The Media’s Groping Problem


Regarding the news that Arnold Schwarzenegger is getting divorced, in part because he fathered a child with a woman not his wife, Conor Friedersdorf at The Atlantic writes, “I’ve yet to encounter anyone surprised by the news. It’s because we remember. Eight years ago, on the eve of the special election that won him the statehouse, the Los Angeles Times published a scathing story about his groping problem.”

I didn’t remember, actually, since I was living in Canada at the time, not yet engaged with the feminist blogosphere and, as always, completely uninterested in Schwarzenegger news. So this morning was the first time I learned that, as James Rainey recalled in the L.A. Times earlier this week, “Eventually, a total of 16 women, 11 of them giving their names, described physical humiliations suffered at the hands of [Arnold Schwarzenegger].”

How did the public react to this news–apart from electing him anyway, right after they learned about the first six women to come forward? “Some accused the paper of a politically motivated attack, meant to hurt Schwarzenegger and prop up the struggling Davis,” writes Rainey. “They complained with particular vehemence about the timing of the story, published five days before the recall vote. At least 10,000 subscribers cancelled the paper, according to executives who were with the paper at the time.”

Of course they did.

Hey, here’s a bizarre thought that just popped into my head: Could folks maybe quit writing and/or publishing articles suggesting that Dominique Strauss-Kahn has historically gotten a pass on sexually assaulting women because that’s just how the French say howdy, but uptight, puritanical Americans would totally never let a powerful man get away with a pattern of unwanted groping? Because I’m pretty sure Schwarzenegger is a perfect example of uptight, puritanical Americans doing the exact same thing.

And since every bad thing he’s ever done will be news for the next cycle or two, alongside the Strauss-Kahn news, now is a really good time for a refresher course in the difference between consensual sex and assault. Consensual sex involves all parties agreeing that this promises to be fun, so we should go ahead. Sometimes it is not as fun as hoped, but oh well. Assault involves one party feeling entitled to take liberties with another party’s body, in the absence of consent.

So, whether Strauss-Kahn is “the great seducer,” for instance, has very little to do with whether he might also be “the great rapist,” because rape is not actually seduction gone pear-shaped. It’s a whole different thing! Similarly, any consensual affairs Schwarzenegger had over the years have very little to do with his “groping problem,” which would probably be better described as “a problem with giving a tiny rat’s ass about consent.”

That’s not to say these things are entirely unrelated, mind you. There are certainly points of overlap between being a cad and being a criminal: An overblown sense of entitlement, an apparent lack of empathy for anyone you might hurt, an erection. But cheating on your wife is not a gateway drug to sexual assault. They are two different things, one of them a crime. If you’re a journalist, please take a moment now to repeat that to yourself a few times.

And then please consider this: A man who’s known for grabbing women’s breasts and asses without their consent (a crime) is not just some amusing, slightly pathetic Pepe Le Pew cartoon until the day someone accuses him of non-consensual penetration. He was actually already a sexual predator! And yet, inevitably, as soon as someone does accuse him of rape, friends who are familiar with his history of non-consensual groping will rush to tell the press that the accusations are absurd, insulting, inconceivable! Sure, everyone knew the lion liked to chase gazelles and pin them down and bat them around a bit for fun, but he would never eat one. That’s just not in his nature.

Do you see the difference? One guy treats women rather shabbily, and he should be ashamed of himself. The other guy treats women like inanimate objects he is entitled to do whatever the fuck he wants to, and he should be ashamed of himself and also held legally responsible for his crimes. The line between the two is really not all that fine or blurry, you guys! It’s actually pretty recognizable!

But when you have a man who is known for both cheating repeatedly and taking a handful of another human being whenever he sees fit, the reporting inevitably becomes a horrifying clusterfuck of conflation, rationalization and misinformation. So banging someone other than your wife becomes the moral equivalent of sticking your hand down someone’s pants without her consent–both filed under the rubric of “sexual indiscretions” or “regrettable pecadilloes,” while “rape” remains this whole other thing that only monsters far outside the general population would ever do–and then of course people start saying it’s ridiculous, puritanical bullshit to assume that just because someone would cheat on his wife, he’s probably also capable of rape, because THAT IS ACTUALLY TRUE.

It’s somewhat less ridiculous, however, to assume that just because someone would commit non-penetrative sexual assaults, he might also be capable of committing penetrative ones. In fact, that’s not very ridiculous at all. You follow?

This is not–-NOT NOT NOT NOT NOT NOT NOT, not that this disclaimer will matter to the contingent who stopped reading after the first line and are now blogging furiously about my Dworkinian extremism–-to say I think Strauss-Kahn doesn’t deserve a fair trial, or that anyone who gropes will go on to rape. It’s just a friendly reminder that groping is, in fact, a real crime defined by a lack of consent, which makes it substantially more similar to rape than it is to ill-advised yet consensual flirting, petting, or sex.

And if that’s still too confusing, then ask yourself this: How the fuck did a habit of grabbing fistfuls of boob become the hallmark of a “great seducer”?

This post originally appeared on Republished with permission.

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