Professionally, I live in a world where reporting on any crime has to be hedged with weasel words and ambiguities in order to avoid the risk of libel — unless someone has been convicted in a court of law, I cannot technically that person a rapist, an arsonist, a thief, a murderer. Instead, we’re required to say ‘alleged,’ or ‘the victim claims,’ or to put the accusation in quotes to make it clear that this is simply reportage on an ongoing case, rather than an indictment. Hence all the awkward and offensive headlines like ‘Teacher ‘had sex with’ 13-year-old student.’ The kneejerk response there, as it should be, is ‘no, you don’t ‘have sex with’ 13-year-olds, you rape them in a completely unequal power dynamic.’
Balancing my personal and professional life is sometimes very difficult. I understand the legal concerns at work. But when it comes to sex crimes, we cannot use weasel words. We have a responsibility to victims/survivors (depending on how they choose to identify) to believe them, unilaterally and without equivocation. If someone says they have been raped, have been sexually assaulted, we, collectively, society, need to believe them and offer whatever support is needed, whether that’s assistance with following through on legal options or just being there to have a conversation.
Reporting on sex crimes is extremely difficult for me because doctrine says that, unless a case has gone to trial and returned a verdict of guilty — something that is extremely rare — I have to say ‘the alleged victim’ and ‘the victim claims’ and ‘the accused rapist,’ talking all around the case instead of confronting. In so doing, I have to undermine the experience of the victim, who is already living in a society that devalues their voice and tries to silence them, a society that ardently attempts to ‘disprove’ rape victims and hound them into not reporting and not pursuing cases in court. The need to avoid accusation of libel and potentially very costly suits directly contradicts a more fundamental need: To believe rape victims and to support those who come forward to speak out about their sexual assault.
2015 in many ways marked a really key year for being very out about sexual assault. A stream of women added to already existing accusations against Bill Cosby, growing in number as more and more got the courage to come forward, in part because they saw other women paving the way. Those who had initially dared to speak out against a beloved pop culture figure came in for an extremely rough time — like those who accuse darlings such as Woody Allen and Roman Polanski — and they were repeatedly invalidated by industry and by the media. As the accusations mounted, even the media at a certain point had to cave, admitting that there was a serious problem and this many women had to be onto something.
It was also a year in which many women in the sex industry spoke out prominently against James Deen, an extremely popular and well-known actor. Deen had acquired a reputation as a feminist — as someone who cares about women, who focuses on consent and a safe working environment on set, as being a generally good guy, and the women who were bold enough to take their cases public first risked a lot. Many pointed this out, saying that they lived for years with the grief and frustration of having experienced sexual assault at his hands, but were afraid to say anything in case it cost them their reputations and their work.
Within the industry, something very interesting happened as within days of the initial accusation, many more women rapidly came forward — the dam had broken. And the sex industry rapidly worked to cut off ties, severing personal and professional relationships with Deen. In the course of a week, he went from a well-paid and extremely popular star to a pariah: The sex industry believed his victims.
The stigma associated with the sex industry meant that the situation didn’t get nearly the same level of media attention, which is a pity, because it modeled exactly how an industry should respond. Few people lept to Deen’s defense, few paid attention to his string of protests, and many actively worked to terminate their relationships with him and encourage others to do the same. Within the industry, there’s an awareness of the fact that sexual assault is a risk for sex workers, and that they’re at higher risk because they’re viewed as easy targets, and people always available for sex — that by being a sex worker, you consent to sex anywhere, at any time, with anyone. Ethical studios and production companies work very hard to protect their staff and create a safe working environment, using Model Bills of Rights and other documentation to create accountability for themselves and the industry.
Within the industry, his accusers said, he was starting to be known as someone who behaved inappropriately with women, and some adult stars had warned each other that they shouldn’t work with him. These warning signs undoubtedly contributed to the ultimate decision on the part of Stoya, the sex worker who first spoke out about her assault, to be open about what had happened to her. She was also, she wrote, frustrated at seeing people laud her assailant repeatedly in both public and private spaces — it is truly awful to hear people speaking well, over and over again, of someone who profoundly violated you. Her description was frank, unflinching, and painful, and it clearly spoke to other women who had been in the same situation and didn’t know others had experienced it, or were too afraid to say anything about it.
The industry modeled how and why it’s important to talk about sexual assault, but, more importantly, to believe victims — because doing so can bring others out of the shadows and can lead to successful prosecution of rapists. So yeah, in my personal life, I call it like I see it: James Deen and Bill Cosby are rapists, and I don’t care what the court says, or hasn’t said.
Image: Woman with Headphones, Sascha Kohlmann, Flickr