Trigger Warning: This article contains graphic discussions of sexual assault.
In my line of work, I read about a lot of horrible things, some of which actually happened.
As a doctoral student in English literature, whose research focuses on representations of sexualized violence, I study both fictional (novels, plays) and non-fictional (memoirs, auto-biographies) accounts of these crimes. Ultimately, my goal is to understand how writers and readers, and how survivors and witnesses, all make sense of the experience of sexual violation. At best, my job allows me to see the ways in which language, even language that is disturbing, raw, and graphic, allows the reality of sexualized violence to be made visible, to break free from the shackles of silence and stigma. At worst, my job forces me to think about the stories and the languages of sexualized violence that are used as weapons, that are turned back against survivors. Whether they come in the form of humour, in the form of gleeful boasting, or in the form of callous indifference, these stories always manage to hurt.
One such story, one such incidence of the absolute violence of words, is one that was recently told by graffiti artist David Choe, on a podcast that aired in March of 2014.
I will be brief, and, I hope, not too graphic in my recapitulation of what Choe said. Over the course nearly half an hour, Choe recalled having repeatedly forced a massage therapist to perform sexual acts on him. Along with denigrating and fetishizing this woman, whom he calls “Rose,” on the basis of her racial background and her profession, Choe expressed both nonchalance and absolute merriment at having carried out these assaults. His co-hosts, who, while they called Choe’s behaviour out for being the actions of a rapist, nevertheless engaged in banter and joking about it. Choe showed absolutely no remorse, and seemed to take only mild offense at being termed a sexual predator. According to Choe, what he did was “rapey,” but he is not a rapist.
As if this apparent admission of rape were not horrifying enough, Choe took a somewhat predictable, if no less disturbing tactic in response to his critics.
According to Choe, none of this actually happened.
Choe, the one-time protagonist in his seemingly heroic tale of raping a woman, claimed that it was simply “bad storytelling,” and an extension of his art practice. More specifically, Choe wrote, in a response on his podcast’s website: “I never thought I’d wake up one late afternoon and hear myself called a rapist. It sucks. Especially because I am not one. I am not a rapist. I hate rapists, I think rapists should be raped and murdered.”
Now, can’t say that I’m surprised. Choe’s further defense of rape as a mere subject for his dark humour,is one that has been trotted out by comedians such as Daniel Tosh, in a now-famous controversy. [For an excellent discussion of ways in which Tosh’s joke in no way performs the often-recuperative function of humour, see Elissa Bassist’s article from The Daily Beast here.]
To be very clear: I am not suggesting that violence and humour are utterly incompatible, nor am I suggesting that violence and art are utterly incompatible. Obviously. I study violence that is featured in works of art every single day. I have often used humour in order to deal with my own trauma. There are some jokes about rape culture that are so spot-on and scathing in their critiques of the problems in society. What I am suggesting, however, is that if one’s humour or one’s art are virtually indistinguishable from actual practices of violence and exploitation, especially when one is placing oneself in the position of the perpetrator, there’s a big problem.
The thing it, it’s all too easy to just shrug off these problematic positions with any number of excuses, which is precisely what Choe does.
It’s JUST art.
It’s JUST a story.
It’s JUST harmless fun.
I’m JUST kidding.
All of these “justs,” all of these excuses that people make, whether it’s for assault or rape or harassment or whatever, these are precisely the hallmark of rape culture. They’re used by bystanders who wish to shame, blame, or silence victims, and they’re used by perpetrators themselves. Here’s the thing: David Choe didn’t merely engage in a brief, off-hand joke, that could be possibly construed as thoughtless. This was nearly a half-hour of consistent, un-ending descriptions of sexual assault, that placed him at the centre of it all. That’s a lot of effort to put into “just” a story.
Men’s Rights Activists, who trumpet endlessly about the numerous false allegations made by rape victims against innocent men every year, point to the ways in which “it was just a story” or “I made it up” gets in the way of the pursuit of justice. Now, it’s important to remember that victims sometimes recant their testimonies precisely because they are terrified of any number of consequences: of not being believed; of retaliation on the part of the perpetrator; under pressure from families, communities, or institutions. Not all claims of “it was just a story” are made equal. So, too, does a lack of a conviction not mean that an assault did not happen: a case may not be brought to trial, or a defendant may be acquitted because of a sufficient lack of evidence. Assault cases are notoriously difficult to prosecute, but this is NOT because assaults are not, in fact, occurring.
The fact that actual false assault allegations constitute a small percentage of reports aside, why would anyone in their right mind want to further muddy the waters of justice by pretending to have committed a rape when they hadn’t? Why would you want to place any doubt in someone’s mind as to whether or not you condone rape, find it funny, or heaven forbid, may have actually committed a rape yourself?
I think one of the things that bothers me most deeply about this incident is that as a researcher, I think it is vitally important to hear perpetrator narratives. If we want to understand how and why perpetrators rationalize their actions, or groom their victims, if we want to see them not as outliers, not as monsters in the night, but as human beings who do horrendous things, these are stories we need to listen to, as fundamentally disturbing and horrifying as they are. I have listened to perpetrators speak in some fairly eye-opening documentaries, and while it is confronting, it is a source of valuable information.
Whether or not “Rose” exists, and whether or not David Choe committed a rape is still unclear. I have my own hunches and beliefs about this, and I am suspicious of his feigned innocence. Regardless, this story has given us at least two pieces of valuable information: 1) that rape culture and rape as a source of humour (in which victims are the target) is still well and alive; 2) that even if this story was a mere piece of fiction, a mere fantasy, a mere figment of the imagination, that there will always be doubt in many people’s minds as to whether or not Choe committed a crime, and he alone is to blame for that. I have no pity for Choe, and no sense of sympathy for his pleas of understanding and to not be labeled as a potential rapist. He alone is responsible for the trust he has broken, for the survivors he has triggered, and for the contributions he has made to rape culture. And, if he has committed a crime, he alone is responsible for it: not the victim.
Many words and stories, like so many crimes, are not victimless. They hurt. They have a tangible impact on people’s lives. As Denise Riley so eloquently states in her book Impersonal Passion: Language as Affect (Durham: Duke UP, 2005), “in its violently emotional materiality, the word is indeed made flesh and dwells amongst us—often long outstaying its welcome” (9).
Thanks to David Choe, every survivor out there has just received one more unwelcome blow, yet one more hurdle to face in their attempts to be heard and to seek justice.
“Bad storytelling,” like assault itself, can have a lasting, if not a lifelong, impact.