Occupy Wall Street, Rape and Women-Only Spaces: A Deconstruction

I have a problem with the idea that the only purpose the “women-only” tent at Occupy Wall Street serves is to be the “safe haven” that Fox News portrays it to be -- a tent where women can be "protected" from sexual assault, as though women should not expect to have their bodies and personal space respected no matter where they are.

Nov 11, 2011 at 2:00pm | Leave a comment

Have you heard? Occupy Wall Street is a den of sin, vice and horror! Fox News has the scoop:

A rash of reports of sexual assaults at Occupy Wall Street protests across the country has both police and activists raising red flags.

Nearly a half-dozen assaults have been reported at Occupy camps, including three at the New York City protests, which have prompted protesters to set up a “women only” tent in Manhattan's Zuccotti Park to provide a safe haven.

The simple fact is that one rape is too many. There should be no rape. No rapes ought to be the normal state of affairs. Men: don’t rape anyone, ever. People who are not men: don’t you rape anyone either.

We must all begin, right this moment, to go about our lives with a conscious commitment that not a single one of us will ever rape a single other ever again. We can do no less; there is no other option. It’s not a matter of simply trying harder not to rape. It’s not a matter of aiming for FEWER rapes, with an understanding that of course SOME rapes are inevitable. There must be no rape, period. Zero tolerance. This is how it needs to be.

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Having said the above, this newest tactic in demonizing the Occupy Wall Street protest is particularly difficult to address. Those who defend OWS will seem to be minimizing -- or worse, apologizing for -- these assaults, an approach which is unacceptable.

Arguing that three rapes does not signify a problem is not a stand that I (or anyone else with a brain) wants to take. But arguing that three rapes precipitate the forcible dismantling of a movement, instead of the removal of the ones doing the raping, seems a logical stretch as well.

Occupy Wall Street -- as is the case with many political movements, yes, even the lefty ones -- has to confront the idea that it is a male-driven enterprise, even if this is only an image problem. I have spent exactly four hours at the site of Occupy Wall Street, and in my narrow experience there, I saw as many women taking on leadership and organizing roles as I did men. At the General Assembly I attended, women spoke as often as men did.

This is not to suggest that inequality in this place does not exist; Occupy Wall Street is, after all, a microcosm of a human community, and no human community touched by our culture can fully escape inequality, injustice and oppression. However, I have a problem with the idea that the only purpose the “women-only” tent at Occupy Wall Street serves is to be the “safe haven” that Fox News portrays it to be -- a tent where women can be "protected" from sexual assault, as though women should not expect to have their bodies and personal space respected no matter where they are. 

Women-only spaces have existed for a very long time, and to assume that their creation is exclusively a matter of ladies hiding themselves from evil uncontrollable rapist men is to insult both the women who work hard to build space that is safe and comforting, and to the men who have impressively managed to go their whole lives without raping a single person. As often as not, women-only spaces are built to expedite advanced conversations about issues that affect women (and, ideally, anyone who does not identify as a man) without these discussions being constantly interrupted by the need to educate other folks in the gathering. 

I’ll give you a non-controversial example: You and three friends want to talk about your favorite sportsball squad. You all enjoy the fine game of sportsball and are conversant in it. Your conversation is going most enjoyably when three other people who have never heard of sportsball suddenly join in. Pretty much everything they contribute is a question requiring a meticulous explanation of the origins of sportsball, how the game is played, what team you are partial to and so on. You just wanted to talk about sportsball with other sportsball fans in the know! You didn’t want to give a history lesson on sportsball to someone who is totally clueless on the subject! This is super annoying and is preventing you from having the profound sportsball conversation you had really longed to share with people who already understand it!

This is basically what women-only spaces are supposed to be for, except with the added drama that would ensue if the opinions and ideas of sportsball fans on all sorts of unrelated topics were also frequently dismissed or derided as stupid or worthless, and if they were occasionally victims of violence simply based on their love of sportsball.

Women-only spaces can be problematic, as historically some of them have developed a policy that kept such spaces exclusive to the quaintly-termed “women-born-women” -- in other words, only women who were born with readily identifiable female genitalia, and yes, sometimes these vagina gatekeepers would check -- and thus free of folks who identify as transgender. 

Fortunately, both the Women’s Caucus and the Safer Spaces Committee at Occupy Wall Street explictly include transfolk among the groups they serve. 

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It is not surprising that the critics of OWS would turn to rape as a tool with which to discredit the community being built there. It is impossible to argue that rape is something to be swept under the carpet and ignored. And yet, using the assault of women as a convenient source of political ammunition is almost as revolting as the rapes themselves, because it exploits an actual crime in order to attempt to influence public opinion.

If you want to turn a broad population against a group of marginalized people, one of the best things you can do is turn those marginalized people into animals, to remove their humanity. In the US, this idea has worked in favor of racism, both institutional and individual, for literally hundreds of years. It has worked against women, who can be dismissed as bizarre creatures both overemotional and delusional -- or, worse, as self-interested liars.

At one time or another, it has probably worked against any oppressed or marginalized group you can name; when you can remove the humanity of a group of people, you make them impossible to identify with, unworthy of dignity or respect or trust. They are not us anymore; they become frightening, off-putting, alien.

Men as a group are not savage animals, all of them tottering on the precipice of uncontrollably raping women left and right, easily pushed over the edge by a short skirt or a coy glance. This is no more true of men at Occupy Wall Street than it is anywhere else, but the shady implication of the Fox News story is that Occupy Wall Street itself is somehow cultivating an environment in which rape happens.

The fact is, although it is unacceptable and terrible and abhorrent, rape happens everywhere, at every level of society, to people living in billion-dollar homes as well as to people sleeping in tents in Zuccotti Park. Why should Occupy Wall Street be any different?

If the occurance of rape signifies the moral bankruptcy of a culture and community -- and you know what? it very well might -- and thus means Occupy Wall Street deserves forcible eviction on this basis, then we should also be dismantling the neighborhoods in which we all live, right now. You and me. Everywhere. Pull it all up by the root, and start over.

Fox News’ not-so-subtle suggestion that women need special “protection” at Occupy Wall Street paints the men there as predatory creatures -- evil, terrifying and in need of containment -- and the women as helpless victims whose only defense is a reactionary fleeing from their unwanted advances. In this portrait, no one involved has any agency of their own, or any control over their circumstances. The natural extension of this logic is that the Occupy experiment needs to be stopped for the health and safety of its own participants.

It’s a story we’ve heard before. It is meant to make the people working at Occupy Wall Street unrelateable, different, scary, dangerous. It’s a trick. Don’t fall for it.

Get rid of the rapists; let the women’s tent stay. Carry on.