My twenty-something stepson has spent a lot of time (relative to his age) in bars as a disc jockey and a drummer with several local bands. Last month, he told his mom and me about a delicious Scottish beer he had recently discovered between sets. He said its distinct flavor comes from the oak barrels in which it is stored. Its name sounded distinct as well, like that of some post-musical band: “Innocent Gun.” By the time Stepson offered me a bottle labeled “Innis & Gunn,” the name I heard had triggered (so to speak) a train of thought in my mind.
I could imagine an advertising campaign aimed at a newly-(re)discovered male demographic, the Innocent Gun crowd. These would be the guys who accept and even revel in a self-image as human weapons, naturally aggressive and likely to fire whenever jostled by a stimulus outside themselves. Yet they object to being described as assailants or even “at-risk” for committing assault. They insist on their right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty. If accused of acts of violence, they discredit the accuser or complain about being victims of a personal vendetta or a “male-bashing” conspiracy. If convicted in court, they rail about the corruption of the legal system.
Now that I can look back on roughly forty years of discussions with male acquaintances about male violence, particularly sexual violence, I am tempted to reach for a calming beer. When young Second Wave feminists first launched educational campaigns about rape (as it was legally defined) and the less-extreme forms of sexual coercion generally defined as harassment, the guys we knew (including Significant Others) often responded with a stunning lack of logic. They assured us that they were good guys, not oppressors of women, and that they were opposed to “real rape.” They wanted us to trust them, and they warned us not to be the kind of cold, lonely women who couldn’t trust men. They reminded us that “Men Are Not the Enemy.”
The guys we knew usually claimed to value human rights as much as we did, and probably more. They thought it unfair for men alone to be held responsible for men’s behavior, especially when it involved women. They patiently explained to us that men have a “male sex drive” which is instinctive and not under men’s individual control.
After telling me that trust is essential in all human relationships, many of the guys I knew in my teens and twenties came surprisingly close to echoing my parents’ warnings that all men who still had functioning “sex drives” were heterosexual predators looking for opportunities to “take advantage” of girls like me by having unprotected sex with us whether we wanted it or not. Everyone I knew expected me to get married and have children some day, yet most advisors warned me that guys of my generation had no interest in “settling down” (i.e. if I got pregnant, I would have to deal with this on my own).
If a guy leaned out his car window to yell something sexual at me as I walked down a street at any time of day, I learned not to ask male “friends” for an explanation later. In most cases, the explanation included at least one of these points, and usually a smorgasbord: 1) Whatever was yelled, even if it sounded threatening, was a normal, healthy response to the spectacle of a young woman “flaunting her body,” 2) “Flaunting” is an expression of contempt for males, intended to arouse and frustrate them, 3) “Flaunting” is an expression of feminine masochism (a reference to Freud was often used to clinch this point), 4) I was walking down the wrong street, and I should have known better, and 5) I probably imagined the whole episode (females are delusional). On one occasion, Point #5 was expressed by my male faculty advisor when I was working on my Master’s thesis. Before this conversation, he had encouraged me to believe I had the makings of a literary scholar.
In forty years, some aspects of the Innocent Gun Theory have changed, while some have not. The harsh tradition of blaming and punishing female victims of male violence seems to have given way—at least in urban Western society—to a system of belief and response that has been criticized as “victim feminism.” While male victims of violence still receive little widespread support, women who are physically or sexually abused in cities have access to counselling, emergency housing, non-judgmental medical care and legal advocacy that did not exist before. Women in our culture are now so often generically referred to as passive victims of harm that expressions of female rebellion and sexual aggression (Riot Grrls, butch dykes and femme Dommes as cultural icons) have arisen in contrast to a boneless image of women that has become mainstream.
What hasn’t changed is the standard use of the passive voice in media descriptions of male violence against women. We all know that some women “get attacked” in various ways (even if they no longer get themselves attacked), in large numbers in wars and individually in “peacetime.” Women also get abducted, confined, beaten, mutilated, and sometimes killed. The perpetrators are rarely defined.
The public at large is urged to be concerned about the problem of violence against women, which sounds remarkably like a natural disaster or the spread of breast cancer. Supposedly objective news items about violence against women evoke bizarre images: females of various ages, sizes and races in states of undress and distress for no obvious reason.
The assailants are usually invisible in verbal reports, and rarely defined as men. Sometimes the assault is credited to “a gang of youths,” or “armed forces.” Individual assailants are usually described as “alleged,” sometimes even after a legal conviction. Self-defined survivors of sexual assault who appear on talk shows are routinely asked whether they are sure about what really happened. (Apparently females are still delusional, though more entitled to sympathy now than when we “flaunted” with sinister intent.)
In the 21st-century West, spokespeople from publicly-visible gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender communities have declared androgyny to be the new norm, and announced the end of gender as we used to think of it. Mutually satisfying and cathartic “rape” scenes in a context of consensual Dominance and submission are often acted out and described in print. Yet it seems the Middle Ages are not over, even here. We live in a world where old-fashioned, nonconsensual male violence against women soldiers on.
The Congo is currently one of the world’s hot spots for sexual violence against women in a context of war. In a recent visit, U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton was disturbed by the damage she saw. International attention seems likely to draw aid to the victims, and the need for this is relatively uncontroversial.
The status of the perpetrators is a different case. As Jackson Katz explains in an article in the Huffington Post,* they are largely missing from news reports. If it’s still not acceptable to say that women (and children, and men who are targeted for feminizing humiliation) get raped in war because men rape them, how likely is it that the perpetrators will ever be convicted of crimes?
There is really no such thing as an Innocent Gun. (And the beer that inspired this thread is just a tasty drink. Even excessive amounts of it don’t have the power to make anyone do anything.) I can’t believe that males (my stepsons? my daughter’s husband? my little grandson? my “brothers” in the GLBT community?) were created by a violent god to be human weapons. Those who function that way have made a conscious choice, for which they should be held accountable.
Logic is a quality I value, regardless of which gender is assigned to it. At the risk of being called a pathological extremist (again), I’m inclined to draw a conclusion which seems more rational than diplomatic. Logic tells me that no one can be both innocent and violent, and that neither those who impose their will on others by force nor their defenders can seriously expect to be trusted.
Logic tells me further that the “culture of impunity” in which mass violence flourishes in the Congo exists to some extent even in societies that are not officially at war. Wherever the Innocent Gun Theory is accepted, and where victimhood is assumed to be the fate of womankind, love can only survive in the cultural margins, and peace can only be an illusion.
*”Men Missing in News Coverage of Sexual Violence in Congo,” Huffington Post, August 22, 2009 – http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jackson-katz/men-missing-in-news-cover_cover_b_265524.html
“Sex Is All Metaphors” © 2009 Jean Roberta. All rights reserved. Content may not be copied or used in whole or part without written permission from the author.