemma, it’s also a longstanding problem for feminist campaigners on the issue of sexual violence. To make women’s experiences speakable you have to name them; but if you want them to be speakable in a court of law, or in the New York Times (whose masthead famously proclaims that it reports ‘all the news that’s fit to print’), the words you use have to be acceptable, not (porno)graphic or otherwise offensive. That, however, increases the risk that over time they will be depoliticised, used in such vague, euphemistic or trivialising ways that they no longer serve their original feminist purpose.

In October the New York Times published an op-ed piece which made exactly this argument about the current usage of ‘sexual harassment’. The author asserted that since it first acquired mainstream currency in the mid-1970s, this originally feminist coinage had been ‘co-opted, sanitized [and] stripped of its power to shock’. Corporations, she argued, had taken ‘a term that once spoke to women about revolution’ and made it into a piece of ‘corporate-friendly legalese’, the stuff of HR manuals and training courses designed less to advance the cause of workplace equality than to protect employers from lawsuits.

This criticism is all the more damning if we consider the identity of the critic. The words I’ve just quoted are the words of Lin Farley—the woman who literally wrote the book on sexual harassment at work, and who is credited with introducing the term into mainstream public discourse. Farley now wants feminists to reclaim and re-politicise it. How does she think we should do it?

By talking about the details — every time. By making the reality of what it looks like clear. …In this context, the most valuable part of the exposures of men like Harvey Weinstein and Roger Ailes may lie in the excruciating, unforgettable details. This is where the heart of understanding the truth of sexual harassment resides.

Emma Jane is also in favour of talking about the details. In Online Misogyny she reproduces not only ‘a multitude of examples, but….a multitude of unexpurgated examples’. Her insistence on quoting abusers’ own words reflects her belief that when academics or the media skate over the details–when they simply describe messages as ‘graphic’ or ‘threatening’, without repeating their actual content–they are unwittingly contributing to the problem. The refusal to be explicit tells women who are experiencing abuse that the details should not be aired in public; it also allows people who have not experienced abuse to go on believing that it’s really not that serious–that women who get upset are just ‘princesses’ who need to ‘toughen up’.

Women who have been targets of abuse have made similar points themselves. The classicist Mary Beard, for instance, who was viciously attacked after a TV appearance in 2013, told an interviewer:

You never know what it’s like, because no mainstream paper will print it, nobody on the radio will let you say it…

Though Beard had received numerous rape and death threats, along with other sexually graphic messages, what the media reports foregrounded was the abusers’ insulting comments on her appearance. Consequently, she said, her concerns were decried as trivial:

It came to look as if I was worried that they’d said I hadn’t done my hair.

A few months later there was a sustained attack on Caroline Criado-Perez, the feminist who had successfully campaigned for a woman to be represented on a Bank of England banknote. The abuse Criado-Perez experienced was so intense and so threatening, two of those responsible would eventually be sent to prison. But while it was actually happening, as she recalls in her book Do It Like A Woman, the news reports ‘spoke vaguely of online abuse’, and whenever she was interviewed she was warned to keep her language ‘polite’.  ‘I was forced’, she writes,

to shield members of the public from something from which no one had been able to shield me. And I have been labelled a ‘delicate flower’ by certain commentators as a result. They thought I was just complaining that someone had sworn at me.

She goes on to reproduce a few of the messages she received, and at this point I am going to do the same (I’ve avoided it so far, but complete avoidance is starting to feel hypocritical):

FIRST WE WILL MUTILATE YOUR GENITALS WITH SCISSORS, THEN SET YOUR HOUSE ON FIRE WHILE YOU BEG TO DIE TONIGHT. 23.00

I have a sniper rifle aimed directly at your head currently. Any last words you fugly piece of shit? Watch out bitch.

SHUT YOUR WHORE MOUTH…OR ILL SHUT IT FOR YOU AND CHOKE IT WITH MY DICK

How can you make people understand the effect of receiving thousands of messages like this in the space of one weekend if you cannot repeat them, or say any of the words they contain?

We are back to Constance Grady’s dilemma: repeated exposure to sexually graphic and violent language may cause readers and listeners distress, but shielding them from the reality of abuse by wrapping it up in linguistic cotton wool means that women’s experiences will be trivialised or denied.

It may also mean that perpetrators are given the benefit of the doubt. Vague language has been a gift to apologists like Matt Damon, who has talked about ‘a spectrum of behaviour’ (meaning, OK, there are extreme cases like Harvey Weinstein, but most men who’ve been accused of ‘misconduct’ have done nothing really wrong). By contrast, it would hardly be convincing to talk about ‘a spectrum of threatening to shoot a woman in the head’, or ‘a spectrum of whipping your penis out and forcing a woman to watch you masturbate’.

Violent men throughout history have not only relied on women’s fear to keep them compliant, they have also relied on women’s shame to keep them silent. In the last few weeks many women have broken their silence (in some cases a silence that had lasted years); but when their accounts are presented in a veiled, inexplicit language, that subtly reinforces the idea that their experiences are somehow shameful. We cannot put that shame where it belongs–with the perpetrators, not their victims–if we cannot describe the details of what was done and what was said. So, while I don’t dismiss the problems Constance Grady discusses, I am ultimately of the same opinion as Emma Jane, Lin Farley and Caroline Criado-Perez: it’s important to be explicit.

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