Monday, October 16, 2017

Root Causes

What, one wonders, is the cause of sexual assault?

I ask this question because I'd heard about the negative reactions to part of Mayim Bialik's op-ed in the New York Times on Friday.

I still make choices every day as a 41-year-old actress that I think of as self-protecting and wise. I have decided that my sexual self is best reserved for private situations with those I am most intimate with. I dress modestly. I don’t act flirtatiously with men as a policy.
And this prompted what has become by now a standard response to pretty much any talk of taking precautions against sexual assault; charges of victim-blaming and/or slut shaming. If Ms. Bialik was in the least bit taken aback by this, I'm impressed that she could both resuscitate her acting career and live under a rock simultaneously.

And it occurs to me that the heart of this are two different narratives about the root cause of sexual misconduct among men. (While there is also criminal sexual misconduct among women, it's typically not viewed as either common enough or damaging enough to warrant much discussion.) As an outsider to the overall conversation, in that I only really interact with it when the media takes note of the more fiery aspects of it, I wonder if the way the conversation plays out actually gets in the way of the conversation itself, because the various narratives are never directly spoken of.

Of course, as an observer, rather than a participant, I'm conjecturing about what other people are thinking, so take what I'm going to say here with a grain (or a mine's worth) of salt. But, generally speaking, Ms. Bialik's self-protection policy makes sense if one thinks of sexual assault as, to some or another degree, as arising from a failure of control on the part of the attacker. So Jack sees Jill's sexual self on display, and lose some level of control of his own sexuality. It's worth noting that this doesn't automatically implicate Jill - after all, American society has no problem will labeling any number of other issues, obesity being a notable one, as being the result of failures of individual self control and personal responsibility. And it's worth pointing out that in my grandparents' time, were someone like myself, say, were to have any noticeable reaction of Ms. Bialik's sexual self, that could end very, very badly for that someone. And although for many young people, much of what one might reasonably consider recent history is beyond an event horizon, for the middle-aged and older, it's in living memory. And so we recall a time when as respected a source as _The Joy Of Sex_ could refer to "a man's rape instincts," and posit that those instincts responded to women in the vicinity, without being viewed as hopelessly regressive.

But there is a counter-argument, and one that claims that sexual assault isn't at all a matter of sexuality, and more about the way that men express their socially sanctioned (if not expected or even demanded) traits of power and aggression around women. By this logic, sexual self, flirtation and modest clothing be damned, if Jack sets himself to showing his dominance over Jill, he's going to assault or abuse her in some or another manner, and the only factors that make any difference are Jack's choices and the acceptance of the greater society of those choices. This view effectively makes Jill into a completely passive object of Jack's desire to demonstrate his masculinity, there's nothing that she can reasonably do in the way of taking precautions to either shift Jack's choices or the social reaction to those choices. Taking precautions against sexual assault may reinforce the perceived social order but they don't do anything to deter anyone but those unlikely to do the deed in the first place.

While these two views are not necessarily mutually exclusive, given the overall population of the planet and the differences between individuals, they've become pitted against each other. But in that, it seems to me that people don't discuss them directly. Rather, they debate the upshots of them. And in that respect the debate between "there are precautions one can take against rape," and "rape can only be prevented by men making other choices" are proxies for the differing world views that underlie those statements. And each sees the other as dangerous; naïve on the one hand, and victim-blaming on the other.

Of course, as I noted before, I'm basically a bystander in this whole situation. And being mostly disengaged, I could be missing a raging debate that I'm simply not a part of. But if it's there, perhaps it would benefit from being more open and more public.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Jar of Evils

Deities, as one learns from certain creation stories, can at times be right bastards, to the point where it makes sense to ask "Whose side are these guys on?" But it's also worth pointing out that ancient people were often sexist as all get-out, and the question one might put to them is "What have women ever done to you?

The story of Pandôra illustrates both of these concepts. Created by the Olympian gods at the command of Zeus for no other reason than to carry plagues to humanity (Zeus, like many deities worldwide, being both a bastard and loath to do his own dirty work directly), she was given a pithos (a large jar) and perhaps the world's first screamingly ironic name ("all-gifts," my foot). In any event, Pandôra's primary purpose in life was to open the jar, which contained a multitude of evil spirits. As intended, the evil spirits fled the jar, and proceeded to torment humanity, pretty much forever. Left in the jar was elpis, hope. The standard reading of the Pandôra legend is that elpis was intended as a single blessing for mankind, something slipped into the jar by some or another god who sympathized with Prometheus' notion that the gods were constantly abusing the mortal people they'd created. But there's another take on the story, one that says that hope is a spirit just as evil as pestilence or death.

Personally, I don't have much use for hope, which strikes me as a waiting for some outside factor one can't control to make a positive change in the world for you. Accordingly, I didn't find the slogan of then-candidate Senator Barack Obama, "Hope and Change," compelling. Rather than hope, I reasoned, what people need is the confidence to understand that they can effect the change they want to see in the world for themselves. Now to be sure, this does get me into trouble at times. American society (and others, too, but perhaps more on that later) tends to demand that one approach life with a certain amount of hope. When I was a child, I asked my mother why suicide was a sin. Given that the act of killing oneself conclusively precluded confession (and therefore absolution), it was understood to be a direct ticket to Hell. (A fact that I find a disturbing number of people seem to be perfectly happy with.) This struck me as grossly unfair. A person who murdered and stole their way through life could attain Heaven through a deathbed repentance, but the person who succumbed to despair was consigned to the fires. According to my mother, the sin was the loss of hope that God would make things better, somehow, if one only waited. I was not mollified by this answer. And throughout adulthood, I've found myself being called upon to answer for not taking the commonly accepted way out of certain ethical dilemmas, such as the case in which a warlord says he'll spare a group of captives provided that you shoot one yourself, because I refuse to predicate an action on the hope that someone I already understand to be dangerous and/or criminal will live up to their end of the bargain, once I've done their dirty work for them. Humans can be as duplicitous as Zeus.

But at the same time, I don't begrudge other people their hopes. When a charming pair of young women stopped by, doing missionary work for the Jehova's Witnesses, one told me that her faith gave her hope that the world we be a better place by the time the three-year old that accompanied them grew up. And I'm perfectly okay with this. But for a lot of people, it seems, hope is only a virtue to the degree that it aligns with their own hopes.

The Internet, if one isn't careful, can devolve into a cesspit of people criticizing one another in the name of advancing their own worldviews. And a lot of this seems to, mostly unintentionally (if rather roughly), involve trampling on other people's hopes. The news that the United Nations is relocating staff from two districts in Malawi after five people were killed in a vampire panic has triggered a certain amount of social media finger-waving over the ignorant and backwards people of the nation. But one can also see this as simple a very unfortunate way of people attempting to exercise some control over a world that seems largely beyond the scope of their powers to command. Attacking someone as a vampire is not (or not only) an act of malice, but an expression of a hope that direct action will protect them and/or those they care about from forces in the world that seem malevolent, because they aren't viewed as random. Closer to home, if farther in time, former Alaska governor Sarah Palin famously mocked the Obama campaign's motto. "This was all part of that hope and change and transparency. Now, a year later, I gotta ask the supporters of all that, 'How's that hopey, changey stuff working out'?" she sneered, before a cheering crowd at the first National Tea Party Convention. Closer to the present, House of Representatives Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi asked "President Trump, Where are the Jobs You Promised?" And while this is less directly an attack on people's hopes (and perhaps less openly sneering), the message to the audience that the President's supporters hope in vain is still clear. Shifting the focus away from American politics again, I recently encountered posts referring to traditional Chinese medicine as "not medicine," "quackery" and "superstitious nonsense." And while this narrative can be seen as one of the competition between fold remedies and evidence-based modern medicine, both of these things are extensively based on hope. Reliance on traditional medicine, especially in places were Western pharmaceuticals aren't readily available is just as much based on hope as taking a nondescript pill chocked full of unpronounceable chemical compounds.

But there's more to hope that ideas about the supernatural, politics and medicine. One of the things that allows bad behavior to persist is hope. And there are many different varieties of hope involved. From the outside, they may seem like a combination of self-delusion and wishful thinking, but from the inside, they offer a chance for a change. The person who abuses someone who wants a better life for themselves preys on their hopes and their unwillingness to let them go. I stumbled into a rabbit hole of marginally-attached entertainment industry people who talked about their own experiences on the inside, and how people like Harvey Weinstein, Bill O'Reilly, Bill Cosby et cetera, are able to go on for as long as they do, and they fairly quickly start to become saddening stories of how people work, and what they sacrifice, to maintain their hopes.

I've vacillated over the years on my stance concerning the elpis at the bottom of Pandôra's pithos. Hope strikes me as one of the evil spirits and the pitiless gods placed in the jar; it appears to cause as much pain and suffering as any plague. And perhaps this is simply a failing on my part, but I can't bring myself to undermine other people's hopes. (Well, not directly and openly, at least.) Maybe being honest with myself requires it. But self-deception has already fled the jar, and it's beyond me to put it back.

Friday, October 13, 2017


So former White House advisor and loyal Culture Wars footsoldier Sebastian Gorka has weighed in on the accusations surrounding Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. Mr. Weinstein has become a popular topic among culture warriors because of the well known fact that two people who happened to have voted for the same politician are alike in all other ways, including their sexuality and how they express it.

In any event, Mr. Gorka says of the accusations against Mr. Weinstein:

If Weinstein had obeyed @VP Pence's rules for meeting with the opposite sex, none of those poor women would ever have been abused.
And that brings us to the word of the day: Accomplice. Which is defined by Merriam-Webster as: "one associated with another especially in wrongdoing." In other words the so-called "Pence Rule" under which the Vice President never allows himself to be alone with any woman who isn't his wife only protects said any woman if the other people present aren't in on whatever the Vice President likely doesn't have in mind. After all, if simply sequestering oneself we enough to put paid to a tendency for sexual predation, we'd likely see a lot less sexual predation. And given the fact that Vice President Pence is likely stable and on-the-level enough that he's not a sexual predator, what his Rule mainly does for him is avoid the appearance of impropriety. And if someone does accuse him of wrongdoing, he has alibi in the other person(s) present.

But alibis don't have to be honest. And this is part of the larger problem. Put simply, sometimes people work together for a common goal. Even when that goal is illegal or otherwise socially undesirable. Jane can decide that its safe to go to Dick's house, because Tom, Harry and/or Sally will be there, but nothing prevents any or all of them from being a party to Dick's designs.

There's nothing wrong with the Pence Rule, as far as avoiding the appearance of impropriety goes. (It has other disadvantages, but many social {and sexual} conservatives are unlikely to see any of them as problems.) But for it to really work, whoever fills the role of chaperone has to be opposed to whatever improprieties might take place. So it falls short as a real protection for the other party, in that it would allow them to spend time with an untrusted individual and be secure in the knowledge that nothing improper will occur.

And that why Mr. Gorka's tweet seemed more like a cheap pot-shot in the culture wars than anything of substance. Because to the degree that Mr. Weinstein was playing the role of intentional sexual predator, he likely easily (and more more easily than seems reasonable to me) could have found a number of people willing to play the role of intentional accomplice to his plans. (I can never understand how people like this find one another, but that's likely just me.) And likely in so doing, created even more trouble for the women that he targeted, because while he-said/she-said can be a tough hill for an accuser to climb, he and he and he-said versus she-said seems even steeper.

And in that sense the what would have stopped "those poor women" from being abused was a culture that was less ambivalent about such things. It's likely that warning bells went off for someone, if not multiple someones before Mr. Weinstein selected his first genuine target. While it's possible that he shrugged, said "Yolo," and dove right into the deep end, it makes more sense to me that he tested the environment around him to, so that he understood what he was getting himself into. Whether or not people pushing back and/or expressing concern would have stopped him is debatable, but it's likely that all of this would have come out a lot sooner, likely after the first one or two episodes. Or it could have actually lead to some sort of treatment or other intervention before anything happened to anyone. Of course, there's a downside to all of this. The Court of Public Opinion can be woefully capricious in its judgments, and it's likely that a non-trivial number of otherwise innocent people would have been caught up in all of this - a system that avoids all false negatives and false positives generally can't also be one administered by everyday people (or people at all, really).

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Turn of the Season

The arrival of Autumn in the Puget Sound area tends to strike me as abrupt. And this year was no exception - it went from unseasonable warm to quite cool in what seemed like a matter of minutes and the trees are changing colors and losing their foliage. What prevents local Autumns from being as spectacular as they are in other places is that the trees are out of sync. Rather than blankets of color, you wind up with a strange quilt of bare trees, those changing colors and those still fully green. One year there were trees that were green well into December, and that still had their leaves in February.

It doesn't make Autumn any less interesting, but you do have to keep your eyes out for it...

Monday, October 9, 2017


"How" the BBC would like to know, "Can [a] rapist win joint custody of victim's child?"

Said victim has a theory. “They (officials) never explained anything to me. I was receiving about $260 a month in food stamps for me and my son and health insurance for him. I guess they were trying to see how to get some of the money back.”

Or, to borrow a headline from an unrelated story I saw a couple of years ago "We are too broke to care about right and wrong."

When Sanilac County, Michigan, surveyed the mother, who had been receiving child support, they found that the child had a father: one Christopher Mirasolo. According to the mother's attorney, Mr. Mirasolo had abducted, held and raped the woman, her older sister and a friend in 2008, when the victim was 12 years old. That attack resulted in a pregnancy; DNA paternity testing shows that Mr. Mirasolo is the father of the now eight-year old child. On the basis of this, and after allegedy being told by an assistant prosecutor that the woman had consented to a continued relationship with the convicted rapist, despite her having moved to Florida, a circuit judge awarded joint custody to the man who was convicted of "attempted third-degree criminal sexual conduct" in the case and gave him her address in the bargain. And, according to her attorney, she's been ordered to return to Michigan to live or face contempt of court charges. And did I mention that Mr. Mirasolo was convicted again of sexually assaulting a minor a couple of years later?

This is, as the youngsters put it these days, "all sorts of fucked up."

But if we answer the BBC's question with the mother's theory, it all makes a certain amount of perverse sense. After all, he wasn't actually convicted of rape in the case - only "attempted third-degree criminal sexual conduct." (Although it seems to me that a pregnancy is pretty much dead certain proof that the "attempt" was successful...) And it will (supposedly) save the state money - after all they can always go after Mr. Mirasolo for the money. (Which I suspect will be a rousing success.) If that means forcing a woman into a relationship with the very stereotype of a sexual predator and forcing her to move halfway across the country to be close enough to him to share custody of the child, well, she's a sacrifice the county is willing to make.

And this is how civil societies end: With the understanding that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one, and so a different few decide that this few or that one can be thrown under the bus because its in the best interests of everyone else. Now, I know that I'm relying a lot on the victim's attorney here, and that she's likely to be a highly biased narrators of what went on, but bear with me one more time. The attorney, in explaining how Mr. Mirasolo was sentenced to county jail rather than prison, notes: “She (client) and her family was told first-time sex offenders weren’t sent to prison because people come out worse after they go there.” But you can also imagine in a situation like this that judges of cash-strapped jurisdictions might avoid sending first-time offenders to prison to avoid damaging their employment prospects, and thus their ability to pay child support, later in life.

(Although given that this case is making international headlines, it's hard to imagine Mr. Mirasolo staying gainfully employed long enough to come up with bus fare, let alone child support payments. And in that sense, Mr. Mirasolo might end up serving yet more time behind bars; this time for failure to pay court-ordered support payments.)

The issue isn't that the result of this case is, on its face, terrible. One could (perhaps with a bit of effort and a lot of alcohol) imagine that a reconciliation between victim and rapist had taken place, and she had consented to allow the father shared custody, and he had pledged to support the child financially. Stranger things have happened, and people believe much less plausible scenarios on a daily basis. But the victim's attorney's (admittedly biased) understanding of the case points to this being driven by something other than an act of forgiveness, as the victim herself suspects. And perhaps that's because the alternative, simply denying benefits, is unpalatable. Whether that's because it means letting Mr. Mirasolo off the hook for something that non-criminal fathers have to contend with, or it simply leaves a blameless child out in the cold is a matter of speculation, but this case points to a potential gap in Michigan law, one that doesn't allow the state to hold fathers accountable for the welfare of their children without allowing even the most reprehensible of them to involve themselves in their children's lives. And while there are many reasonable rationales for such a law, this is perhaps the problem with attempting to legislate everything. If “trying to see how to get some of the money back,” means trampling on a woman who, by age 24, will have a child who is half her age something really needs to change. And sure, the assistant prosecutor and the judge are not the people who put the rules that they operate under into place. But it is an abdication of perception to ignore an outcome in which no-one comes out looking good, because it's easier to do that than to say: "Hey, does this look broken to you?"

I know a decent number of people who describe themselves as anarchists, and these are the sorts of situations that become ammunition for them, because it's difficult to look at a legal system that produces this sort of outcome and say that it just kind of has to be that way. This sort of thing happens because not looking the other way has costs. Costs that it's perhaps too easy to convince oneself aren't really all that bad (mainly because they always seem to happen to other people). But avoiding looking at, and understanding the costs doesn't make them go away.