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What the hell is a Scalawag?
Scalawag is honored to publish this essay, written by a group of scholars – all women – who worked with former Scalawag editor Robert L. Reece in the Duke University Race Workshop. Publishing this essay is one small way that we're holding ourselves accountable for supporting those affected by violence, promoting the voices of women and especially women of color, and grappling with our own responsibility, as a media organization, in society-wide patterns of oppression. You can read more here.
On March 20, our colleague – Robert L. Reece, a sociologist at University of Texas at Austin – wrote an article for Vox Media titled "How men are adjusting to the #MeToo era: 'This is going to take a really long time.'" This article was a problem from the start, with its repeated invocation of so-called "gray areas" of sexual encounters and overall misrepresentation of sexual consent, abuse, and potential avenues of accountability. Immediately after its publication, Jazmine Walker, his former partner, reproductive justice advocate and co-host of the podcast, The Black Joy Mixtape, reported via Twitter that Robert raped her in 2012. Jazmine also reported via Twitter that other Black women have since shared with her troubling accounts of their experiences with Robert. Robert acknowledges coercive behavior, specifically with an ex, via his own Twitter page, and states that he has apologized to her and sought counseling.
We are writing as fellow scholars, as Robert's colleagues in an intellectual community we created at Duke University and UNC-Chapel Hill, because Robert's role as a professor, researcher, and public intellectual specializing in race and gender places him in a powerful position to influence how people think about masculinity and the gendered power dynamics of sex, including coercion and consent. We situate our statements outside the rigid and damaging boundaries of popular or legal definitions of rape and sexual harassment. We reject such definitions because they eviscerate the lived experiences of survivors and contribute to the creation of rape culture–the normalization of sexual violence, power inequities, and toxic masculinity.
First, we affirm Jazmine's story and those of the other women who shared their own experiences with her. We cannot overstate the burden on Black women who choose to speak out against their abusers. Our society's imagination of rape and sexual assault has always excluded Black women as victims and survivors, and further accuses Black women of racial treason for attempts to hold Black men abusers accountable. All too often the weight of these barriers reinforces silence.
Second, we take seriously the importance of the public sphere generally, and the classroom in particular, as spaces where ideas are exchanged, given weight, and inform the politics and real life practices of those who take them in. It is in that spirit that we challenge Robert's Vox article as a spurious form of public scholarship which recreates the harms it purportedly seeks to address.
To reiterate, our understanding of rape, sexual assault, and harassment comes from an awareness that we live in a rape culture, rather than in a society in which some "bad individuals" commit rape. The definition of sexual violence in this context transcends more traditional and narrow legal definitions that mostly do not reflect actual lived experiences. That such experiences do not necessarily conform to legal definitions, however, does not alter our interpretation of them as equivalent in their harm to legally defined forms of sexual violence.
Our society's imagination of rape and sexual assault has always excluded Black women as victims and survivors, and further accuses Black women of racial treason for attempts to hold Black men abusers accountable. All too often the weight of these barriers reinforces silence.
As a scholar of race and gender with self-professed Black womanist politics, we expect that Robert has engaged with discourse about rape culture, as he signals explicitly in the Vox article. Nevertheless, the article reinforces ideas about sex that, in the tradition of rape culture, disempower women, femmes, and gender non-binary persons. The argument that sexual encounters have a "gray area" in which consent is ambiguous minimizes sexual violence, runs afoul of contemporary feminist thought, and has been repeatedly challenged and debunked. Gray areas do not exist within the context of consensual sex.
Anything other than clear, affirmative, unequivocal (and hopefully enthusiastic) desire in the context of sexual interaction is sexual violence. The false idea that "gray areas" or "blurred lines" can and do exist empowers acts of rape, harassment, and assault.
Further, the argument that this so-called "gray area" exists because of an "aversion to speaking openly and honestly about our sexual desires" similarly ignores the very power inequities the article claims to be combating. While it is true, as the article argues, that open communication around sex is often hampered by gendered power inequities, unwanted sex only happens when one partner consciously disregards the ambiguous or non-affirming communication of the other partner(s). There is nothing "gray" about that.
We believe that men—the central focus of this article—are fully capable of understanding their own intentions, the feelings of other persons, and the consequences of their actions. The concept of the "gray area" is the result of an at best willful negligence of their partners' wishes and bodily autonomy. Coercion is by definition an intentional use of manipulation to get what one wants; we cannot attribute innocence or ignorance to actions that are intentional and aware.
The argument that sexual encounters have a "gray area" in which consent is ambiguous minimizes sexual violence, runs afoul of contemporary feminist thought, and has been repeatedly challenged and debunked.
The framing of this article also places men's needs and desires at the center of the conversation about sexual interactions, following the same misogynist logic which assumes the duty of women is to "give" men sex. Beyond faulty arguments about consent, the article appears uninterested in women's pleasure and desire, which increases the danger of objectifying women as "bodies" rather than as equal partners engaged in sex for mutual enjoyment. Relaying these arguments in feminist vocabulary does not diminish their harm to women.
Finally, the article cites individualist narratives of sexual coercion without offering a serious analysis of the larger structural context of rape culture. The title of the article itself implies that change requires us to wait for perpetrators to simply inch toward a gradual understanding of sexual consent, even while they continue abusive behavior. Martin Luther King's critique of "white moderates" can be applied to the "bystanders" or even "feminist men" who tell us to wait for justice until "'a more convenient season.'"
The Vox article frames the problem one way: as a communication issue between intimate partners. We must frame the problem in a radically different way – as a refusal of those in power to be held accountable. Our collective disappointment and exhaustion contributes to the challenges we faced when searching for words to include in this response. We are infuriated by the perpetual cycle of reprehensible institutional responses. The typical courses of action – victim blaming, punishing the "bad apple," and silence – do nothing to protect survivors or to push the conversation forward. We cannot silently wish this would go away and ignore how masculinity is performed, supported, and hailed in academia.
This case, however, should motivate us to consider what community accountability could look like.
So we ask, what does accountability look like? We are well aware that our colleague is, unfortunately, one of many in our profession reported to have abused his power at the expense of women; and we are still working through potential answers to this question. But we need a more complex approach to accountability beyond "bad apple" removal, legalese, and dry statements that do little more than protect individuals and institutions from public criticism. We know that freedom is not found in these solutions, and we know too much about the violence of the criminal justice system to believe that accountability can be found there either. Accountability is a community effort – but we do not at present possess the institutional culture or processes to realize that kind of justice. This case, however, should motivate us to consider what community accountability could look like.
We are infuriated by the perpetual cycle of reprehensible institutional responses. We cannot silently wish this would go away and ignore how masculinity is performed, supported, and hailed in academia.
At present, we adopt Incite! Women, Gender Non-Conforming, and Trans People of Color Against Violence's principles for community accountability. These include affirming values and practices against abuse, confronting the abuser's behavior, transforming the political context that allows abuse to happen, and offering survivors support that focuses on their self-determination. Outlining how Robert's Vox article perpetuates rape culture speaks to the political context of abuse, while naming Robert as abuser confronts his behavior.
We must find ways to create models and spaces that can hold everything involved: supporting victims/survivors, prevention, and consequences for perpetrators. We can look to communities where Black women's experiences, knowledge, and transformative power support processes of healing, justice, and change. Black women have been doing the work of transformative healing for generations as they fought against the intergenerational trauma of white supremacy. There is much we can apply to the spaces we inhabit; our departments, our classrooms, even our homes. For many of us, our survival depends on dealing with all of these factors, so we must believe that we can do this, and we at least must try.