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.
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 Beasthere.]
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.
Dear Mars, Incorporated, and, specifically, those involved in creating advertisements for M&M chocolates,
There’s this thing that happens sometimes, when you’re a survivor of sexual violence, or if you study it for a living, or if you’re simply attuned to and interested in how sexual violence continues to permeate our society. You start to see sexual violence everywhere. You hear it referenced in songs, like Rick Ross’s “U.O.E.N.O.” that casually mention using date rape drugs. You notice it in rape chants sung on Canadian university campuses. You may start to find out that a large number of your friends, family members, and acquaintances (of all genders and sexualities) have experienced some kind of unwanted sexual contact. And, most notably, you see sexual violence in numerous advertisements, especially in the fashion, alcohol, and luxury goods industries. In fact, once you look around, you tend to find it in more places than you might have previously liked to believe. You might even ask yourself: “How has this become a socially acceptable thing? Why is rape the punchline of a joke, the casual lyric of a song, or a popular image used to sell anything from handbags to shoes?”
Of course, once you start to notice this, people will probably tell you that you’re overreacting. They might tell you that the critiques of rape chants on university campuses are proof that “feminist ideologues” are just pushing their “pro-consent propaganda” on everyone, and that anti-oppression activists are always just looking for a way to ruin people’s fun. Because they’ll say, as you might have previously believed, that rape culture is just something that can “build community and bring people out of their bubbles,” like when they chant about it at a frosh week event. Or they might tell you that you’re totally missing the point, and that images of a woman’s bruised and battered face are just a creative choice and that you’re clearly not appreciating what constitutes art.
But, you see, there’s this problem. Rape chanting-students, Rick Ross, and Dolce & Gabbana aren’t the only ones who are using sexual violence as a means of having fun or selling products. You are too.
Last night, after unwinding from a long day of feeling sick and doing work, I decided to watch some television. Rather coincidentally, I had just spent the afternoon eating most of a bag of M&Ms. And that’s when I saw one of the commercials that you released earlier this year. You’re obviously familiar with it, since you created it, but for those who aren’t, here it is. I’m going to put a TRIGGER WARNINGon this.
Now, here’s the thing. I wonder that you think your ad is kind of funny, I mean, these cute little M&Ms are about to be devoured by this big bad red-haired lady who totally just can’t help herself around chocolate! That’s not like rape at all, right?I mean, first of all, they’re animated chocolate characters. Plus, the “big bad devourer” who is unwittingly going to attack the little anthropomorphized M&M is a woman, so, obviously that’s way more funny, and way less rape-like than if it had been a man, right? And it’s an advertisement for chocolate, not for alcohol, so that totally has nothing to do with sexual violence, right?
I’m sorry. But I’m going to have to tell you that you’re wrong.
The entire premise of this advertisement is a classic reflection of real-life scenarios of sexual violence, and it’s being used, just like so many other companies, to try and sell products. An anthropomorphized M&M is “warned” about the predatory nature of a woman who “just cannot help herself,” then sets up her M&M friend to be taken away from the party by this predatory woman, who then leads that M&M away to her car, locks the doors, and attacks him. The last frame of the advert is the a shot of the parked car, with the poor little red M&M screaming.
The advertisement does not merely “imply,” “gesture towards,” or “hint” at what has happened to so many victims of sexual violence, it actually mirrors it and reproduces it, line by line, word by word, action by action.
People setting up their friends to be assaulted? Definitely happens.
People having to be warned of the predatory nature of certain partygoers? Definitely happens.
Perpetrators being justified in their actions because they or others say that they “just couldn’t help themselves?” Definitely happens.
Individuals being isolated, especially in cars, by their perpetrators? Definitely happens.
Women being the perpetrators of sexual assault? Definitely happens, even though society keeps treating male victims and female perpetrators as a source of comedy. [Just read, if you can stomach it, the absolutely abhorrent article that Star columnist Rosie DiManno wrote following the gang assault of a young man in Toronto.]
M&M has a long history of being a successful and well-known product, and the Mars Chocolate company has a long history of being a successful and profitable corporation. You certainly don’t need to stoop to shock-tactic advertising in order to garner more sales.
Corporate responsibility goes far beyond product safety and health standards about how many calories are in M&Ms and are there peanut-free facilities, etc. Your responsibility extends into social responsibility. As a consumer, especially one who has bought your products, I do not need to be reminded that rape is taken so lightly in this culture that it is being used to sell candy. I do not need to hear the lock of a car door and a scream, to be reminded of what once happened to me in a car. Male victims, especially, do not need to be reminded that they face an uphill battle in being taken seriously.
You don’t have to sell out rape victims in order to maintain a hefty profit margin, or or in order to keep your consumers amused. Your website says that you “take [your] responsibility for marketing brands appropriately very seriously.” As a well-known global brand, it is your duty to live up to that statement.
In the meantime, consider me a lost customer. Not surprisingly, I’ve lost my appetite.
There’s a kind of nervousness, I think that goes along with speaking out about anything. Is this the right time? Am I saying the right things? And what will people think of me? What happens if they know my deepest secrets, and I can’t take them back?
And I think that initially there’s a kind of pride that goes along with telling. With the sadness, there’s a bit of adrenaline, like you did this thing you thought you could never do. And you have your family and friends supporting you, and it’s really powerful.
But then, once the telling is over, when the news cameras or the reporters leave, or even when you’re just walking out of your therapist’s office and going home, or after you hang up the phone after talking to a friend, a strange sense of quiet comes over you. And you ask yourself: what the hell did I just do?
Then all that confidence just kind of melts away, and it’s as if you know that you never, ever want to talk about it again, that price you pay for talking about it – the price of remembering it all, of feeling vulnerable and exposed, is just too much. So you go quiet again.
But that doesn’t last very long, because you start to just feel so fucking angry, so incredibly consumed with rage, all stuff that you started to let out when you spoke for that first time is coming out, but now you’re alone and you’re expected to deal with this deluge of emotions yourself. It’s a total Pandora’s Box.
Once the anger passes you might feel sad. And that brave face you wore for the cameras is swollen from crying and you can barely breathe through the tears and you there’s sinking feeling that you almost wish that THIS is what they’d seen, because this is the real shit that you have to deal with, this is what happens in the middle of the night when people aren’t around to listen.
But you do what you can. Maybe you make art, or go for a run, maybe you play music, and you get lost for while in something else. Maybe you speak about something that’s completely unrelated – you express yourself in different ways.
There are, of course, moments of irritation. When you see comments on articles, or people seem dismissive, and you’re really fucking tired of speaking out because why is this still happening? Why do we still live in a world where violence continues to perpetrated? And sometimes people are just so ridiculous in their attempts to legitimize it, and you’re just tired of rhetoric, and the dismissal, and the blatant disregard.
But, you know, you can have joy, too. And that joy can be a result of speaking out, or it might not be. You can be happy at the same time as you’re sad, you can have mixed feelings about it. There’s not one single way to feel about having spoken out. And those who wish to mandate your joy, or tell you that because you seem happy are therefore you must be totally over it, they need to just shut the fuck up.
I think ultimately after speaking out, there’s a need for momentum, after that initial moment of catching your breath. That if you can just keep creating, singing, dancing, running, being, going on with your life, that maybe speaking out wasn’t the worst thing in the world. Maybe what happened doesn’t feel like it is going to consume every single moment forever. And maybe, just maybe, you helped somebody. Even if (especially if) that person was yourself.