‘ “I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory,’ ” Alice said.
Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously.
“Of course you don’t—till I tell you.
I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!’ ”
“But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument’,” Alice objected.
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone,
“it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” ‘
– Lewis Carroll
This piece has come about because of a discussion I had and subsequent pondering in the wake of the trending of the Me Too hashtag, a social media movement for people to share their own cases of being the victims of sexual assault. The discussion, and my thinking after, has centred on my insistence that the words being used to talk about the issue really do matter, particularly in the long term, and genuine empathy and good intention should not be causing us to not even attempt to be clear and careful in talking about something so important, that certainly has affected so many.
That is, that verbal harassment and assault are not sexual assault, and that words are never violence.
There has been a much needed, belated voice given to people, particularly women, who have had to put up with everything from words to actions of a sexual nature and then not be taken seriously when discussing it, or never even getting to the point of discussing, convinced that exactly that will be the result. The voice has come from the recent Me Too movement on social media, wherein people would discuss their personal stories of either sexual assault of varying kinds, or verbal harassment and verbal assault, and end it with #metoo. The point is to show how common it all is in its various forms, and that all kinds of people have experienced these things.
The problem here, significant to me, is that a distinction I made in the above paragraph is not being made, and I have found that it is actually, by some, knowingly avoided or outright contested, and regarded as either not necessary, or as yet another tactic for the dismissal of the victim’s experience. Where I said “stories of either sexual assault of varying kinds, or verbal harassment and verbal assault”, the trend now is to just say “sexual assault”.
What is happening is that scores of people are sharing their experiences of verbal harassment and verbal assault under the label of sexual assault, and some are saying “me too” to an experience they haven’t actually had, despite the fact that what they went through undoubtedly had profound impact, and must be part of the discussion.
What seems to be the growing perspective and position, both before and as a result of this movement and trend, is the idea that experiences based on spoken or written interaction without violence or physical contact nonetheless constitute sexual assault, adopting the already upcoming notion that words can be violence, found in other contexts beyond the sexual.
I was struck by, to me, how obviously wrong this idea was, and struck by how it did not stand out as exactly that to everybody else. Of course, experiences without violence or physical contact matter, have impact, affect people, and should be in the discussion. But the words used to describe and discuss them matter too, and we cannot accept this breaking down of distinctions between words and actions, because it affects everything from the initial conversation to the response. If the only qualification for something being sexual assault is the experience of and impact on the victim, then that will not take us anywhere good, even though it seems so reasonable to let go of the distinctions in order to passionately support the voices of others in the short term.
My way of explaining my concern and hesitation was to explore just how far it could go. Take this example, where we have adopted these new notions fully:
You are out and about and you spot, not far from you, somebody. Specifically, some body. You like the look of them, and so you find yourself looking much longer than you usually do when glancing around at people and things – and because you are a little enraptured, you’re not exactly being subtle about it.
Now, this person is wholly aware of your gaze and stance, directed fully at them. Your look and poise declare the sexual interest you have more clearly and immediately than any statement, clumsy, crude, or poetic, that you could ever speak or text. And they do not like it. More than that, they are somebody who is extremely socially anxious, and it wasn’t exactly easy to bring themselves out here, amongst others. Your sustained look, your facial expression and body language, render them afraid, nervous, and more than just a little uncomfortable. They feel upset to the degree that others can only be upset by an unwanted hand on the shoulder or by being actually followed. They feel awful, and that manifests in their mind and in their body, and they will be affected by this for the rest of the week, if not longer, not just now and in the subsequent rush to get home. You made no move and sought no physical contact, you didn’t utter a sound. But you and your sexual interest in them could not have been more obvious, and to say that it had a negative effect would be to grossly understate their distress and dismiss their experience.
In this situation, if the Me Too movement, or at least the portion of it that I have come across, is to be consistent, then:
- You have committed sexual assault.
- That person can go home and tell people that they were sexually assaulted.
- They can tell people that it was you who perpetrated sexual assault against them.
If you are to argue that there is either no relevant difference or no difference at all between words and actions, then I do not see how you can then argue that it is absurd to start including facial expression and body language along with them – they are the most integral and far more ancient forms of communication rooted within us. People can lie with their speech and yet an expression or movement gives away the truth. If, as it seems to me to have been, the argument is that comments are sexual assault and that words are violence, then those making that argument must be content that in the above situation they are committers of sexual assault, and any attempted defense of theirselves or explaining of the situation should be promptly shouted down. If it is the subjectivity that counts, the experience of the individual, and if the line between words and actions is already, not lost, but stamped out and erased with fervor, then body language and facial expression, no matter the intent, clearly amount to violence and sexual assault. If unwanted words can put you in the outer reaches of the general camp that rape victims reside in the centre of, then an obvious, unignorable glance or a mis-taken movement or motion ought also result in you becoming, one way or the other, either a victim of sexual assault or a perpetrator of it.
“But if that happened, then in the explanations and further investigations all will be cleared up, of course no one will go through with any punishment or judgement when they learn the details of the situation.” Well, that may be somewhat true, but in a world of social media and instant, unthinking judgement, guilty until proven innocent, and kind of still guilty in memory even then, a significant measure of irreparable damage is already done.
If you are feeling angered and offended, that is not my aim (though it might be my fault) and I suspect you are missing the point, given the charged nature of the topic. The point of this is not to argue that the Me Too movement is unfounded or unimportant, nor is it to argue against the idea that there is more to sexual assault and harassment, and verbal harassment and assault, than is generally known, and that, in their many forms, they are wider spread than is generally thought. The point is, mostly, to agree. The point is to argue that the issue is so important that it deserves scrutiny to shape any response into the best, in the short and in the medium to long term, that it can be. And I believe the biggest problem with this recent trend is the pervasive belief that words and actions should not be substantially differentiated between, or that, in the service of helping others, we should not care about the precision or consequences of our speech and our usage of words like violence and sexual assault in the process.
Awkward and clumsy come-ons and intentionally distasteful catcalling are not two points early on along the same scale that closes at the other end with rape.
Here is a personal example, from, of all things, an Oasis concert:
Over a decade ago now, I went to this Oasis concert in Sheffield, in the UK. I was either 15 or 14, maybe 16, and in there by myself (I mean, that I did not go with anyone, not that I was literally the only member of the audience). Over the course of the two, two and a half, hours, the three guys in the row behind me, of a similar but slightly older age, began, gradually, to talk to me – one of them in particular. And this was all friendly and amicable, clearly driven by openness and shared musical fandom, and them noticing that I was not with others. The one who was spearheading the effort, it became more and more reasonable to assume, was driven by something extra, on top of the rest of it.
Whether gay or bisexual, he was, god knows why, certainly interested, and he wanted to make that known, quite naturally. Over the course of the concert small talk became more talk, and, from his side, flirtation that grew later in forwardness. At one point later, a song – his favourite – that I had told him that I doubted would be played started, and in his playful excitement he hugged me from his position, pulled me back a little, and the action was part of saying something along the lines of “Ahah, told you!”. This wasn’t done with any menace, nor to try and indicate to me “See, you can tell I’m stronger than you” – I don’t think that he was – but regardless, I didn’t want it, and nor did I want mere spoken flirtation from anybody.
All this, the talk and the action, made me feel sincerely uncomfortable. Not out of feeling unsafe, and certainly not out of any homophobia (I would have felt the same way, quite possibly more so, had it been a woman), but not knowing what to do with such upfrontness made me feel, not persistently, but at certain moments and particularly toward the end, weird, defensive, and distracted from the general experience I was there for. There was an element of pressure, again particularly at the end, and throughout the concert my lack of reciprocity in all but temporary friendship was fairly obvious. There was even some unasked for, either with spoken or body language, physical contact.
So, me too? Is this sexual assault if I happen to so decide in retrospect? If I am to join the rationale that is trending, the logic that is latching on or being latched onto, then absolutely. I was young, I was alone. I did not ask or signal for anything, I signed no consent-to-receive-flirting paperwork. The guy was even behind me, in a group of three, in a row slightly higher than mine – outnumbered and conceding the high ground, if you will. According to the new zeitgeist, it was an experience of sexual assault if I decide so: the person who was attracted to me committed sexual assault by clearly demonstrating their interest and using speech and body language to do so, they have no defense against that claim as far as the new movement is concerned, and I am a victim of sexual assault.
But was there any sexual assault committed, by any sane analysis of the situation? Of course there wasn’t. Am I a victim of sexual assault? Absolutely not, and I don’t want anybody to try and push me into deciding that I am. The guy did not do anything wrong, and it would be plainly immoral of me to include myself among victims of sexual assault, to say: hey, you know, I get it – me too. Yet this is exactly what this overzealous zeitgeist encourages. Change elements and details of the situation and it could become reasonable to call it verbal harassment; change elements of the physical aspect and it could become sexual assault. If his words or their tone had become menacing, or graphic, for example: that would be harassment or verbal assault, and still not sexual assault or violence. If I had asked him to please not hug me again, and he had, for example: that would be the action that his words could never be. But as it happened, it should not be counted as anything other than a situation I was unfortunately uncomfortable in – and yet it would be counted, without hesitation, as more than that, if I had decided to tell my story, claim it to be a story of sexual assault, and end it with #metoo.
The subjectivity is the key element, and people’s experiences are being coloured by this new trend of thought, just as much as genuine experiences of groping or harassment can be coloured the other way if society is too dismissive, causing a victim to reassess their experience and conclude that what they experienced was normal and that they are being silly. That is exactly the point of the Me Too movement, to prevent that situation, on top of making people aware of just how common it is and has been, for all yet particularly for women. But this lack of care with speech, this lack of concern over nuance, this adamance that the importance of the issue means that no concerns over the response may be raised, is working against the unfortunately still necessary elements of this movement.
For what it is worth, and that seems to be diminishing, here are the definitions of the relevant words from the Oxford English Dictionary, which I think is a fair place to appeal to for accepted definitions of words in the English language:
“Behaviour involving physical force intended to hurt, damage, or kill someone or something.”
“(Law) The unlawful exercise of physical force or intimidation by the exhibition of such force.”
“Make a physical attack on.”
“A physical attack.”
“(Law) An act that threatens physical harm to a person, whether or not actual harm is done.” – ie., whether or not it is successful.
Sexual assault –
“The action or an act of forcing an unconsenting person to engage in sexual activity; a rape.”
“(Law) a crime involving forced sexual contact, variously defined as inclusive or exclusive of rape.”
You may change the definitions within your own little circles, and then state the new definitions to defend your argument, but the rest of the world are not within those little circles, and when they hear “violence”, and when they hear “sexual assault”, they hear actions. If your aim is to make people aware of the widespread and varying nature of the forms of verbal and sexual harassment and assault – a worthy aim – then it is on you to be clear, concise, and consistent, and to accommodate others in your communication. It is no good to say that, well, they should be smarter, they should understand what we mean. You are trying to educate: it is on you to put in the constant effort, if you truly care about the issue, and to ultimately succeed. If people hear some statistic decrying an incredibly high number of cases of sexual assault and sexual violence on campuses, and then, as a result, join you in fighting against it, when they eventually find out that the reason that statistic is so high is because you included everything verbal under the names of assault and violence, it is your fault when they abandon you, and find it hard to trust what you are telling them ever again. Be clear from the start, make the effort to say “when looking at both sexual assault and verbal harassment and assault, incidents on campuses rise to…”. If you say “sexual assault”, people hear “excluding the verbal” – because that is what it means. If you cheapen your words and degrade your speech for immediate impact, then once the short term is over you will find yourself wishing that you hadn’t.
As with the earlier example about the socially-anxious person now being free to claim sexual assault at your hands, or eyes, take this next example as if we have adopted this idea that words can be violence and sexual assault, and try and see where it can be taken:
An ex-Muslim woman is here in the West. She fled an Islamic family, government, and society, having been born and raised to near-adulthood there. As a young girl, coming out of her youngest years, she was forced into veiling, and separated from men and boys in the mosque. The sexual nature of the veiling and much of the teaching drilled into her never escaped her for a moment, and a genuine trauma of sexual repression and objectification was developed throughout puberty because of the veiling and because of many of the Qur’anic verses she has had to hear, repeat, memorise, and live out.
But now she is here, she does not adhere to the religion any longer, and this Me Too movement of the intensely subjective and billowing determinants and definitions of sexual assault and violence has enraptured her. She will not tolerate sexual assault and violence, and she is fully on board with the notion that words can be and indeed are violence, and that there is no pressing need to distinguish between verbal harassment and assault and actual actions.
She is sat upon a bench among other benches within a city square, and sees two niqab-clad women with their hijab-wearing daughters, of what seem to be 8 or 9. They sit right across from here, eyes only to see, reprimanding one of the girls for pulling a strand of her hair out of her hijab to play with. All her experience of sexually-related trauma comes flooding back, as impactful and degrading, psychologically, as a grab from behind and an unknown face pressed close against her own. As if this were not enough, a man has just sat down upon the bench behind her, and is speaking, loud and pious, in righteous Arabic, as he reads from his personal copy of the Qur’an. Just as a veteran soldier at the sudden bursting of a balloon, a real wave of PTSD washes over her. She asks the women to go somewhere else, and the man to be quiet, but neither request is respected.
She has been sexually assaulted, and she is the victim of Islamic violence.
She posts, she blogs, she speaks up, and she tells her story.
However, I really do not think that there are many (or any) within this Me Too crowd that would be happy to denounce the public presence of the hijab, the niqab, or the burka as sexual assault upon those who used to wear it, nor do I imagine them ever saying out loud to anyone that the text of the Qur’an is hate speech and the vocalising of it amounts to actual violence against any woman or girl that hears it. Yet, if we are to be consistent with our movement down the slippery slope via this logic, they should. If this is to continue and be accepted, then there is no excuse for not treating this the same way. By the logic I am criticising, any refusal by the Muslim women in this example to either remove their veils or get far away from the ex-Muslim would amount to a blatant and reprehensible continuation of the sexual assault, and any refusal by authorities or the general public to ban the Qur’an from a particular bookshop or make unacceptable the reading of it aloud would be a commitment to perpetuating violence against women and girls.
The question of what to do about her treatment earlier in life is another conversation. But, despite my absolutely emphatic support for a person in her situation, I do not believe she has any right to force anyone to take any Islamic veiling off or move, or to force the cessation of any reading aloud or selling of the Qur’an. And despite the absolutely genuine sexually-related trauma that the presence of veiled women and girls and the sound of the spoken verse quickly and horridly rekindles in her, these are not incidences of sexual assault nor of violence against her, and the world she is walking through cannot be rid of all that profoundly upsets her. Even though her suffering here is absolutely real, and to be acknowledged, there has been no sexual assault, there has been no violence. Just as when a woman is catcalled, or spoken to inappropriately.
The response to these analogies and examples I am trying to use might be: “You’re using ridiculous, extreme examples! These are so specific and unlikely and not the examples that we are talking about.”
Yes, they are extreme, out of the ordinary examples, but on an issue such as this those are the kind of examples and analogies that are necessary. When you are talking about sexual assault, it is very hard – understandably so – to feel the need to hesitate and pass a critical eye over everything. It is easy to be complacent and accept restrictions on speech and give out scorn and punishment because it is so clear in the normal experiences where your empathy lies, and because of that, it is also very difficult to see any problem. It is those “ridiculous” examples and analogies that really bring out the problem, and begin to get those accepting or dismissing it to see see situations where they would no longer be happy to do so. And to see that if you accept or dismiss the problem now, you won’t be able to control when other people decide to do the same.
A true test for if I stand by this is to imagine a little girl, a daughter even, receiving a disgusting sexual comment from some grown man sat on a bench that she is walking past. Now here, there comes the issue of paedophilia too. Yet, despite the powerful urge to have this man punished, to have him banned from sitting there again, to have him taken away by police, to have the world made safe for a girl who shouldn’t have to feel the way she feels now, has felt since the incident, and might well feel for a long while after, this is still not sexual assault or violence, and should not be treated as such. If I was there, do not think that I would not do my best with words and voice to make the man feel even worse than the girl. But no one, not even a child, has the right to walk through the world free of insult, offense, and hurt as a result of speech or text or body language. The grown man in the situation should be judged, should be known about by others, but, as horrible as he is, he should not be treated or regarded in the same way as someone else who has actually grabbed or groped, or worse.
Words as Violence
Adolf Hitler, who you may know, is the author of Mein Kampf, which you may have heard of, a text which outlines the onetime German Chancellor’s life, thoughts, and ideology. He orchestrated a hell of lot more than just words into sentences into paragraphs onto pages, of course, but one of his unfortunately long list of achievements was to write this text. Now, if, in some parallel universe, all that he had done was to write and publish a text outlining and elaborating his ideology, then it would be true to say that he had demonstrated deeply held racist, and particularly anti-Semitic, conviction; it would be true to say that he had played a significant role in spreading racist, and particularly anti-Semitic, ideas; it would be true to say that words matter in every form they manifest, and looking into the influence of his text on any subsequent violence against Jews is something that should be considered of significant importance; and, if all Hitler had ever done was to write and publish a text outlining and elaborating, to whatever degree of detail, his ideology, then it would also be equally as true to say that he had committed no violence against the Jews.
Now, by current, particularly online, debating standards, I have just emphatically and cogently stated outright that Hitler did nothing wrong, but the point of bringing it, perhaps stupidly, into the argument is because the idea that words can be, and even are, violence is not one only found within the sexual context, that this essay has so far focused on.
Reading Lolita aloud is not an act of paedophilia, and nor is writing it in the first place, and, whether seen in writing or heard, the word ‘nigger’ is not racial violence. If ‘nigger’ is, beyond all reasonable doubt, directed at you so as to cause you upset or put you in what some racist believes is your place, it is still not an act of racial violence – despite the fact that words have power and consequences, and that it may accompany actual actions and violence. To post publicly a drawing, done in good detail, of the prophet Muhammad sitting on the toilet, wiping his ass with one hand and holding up The Bible to his face with the other, with the caption “Looking for ideas for his upcoming book”, is to commit absolutely no violence against any Muslim, no matter how sincerely and deeply hurt any Muslim might be by it, and any violence that comes as response is unconditionally unacceptable, and without excuse. Even if – and this is important – even if the person drawing it is doing it, not for any intellectual reason, not for any satirical reason, but merely to be offensive.
Everybody should be taught, until they know and understand it well, that their speech and expression, in written and in verbal form, matters, and has a power and an impact that they and the intention that they speak or write with cannot fully control. That goes for the one planning to make offensive drawings, or having the impulse to shout something across the street at a man or woman they like the look of who is walking home alone. And it goes for the one who wants to punish others for words, and to use their own words so carelessly, and without thought or common and consistent definition, that they make something so astonishingly wrong as the idea that words can be considered violence on the slow but steady way to being mainstream thought.
This has not been an attack on people who want to raise awareness of the regrettably common experience that is verbal harassment and assault, and sexual assault to all kinds of different degree. Nor has it been a dismissive mockery of those who believe they have been victims of these things. It has been a plea, with an intention that I think is just as good, for taking the rhetoric of it all as seriously as it should be taken, and to keep the passion, but to run it through the critical mind.
Slurs and unpleasant comments of a sexual nature are verbal harassment and assault with the potential to cause significant distress and upset and psychological harm, but they are not sexual assault. Words are not violence. They have power, they have meaning, they have affect, they have effect, they hurt, they heal, they linger, they haunt, they fade, they last, but they are not violence. Words are not violence. Words matter, and should, in numerous contexts, be taken very seriously: that is exactly why I am writing a piece about certain words that are being used and the way in which they are being employed. But they are something other than violence. They are not violence. If this essay has caused you genuine, intense distress and psychological pain, then it has done you no violence, and I have committed no violence by writing it.
I sincerely regard this increasingly spoken, shared, and accepted idea that words are sexual assault and that words, in sexual and other contexts, are violence, as a threat to certain crucial and needed values and norms, but I know that it is not violence. I genuinely think it is dangerous, but I know that it is not violence. I think it has as much right to be expressed and considered as any word or idea I might repeat or concoct, and I know that it is not violence. Words are not violence. If people become convinced, or just grudgingly accept, that words can be, nay are, violence and sexual assault, there is no telling, in the medium to long term, just how dangerous that could be for everybody.
The people pushing this thing, particularly in the sexual context, ought know considerably better than to deliberately, consciously, start blurring lines.