Much ink has been spilled about the death, life, and roommate of Tyler Clementi, the gay teenager who in 2010 jumped to his death from the GW bridge during his first semester at Rutgers in the days after his roommate twice web-cam’d him having intimate relations with another man. In the past week there has been a general outcry over the conviction of his roommate Dharun Ravi, now facing up to 20 years in prison, on charges of invasion of privacy, bias intimidation (hate crimes), witness tampering, and evidence tampering.
The punishment doesn’t fit the crime, he was just a “jerky kid.” A sympathetic New Yorker article by Ian Parker primed a liberal public for this a few months back. Parker painted a picture of Ravi as a puffed up, insecure teenager (in other words, an American teeanger) and suggested, “[Ravi’s] predicament could be seen either as a state’s admirably muscular response to the abusive treatment of a vulnerable young man or as an attempt to criminalize teen-age odiousness by using statutes aimed at people more easily recognizable as hate-mongers and perverts.” Both Emily Bazelon in the New York TImes and J. Bryan Lowder at Slate have recently written in support of the latter sentiment.
I’m not sure why we’re surprised that a teenager has seen a rough day in court. This appears to be the norm these days, with over 2,000 kids sitting in jail for life without parole, Occupy movements violently broken up by the police, depicted as threats to both private property and the state, and anti-bullying laws on the move, in part due to this case, which raises the inevitable question of whether we really want seven-year-olds to have round-the-clock access to the Crimestoppers hotline. It’s not that the law doesn’t recognize youth as an important identity, it’s that it doesn’t like what it sees. Youth, in other words, is an increasingly useless category of defense.
I’ve been thinking about identity a good amount lately while going through the Wendy Brown/Janet Halley volume Left Legalism/Left Critique. Richard T Ford’s “Beyond ‘Difference’: A Reluctant Critique of Legal Identity Politics” worries about the way in which the law, while providing recourse to those who can claim a certain identity like “woman” or “black American” simultaneously reconstitutes that identity, reifying it in its cultural associations. For instance, an employee who brings suit against her employer because the employer has told her she cannot wear her hair in cornrows does so on the basis of racial discrimination. Yet in doing so, cornrows become the “‘cultural essence’ not of one black woman but of all black women.” With racial identities thus culturally concretized, Ford worries that the politics of difference will threaten to become another hegemonic discourse “no less myopic than the universalist ideal that preceded it.”
Yesterday I sat in on a discussion on Karla FC Holloway‘s new book, Private Bodies, Public Texts: Race, Gender, and a Cultural Bioethics. As a professor in both the English department and Law School at Duke, Holloway is well aware of both the constructiveness of identity and of the legal recourse certain socialized and historically subjugated identities like “black” and “women” provide in today’s America. When asked, she said she was not yet willing to do away with these socialized identities. In light of the recent Trayvon Martin shooting, one can see why. It’s unclear what will happen at the criminal level, but it seems likely that Martin’s family will seek reparation from the city or from the neighborhood watch organization through a civil trial whose success will swivel on the fulcrum of race. The shooter’s racist exclamations may make it an easy case, yet in arguing that Martin was targeted because he was a young, African-American male, the trial will inevitably articulate certain “truths” about his African-American-maleness.
Similar debates on how the law provides relief through the reiteration of reifying identities and stereotypes run through the theory of many identity groups. The Arizona Senate recently passed legislation that will protect doctors from liability in cases where a child is born with congenital disability following prenatal testing– in other words doctors will no longer be under any real legal obligation to tell parents about diagnosed congenital disabilities. The back story of this law is a series of “wrongful birth” lawsuits. See historian Leslie Reagan’s very good article tracing this back to the German Measles outbreak in the 1950s/1960s. In “wrongful birth” suits, parents who unexpectedly gave birth to disabled children have sued their doctors for malpractice. The implication is that had the parents been provided correct information, they would have chosen to abort. Some have criticized such lawsuits for proliferating the idea that the disabled are “less worthy” of life, but the flip side is that parents don’t bring such suits in order to symbolically disavow their disabled children; they do so to seek financial redress to help cover medical bills.
It may seem like we’re a long way away from Tyler Clementi and Dharun Ravi’s dorm room at this point, but I want to swing back for a moment, because there were a few key identity categories at play in the media arc on this case. First, appealing to “youth” as an identity that explains and excuses the crime isn’t working. We live in a world of rapidly evolving, destabilizing technology, of media articles that avow and disavow rampant teenage sexuality all in one breath, and of successful campaigns like the Trevor Project’s “It Gets Better,” a campaign I’m sympathetic to in sentiment but which subjectivizes homophobia and reduces it — temporally and geographically — to the local schoolyard.
Disciplining the young, our future citizens, is nothing new. Foucault’s “The Carceral” begins with “that glorious day, unremarked and unrecorded, when a child in [the penal colony] Mettray remarked as he lay dying, ‘What a pity I left the colony so soon.” What is interesting today is not that youth are a target of overreaching discipline, but instead the relationship between law and social discipline at a moment where technological innovation has opened up unique behavioral, but also surveillance and disciplinary, possibilities. Yes, it seems that Dharun Ravi was punished harshly for a variety of reasons, but surely in part he was made an example of — a spectacle — for thousands of others teens to reference as they think about their daily technological routines and interactions.
One last word on a final identity that seems to have become completely stabilized in media discourse as object of Ravi’s homophobia: Clementi’s homosexuality. Given the way our culture sees sexuality as an innate, biological, subjectivized identity, this is no real surprise, yet Parker’s discussion with Molly Wei, the girl whose computer Clementi used, reveals that Ravi had a real discomfort with the object and kind of Clementi’s desire:
“It’s a really old-looking guy, like, What the heck, what’s going on?” Ravi thought that M.B. seemed “really shady.” [Wei]went on, “He actually was kind of angry. He’s, like, ‘If he steals my iPad I’m going to make Tyler pay for it.’ And he’s, like, ‘Oh, and my roommate’s gay, like what if something else is going on?’ ” Speaking to the police, Ravi recalled M.B. as “slightly overweight,” with facial hair of some sort. Ravi’s reaction appears to have included some class prejudice: the man, apparently working-class, was a likely thief. He was “random,” as one of Molly Wei’s friends later put it—he was troublingly not of their world.
It seems that the issue, at least at this moment, was not just, or not totally, that Clementi was gay, but that he was participating in a certain kind of deviant sexuality: crossing class, age, and respectable relationship bounds. This isn’t to say that Ravi would have had the same reaction had Clementi brought home a girl. More likely such an illicit heterosexual hookup would have been cause for celebration had it been orchestrated by a straight male. But in this case, a gay sexual identity opened Clementi up for visual probing into a private space that would have been respected had he been straight.
I feel the need to reintroduce myself given a long absence from this blog that can only be explained by the strange temporalities of grad student life. Preparation for generals last year, stowed away in a library with too many books, led to my throwing a rope into the real world with posts on Octomom, jury duty, and the Cronon Affair (the latter also including an excellent review of German philosophy for anyone doing a Euro Intellectual History field…). Summer recovery in Germany led to posts like this and this. Then there was the long silence as I adjusted to a new audience–classrooms full of undergrads–last semester. I’m back and blogging again for various reasons but the immediate impetus is to say something that, as a 28-year-old overeducated unmarried heterosexual woman, should be fairly obvious: “I use contraception.”
I raise this point not because it will cause any major waves, but because I hope its dumb obviousness will raise a point that itself is so obvious that I think it has become something like a great grey elephant camouflaged against a great swath of grey newsprint. The recent contraception debates are about the Catholic Church, about the Republicans using any tactic they can to cripple the healthcare bill (see: Blunt amendment), and about a bozo conservative radio personality filled with hot wind. More specifically — and hard to miss in a country that has seen bills that on one hand insist a woman have an ultrasound before an abortion to ensure “informed consent,” and then take away a doctor’s duty to inform a woman of any fetal complications — an attack on women. But “women,” as we should know by now, encompasses an array of different identities, and the attempt to defund contraceptive coverage, and particularly Rush Limbaugh’s attack on Sandra Fluke as a “slut” and use of the term “recreational sex,” signals a construction of women as women-cum-college-girls-“gone-wild.”
At base, Rush Limbaugh argued that “personal sexual recreational activities” should not be subsidized. Adam Serwer over at Mother Jones has a good rundown of this argument, pointing out how it differs from the Catholic bishops’ protests. Media articles have trumpeted that Rush really put his foot in his mouth on this one, causing sponsors to flee, yet the media’s focus on Rush’s choice words, rather than the substance of his argument, has made Rush’s crime one of politesse rather than politics.
Yet what was interesting about this focus on semantics rather than substance is that it seemed like media outlets like Salon and NY Times thought it so obviously ludicrous to call an unmarried woman using contraception a slut, that they didn’t take up the heart of Rush’s claims that “recreational sex” should not be subsidized. Only Emily Bazelon at Slate focused on the slut-shaming in a substantive way, though she concluded that Fluke was revitalizing feminism through sex positivism. I’m not so sure this is what’s happening. I think Elizabeth Drew, in an essay in the New York Review of Books, rightly brought up a more pessimistic picture that Rush
touched a nerve by raising an issue on which many of his followers would agree with him: why should taxpayers pay for insurance (with no copay at that) to make unlimited sexual activity by students worry-free? Whatever people’s attitudes are about young people engaging in what used to be called “recreational sex,” Limbaugh had cleverly made the issue not really the sex but insurance coverage to protect against its possible consequences.
What I find interesting is this focus on “students” and the tight link between this imagined population and the idea of “recreational sex.” The strange thing is that poised, cool, and 30-year-old Sandra Fluke is hardly the image that springs to mind when someone says “college co-ed.” Instead, we think of the much ballyhooed hook-up culture that has resulted in many a wrung hand over the past decade.
Drew goes on to write, “In my view it would have been wiser for them to call as a witness a married woman with an unarguable medical reason for needing contraceptives and who worked for a Catholic institution that denied it.” Why this focus on “unarguable medical reason?” A concentration on defending contraception due to the Pill’s use for overt medical “diseases” (no one, of course, wants to call pregnancy a “disease”) boomerangs attention to the Pill as opposed to the wide array of recommended contraceptive devises, such as IUDs. It undermines the very reason why the EEOC ruled that health insurance companies had to cover prescription contraceptives in the early 2000s: because to not do so was a form of gender discrimination, unlawful under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which will soon celebrate its 50th birthday. And perhaps most importantly, it distracts from the bigger picture recognized by Planned Parenthood v. Casey 20 years ago, though in relation to abortion: “[t]he ability of women to participate equally in the economic and social life of the Nation has been facilitated by their ability to control their reproductive lives.” [Here’s a useful chart showing the related rise of female employment since the early 1970s].
The claim that people need to “take responsibility” for their recreational sexual activities is a form of gender discrimination because it is women who bear the costs of unintended pregnancy: financial, social, and, yes, health-related. And of course what is considered “recreational” and what medically-necessary is always in flux, just as what is considered a disability and a normality changes over time. As Georges Canguilhem argued in The Normal and the Pathological, disease and disability are constructed categories; there is no objective science to identifying them. Infertility treatments are today covered by insurance plans because the inability to have children is seen as a “lack,” a deficit that needs treatment. It’s worthwhile to note that while there are a plethora of laws regulating contraception and abortion in the United States, reproductive technologies like IVF go almost entirely unregulated. Viagra is covered by health insurance because erectile dysfunction has become identified as pathology, despite the fact that viagra may be the most recreational of the sex-related drugs. Then again, male sexual functioning is something society has never had trouble supporting, and in fact the 2000 EEOC decision ruled that insurance companies had to cover prescription contraception for women in part because they already covered viagra for men.
We now see the effect of cultural attacks against a female hook-up culture that began in the early 2000s: this portrayal (whose validity has been rightly contested) has bled out to encompass a much wider area of unmarried female sexuality. Sandra Fluke become a “student” not a 30-year-old adult woman. Her activity becomes “recreational,” not part and parcel of her adult well-being. And the contraception that prevents unintended pregnancy becomes unnecessary to her sexual, mental, and bodily health.
In April 1971, 343 French women signed “le manifeste des 343 salopes”–the Manifesto of the 343 Sluts, proclaiming that they had had abortions. That summer, 374 German women proclaimed the same on the cover of Stern. Sex today is accepted but it is painted in broad strokes and still separated along a marital/non-marital divide. Perhaps we do need to reclaim the name “slut” as the Slut Walks do, but more importantly we need to pluralize this binary and ensure that access to contraception does not become sidelined by a construction of medical necessity that excludes women’s everyday sexual activity.
There is a statue on the south side of Volkspark Friedrichshain that I run past nearly every day. It seems to be that of a lunging man with a sword wielded wobbily over his head; his limbs are lanky, rubbery, his face hidden beneath a dishpan helmet. I say “seems” because I’ve yet to stop. Every time I run by, I turn my head and squint my eyes and try to determine what this Acme-German soldier is supposed to memorialize. I don’t stop partly because I don’t want to interrupt my run, and partly because I like not quite knowing. So far I think I’ve made out “1938 – 1939.” But there are so many memorials in Berlin dedicated to events around that date that I don’t know whether my mind is playing tricks on my eyes.
This is the summer of not knowing. In part this is because it’s the summer post-generals and pre-prospectus—an ambiguous time. The last big project is done and the new one not yet really begun. Archives unexpectedly close for holidays and other events, and suddenly long, quiet days stretch out in front of you, and you read a little at a café, but mostly you enjoy how wide the Berlin sidewalks are, and walk them side to side. Other days are spent in archives that moonlight as saunas, rushed with heat. Furious typing down of documents that may or may not have anything, in the end, to do with your dissertation. The other day it began to storm outside the FFBIZ and a piece of hail flew in and hit my computer screen. Because I am prepped to think the worst, I assumed at first that the window had begun to shatter in on us.
Last summer I spent most of my time in the Bundesarchiv in Koblenz, which houses most of West Germany’s federal documents. It’s hard to miss. It looks like this:
This summer I’m touring a more eclectic range of archives. My Hamburg archive is located in the Rote Flora, a building that’s been squatted in since 1989. Rote Flora has many sides to it, all covered in graffiti. One of them is the outside, where in the summer homeless men and women camp out on old mattresses and sleeping bags. There are lectures and parties, but also, come to find out an archive, located beyond a metal door, up two flights of stairs, and into a chain-smoking chamber where boxes are thrown at you by the most lovely bearded man who invites you to take as many photos as quickly as you can. Its opening hours are Monday, four to eight. It looks like this:
There is an archive in Berlin I’ve just started to go to that is located in a bookshop. It is small and you work at a table in the front room, and every fifteen minutes or so someone will come in and ask the price of a book and you will direct them to the man at the computer in the backroom. The first day the proprietor toured me through the holdings. Once I knew where things were I was free to take them off the shelves at will. They have nearly every journal I could want in full serial, and binders of random flyers and brochures organized helpfully by themes. But many of the brochures have no dates and it will take some creativity to place them. Some of Papiertiger’s holdings are stored in the bathroom against the wall near the washbasin.
Through a series of random happenings, I had dinner with Francis Ford Coppola the other night, who was about to start on Jonathan Steinberg’s new biography of Bismarck. He told us about the death of generations and how he came to acquire a vineyard and found a literary magazine, and I lectured him about Alsace-Lorraine’s changing borders and explained Prussian militarism and German unification, which wasn’t a fair exchange. My friend and I took him to a bar in Kreuzberg, which he called “Little Brooklyn.” He is past seventy now and has wisdom to hand down; for example he advised us to “always say yes” and be good to our future kids.
On a balcony in Friedrichshain the other night, my friend told me to tap the building facade, which I did only to hear a hollow sound. Old buildings in the former East Berlin, never reconstructed postwar, are now outfitted with colorful add-on facades that cover up the old grays and browns and suggest the existence of stainless steel dishwashers inside. You might not recognize the same street you walked down in 2004. With their upscale fronts and backs these buildings bloat out an extra six inches or more, but I hear the added padding helps keep their insides warm during the bitter Berlin winters.
Here’s some other advice I’ve received since arriving in Berlin:
- From an archivist: a description of every Berlin lake I could possibly want to bathe in, particularly one very nice lake frequented by gays and lesbians, if I am “comfortable with that,” and a suggestion that I could go nude if I wanted to.
- From a fellow grad student: you have to earn their trust at Papiertiger before they’ll let you photograph for a fee.
- A summary of Robert Koch Institute bulletins: Don’t eat the Spanish cucumbers, or for that matter any cucumbers. Or raw tomatoes and lettuce. Whatever you do, avoid the sprouts.
I’m pleased to once again be able to introduce a great guest post from friend-of-PhD-Octopus, Mircea, who takes on the case of the mythical Syrian lesbian blogger, Amina, and its personal and geopolitical fallout. –Luce
It’s been not 24 hours since the mystery behind detained Syrian lesbian blogger Amina Abdallah Arraf Al-Omari has been solved. What began as an international outcry over the arrest of a popular blogger giving voice to the queer side of the “Arab Spring” quickly turned into a frenzy of Internet investigations, carried out by journalists and bloggers, that has reached a sad and predictable end – there was never an Amina in the first place. The blog, and even more disturbingly, an entire online identity going back almost four years, was the creation of a 40 year-old American man from Georgia now studying in Edinburgh, Tom MacMasters, and his wife Britta. In what follows I’ll quickly recount the story, from first suspicions to this morning’s denouement, then offer a few thoughts on what this might mean in the larger context of queer politics and the Middle East.
It all began with this post detailing Amina’s capture by Syrian security forces, ostensibly put up by Amina’s cousin Rania Ismail. The response was swift, with several newspaper reports and a flurry of “Free Amina” facebook groups, like this one and this one, mobilising concerned people around the world. But within a few days, as reporters and State Department officials in Syria attempted to contact Amina’s family, doubts began to emerge. No one, it seems, had ever met or spoken to Amina, not even her girlfriend in Montreal, Sandra Bagaria (they had only communicated via e-mail). One of the first to publicly question the story was NPR’s Andy Carvin, who was sceptical yet cautious to declare that she didn’t exist. Maybe she was simply very good at concealing herself, as all activists living under repressive regimes must be. But then a Croatian woman living in London, Jelena Lecic, noticed that the photos of Amina being circulated were actually of her. There were hundreds, including all the photos on Amina’s personal facebook page, all apparently stolen from Jelena’s facebook. Troubled, she went on the BBC to prove her identity, and wonder how all this had come about. The evidence was increasingly pointing to an elaborate hoax.
I began following the controversy at Liz Henry’s blog, where commenters took to the Internet to uncover as many details about Amina as could be found. The mass of details was confusing, and involved an extensive cast of characters, some real and some fictional. Amina had stated she was born in Virginia and went to high school and college in Georgia. She had a previous blog where she declared her intention to mix fact and fiction; she had also been active in posting on alternate history Yahoo mailing lists, declaring her interest in medieval Byzantium. There were several online dating profiles, one in which she listed her language as Hebrew. Some used pictures of Jelena Lecic, some of another woman. Her cousin Rania Ismail’s facebook page turned out to be a likely fake; no one had been able to contact her either. Anything seemed possible. Was she the creation of Rania, a married Syrian woman looking for an escapist fantasy? Did Rania even exist? Was Amina a creation of Sandra Bagaria, the Canadian girlfriend? Or perhaps it was Jelena Lecic herself, whose first statement to the media was released through a suspicious P.R. agency? These theories may seem ridiculous in retrospect, but only through this kind of free-thinking exercise could all options be considered. The truth, when it came out, was perhaps stranger still.
Parallel to Liz Henry’s and Andy Carvin’s efforts, which later turned out to involve e-mail communications with someone likely to be the person behind the hoax, the website Electronic Intifada and the Washington Post were putting together a story based on two concrete leads. One came from Paula Brooks, an editor at the website LezGetReal (which was the first to introduce Amina’s blog to a wide readership). She provided two IP addresses used by Amina, both in Edinburgh. The other came from Scott Palter, a moderator on the alternate history boards, who had once gotten a mailing address from Amina in Stone Mountain, GA. This, it turned out, was Tom MacMaster’s home. Suddenly all the pieces fell into place: MacMaster was born in Virginia, had lived in Georgia, currently studies in Edinburgh, and plans to write a thesis on medieval Byzantium. He is a pro-Palestinian activist, and his wife Britta, a Quaker, was involved in organising events on Syria and Israel. Britta is a fellow at St. Andrews in the Centre for Syrian Studies, writing a thesis on the Syrian textile industry. She had posted pictures of her travels in Damascus, the same ones also used by Amina. The game was up.
MacMaster’s so-called apology on the blog, posted this morning, is a remarkable display of narcissism, self-delusion and self-righteousness. He declared, “While the narrative voice may have been fictional, the facts on this blog are true and not misleading as to the situation on the ground,” with the exception, of course, of all the key facts on the blog – that a gay woman, living in Damascus, was experiencing the revolution and had been detained by security forces. He had the gall to claim that, “I do not believe that I have harmed anyone.” Let me count the ways:
- Closest to home, it was Sandra, the Canadian girlfriend, who had been privately lied to for months. Reading her tweets from before the abduction story, one is struck by the sincerity and passion with which she speaks of Amina. She had to endure constant media questioning, when it became clear just how deep the deception went. Interestingly, the abduction story was posted only a few days after Sandra attempted to call Amina at home in Syria and got no answer. That day Amina wrote about security forces visiting her family and her subsequent need to go underground. It may be that this is the point at which Tom and Britta freaked out and looked for a way to take their character off the stage, at least temporarily.
- Everyone else who had an online relationship with Amina, and who has been affected by the investigation. The website LezGetReal, for example, was subjected to intense scrutiny because Paula Brooks and other editors, who have families working for the federal government and do not wish to be outed, write under pseudonyms; they, too, were suspected of being fake.
- Finally, most obviously and most importantly, this is a devastating blow to queer activism in Syria and everywhere else in the Middle East. These furious reactions from actual Syrian activists give a sense of the damage. Not only does the hoax make it more difficult for Syrian bloggers to be heard in the future without undue suspicion, but it puts LGBT activists currently in Syria under the spotlight of the authorities. In every way, MacMaster has done about as much harm to the Syrian revolution as could be imagined from a computer in Scotland.
It is, however, the following sentence that deserves the greatest outrage: “This experience has sadly only confirmed my feelings regarding the often superficial coverage of the Middle East and the pervasiveness of new forms of liberal Orientalism.” Not only is MacMaster not apologising, he is in fact blaming everyone else for the very sin he has committed. In a sense, “A Gay Girl in Damascus” was the perfect instantiation of liberal Orientalism, wherein Western audiences are enjoined to sympathise with a young, attractive, Westernised and courageous individual battling against the forces of dark, oppressive Islam. If Amina didn’t exist, one would have had to invent her. MacMaster’s twisted activist vision piled on all the desirable characteristics for what he thought the West should know of the Middle East, but didn’t bother because of the biased, Zionist media. The cruel irony is that in not finding a real Syrian who could represent some or all of these things, he confirms the very fantasies he set out to dismantle are just that, fantasies.
It is also troubling, it must be said, how those sceptical of Amina’s story from the start have slipped into the same traps of Orientalist fantasy. One of the earliest arguments for the hoax was that, “No one in Syria would ever kiss their girlfriend in public,” or speak so freely, etc. Though this may be in a very general sense accurate, it further adds to the erasure of the public presence of LGBT Syrians. Another argument from a commenter on one of the investigating blogs was that MacMaster had wished to show that being gay in Arab countries is not so bad, when in fact he had proved the opposite. There could be no one as free as Amina in Syria; but, the commenter added for good measure, there could be in Israel. It was MacMaster’s anti-Israel bias that made him paint such a rosy picture of an Arab country. Both Amina’s blog and the arguments of the sceptics are symptomatic of a wider set of highly debilitating discourses. In effect, it is becoming impossible to speak of what being queer in the Middle East is like without falling into one extreme or the other.
All of this brings to mind Jasbir Puar’s extraordinary theoretical work Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times, in which she tracks the complex ways in which queer activism in the West has become implicated with imperialist projects and mindsets. One effect is the erasure of Muslim queer sexuality, and its converse — Israel’s propaganda efforts to brand itself as the only “gay-friendly” country in a homophobic region (known as “pinkwashing”). One of her tasks is to affirm the voices of queer Muslims and queer Arabs speaking out against state violence, against religious intolerance, and against US and Israeli colonialism all at once.
This is the kind of person whom MacMaster, no doubt familiar with this literature, wished to concoct. Two of Amina’s blog posts, for example, were on the phenomenon of “pinkwashing.” What this odious, despicable individual has managed to do instead is produce the perfect mockery of queer scholarship and activism, a farce that feeds right back into the very discourses he sought to resist, feeding them to the brim and sustaining them for years to come.
For a while the alleged rape of a New York hotel maid by the now ex-managing director of the IMF dissolved not into the expected narrative of “he said, she said,” but instead into a question of what France versus the US do with their women. Such a story line reduced an act of sexual violence to a question of gender relations, flirtation, or privacy by comparing the US’s ostensibly stellar record of bringing its politicians to task (Spitzer and Clinton) versus France’s bad habit of turning a blind eye. In an Al Jazeera piece, Mayanthi Fernando and Gil Anidjar seem to have been the first to question the application of a narrative of sexual scandal to a case of sexual violence:
By continuing to cast DSK’s case as one of sex… we obscure the fact that the case at hand is not about sex (discreet or otherwise) but about power and violence. Like a number of similar cases (for there are comparisons to be made), it has to do with the behaviour of powerful men in powerful positions. It has to do, in other words, with politics as full spectral dominance.
Four months ago, the NYTimes ran this headline: “Thousands of Rape Kits Sit Untested for Decades, but Change Would Be Costly.” Soon after they dealt with this controversy, “Gang Rape Story Lacked Balance.” And this was still going on when DSK happened: “Jury to begin deliberating in New York police rape case.” Nonetheless, the NYTimes saw fit to ask a panel of experts this question: Are French Women More Tolerant?
It’s as difficult to know where to begin telling the narrative of the narrative as it’s obviously been to narrate the case itself. But I think we could begin by asking why DSK was more readily compared with Schwarzenegger and his love child than to the contemporaneous trial of two New York cops accused of rape (one for having actually raped and the other for having assisted). After all, both story lines involved men who wielded their power to commit sexual violence against women in vulnerable positions (one inebriated after a long night celebrating a job promotion, the other reportedly an African immigrant who was working as a maid in an NYC hotel). Again, Fernando and Anidjar’s article was the first I read to draw the comparison.
Rather than focus on DSK as a sex scandal or media trial, we should perhaps instead ask what questions the acquittal of the NY cops raises for DSK’s case. Because the French media [not to mention BHL — were he American he’d be a shock jock] has indeed gotten one thing wrong: trial by media is not the same as trial by jury. The public’s shocked reaction to the cops’ acquittal (including organized protests by various feminist groups) is testament to how divergent the media’s narrative was from that of the courtroom.
A few days ago the NYTimes finally did catch on that rape and sexual assault trials are notoriously difficult for the prosecution to win. Already DSK’s lawyers have indicated that they will argue that any sexual acts between him and the maid were consensual. So let’s take a quick look back to why the jury decided not to convict in the NY cops case. Here’s what one juror said:
“I did think that they might have had sex, but that doesn’t mean that they did have sex,” he said. “There is nothing to substantiate this. There’s no DNA, there’s no proof in any way that they had sex.”
Even more revealing was a great interview with Women’s eNews given by Melinda Hernandez, another juror who had initially voted to convict:
It all came down to the forensic evidence. There was none at all. No hair, no semen, no pubic hairs in the evidence collected from the apartment or in the rape kit collected at the hospital. There was a small red patch found on her cervix, but that could have been caused by several things. There was no solid proof from the evidence collected or the rape kit. Not even fingerprints. Not even fibers from police uniforms. Many pieces of material were taken from the apartment. But there were no fingerprints. There was nothing there.
All the evidence was collected by the NYPD internal affairs investigator and was taken to police crime lab. After it was examined there, then it was sent to the medical examiners lab.
Was there ever any question of police tampering of the evidence?
You can’t raise that kind of speculation. That’s why I think the system failed her big-time.
But why can’t you raise that kind of speculation at a trial? It’s the given duty of the jurors to judge the credibility of the plaintiff’s versus the defendant’s testimony. Why should the testimony of expert witnesses be exempt from similar considerations?
But more importantly, how does the assumption that corroborating medical evidence is necessary to convict (though–correct me if I’m wrong–I don’t think this is actually required by law) impact the prism through which other evidence is viewed and the way in which the narrative of sexual violence is itself constructed?
First it seems necessary to point out the obvious: DNA evidence does not an act of sexual violence make. Semen found on the maid’s shirt has been matched to DSK’s DNA, but “the defense is expected to pursue the issue of whether it is even physically possible for an unarmed man, who is not particularly physically imposing, to force a person to engage in oral sex,” reports the NYTimes. Which reminded me of something from Stephen Robertson’s historical article on the emergence of a medico-legal discourse in rape trials during the 19th century:
In 1823, in the first American treatise on medical jurisprudence, Theodoric Beck articulated what he identified as the general medical opinion on that issue: “I am strongly inclined to doubt the probability [that] a rape can be consummated on a grown female in good health and strength.”
In the 18th century, before doctors had established their competence to judge whether a woman had been raped, the body of the female victim was examined not by doctors but by a group of respectable, married women. As the medical profession began to develop and professionalize in the 19th century, doctors asserted their medical expertise in legal cases including rape trials. While judges throughout the 19th and 20th centuries frequently challenged the conclusions doctors drew from their medical evidence, juries — largely made up of middle-class men — increasingly placed their trust in doctors’ sworn testimony.
In Infancy and History: On the Destruction of Experience, Giorgio Agamben writes, “experience is incompatible with certainty, and once an experience has become measurable and certain, it immediately loses its authority.” Scientific verification displaces experience away from the individual onto instruments and numbers.
In her 1997 article evaluating the role that medical evidence has come to play in rape trials in Canada (which have many parallels to the United States), Georgina Feldberg wrote, “One clear force within the history of medico-legal reform was the goal of creating expert physicians who had the experience and skill to administer and interpret medical tests that would define the scientific fact of rape.”
The problem of course, is that while evidence might prove intimate contact or intercourse, there is no medical way to definitively prove consent or lack thereof. Historically, physical signs of violence have played better to juries (note the emphasis placed on the bruising of the victim’s cervix in the NY cops trial). But of course our definitions of both consensual sex and sexual violence have expanded: consensual sex can result in bruising, while the battering of a victim is not conditional for rape.
While lack of medical evidence casts doubt on the accuser’s claims and its presence may do little to lift the fog, Feldberg points out that the use of medical evidence opens up the pandora’s box of the victim’s sexual history, despite rape shield laws intended to place a victim’s sexual past off limits. Thus in the NY cops case, forensics didn’t find any traces of the accused cop’s DNA (despite the fact that he admitted to getting into bed with the woman, cuddling with her and kissing her shoulder). But forensics findings did open up questions about the DNA of three other men found on the woman’s sheets, while questions about the mechanics of penetration revealed the woman’s familiarity with various sexual positions. Of course ideally none of this would matter and courtroom reactions would not include “cringing, laughing or blushing like a fifth grader in reproductive health class.”
At the end, we’re left with a series of paradoxes. Testimony undermined by the absence of relevant medical evidence. Medical evidence that reveals decontextualized details from the accuser’s past. Medical evidence undermined by the question of experience itself: Was it consensual, was it not?
And so we come back to the question that DSK’s lawyers will want us to focus on: Is it physically possible for an older man of middling strength to force a woman to perform oral sex? At face value this seems to be a question of experience rather than medical evidence. Did the woman experience force?
Yet see how quickly a question of experience turns into a question of mechanics, of science, of experimentation and verification. Is it “even physically possible for an unarmed man, who is not particularly physically imposing, to force a person to engage in oral sex?” Can a rape “be consummated on a grown female in good health and strength?” Questions that expect experience to be generalizable rather than individual, and thus obfuscate issues of power, coercion, confusion, and fear.
There is a way one settles into traveling; particularly if traveling alone and in a new city. Small details become important. The patterns of traffic are an object of scrutiny, the manner of greeting a muttered remembrance (“Grüss Gott,” the guy at Müller says and of course he does. It’s Bavaria. Munich). The Sonnenblumenbrötchen bought at a bakery by the Hauptbahnhof, which one realizes is essentially a French baguette disguised by sunflower seeds, turns into an object of first night annoyance. Hearty, excessively—deliciously—grained bread is one of the distinct pleasures of being a German historian. A woman on a bike clings her bell and yells at me as I walk back from the archive, backpack slung across my back, apparently causing the skirt of my dress to ride up. And so manner of dress and habit of walking begin a slow shift toward ones more suitable for summer archiving.
I’ve never been to Munich before, though I spent a month nearby in schönes Bamberg last summer — “Summit of Bavaria/ Excessively Gemütlich,” an 11th century poem in the Cambridge Songs, as liberally translated by a favorite medievalist, proclaims. Having experienced such a Bavarian wonder, I decided to save Munich for another day. And here I am now, with a few feminists to look through at the Institut für Zeitgeschichte, and a brother, who has joined me for part of my trip, to entertain and try to show Germany. How does one show Germany to someone? I’ve never been a tour guide here, probably because I’ve only ever come here to work. So Germany is more a lifestyle than a sight for me. Look at that balcony, I tell him, imagining how nice it would be to have a Käsefrühstuck out there one morning. Berlin will be easier; I was once toured around there. I was a sophomore in college and I remember spending a long time staring across Berlin from the top of the Berliner Dom as my German professor rambled on. And a Love Weekend spent jumping up and down in an old factory building while Paul van Dyk spun techno.
The first two days I spent in Munich alone, jetlagged and located by the central train station, never my first choice for a home base. I stayed in a hostel by the Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof for a night on my way back home last summer and worried I might carry bedbugs across the Atlantic to New York. Repatriation. I don’t know if there is a New York equivalent to the area around a European urban train station. Perhaps 1970s Times Square — its unromanticized version. Casinos and sex shops (the site of Beate Uhse’s shop was oddly comforting—the woman has history) clustered next to hostels whose young British and American revelers run over. Small lessons remembered: don’t buy your Brötchen or sleep near the train station, Grüss Gotts all around, keep your skirt down.
European casinos and sex shops always seem to have black mirrored entrances with strobe lights and Halloween streamers. Last year I went into a casino in Bamberg to print a train ticket. Two middle-aged women pulled levers at 2pm and a manager grumbled at me “Bathroom? No, printer? There, there,” she jabbed her finger. I bought a card that would either print me a train ticket to Berlin or give me four tries at the slots.
Arriving at the archive this past Friday, radically jetlagged and underslept, I managed to make my needs known through a slurge of mumbled German. Research is a series of roads left untraveled and bets with oneself. If I don’t take this down, will I find something better later? Perhaps I’ll just note its existence. A conference on new contraceptive methods in the early 1970s? A half hour painstakingly going through my feminist’s handwritten notes—not necessarily for their worth, but for fear I won’t be able to get my hands on any other report of the events. Two folders later, the proceedings appear in typewritten full. In Reading Berlin Peter Fritzsche describes the illegible city as central to 20th century modernism: the uncertainty of being able to see or represent clearly, “the larger, ongoing process of just rereading and rewriting.” Unfolding a modern city is not unlike unfolding a new archive—terrifying, illegible, incapable of being represented yet forced to be nonetheless. One synchronizes oneself into both eventually.
It’s already known that for Janet Malcolm, no profession is sacred, not even her own. Yet while remaining hyper-aware of her role as journalist in her latest book Iphigenia in Forest Hills, she also assumes the mantle and mentality (with intense psychological portraits) of lawyer, judge, and executioner, not to mention father of the dead, daughter of the accused, state-appointed law guardian, and alleged murderess. Some might call it a performative contradiction, but then again she sees all the characters in the trial as performers with deep contradictions. Perhaps she’s merely joining the gang, or perhaps her own performance is intended to highlight the inconsistencies that surround her.
Iphigenia in Forest Hills recounts the murder trial of Mazoltuv Borukhova, a physician and member of the Bukharan Jewish community in Forest Hills in Queens, accused of hiring a hitman to murder her ex-husband after a court ordered their young daughter be transferred into his custody. I recommend it wholeheartedly. About her protagonist, Malcolm writes, “she couldn’t have done it and she must have done it.” This appears on page 32 of 155 pages, and by the end the reader is left with no further conclusion than that. Either we remain satisfied with this impossibility, or we start doubting Janet Malcolm’s authority. But why doubt Malcolm’s authority rather than someone else’s? Take the judge for instance: Robert “Hang ’em” Hanophy, whom one juror (apparently hand-selected for his gray everydayness) says (on page 96) is “real and down to earth and serious about his job. And funny. He had a good sense of humor.” But nearly 90 pages before, Malcolm has already described Hanophy as “a man of seventy-four with a small head and a large body and the faux-genial manner that American petty tyrants cultivate.”
I keep noting the timeline of the book because it tells us something about what Malcolm’s doing here. Malcolm doesn’t ask the reader to reach his or her own conclusions as testimony is laid out; she doesn’t pander to expectations of objectivity. The jurors and judge are already biased toward actions and behaviors that seem legitimate to their own understandings, and Malcolm isn’t about to let them get the monopoly on prejudice. Yet while Malcolm gives her narrative precedence, the nature of the written form allows her thoughts to become interwoven with those of other characters’; the reader flips back and forth to re-read a Malcolm characterization of someone an interviewee has presented in a very different light. And so Malcolm’s own narrative can be retroactively challenged. While I was initially convinced by Malcolm’s claim that Borukhova both couldn’t have and had to have killed her ex-husband, at some point I began to doubt that she couldn’t have. Despite this deep paradox, Malcolm is more convinced that she knows Borukhova’s character than I am (though in a recent Paris Review interview, Malcolm admits, “As I went along I felt I undestood her less and less… [Borukhova] becomes who you imagined she is.”) Flawed legal evidence abounded, and Borukhova appeared to be a successful career woman, a devoted mother, and quite possibly an abused wife, but none of this convinced me that she couldn’t have done it. Perhaps this makes me the radical relativist to the contrarian Malcolm, characterizations that make generational sense given her birth in 1934 and mine in 1983.