The media’s selective response to sexual violence shows the racism of society’s misogyny

by Katie Arthur

13 March 2016

2016 started with a moral panic about the sexual delinquency of migrants in Europe – a narrative spun from the incitement to hatred constituted by the current refugee crisis. Yet the planned rallies for the followers of pro-rape pickup artist Daryush ‘Roosh V’ Valizadeh didn’t even make the 6 o’clock news. Symptomatic of our culture’s inability to recognise sexual violence outside of its ‘myth of rape’ as always and only perpetuated by foreign Others, the disparity in media coverage shows our desperate need to make visible different forms of sexual violence and confront the latent racism in our understanding of not only what is newsworthy, but what deserves justice.

Earlier this year, Roosh V’s planned visit to the UK was brought abruptly to the attention of people up and down Britain. Splashed across the web and social media, Valizadeh announced eight planned meetings for his avid followers in cities from London to Edinburgh. Some of us may know Roosh V from his unrelenting misogyny in Reggie Yates’ BBC3 documentary on the manosphere. For those of you who are unfamiliar, Roosh is known as a ‘militant pro-rape pick-up artist’ whose self-declared ‘neo-masculine’ beliefs stake monumentally groundbreaking ideas – from the 19th century. These include that a “woman’s value significantly depends on her fertility and beauty”; that promiscuity in women is a ‘negative behaviour’; and finally, that the best way to get rid of rape culture is to legalise it, on private property. Yes, you read that correctly.

On 19 January, Valizadeh announced his plans for organised meetups across the UK and other parts of the world on his website, Return of Kings. This was quickly followed by a collective outcry on social media, supported by shared online newspaper articles and eloquent blog-posts. There was a sense of urgency among the circulation of different protest marches, with over 4000 people indicating interest on two separate Facebook events based in Glasgow. Like an earlier petition regarding Donald Trump, social media was also used to gather e-signatures for an online petition calling on David Cameron to ban Roosh’s entry to the UK.

On 4 February, only a few days after the initial outpouring of disgust, Roosh V announced the meetings were cancelled as he could not ‘ensure the safety’ of his followers. I saw one social media user comment that the irony of these men feeling unsafe in the streets had been lost on them. And it had. Arguments for free speech dominated online spaces, with little regard for the infringements to women’s freedom these ‘rights’ would entail. A follow-up post on the Return of Kings site managed to incite some laughable conspiracy theories about the media and perform a poor reading of a Fight Club quote (NB: Davis Aurini, the point of the story is that you’re not supposed to blindly follow Tyler Durden, you absolute space monkey).

But if you can bare to get past the fragile masculine egos of broken Gen-X men, there is something even more horrifying in store. Dusting back those murky cobwebs we are greeted with the latent racism in our own reflection. Responses to Roosh V’s visit were co-ordinated and publicised through online social networks, by brilliantly strong women and allies. But mainstream news coverage of his visit and the resultant social movements across the UK to prevent it remains virtually non-existent. The Independent and the Guardian both have sassy online follow-ups, and even the Daily Mail has an online piece tearing into him. Yet we are still found wanting, months later, in terms of extensive coverage or substantive critique regarding the role Roosh V plays in our contemporary culture, the patriarchal values he embodies, and the sickness in our society he symbolises by allowing us to see there is no systematic prevention of a man who admits to date-raping women with alcohol (and shaming them for it) within poorly-titled books.

How does this compare to the near moral panic incited by our media about the Cologne attacks? The story of the ‘spike of sexual assaults by immigrants’ across Europe has been making the rounds through the printed press and mainstream TV news broadcasters. The sheer amount of coverage is staggeringly different; the framing is something else altogether. Women are told not to go out at night alone due to ‘migrant rape fears’, yet the gangs of self-confessed rapists Roosh V planned to bring together are not mentioned. Valizadeh is portrayed as a ‘loner’ at worst, and his growing community of misogynists is certainly not seen as endemic of the ugly sexism of our culture. Not only does this discrepancy in coverage and framing highlight how deeply entrenched Roosh’s manosphere arguments and rampant misogynistic values are in our society, it shows our not-so-well-veiled racism: our refusal to address sexual violence unless it conforms to narratives that uphold heteropatriarchal norms, and white, straight, male privilege.

Laurie Penny wrote an article discussing how we must not to let the bigots steal feminism after the Cologne attacks. Roosh V shows how they already have. Action against sexual violence is only legitimised when the men at the top of our society don’t have to feel uncomfortable about it. Yet, here it is, staring us in the face in the form of Roosh V’s 20k Twitter followers. And you still want to try to tell me feminism isn’t important in the western world? How can we begin to fight for the equality of women globally when our society not only ignores sexual violence but uses ‘feminism’ as coded racism and neo-imperialism?

Once again we are witness to women’s bodies being subject to the petty projects of nation-states and colonial reinforcement. It is not new that sexual violence against women enacts the drawing and contestation of cultural boundaries. Rape is often a particularly fine-tuned instrument of war. The female body symbolises the home, the motherland, and as such it can be conquered, pillaged and torn apart. For those who spoke against the Cologne attacks but do not speak against Roosh V, this is what you fear: another man on your property. You are as wrong as he is, and you enact another form of violence against the women you claim to protect. Despite still living in the epoch of nation-states and the failed masculine dreams of sovereignty and private property, women’s bodies are not symbols of your ownership, power or protection. You repeatedly violate them every day with your refusal to accept the on-going sexual violence deeply entrenched within our own ‘progressive’, western values.

So whilst work must be done to significantly improve rape convictions, carceral solutions become problematic. Is it possible that mass-reporting of sexual assault by immigrants in Cologne, and across Europe, is fraught with a self-regulated understanding of what constitutes sexual assault? Sexual violence which affirms the myth of ‘rape as an act of violence by foreign Others in open spaces’ may be more ‘believable’. It reifies our ingrained understanding of sexual violence as something that can only ever be enacted on us by foreign bodies and cultures. More than this, it consolidates public spaces and the public sphere as a male domain, unsafe for women. It reinforces two discourses of risk: that of the sexually-backward immigrant and that of women’s responsibility to not be alone in the streets after dark. Both of these narratives serve to reinforce heteropatriarchal, white supremacy. Not only do they insinuate a form of victim-blaming in their construction of safety and risk but, by inscribing the body of the racial Other with the propensity to sexual violence and holding it as differential to our own, we erase the potentiality of our own culture, our own bodies, to enact sexual violence.

This is in no way saying the assaults in Cologne and across Europe did not happen. To the women who experienced these attacks I have only utmost sympathy and solidarity with the call for their attackers to be brought to justice. However, it is this very idea of justice that concerns me. We need to move beyond the systemic racial bias that determines which forms of sexual violence are visible and invisible, legitimate and illegitimate, convictable or non-convictable.

We don’t need to look far for examples. Ellie Mae O’Hagan wrote a brilliant piece about the sexual violence enacted by the Yarl’s Wood detention centre in our own backyard. Drawing on the Women for Refugee Women’s ‘I am Human’ report, O’Hagan wrote that of the 34 women spoken to who had fled persecution in their countries, 24 had experienced rape or some form of sexual violence. Despite this, she continues, women are still ‘particularly likely’ to have their asylum claims unfairly rejected, with 50% being overturned on appeal in 2011, compared with 26% on average’ according to the Refugee Council.

What O’Hagan terms our ‘paranoia’ regarding asylum seekers, refugees and immigrants is in turn creating a structured system of racialised and inhumane violence within our own society, particularly against women. Pregnant women and survivors of torture are detained against the government’s own guidelines. The ‘I am Human’ report highlights the staggering amount of sexual, physical, and racial violence experienced by women fleeing persecution. Yet the stories of these women are rendered invisible in the mainstream media. The violence enacted against them by our white bodies and policing hierarchies causes no moral panic. Both the sexual violence they flee and the sexual violence they experience in fleeing are rendered illegitimate by a society that sees women’s bodies as extensions of masculine nationalism.

It’s not just the contestation of the boundaries of Europe that are being wrought in our blurry acceptance and non-acceptance of sexual violence. The recent death of Sarah Reed in Holloway prison was initially omitted from the mainstream news and, as in the case of Roosh V, it was left to activists and individuals to declare outrage on the internet, with the hashtags of solidarity #SarahReed and #SayHerName. The absence of media coverage is certainly to blame; but media coverage both constructs and reflects – it is partially symptomatic of what we as a culture deem ‘newsworthy’, important or palatable.

The story of Sarah Reed’s experience of police brutality remains largely invisible. The violence of white police officers against young black women with mental health problems does not conform to the narratives our society tells itself about sexual violence. Experiences of sexual violence enacted by white men suggest that women are not only unsafe in the streets, but in the home too. It suggests that women need to rise up, destabilise the system and claim equality. It suggests that the reason we only see stories of non-white men committing sexual violence is because those stories uphold white, male power.

This not-so-thinly-veiled racism permeates every facet of our society and enables forms of sexual violence to be legitimised under our noses. American rapper Tyler the Creator was quietly banned from the UK for lyrics he wrote five years ago, but it took a whole parliamentary debate to decide it is better to greet the notorious misogynist and racist Donald Trump with ‘ridicule’. Is it because banning white, straight, rich men looks bad? This society ridicules and undermines sexual violence experienced daily, in all its forms. It refuses to see its own disgusting misogyny and instead unsubtly dumps its masculine anxieties on the Other.

To every woman and ally who put up a fight against Roosh V and his hateful organisation, I applaud you, your bravery and your strength and your determination to self-organise. For every person of colour, woman and ally who fought for the recognition of Sarah Reed, I applaud your bravery and strength too. But it is not a fight you should be fighting alone. So much sexual violence in our society remains invisible. It remains today that sexual violence is only seen when the perpetrator is one who society is comfortable seeing as a criminal, as a rapist. Given the still shockingly high sexual violence statistics across Britain, it’s time for us to take a long, hard look in the mirror.

Photo: BBC/YouTube

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