Note: This post has content that may be considered unsafe or inappropriate by some audiences. The post deals with topics such as rape and sexual violence. Please read and share at your own discretion.
By accident, I recently came across this long article from the Huffington Post. Titled The Lost Girls and written by Jason Cherkis, it’s a haunting, disturbing, piece centred around the teenage rape and sexual exploitation of the women in The Runaways, a popular all-girl band of 1970s America.
Inspired by the women who recently came out against Bill Cosby (a popular media figure in the United States), one of the women from The Runaways, ex-bassist Jackie Fuchs, chose to reveal her own experiences with Kim Fowley, their band manager from the 1970s. Specifically, she came out into the open about Fowley raping her in a motel during a celebration while she was intoxicated on methaqualone, nowadays recognised as a date-rape drug.
It’s a sordid story, bringing up the murkier dregs of the colourful rock-and-roll music of late-20th Century America. In some ways, it’s not very surprising – the 1960s and 1970s for all their flash, colour, and liberal legacy did have darker undertones which become clearer as we move away from that era. It was an era that (in the west) began the second wave of feminism, the civil rights movement, the LGBT rights movement, the environmental movement, and modern civic politics. But these beginnings had to contend with the other side of the coin where, even as old notions of conservative sexism and racism were challenged, other forms of exploitation and abuse moved to occupy newly-created gaps.
If it’s any consolation, the piece also shows us how much, in some ways, society has moved away from such environments. Imagine someone today putting out an advertisement like the one Kim Fowley posted in Back Door Man magazine in 1975 – where he openly announces “I demand a blonde, blue-eyed sex dog; a modern Brigitte Bargot with no sagged out tits or stretch marks” or declares he likes “brilliant girls with rotten minds“. Today, it would likely result in the client being slung out on his ear into the street, and very rightly too.
Yet, in other ways we have not moved ahead at all. A few years ago, when the Galleon Group (a hedge fund) went bust, one of the stories around the disgraced company involved the head, Raj Rajaratnam, asking a junior employee to model a black spandex outfit during a morning meeting. His explanation? It was market research, studying the viability of investing in the firm that manufactured the outfit. Stories of sexual abuse, exploitation, and outright rape continue to emerge into the open, whether they’re the Bill Cosby revelations, or closer home, casting-couch stories from the film industry or practices of sex slavery among foreign diplomats.
What I find scary is how pervasive these stories are, cutting across countries, societies, industries, and communities. The people who’re accused of such acts aren’t just strangers who drive minivans at night. Neither are they just people who belong to the ‘shady’ industries of modelling, music, or movie-making. They can be editors of political magazines, or directors of academic institutions. They can be judges, school-teachers, politicians, priests, or businessmen. They can be people who work and walk in the same places you do.
While writing this piece, I’ve deliberately decided not to focus on rape alone. One reason for this is to highlight a broad spectrum of behaviour that can be classified as sexual harassment, exploitation, or abuse. This is often not acknowledged and sometimes even rejected. Recently, a scientist from the European Space Agency was criticised for wearing a shirt with a sexually provocative theme to work. While many argued this to be a reflection of the misogyny prevalent in places like scientific centres, others fiercely defended the scientist’s choice as ‘cool’ or dismissed the issue as ‘irrelevant’. Was his choice inappropriate? Personally, I think so. Yet, I can be pretty sure many people who would disagree with me.
Sometimes, the line between casual and creepy can be so thin it becomes invisible, especially to the person engaging in such behaviour. A couple of days ago, I came across this post “Let’s Talk About Nice Guys“. I’d recommend a read, particularly because it addresses an aspect of sexism that is often not much discussed – the subtle, under-the-radar stereotyping of both women and men that gives rise to terms such as ‘the friendzone’.
This part is going to get personal. The reason I found the above post such a useful read is because I unconsciously practiced this stereotyping myself during my teens. I never expressed it openly and it wasn’t intentional, but intent never matters as much as impact. I’m pretty sure I lost a few good friends and never realised it. It took me many years to recognise this as a problem and a lot of effort to bring it under control. I am grateful to a group of wonderful friends who helped me recognise and control this behaviour, sometimes by just being there and being themselves.
Such subtle mentalities, often lying unexpressed, may be miles apart from the open, outrageous sexual assaults by people like Kim Fowley. However, its prevalence among so many people around me makes me wonder about the ease with which we slip into sexism. Even today, I watch my own words and actions, concerned I might unconsciously slip back into my behaviour from the past. I can often spot other men doing the same. What’s so natural about this? Why is it so much easier to be uncomfortable with other genders, segregating ourselves from stereotyping and segregating ourselves from them, when it’s more beneficial to engage with them? Why is there an ‘us versus them’ in the first place?
I am no expert on this matter, so I won’t philosophize on these issues here. The point is that these behaviours exist and they’ve existed as long as I can remember. I remember an episode from primary school, when the children in my class voluntarily and without provocation, requested our class teacher to segregate us by gender. Another teacher, disappointed by our request, admonished us, saying “you children don’t understand the value of a co-educational school, where you can understand and engage with the other gender”. What pushed us, at ages of nine or ten, to divide ourselves like that? I don’t know, but I can say this took place in an environment where the separation between boy and girl was always clear and very often self-imposed (unlike what I’ve heard from others, teachers in my school encouraged boys and girls to engage regularly – on platonic terms – with each other).
As might be expected, other genders never saw the light of day and adolescence was a period of confusion as we encountered identities such as transgender, gay, or lesbian. Most of us who were straight, probably because of our discomfort, resorted to stereotyping. Transsexuals were perverts, transgenders were weird, homosexuals were unnatural, and so it went on. This, combined with the existing separation between boys and girls led to plenty of us retreating into tight, single-gender, single-sex groups which were hard to break out of. I did not, thanks to a great group of girls and boys who saw no harm in hanging out with each other and with whom I became friends. I still remain friends with many of them.
I continue to encounter sexism, of various sorts that exist in this broad spectrum, on a regular basis. Sometimes, they can involve people close to me – I once had to admonish a friend because he made an acquaintance uncomfortable by touching her during conversation. Sometimes, it can be open lewd behaviour from complete strangers, such as when a co-passenger on a bus nudged me in the ribs, pointed at a group of college students, and asked me which one I’d prefer (was this his way of making conversation?). Thankfully, I’ve never been in a position where I’ve had to directly deal with the other end of the spectrum, involving rape or sexual assault. Yet, I’ve seen and heard enough from people who have to get a glimpse of the trauma and horror involved.
What does this all of this imply really, as we go forward? I am as uncomfortable and confused as the next person while confronting these issues. Yet, confront them, we must, for to ignore these issues means allowing them to fester until they blow up in society’s face. I don’t think there are any universal solutions ahead. But certain steps can be taken. One step is to recognise the sexism that exists in and around us and do what we can to ameliorate it. Another is engage more and engage often with people who are different from us. It’s necessary to create a safe environment for dialogue where uncomfortable topics can be addressed. Most importantly, we can’t walk away.