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Why are we supposed to believe Shia LaBeouf?

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I don’t hold any strong opinions on Shia LaBeouf. I don’t particularly like him or dislike him. I really haven’t given him much thought. Based on a quick internet search, he seems, like many actor-types, to be overly self-involved and, like many other men/male actors, to maybe have issues with substance abuse and aggression/dickbaggery. But that impression has nothing to do with whether or not we should or should not believe he was raped.

After the actor claimed, in an interview, that he was raped by a woman during his February performance art piece #IAMSORRY, Lindy West wrote, for the Guardian, about her disappointment at “expressions of doubt, scorn and outright rage from people across the ideological spectrum – some fellow feminists included.” She seems to believe that many of these reactions were due to his unlikeability and his history of strange behaviour. West goes on to say:

A victim doesn’t have to be relatable or reliable or likable or ‘normal’ – or even a good person – for you to believe them. You can be utterly baffled by someone’s every move and still take their victimization seriously. LaBeouf’s bizarre behaviour and his sexual violation are in no way mutually exclusive, nor are the latter and his gender. ‘He was asking for it.’ ‘Why didn’t he fight back?’ ‘Why didn’t he say ‘no’?’ ‘He must have wanted it.’ ‘He seems crazy.’ These are flat-out unacceptable things to say to a person of any gender. In a culture where male victimhood is stigmatized as feminine and weak (toxic masculinity is, above all, an extension of misogyny), believing male victims isn’t oppositional to feminism, it is a feminist imperative.

But to say that “believing male victims” is a “feminist imperative” isn’t actually true. As some feminist writers have pointed out, this kind of analysis fails to understand or acknowledge what feminism actually does. Feminism explicitly and necessarily is about understanding the fact that, and the way in which, men, as a class, oppress women, as a class. There is no equivalency in rape because men and women do not share similar experiences of gender oppression… because men do not, in fact, experience oppression because of their gender — women do.

West argues that LaBeouf’s gender is irrelevant to his victimization and the narrative surrounding victimization, which is also decidedly false. Of course the way we perceive and discuss victimization and sexual assault is gendered — victimization and sexual assault are gendered.

This is not to say that men and boys cannot be raped — certainly they can and do experience sexual assault (generally at the hands of other males). At the same time, it isn’t clear what exactly happened to LaBeouf and whether or not it constitutes “rape.” As Sarah Ditum wrote, for New Statesman, “Rape, generally understood as forcible penetration with a penis or other object (not least under English law), could not have taken place in this instance, and LaBeouf does not specify what did happen.”

LaBeouf doesn’t say he was penetrated, against his will, by this woman. He says, “One woman who came with her boyfriend, who was outside the door when this happened, whipped my legs for ten minutes and then stripped my clothing and proceeded to rape me…”

What does that mean? What happened? We don’t really know… Why are we obligated — specifically as feminists — to believe him point-blank? As Ditum notes, the point of believing female victims is to right a long history of wrongs — because women have long been ignored or blamed or painted as crazy when they speak out about their experiences of abuse and assault.

…there is no extended cultural history of disbelieving men in any case: ‘believing him’ simply means granting the default authority to male words, in a situation where it is impossible to know what they signify. If ‘I believe her’ has become totally detached from the analysis of male violence and female oppression, then it has also become meaningless.

A blogger at Root Veg writes:

This difference underpins a feminist analysis of rape. It is how rape – aka penile penetration – is used by men to control the free movement and behaviour of women in every single society on earth. The converse scenario where women oppress men as a group with the act of ‘forced envelopment’ has literally never happened, and it never could. Can we envisage a world where men are hasty to get home before dark, lest a woman force him to fuck her? Do we think a society has ever existed where men’s typical concern when left alone with a woman has ever been that he is vulnerable to being ‘enveloped’ by her? If not, why not? Do we think a woman who has been raped while drunk by a drunk man technically ‘raped him too?’ If not, why not? We lack explanatory answers to any of these questions if we genuinely entertain the position that ‘penetrator’ and ‘penetratee’ are equivalent. This sex-based power differential bleeds into all relations between the sexes, and it is the very foundation of women’s oppression. This is why, when the article asks ‘would we ask the same questions of a woman?’ the answer is a very obvious ‘no.’ Because women are not, in fact, the same as men. To pretend otherwise elides reality and functions to the detriment of women.

West and others who say that we must believe LaBeouf, because “feminism,” are pretending as though men and women are equal in this world — that we can simply reverse things like abuse, rape, objectification and sexualization. But we can’t. Abuse, rape, objectification and sexualization are not gender-neutral. Men simply can’t be objectified in the same way women are because men are in a position of power in our society. The consequences of objectifying a man are not the same as they are for women — not even close. This is also why there is no such thing as reverse sexism. It is simply not possible to be sexist “against a man” because there is no history of or context for such a thing. Sexism doesn’t just happen on an individual basis — it is systemic, as is male violence against women.

We believe women because, well, sadly most women do experience abuse, rape and sexual harassment. Their abusers are, for the most part, men. This is because we live in a patriarchy. Not because of some fluke. Not because people, in general, are awful and violent and because women just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, over and over again. We also believe women because there is nothing to be gained from lying about such things. As women, we are disbelieved, ostracized and painted as crazy, lying sluts when we talk about our victimization. Throughout history, male voices have been represented and viewed as voices of authority — men are reliable witnesses and experts, women have not been viewed as such.

So my arguments here have nothing to do with liking, not liking, trusting, or not trusting LaBeouf. They have to do with my understanding of gendered violence and oppression, which I have developed through my understanding of feminism. Which means that, as feminists, we are not obligated to believe men, point-blank — we are obligated to understand the context and dynamics of abuse and sexual assault as attached to gendered power imbalances and to understand that, in a patriarchy, men have, in fact, typically been the ones who are believed — not women.

Maybe LaBeouf was actually raped, I don’t know. What I do know is that he wasn’t socialized his whole life to mistrust himself and his own experiences; to be polite when strange women approach him, sexually harass him, or hit on him, lest he offend them; to believe that women have insatiable sexual urges that can’t be controlled; that his primary role is to provide women with pleasure and that he must fear violence from women at all times, whether he is in public or in private spaces. He didn’t learn that his life doesn’t matter, nor was he objectified, cat-called, or sexually harassed from the time he was a child and then told “girls will be girls” in response. Certainly he hasn’t watched communities and families and friends and employers turn on men who talk about being abused by their wives. He hasn’t watched men be humiliated, harassed, verbally abused, or threatened because they came out publicly against a powerful woman who sexually abused them.

Because this doesn’t happen.

There is no global epidemic of battered husbands or of mothers raping their children. Sorority girls don’t slip male students date rape drugs and gang-rape them at parties. Cheerleaders don’t wait until football players are too intoxicated to walk or speak, have sex with them, film the rape and share it with all their friends via social media. Boys are not pressured to send topless photos of themselves then blackmailed with the photos, then stalked and bullied and mocked until they kill themselves. There are not entire websites devoted to posting pornified imagery of ex-boyfriends in order to shame and humiliate them. There is no industry wherein women are coercing boys and men into prostitution, en masse, forcing them to have sex with strange women day in and day out.

These are the facts. I know these things to be true because this reality is impossible to ignore if you pay any attention to media at all, because I am a woman and this is my life, and because I am a feminist and I understand the devastating impact patriarchy has on women and girls everywhere. And that is why, as a feminist, I believe women.

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