Sexual Harassment is Not Artsy

Kathleen Reeves

Some in the British media are defending sexual harassment as an artistic eccentricity.

A controversy among British poets has elicited some alarming characterizations of sexual harassment.

Ruth Padel, chosen two weeks ago for an esteemed chair in poetry at Oxford, admitted on Monday that she had helped take down her chief competitor for the honor, Derek Walcott.

A month ago, Padel got in touch with two reporters to call their attention to Walcott’s history of sexual harassment. A book called The Lecherous Professor details his overtures (putting it mildly) to a poetry student at Harvard in 1982; Walcott allegedly told the student, “Imagine me making love to you. What would I do?” The student rejected Walcott, he gave her a C, the university intervened and the grade was changed to a “pass.”

Padel pointed to a second incident, as well, when, in 1996, a Boston University student brought a lawsuit against Walcott after the poet demanded sex in exchange for his helping her produce a play.

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

After being tipped off, a British newspaper published an article on the allegations, setting off a scandal that eventually led Walcott to bow out of the contest. During the fiasco, and even after she won, Padel expressed disgust with the smear campaign and regret that

her victory had been “poisoned by cowardly acts which I condemn and which I have nothing to do with.” She added, “Those acts have done immense damage to people and to poetry.”

The scandal is troubling on a few levels. Bringing up Walcott’s past the way Padel did seems cowardly and inappropriate. The facts are not clear. Who knows if Walcott really said what The Lecherous Professor claimed? Furthermore, smear campaigns, fueled by hearsay, public scintillation, and hungry media outlets, are notoriously poor forums for justice. On top of that, Padel’s dishonesty about her role in the scandal brings her motivations into question.

These are all valid critiques of the way this played out. But some in the British media have adopted a different defense of Walcott. Rather than challenging the nature of the attack on Walcott, they’re defending sexual harassment itself as just another artistic eccentricity:

Michael Deacon in The Telegraph cited Lord Byron (“womanizer”), Samuel Taylor Coleridge (“drug fiend”), John Keats (“smackhead”), Rudyard Kipling (“imperialist”), T. S. Eliot (“lines that could be construed as racist”) and Dylan Thomas (“drank like a drain, begged and stole from friends”), among others, and concluded, “Not one of them, were they alive today, could hope to land the Oxford post — they just don’t meet the exacting moral standards set by people who conduct smear campaigns.”

Deacon also says that Walcott “may or may not have said something insalubrious a long time ago” and also calls Walcott’s acts “flirting with students.” If the allegations against Walcott are true, what he did was much more deliberate than flirting. He tried to barter grades and his influence for sex. The picture painted by the accusations is unequivocal: a man who understood his power and didn’t hesitate to use it to try to coerce women into having sex with him. This is not complicated; it’s the epitome of sexual harassment. It’s not consensual and it has nothing to do with the promiscuity of Lord Byron. It’s certainly not comparable to alcoholism, opium use, or being politically controversial. The British press would do well to examine the legitimacy of Derek Walcott’s character assassination in light of media ethics, but to classify coercion as another example of literary free-living is ignorant.

Commentary Violence

This is Not The Story I Wanted—But It’s My Story of Rape

Dani Kelley

Writer Dani Kelley thought she had shed the patriarchal and self-denying lessons of her conservative religious childhood. But those teachings blocked her from initially admitting that an encounter with a man she met online was not a "date" that proved her sexual liberation, but an extended sexual assault.

Content note: This article contains graphic descriptions of sexual violence.

The night I first truly realized something was wrong was supposed to be a good night.

A visiting friend and I were in pajamas, eating breakfast food at 10 p.m., wrapped in blankets while swapping stories of recent struggles and laughs.

There I was, animatedly telling her about my recently acquired (and discarded) “fuck buddy,” when suddenly the story caught in my throat.

When I finally managed to choke out the words, they weren’t what I expected to say. “He—he held me down—until, until I couldn’t—breathe.”

Hearing myself say it out loud was a gut-punch. I was sobbing, gasping for breath, arms wrapped as if to hold myself together, spiraling into a terrifying realization.

This isn’t the story I wanted.

Unlearning My Training

I grew up in the Plymouth Brethren movement, a small fundamentalist Christian denomination that justifies strict gender roles through a literal approach to the Bible. So, according to 1 Corinthians 11:7, men are considered “the image and glory of God,” while women are merely “the glory of man.” As a result, women are expected to wear head coverings during any church service, among other restrictions that can be best summed up by the apostle Paul in 1 Timothy 2:11-12: Women are never allowed to have authority over men.

If you’ve spent any number of years in conservative Christianity like I did, you’re likely familiar with the fundamentalist tendency to demonize that which is morally neutral or positive (like premarital sex or civil rights) while sugar-coating negative experiences. The sugar-coating can be twofold: Biblical principles are often used to shame or gaslight abuse victims (like those being shunned or controlled or beaten by their husbands) while platitudes are often employed to help members cope with “the sufferings of this present time,” assuring them that these tragedies are “not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us.”

In many ways, it’s easy to unlearn the demonization of humanity as you gain actual real-world experience refuting such flimsy claims. But the shame? That can be more difficult to shake.

The heart of those teachings isn’t only present in this admittedly small sect of Christianity. Rather, right-wing Western Christianity as a whole has a consent problem. It explicitly teaches its adherents they don’t belong to themselves at all. They belong to God (and if they’re not men, they belong to their fathers or husbands as well). This instilled lack of agency effectively erases bodily autonomy while preventing the development of healthy emotional and physical boundaries.

On top of that, the biblical literalism frequently required by conservative Christianity in the United States promotes a terrifying interpretation of Scripture, such as Jeremiah 17:9. The King James Version gives the verse a stern voice, telling us that “the heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked.” If we believe this, we must accept that we’re untrustworthy witnesses to our own lives. Yet somehow, we’re expected to rely on the authority of those the Bible deems worthy. People like all Christians, older people, and men.

Though I’ve abandoned Christianity and embraced feminist secular humanism, the culture in which I grew up and my short time at conservative Bob Jones University still affect how I view myself and act in social situations. The lessons of my formative years created a perfect storm of terrible indoctrination: gender roles that promoted repressed individuality for women while encouraging toxic masculinity, explicit teaching that led to constant second-guessing my ability to accurately understand my own life, and a biblical impetus to “rejoice in my suffering.”

Decades of training taught me I’m not allowed to set boundaries.

But Some Habits Die Hard

Here’s the thing. At almost 30, I’d never dated anyone other than my ex-husband. So I thought it was about time to change that.

When I found this man’s online profile, I was pleasantly surprised. It was full of the kind of geekery I’m into, even down to the specific affinity for eclectic music. I wrote to him, making sure my message and tone were casual. He responded instantly, full of charisma and charm. Within hours, we’d made plans to meet.

He was just as friendly and attentive in person. After wandering around town, window-shopping, and getting to know one another, he suggested we go to his favorite bar. As he drank (while I sipped water), he kept paying me compliments, slowly breaking the touch barrier. And honestly, I was enthralled—no one had paid attention to me like this in years.

When he suggested moving out to the car where we could be a little more intimate, I agreed. The rush of feeling desired was intoxicating. He seemed so focused on consent—asking permission before doing anything. Plus, he was quite straightforward about what he wanted, which I found exciting.

So…I brought him home.

This new and exciting “arrangement” lasted one week, during which we had very satisfying, attachment-free sex several times and after which we parted ways as friends.

That’s the story I told people. That’s the story I thought I believed. I’d been freed from the rigid expectations and restraints of my youth’s purity culture.

Now. You’re about to hear me say many things I know to be wrong. Many feminists or victim advocates almost certainly know the rationalizations and reactions I’m about to describe are both normal responses to abuse and a result of ingrained lies about sex in our culture. Not to mention evidence of the influence that right-wing conservatism can have on shaping self-actualization.

As I was telling people the story above, I left out important details. Were my omissions deliberate? An instinctive self-preservation mechanism? A carryover from draconian ideals about promiscuity?

When I broke down crying with my friend, I finally realized I’d kept quiet because I couldn’t bear to hear myself say what happened.

I’m a feminist, damn it. I left all the puritanical understandings of gender roles behind when I exited Christianity! I even write about social justice and victim advocacy. I ought to recognize rape culture!

Right?

If only being a socially aware feminist was enough to erase decades of socialization as a woman within rape culture—or provide inoculation against sexual violence.

That first night, once we got to my car, he stopped checking in with me. I dismissed the red flag as soon as I noticed it, telling myself he’d stop if I showed discomfort. Then he smacked my ass—hard. I pulled away, staring at him in shocked revulsion. “Sorry,” he replied, smirking.

He suggested that we go back to my house, saying we’d have more privacy than at his place. I was uneasy, unconvinced. But he began passionately kissing, groping, petting, and pleading. Against my better judgment, I relented.

Yet, in the seclusion of my home, there was no more asking. There was only telling.

Before I knew it, I’d been thrown on my back as he pulled off my clothes. I froze. The only coherent thought I could manage was a weak stammer, asking if he had a condom. He seemed agitated. “Are you on birth control?” That’s not the point! I thought, mechanically answering “yes.”

With a triumphant grin and no further discussion, he forced himself into me. Pleasure fought with growing panic as something within me screamed for things to slow down, to just stop. The sensation was familiar: identical to how I felt when raped as a child.

I frantically pushed him off and rolled away, hyperventilating. I muttered repeatedly, “I need a minute. Just give me a minute. I need a minute.”

“We’re not finished yet!” he snapped angrily. As he reached for me again, I screeched hysterically, “I’M NOT OK! I NEED A MINUTE!”

Suddenly, he was kind and caring. Instead of being alarmed, I was strangely grateful. So once I calmed down, I fucked him. More than once.

It was—I told myself—consensual. After all, he comforted me during a flashback. Didn’t I owe him that much?

Yet, if I didn’t do what he wanted, he’d forcefully smack my ass. If I didn’t seem happy enough, he’d insistently tell me to smile as he hit me again, harder. He seemed to relish the strained smile I would force on command.

I kept telling myself I was okay. Happy, even. Look at how liberated I was!

All week, I was either at his beck and call or fighting suicidal urges. Never having liked alcohol before, I started drinking heavily. I did all I could to minimize or ignore the abuse. Even with his last visit—as I fought to breathe while he forcefully held my head down during oral sex, effectively choking me—I initially told myself desperately that surely he wouldn’t do any of this on purpose.

The Stories We Tell and The Stories That Just Are

Reflecting on that week, I’m engulfed in shame. I’m a proud feminist. I know what coercion looks like. I know what rape looks like. I know it’s rarely a scary man wearing a ski mask in a back alley. I’ve heard all the victim-blaming rape apologia you have: that women make up rape when they regret consenting to sex, or going on a date means sex is in the cards, or bringing someone home means you’re game for anything.

Reality is, all of us have been socialized within a patriarchal system that clouds our experiences and ability to classify them. We’re told to tend and befriend the men who threaten us. De-escalation at any cost is the go-to response of almost any woman I’ve ever talked to about unwanted male attention. Whatever will satiate the beast and keep us safe.

On top of that, my conservative background whispered accusations of being a Jezebel, failing to safeguard my purity, and getting exactly what I deserve for forsaking the faith.

It’s all lies, of course. Our culture lies when it says that there are blurred lines when it comes to consent. It violates our personhood when it requires us to change the narrative of the violence enacted against us for their own comfort. Right-wing Christianity lies when it says we don’t belong to ourselves and must submit to the authority of a religion or a gender.

Nobody’s assaulted because they weren’t nice enough or because they “failed” to de-escalate. There’s nothing we can do to provoke such violence. Rape is never deserved. The responsibility for sexual assault lies entirely with those who attack us.

So why was the story I told during and after that ordeal so radically and fundamentally different from what actually happened? And why the hell did I think any of what happened was OK?

Rape myths are so ingrained in our cultural understanding of relationships that it was easier for me to believe nothing bad had happened than to accept the truth. I thought if I could only tell the story I wanted it to be, then maybe that’s what really happened. I thought if I was willing—if I kept having him over, if I did what he ordered, if I told my friends how wonderful it was—it would mean everything was fine. It would mean I wasn’t suffering from post-traumatic stress or anxiety about defying the conservative tenets of my former political and religious system.

Sometimes, we tell ourselves the stories we want to hear until we’re able to bear the stories of what actually happened.

We all have a right to say who has what kind of access to our bodies. A man’s masculinity gives him no authority over anyone’s sexual agency. A lack of a “no” doesn’t mean a “yes.” Coercion isn’t consent. Sexual acts performed without consent are assault. We have a right to tell our stories—our real stories.

So, while this isn’t the story I wanted, it’s the story that is.

I was raped.

News Abortion

Advocates: Texas Will Not Be ‘Bending Over Backwards’ to Reopen Clinics

Teddy Wilson

Heather Busby, executive director NARAL Pro-Choice Texas, told Rewire in a phone interview that while the Supreme Court’s decision is a victory for reproductive rights, the damage to reproductive health care in Texas cannot be easily undone.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5 to 3 Monday that two provisions of a Texas omnibus anti-choice law, the admitting privileges and ambulatory surgical center requirements, are unconstitutional. The Court’s ruling nullifies the two provisions, which directly led to several abortion clinics in the state either closing or ceasing to provide abortion services.

However, the Supreme Court’s decision striking down parts of Texas HB 2 is just the first step to restoring access to reproductive health care in the state: Most of the state’s clinics that have been forced to close will not be able to immediately reopen, if they reopen at all.

Prior to the passage of HB 2 there were 41 facilities in Texas that offered abortion services. Since that time, there have been 19 facilities that closed and another four that stopped providing abortion services.

Whole Woman’s Health, the plaintiff in the Supreme Court case, was one of several abortion providers affected after the passage of HB 2 in 2013. 

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

The family of clinics was forced to close two facilities in Beaumont and Austin.

The Whole Woman’s Health clinic in McAllen shuttered but reopened after a court decision, and another Whole Woman’s Health clinic in Fort Worth was forced to close but reopened after the clinic’s physician obtained the admitting privileges required by the law.

However, other clinics “likely won’t reopen,” the Associated Press reported Monday.

Among the 19 facilities that closed in the state, at least eight have been sold and reopened by other businesses or organizations. Another facility, Abortion Advantage in Dallas, was demolished. Some of the facilities that closed are still owned by the abortion providers, but it’s unclear at this point how many may consider reopening.

For those facilities that may want to resume providing abortion services, there are several hurdles to jump through first. Clinics will need to rehire staff, re-purchase medical equipment and supplies, and find physicians who provide abortion care. This last obstacle may be one of the more difficult ones to overcome, as the number of physicians who provide abortion care in Texas has declined.

Prior to the implementation of HB 2, there were 48 physicians who provided abortion care across the state. While some physicians stopped providing abortion services because they could not gain admitting privileges, other physicians stopped providing services for reasons including retirement, illness, or personal circumstances.

There currently are 28 physicians with admitting privileges who are providing abortion care in Texas, according a study by the Texas Policy Evaluation Project.

Heather Busby, executive director NARAL Pro-Choice Texas, told Rewire in a phone interview that while the Supreme Court’s decision is a victory for reproductive rights, the damage to reproductive health care in Texas cannot be easily undone.

“You can’t fix a broken system overnight,” Busby said. “You may have to completely re-staff. You may have to find another facility. You also have the other challenge of getting licensed by the state, and this is Texas.”

Texas has grown “particularly hostile on the administrative side,” and currently licensed facilities are reporting an increasing number of surprise inspections and state inspectors are being “unduly harsh,” according to Busby.

“I’m sure Texas is not going to be bending over backwards to provide licenses to abortion providers,” Busby said.

Perhaps the most significant obstacle that clinics may face will be meeting all of the requirements required to obtain a license to provide abortion services from the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS).

An application for an abortion facility must be submitted to the DSHS “no earlier than 90 calendar days prior to the projected opening date of the facility,” and a $5,000 license fee must be submitted with the application. The license fee is not refundable.

The licensing process includes an onsite survey by officials from the DSHS, who will review clinical records, facility policies and procedures, quality assurance activities, and personnel records, as well as conduct interviews with staff. The process of obtaining a license can take as long as a year.

“It’s going to be a long process for sure; it’s not going to be overnight,” Busby said.