12.16.12 | Transblog
When we spoke about Julian Dibbell’s article “A Rape in Cyberspace: How an Evil Clown, a Haitian Trickster, Two Wizards, and a Cast of Dozens Turned a Database Into a Society,” we spoke about the formation of virtual communities and their significance; the good and bad aspects that come along with the freedom of anonymity on the web; and the phenomenon of impactful virtual experience. But we didn’t actually talk about rape. We explored important questions about what makes a group of people a community, and the promise and limitations of the Internet as a space to escape, remake, or assert identity. We didn’t, however, explore the perceptions, definitions, or experiences of sexual violence in Dibbell’s article, or the ideas of victimization vs. agency that influenced it.
This blog post stems from our Transdisciplinary Design Seminar’s conversation, and my belief that if we are to take seriously our role as designers in shaping and reshaping our communities, we must wrestle with the concepts and practices that inform them, including sexual violence. How can we combat sexual violence through design?
A note before moving on: in this post, I look specifically at a feminist theory of sexual violence, which focuses on society’s understanding and treatment of rape (and other forms of sexual violence) as expressions of masculine power over feminine passivity and powerlessness. I will use the terms man and woman, as the conversation I cite has taken place around women’s empowerment. However, I would like to recognize here that both women and men experience instances sexual violence; and that the person in the feminine position of powerlessness is not always a woman, and the person in the masculine position of power is not always a man.
In her essay, “Fighting Bodies, Fighting Words: A Theory and Politics of Rape Prevention,” Sharon Marcus argues for a radical approach to understanding and preventing rape. Marcus looks at Mary E. Hawkesworth’s perspective that rape is one of the real, clear facts of women’s lives—a view of rape that is pervasive—and finds fault in this framework. Marcus contends that Hawkesworth treats rape as a fixed reality in women’s lives, as if “rape has always already occurred and women are always either already raped or already rapable.” Marcus believes this perspective facilitates an environment that assumes men have the power to rape (and must be persuaded otherwise), and builds a language that defines women by our violability. She posits that to prevent rape, we must understand it “as a process to be analyzed and undermined as it occurs.”
Marcus’ argument is both profound and distressing. She suggests that the violence of rape is enabled by social scripts; that to prevent it, we must understand rape not as fact, but as language, subject to change; and that we must recognize women’s will, agency, and capacity for violence in the rape script.
“If we define rape as a scripted performance, we enable a gap between script and actress that can allow us to rewrite the script, perhaps by refusing to take it seriously and treating it as a farce, perhaps by resisting the physical passivity that it directs us to adopt,” Marcus argues. “We can locally interfere with [this social script] by realizing that men elaborate masculine power in relation to imagined feminine powerlessness.”
I find Marcus’ argument compelling, although controversial. It calls for a revision of the framework of sexual violence, which currently defines women as objects of violence and victims of violence. I believe this would create an environment for change. So how can we, as a society, revise the framework of sexual violence, and what role can we, as designers, assume in this effort? Furthermore, how can tools like the Internet be used to change the conversation?
To begin to answer these questions, let’s look at an example of how the conversation about sexual violence is already changing:
In her book Aftermath: Violence and the Remaking of a Self, Susan Brison explores the power of narrative in the aftermath of her own sexual assault. Brison finds that as she continues to retell the stories of her trauma and recovery, her narrative is not linear or orderly. It is being constantly revised; is “permanently revisable.” Brison not only recognizes her ability to revise her trauma narrative, but also the necessity of doing. The narrative adapts as different emotional aspects of trauma are experienced, and as emerging parts of life give new meaning to past experiences.
“Narrative,” Brison says, “facilitates the ability to go on by opening up possibilities for the future through retelling the stories of the past. It does this not by reestablishing the illusions of coherence of the past, control over the present, and predictability of the future, but by making it possible to carry on without these illusions.”
Brison is able to convey the multiplicity of her narrative by retelling and revising it throughout the book. Notably, in opposition to this stands her recounting of her rape during her assailant’s trial. Brison describes the difficulty of preparing for her testimony, which necessitated a recounting of her trauma as a snapshot of the experience—a story unmediated and unchanging, told from the perspective of a detached, objective observer. She says, “There was something deadening about the requirement for truth.”
In Dibbell’s recounting of the virtual sexual assault that occurred in LambdaMOO, an object-oriented multi-user dimension (MOO), he describes the tension between the facts in this virtual reality and the “real-life” facts: the sexual assault occurred in a virtual world with made up characters and through language (since this early MOO was text-based). Meanwhile, those who experienced the assaults, although no physical harm was done to them, had significant emotional reactions to the acts. What is most interesting is that the rapes in LambdaMOO were not only rooted in a language of sexual violence (assailant vs. victim), but took form entirely as language.
The trauma narrative from LambdaMOO is more obviously blurred by the virtual reality vs. “real life” facts than a physical assault, but the LambdaMOO community focused on the snapshot story in order to prosecute and punish the assailant. While this reaction mirrors that of a “real life” community, I believe platforms like MOOs have the potential to complicate and potentially break with the conventions of “real life” communities, thus opening possibilities for new ways of thinking about, understanding, and preventing sexual violence.
If we explore the blurriness of the trauma narrative, we may find other possibilities to fight back.
Hollaback, a movement to fight and end street harassment, uses a digital framework to call out instances of harassment and to ignite public conversations. Using their mobile phones, those who experience harassment can post their stories or pictures of their assailants to the ihollaback website, and others can respond by clicking an “I’ve got your back” button. Unfortunately, this framework has a conventional focus on response (instead of prevention), and promotes the existing script of women as victims. But I believe Hollaback is onto something.
Let’s look at one more example: a woman is on the subway on her way home from a late night at work. A man comes over to where she’s seated, unzips his pants, and flashes her. Instead of looking away, the woman takes a photo of the man’s penis, thus shifting his role from assailant to object.
Now, I’m not calling for crowd-sourced porn. I’m suggesting that we design to change the conversation.
Designers have already created new platforms that complicate conventional “real life” scenarios and understandings. What kind of digital framework can we design to not only encourage mass response from a community, but to facilitate intervention and prevention? How might we crowd-source an initiative that undermines the very script that facilitates sexual harassment and violence? How can we use technology—mobile phones, apps, the Internet—to shift agency and power from the assailant to the traditional victim? When designers take on these questions, I believe we will be able to combat sexual violence in new and profound ways.