Why does the law force rape victims to share child custody with their rapists?: The legal principles behind parental rights and responsibilities

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In seven states in the USA. rapists can sue victims for custody of any children concieved by the assault.  A conviction is needed to anull rapists’ parental rights. The problem is that most rapes don’t even go to court. Even in the minority of cases where a conviction is secured, these are often the result of plea deals, meaning that the conviction is for less serious sexual assault or for physical assault. Neither will prevent a rapist from suing for child custody.

So victims are failed by the law twice. Their rapist may receive no sentence, while the victim and her innocent child are tied to the rapist for 18 years. The first question we’re likely to ask is, why on earth would the law do this to people? As a feminist it’s tempting to fall back on “patriarchy!”, but although most legal systems were created in patriarchies and are inherently stacked against women- especially in regard to sex crimes- a more nuanced approach is needed. If patriarchy was the sole cause, American law would not remove parental rights in cases of rape convictions, nor would most states have a lower threshold for withholding custody from rapists. The Obama administration incentivised states to amend laws which gave rapists parental rights; it is, unsurprisingly, the Trump administration which is removing them. While at first glance this situation appears baffling- almost deliberately engineered to punish rape victims and their children- it’s important to understand the legal principles behind it, as well as the wider societal context.

First, let’s look at the law. (I didn’t study American law so this is going to be a very brief overview, not a JD level discussion.)

 

The legal context of parental rights arising from non-consensual conception

 

Statutory rape, parental rights and parental responsibility

If we look at how US law treats victims of statutory rape, we can see that victims of all genders are subject to the same parental rights and responsibilities. They usually can’t use their non-consent to avoid paying child support to their statutory rapist. Adults who have children by underage minors cannot have the child removed from their custody on that basis. This is as true in Britain; the only grounds for the court to grant the removal of a child from its parent are those of child protection (abuse or neglect). Therefore, statutory rapists enjoy shared or even sole custody.

 

Nonconsensual insemination and parental responsibility

Conception without consent doesn’t only occur through rape or (arguably) statutory rape. It also occurs when gametes are used for conception without the consent of the person from whom they are taken. One British man’s ex-wife defrauded a sperm bank into using his frozen sperm to conceive two children without his knowledge. He was ordered to pay child support. By contrast, egg and sperm donors are exempt from parental responsibility so they don’t have to pay child support. However, they’re also unable to exercise parental rights. In Scots law, unofficial egg and sperm donors have been granted parental rights even against the legal parents’ wishes. Though a surrogate who “steals” the mother’s child is regarded as the legal mother in Scotland, the biological mother is granted shared custody. The takeaway here is that only an official, legally sanctioned pre-conception contract can nullify parental rights. Hence, the unofficial donors could still have shared custody.

 

Biological parenthood = legal parenthood

So, what does statutory rape, child maintenance and sperm donation have to do with rape survivors being forced to share custody with their rapists? My point is that the law is strict on the biological connection creating legal rights and responsibilities. Note that one can’t exist without the other; donors don’t have responsibilities but they don’t have any parental rights either. In many US states, child maintenance and custody are processed together in a single case. Sadly, this resulted in a woman who’d been abducted and raped at 12 having to share her child’s custody with her rapist, her address disclosed to him and being ordered to move to the state where her rapist lived. (He made a plea deal and was convicted of attempted sexual assault before DNA evidence could be taken from the baby to prove it was rape, thereby avoiding a 25 year minimum sentence and serving just six months). She had a child support suit filed by the state on her behalf after she applied for welfare, and a child custody order routinely goes along with child support suits. (The judge eventually set the ruling aside because the rapist had not requested custody. Survivors whose rapists want custody are not so lucky.)

A paper examining nonconsensual insemination and statutory rape explains that “Thus, child support is essentially a form of strict liability with the justification being that the child is an innocent party, and, therefore, it is the child’s interests and welfare that the court must look to in adjudicating support.” Change “support” to “custody” and you have the legal philosophy behind forcing rape victims to share custody with their rapists.

Therefore the issue may be more to do with children’s rights than excessive protection of fathers’ parental rights.

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My argument would be that non-statutory rape/coercion/exploitation/CSA and CSE should be treated differently from statutory rape due to the harm it causes to the victim parent. (Personally I don’t think statutory rapists should be entitled to child support, but that’s a different issue). However, as few would disagree that survivors shouldn’t be forced to share custody with rapists, and as US law recognises that this is wrong (rape convictions anull parental rights and most states do not require a conviction to anull rights), I won’t elaborate on this. What’s pertinent is that treating rape differently from statutory rape regarding custody is not without its problems. Distinguishing statutory rape (merely sex with a person who only legally can’t consent) from CSE (sex trafficking, grooming, rape) or coercion (e.g. grooming, threats, anything not ‘bad enough’ to be rape under the law) may be difficult. Some adults look back fondly on their statutory rape and refuse to call it abuse, while others were happy at the time but later regret it when they realise they were taken advantage of. It’s easy to see why laws in seven US states require a conviction of (non statutory) rape- it’s easier!

And these issues- the complexity of abusive and illegal relationships, and the strict legal principle of the biological connection creating legal rights- lead us onto the second part of this article: the social context.

 

The social context of parental rights in abusive circumstances

 

Rape and the law

One reason why some US states demand a standard of proof that most victims cannot achieve in the current legal system is that previously it wasn’t known that most rapes don’t result in convictions.

 

The perspective of family courts and social services

Another reason is, it’s important to prevent parents crying rape to stop their ex-partner gaining custody, just like parents shouldn’t cry child abuse or drug dependency. However child abuse and drug use does not require a conviction to anull custody. So why should rape? Perhaps because abuse and neglect cause harm to the child. Whereas rape is harmful to the mother, or at worst only potentially a sex abuse risk to the child.

 

The invisible rape victims who share custody with their rapists

So far we’ve kept the focus on America. But rapists gaining custody of children may happen more often than we think- including in the UK. Most women (and other people with wombs) are raped by friends or family. These victims may be less surprised at a custody demand from an ex-husband, colleague, or fellow student they bump into every day, than they would a demand from a stranger who barely saw their face. The rapist who is present in their victim’s life has the opportunity to display clues as to their intent to sue for custody, or may even express that wish as soon as the pregnancy is known to them, further lessening the victim’s surprise when custody is demanded. Therefore these victims may not publicize the rapist’s custody lawsuit. Most victims never tell police (many don’t even tell their family) so such custody battles may not be identified for what they are.

 

Domestic violence and child custody

Furthermore sexual assault is not uncommon in domestic violence, so some custody battles which arise from abusive relationships may have involved rape. This raises the question of how cases where rapists want custody of children not born from rape be treated. The harm to the mother of contacting her assailant is likely to be the same whether or not the child(ren) were conceived by the assault. Yet one could argue that it is grossly unfair to punish a criminal by removing his parental rights when his fatherhood has nothing to do with his crime. Situations where it is unclear whether conception resulted from rape or from consensual sex a short time earlier/later also pose problems.

It is notable that domestic physical violence survivors have to share custody of children- despite the trauma suffered by some survivors being similar or worse than the trauma suffered by some rape survivors. Domestic and intimate partner violence tends to have a much longer duration than a single incident of rape. It sometimes carries similar hallmarks to some sexual attacks such as physical restraint, imprisonment inside the home, psychological abuse and physical assault. So this raises the question of whether physical abusers who conceived children in abusive relationships should have rights. But they do. Physical abusers who are considered to pose a threat to their victim or the child have supervised custody, but it is custody nonetheless. Only a risk to the child can result in parental rights being removed. Further, parental rights are usually not removed completely; a parent who loses custody may still be granted supervised contact and has a say in the child’s education. This applies to parents of all genders including adoptive parents.

 

Conclusion

While the idea of a man ‘owning’ his biological children (and sometimes any woman he sleeps with) is patriarchal, I don’t think there is consistent evidence that Law’s patriarchal history (and present) is the sole or even major factor at play. The laws of different legal systems bestow parental rights and responsibilities regardless of how children are conceived. Statutory rapists can receive child support from their victims and, since most single parent families are female-headed, female statutory rapists are perhaps more likely to have sole custody. Men who didn’t consent to insemination are nevertheless given responsibilities as well as rights. The survivors who are forced to share custody aren’t the victims of outdated or unusual laws. Rather, the inhumane way they are treated is embedded in the principles of western legal systems.

In conclusion, the issue of how the law should treat rapists who want parental rights is, morally, clear-cut. However, in legal terms it’s less clear and raises a lot of questions about how abusive parents more generally should be treated. The first step would be for the seven states to fall in line with the others and abolish the need for a conviction, instead using a civil process to determine whether rape was committed. The civil standard is already used in the process of assessing state compensation for rape (in the states which provide criminal injuries compensation to victims of crime). As to how other sex crimes such as statutory rape and coercion should be treated, not to mention children born from physically abusive or extreme psychologically abusive relationships, hopefully in future we’ll see a change towards protecting victims, children and innocent family members, while guaranteeing parents’ rights wherever appropriate.

It’s also important to remember that the news of necessity features survivors who are free to speak out and sometimes willing to waive their anonymity. Behind the headlines there are many more victims of rape and sexual abuse being forced to share custody with their assailants in silence.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Theresa May vs Putin: What’s their next move over the Salisbury poisoning?

 

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International relations are driven by national leaders. But those leaders act according to public and governmental pressure. Only by understanding Theresa May’s and Vladimir Putin’s goals, motivations and pressures can we predict whether UK-Russia tensions will be enduring.

The Salisbury Novichok attack has kicked off what appears to be a never-ending saga of confrontation between the UK and Russia. Perhaps the most important question of all is how it will all play out. History might remember the Salisbury poisoning as merely a blip in the great game. Or the standoff between Putin and May could go down as the precipitation of an irreparable rift in UK-Russia relations.

There’s been talk of retaliatory cyberattacks. High-level communications have been suspended. On Wednesday Prime Minister Theresa May announced the expulsion of 23 Russian diplomats, whom she claimed were undeclared intelligence officers. Russia’s tit-for-tat response has been to expel British diplomats. There are various ways of seeing May’s actions and the situation as a whole: immature, frightening, shortsighted versus savvy; perhaps (regarding May’s response) utterly necessary. But how does Russia see it? How does our government see it? What incentives exist for May and Putin to de-escalate or increase tensions? These questions are vital to answering the big one: how will it all end?

 

How Putin might view the Salisbury spy poisoning

From Russia’s point of view, killing a traitor (former Russian spy Sergei Skripal) may be no different from UK and US operations on foreign soil to kill, rendition or torture terrorists. While some countries such as Syria agreed to the intervention, others did not; an example is the killing of Osama Bin Laden which Pakistan did not consent to. The use of drones in other sovereign states to murder UK and US targets is also pertinent. The UK feels justified in infringing on other states’ sovereignty to achieve national security objectives. Therefore Russia may view the UK as hypocritical for not allowing Russia the same thing.

In legal terms, Russia has a strong argument in its favour: individuals, organisations and groups are only punished if they are proved to have committed an offence, This usually means being found guilty in criminal court. So far there has been no accusation by any witnesses or victims against the Russian state. There has been no verdict, no trial, no Crown Prosecution Service involvement, no police referral to the Crown Prosecution Service- not even the first stage of a trial: a police investigation. Putin and the Russian people may feel it is presumptuous of the UK to accuse Russia based only on the fact that Novichok (a Russian weapon) was used. Being culpable may not eradicate feelings of being too decisively retaliated against.

In the unlikely event that the Novichok attack was committed by Russian terrorists, as Jeremy Corbyn suggested, or perhaps by another state trying to frame Russia and cause conflict between Russia and UK/the EU/America, Russia will obviously feel unjustly accused.

Judging by BBC footage, at least some Russian citizens believe that Britain has unjustly accused Russia of poisoning Sergei Skripal. If much of his public holds this view, this may incentivise Putin to bolster his popularity by taking a firm stance against the UK.

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How Theresa May may view the Salisbury spy poisoning

Theresa May is under pressure from MPs to take a tough stance; as most believe Russia is responsible. Over 30 Labour MPs have signed a motion acknowledging Russia’s “culpability”, meaning that May is receiving pressure not just from her own party but also the opposition. This makes it more likely that she will continue to take action against Russia.

The public are another source of expectation. One would be right to question what the point of having a leader is, if that leader fails to protect her citizens. The Novichok has already affected bystanders and one of its creators has warned that exposure could harm or kill others in the years to come. May could justifiably worry that any future illnesses traced to the Salisbury attack could elicit criticism of her if she fails to be seen protesting Britain from future incidents. Conversely, keeping the public’s (and opposition’s) attention on the Kremlin could provide a distraction from national issues such as Brexit, NHS privatisation and DWP policy. Therefore there is little advantage to restoring relations with Russia and much to be gained from escalating reprisals.

Another major cause of concern for the UK government is that after the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko, this is the second Russian murder on UK territory in a relatively short space of time. Appearing weak towards Putin could result in more chemical attacks, putting the public at risk. Marina Litvinenko’s public statements that “nothing was done” after her husband’s poisoning- despite May’s assurances that nothing like this would happen again- will probably increase motivation for May to be seen to be “doing something”.

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As to the fact that May has absolutely no evidence that Russia was behind the poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter Julia Skripal – what other choice does she have. The UK government can’t simply sit and wait for a trial that will never come. To wait until irrefutable evidence is gathered might mean waiting months, years, or for ever. Even then, it is unlikely that a balanced criminal case would follow, unless Putin threw his agents under the bus, framed someone or was tried successfully by the International Criminal Court.

Jeremy Corbyn raised an important caveat by recalling the Iraq war and cautioning that being ruled by fear and emotion can be dangerous, leading to ill-judged actions. The BBC reports that Corbyn said Russia should be “held to account on the basis of evidence”. Labour MP Chris Williamson told BBC Two’s Newsnight that though Russia is a suspect, the UK should”make sure we get our facts right” before “leaping into action”. Far from being ‘soft’, Corbyn is demonstrating strategy and calculation; a calm appraisal of the situation instead of puerile emotionality. In practical terms, however, Theresa May’s approach is understandable.

Finally, let’s not underestimate the seriousness of the Novichok poisoning. Had it been committed by a civilian, it would have been termed terrorism or at least an incredibly reckless form of first-degree murder.

So how will the UK-Russia standoff play out?

Based on the above, it’s probable that Russia’s perception of unjust accusation will prevent tensions being quickly resolved. For Theresa May and most of the UK government, the stakes are too high to back down and risk criticism or a third chemical attack. There are several incentives- both intergovernmental and from the public- to continue with diplomatic and economic sanctions, and no clear benefits to improving relations with Russia.

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So, the UK will continue taking a tough stance on Russia if the situation does not change. Given that Russia is unlikely to pacify the UK or admit they were behind the poisoning of the Skripals, relations between the two countries will not significantly improve. Most politicians, including Jeremy Corbyn, believe at least to an extent that Russia is the culprit. As long as our government and we ourselves- the voters- continue to believe Russia was responsible for the Salisbury poisoning, the tensions will continue. Therefore it is likely that UK-Russia relations will be affected for some considerable time.

Why British Campus Sexual Assault Victims Can’t Get Justice From Their University- But Americans Can

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First published on The Fifth Column, 2/10/17.

Students, sexual assault survivors and campaigners in the USA are riled up, and rightfully so: Education Secretary Betsy DeVos last week rescinded Obama-era guidance on universities’ duties to deal with campus sexual assault. But just because there’s a relative lack of public debate on the issue in Britain, doesn’t mean it’s not happening or that British universities and colleges are dealing well with campus sexual assault.

Let’s take a look at the legal situation in the USA first, then compare it to the UK.

 

The ‘Dear Colleague’ guidance

The 2011 guidance, known as the ‘Dear Colleague’ letter, didn’t create new responsibilities for colleges. It simply stated what they had to do in order to comply with Title IX (a law regarding gender discrimination in educational institutions which case law has held includes investigating sex crimes). Prior to ‘Dear Colleague’, many universities simply disregarded Title IX and ignored survivors, refusing to take reports of the incidents at all. The situation didn’t suddenly turn rosy afterwards, either- not all universities have systems for reporting sexual violence, and it’s easy enough for a university to claim there isn’t enough evidence. But empowering students to know their rights made it easier for them to report and follow up their cases instead of being told ‘We don’t deal with that.’ DeVos has turned the clock back to 2011.

 

DeVos’ current interim guidance

Universities used to use the USA’s civil court standard, the ‘preponderance of evidence’ (in the UK, that’s the ‘balance of probabilities’). Now, according to DeVos’ new interim guidelines, university administrators can choose between that standard, or the higher standard used in criminal courts. Let’s think about that for a minute. Why do student rape victims choose to report to their university? Usually, it’s because they’ve already reported to the police but the case wasn’t taken to court due to lack of evidence. Other reasons are that they don’t want the rapist to be jailed (most sexual assault victims in the US and UK know their assailant, especially in the case of campus sexual assault), or they don’t want to go through the added trauma of a court case that’ll take up most of their time at university, and instead choose to rely on their university for protection.

Most rape cases don’t reach court and most accused who are tried, are acquitted. (Universities usually aren’t allowed to investigate if the police are investigating, due to concerns of compromising the police investigation, meaning that all campus sexual assault cases were rejected or not reported to police).

In these circumstances, a student cannot reasonably be expected- especially without access to forensic science testing and CCTV footage- to prove that they were raped to a criminal court standard. This requirement is even more cruel to students who have already been rejected by the criminal courts on the basis that their evidence isn’t up to that standard. It’s telling these victims that any kind of recognition of their trauma or sense of justice is impossible. Universities have realised this- some had already abandoned the criminal standard pre-2011. This raises the possibility that DeVos’ interim guidelines are actually pushing the US back even further than the Noughties in terms of women’s rights and campus safety.

According to Abbey Childs, an advocacy organisation founder and campus rape survivor, the provision of residency changes and no-contact orders to protect victims from their rapists rests on universities’ ability to use the civil standard. By removing it, DeVos is removing survivors’ safety. Rapists will find it even easier to get away with their crimes, as expulsion and suspension will also be off the table.While it’s important to recognise the reality that, on campus as well as off it, most perpetrators are male and most victims female, it’s equally important to note that the new guidelines affect male victims just as badly.

 

UK universities

Many Americans are angry with DeVos. But the situation in the US is still better than it is in the UK. US campus rape survivors can sue universities under Title IX. Their universities know they may face real legal consequences if they mishandle sexual assault complaints.  British campus rape victims have no statutory protection. We don’t have any equivalent of Title IX, and no education laws more generally. Without national guidelines, students have no legal rights if they’re sexually assaulted on campus. Universities can literally do nothing, and even elite universities often do just that. While Oxford University has been subject to a legal challenge, its policy still allows it to avoid dealing with sexual assaultcomplaints. In 2014 Oxford reportedly did deal with a rape of an unconscious student- by giving the rapist “a minor reprimand”.

It’s not that campus sexual assault is less of a problem in UK. One in three female students and one in eight male students have been sexually assaulted at UK universities. It’s just that- unlike the US- there’s no law; so very few court cases; so no news- so no debate.

 

The Zellick guidance

The 1994 Zellick guidelines place no statutory duty on universities to investigate sexual offences. Instead, they suggest telling students to call the police. However, we now know that- on and off campus- rapists are usually known to their victims, most victims don’t report to the police, most reported rapes don’t reach trial, and those that do tend to result in acquittal. Therefore, the Zellick guidance, while possibly relevant to cases with strong evidence, and rare cases of stranger rape, isn’t suitable for what we now know about sexual assault. The Zellick guidelines were reviewed in 2016.

 

The 2016 guidance

The new guidelines, which pertain to all types of student crimes (not just sexual assault), suggest using the UK civil standard of the ‘balance of probabilities’ in ascertaining guilt. They are a significant improvement on Zellick. The new guidelines go far beyond merely telling victims to report to the police and encompass all of a victim’s (and accused’s) needs including mental health, safety, rights during the disciplinary process and dealing with the aftermath of a trial. Having a clear reporting mechanism, ensuring victims are supported to continue their education and (in cases of sexual violence) referring to external counselling agencies is recommended. However, these guidelines are also not statutory. Universities which fail to abide by them face no consequences.

 

Legal action against universities

The only way to ensure a UK university or college deals with sexual assault is to appeal a decision of no action or a finding that a complaint is not upheld. However, this is only possible if the university has accepted the complaint in the first place (some British universities don’t even take sexual assault reports) and where the disciplinary system allows appeals. As there are no statutory instruments, universities can only be sued under normal civil law. In Scotland, a delict case for causing emotional harm could be brought (this would be called ‘torts’ in England). Even then, universities cannot be legally compelled to deal with rape complaints. They can only be sued after the fact for causing harm by ignoring or mishandling complaints.

British civil suits are more likely to fail and more difficult to litigate, due to the absence of a clear Title IX statutory duty. All students can argue on is the university’s failure of its basic duty of care. Add to this the fact that all civil cases are long and expensive, and students are very unlikely to be able to bring them (less chance of winning a case means a greater likelihood that the student has to pay all the legal fees, and a much lower probability of a lawyer doing the case on a no win no fee basis). Universities know this and therefore there is little motivation for them to change. The cycle of few civil suits, little press coverage and no awareness of the issue of campus sexual assault seems set to continue.

Motivational meme

I don’t think I’ve ever done a short ‘n sweet blog post. I’m usually into analysis of news stories or commenting on gender equality or human rights issues. The most light-hearted post was probably that last one about archetypes of women in Game of Thrones. So, here it is:

 

I’m prone to long and vivid dreams. Gunfights, car chases, interminably boring conversations with friends, driving around central Scotland and the Highlands, and run-ins with bitchy strangers…my dreams have it all. Anyhoo, a few weeks ago I dreamt I was writing. That’s not all that unusual for me- I can dream about writing poetry and use the fragments to compose a real poem after waking. But this time, I was writing a motivational meme. This one:

 

Care for yourself as tenderly as you would a child

Guide yourself as surely as a parent

Stay as true to your originality as a spouse

Adore your talents as completely as a lover

Don’t take yourself too seriously, just like with a friend

Focus on your strategies as fiercely as if against an enemy

Worship yourself as ardently as an acolyte

Determine your own path as resolutely as a god

Be your own child, your own parent, your own spouse, your own lover, your friend, your enemy, your devotee and your god.

 

I tried putting it on a purple background:

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It’s probably too long to go viral. I think it’s pretty good for someone who was asleep when they wrote it, though!

How Game of Thrones Debunks Archetypes of Women

It wasn’t so long ago that Game of Thrones was widely criticised for its initial portrayal of female characters as powerless victims. In my view, the disconnect between the books and TV series was the main factor in these concerns: scenes such as Sansa’s (Jeyne Poole in the books) abuse was shot for TV in a way which emphasised a male character’s (Theon Greyjoy’s) reaction; scenes critical of male-on-female violence were cut. Perhaps just as importantly, the books’ presentation of systemic oppression of the poor, disabled and even children- not just women- was not as apparent onscreen.

Obviously, all that changed during Season 6. Now, with Sansa as acting ruler of the North, all the contestants for the Iron Throne are women. (Unless Gendry shows up to stake a claim as Robert Baratheon’s bastard). However, Game of Thrones has gone further than simply having powerful female characters. Intentionally or not, both the show and the books take down classical archetypes of women which have existed in the west for centuries.

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The Mother Archetype

The Westerosi seven gods include the Mother, Maiden and Crone- a reference to goddess triads typical of Norse and other ancient religions. The Mother exemplifies traditional notions of feminity:

HIGH SPARROW: Ah, “As water rounds the stones, smoothing- -”

MARGAERY: “Smoothing what was jagged, so does a woman’s love calm a man’s brute nature. A wife salves her husband’s wounds, a mother sings her son to sleep.”

-Game of Thrones Season 6, Episode 7: The Broken Man

Game of Thrones explores this traditional ideal of motherhood and pushes it to its extreme. Cersei’s love for her children leads to mass-murder by blowing up the Sept. She walked through King’s Landing naked to protect her children, fearful that a trial would expose their bastardy. And she protects them despite them being born from a decidedly non-traditional relationship with her brother. The more a mother loves her children, the more she must do to keep them safe. A mother’s love means she must kill to protect. She has to violate the very norms of feminine modesty (by being naked in public) to protect them. And she has to love her children even if she created them out of nonconforming relationships. Cersei is the mother archetype’s logical conclusion. The maternal love that religion (personified by the High Sparrow) valued necessitates brutality. Game of Thrones proves that gender norms make no sense because following the norm contradicts it.

The religion reflects societal values of women as destined only for marriage and motherhood, as is revealed in the same conversation:

HIGH SPARROW: You have a duty, Your Grace. To your husband, your king, your country, to the gods themselves.

MARGAERY: It’s just…the desires that once drove me no longer do.

HIGH SPARROW: Congress does not require desire on the woman’s part, only patience. The king must have an heir if we are to continue our good work.

In earlier episodes, Ned Stark explains to Arya that she won’t do any great deeds but will marry a great man. Cersei tells Sansa that unlike her twin Jaime whose destiny was glory, she was sold off to Robert Baratheon “like a horse, to be beaten whenever he wanted, ridden whenever he wanted”. In the show, she implies the domestic violence by saying “And you will be [cruel, abusive] Joffrey’s [queen]. Enjoy.”

However, most of the female characters violate these norms.

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Deviant Women

Most of George R.R. Martin’s female characters are deviant in some way from the Westerosi/patriarchal norm of the passive, appearance-valuing, chaste woman.

In Westeros, as in patriarchal societies, women don’t fight. In the A Song of Ice and Fire books, it is only the deviant women (Molestown whores) who take up crossbows to defend the Wall from Wildlings. However, some characters get around this to avenge friends and family.

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Arya is a killer, taking revenge for her family just like a man would. Her reply to Ned Stark in Season 1 that marriage “isn’t me” is echoed in Season 7 when her direwolf Nymeria chooses to continue to lead her pack instead of resuming a life as Arya’s pet. Arya forges her own destiny; like her wolf, she can’t be tamed. Understanding this, Arya whispers “That’s not you” as Nymeria walks away.

Brienne fails to conform to feminine ideals due to her height, body type and appearance. She responds by rejecting all aspects of gender norms, dressing as a man and fighting like a knight. She’s mocked for it, but succeeds in avenging Renly. Having found a home in Winterfell as Sansa’s sworn sword, she’s also found respect and a worthy role. And she won’t stick out so much now that all the girls are training to fight. Brienne also confounds gender norms: she rejects them, but she is a maternal protector to Sansa and Arya. So she fulfils gender norms while simultaneously violating them. Similarly, the wildling Ygritte participates in warfare and presumably would not be considered pretty or chaste south of the Wall, but is a loyal lover to Jon Snow. Female love and protection are not limited to strict gender roles.

There are other ways of deviating from the imposed norm: by gaining and wielding power. Danaerys and Cersei rule over people and kingdoms which have never had a female Khal or queen. Lyanna Mormont rules Bear Island and supports Jon Snow’s command that girls must train to fight for the first time. Sansa helps Jon in war councils and the leadership of the North, and is now a temporary ruler during Jon’s absence. Ellaria of Dorne and the Sand Snakes fight as well as or better than men, as does Yara Greyjoy, who leads some of the ironborn and aspired to be their queen.

Even in the first seasons when female characters were often abused, the female characters Cersei and Sansa and the good male characters Tyrion and Bran acknowledged domestic violence and marital rape instead of accepting it, despite its legality. Danaerys and Jaime prevent sexual violence even more in the books than in the show. Though the female characters were born into a world where violence against women was rife, they were capable of assessing their situation and deciding it wasn’t right. It’s also a notable point that Westeros is not as dissimilar from our reality as we like to think; rape was legal in the UK until the early 1990s if it occurred within marriage, as seems to be the case in Westeros. Domestic abuse was not recognised or dealt with by police until the 1970s in the US. Husbands continue to be able to abuse wives in other jurisdictions.

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The Madonna-Whore Complex

Game of Thrones also has a lot of fun with the Madonna-Whore complex, also called the virgin-whore complex. According to Thought Catalog,

The term “Madonna-Whore Complex” was first coined by – you guessed it – the father of Psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud. Though much of Freud’s work has either been disproven or is widely regarded as invalid (to put it nicely), his archetype-based complexes live on. The Madonna-Whore Complex is known as the distinction men draw between the women they desire and the women they respect – with the implication that those two categories are mutually exclusive.

The idea is that women are either mother-figures/virgin figures- innocent and nurturing. Or they’re sexually empowered- which is incompatible with being, in modern terms, “girlfriend material”. You might have heard of the complex as  ‘good girl vs bad girl’ or ‘nice girl vs slut’. It lives on in our own time, despite being at least as old as the Medieval era Game of Thrones is based on.

Sansa vs Shae

In Game of Thrones, the Madonna-Whore complex/Virgin-Whore Complex is centred on Tyrion. He’s literally in a love triangle with a virgin and a whore. His wife Sansa Stark is a virgin and remains such for the duration of their marriage. His secret lover Shae was a sex worker and is often referred to and self-describes as “a whore”. However, the relevance and importance of the concept of sexual innocence is interrogated in the books: Tyrion decides he can’t trust his wife as “[Sansa] might be maiden between the legs, but she was hardly innocent of betrayal”. Her supposed ‘purity’ is therefore pointless. According to the Madonna-Whore complex, Tyrion should love and respect Sansa while desiring and disrespecting Shae. Instead, he respects them both, loves Shae and has a limited and self-controlled desire for Sansa (in the books) or no feelings toward her (in the show).

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Tysha

Game of Thrones further turns the complex on its head by revealing that aged 13, Tyrion married a 13 year old girl, Tysha, then was told by his father Tywin that she was a whore Jaime had paid to take his virginity and make a man of him. In the books Tywin further makes his point by forcing Tyrion to watch and participate in her gang-rape and pay her for the “sex work”. After freeing Tyrion from prison in Season 5, Jaime confesses that Tywin lied: Tysha was never a whore, but Tywin believed she married Tyrion for the family’s wealth so she was therefore a “whore”. Tyrion then goes to confront his father and, heartbroken at finding Shae has slept with him, he kills her. He asks Tywin where Tysha went after the gang-rape and murders his father for calling her a whore.

Tysha’s story questions the “whore”/”slut” label and its validity. Tywin called Tysha a whore when it suited him. She wasn’t the wealthy, titled wife he wanted for his son, so she had to be disposed of. For Tywin, she wasn’t even a person- he didn’t think he was punishing her, but instead teaching his son a lesson. Tywin also had his late father’s girlfriend whipped through the streets naked “never dreaming that the same fate awaited his own golden daughter” – Cersei, who was also called a whore by detractors. The take-away here is that “whore” is a label applied by men, and arbitrarily. Cersei was Tywin’s daughter so she wasn’t a whore to him, but women he didn’t know (Tysha, his father’s girlfriend and Shae) were. The men who slept with the “whores”- his father, his son, and Tywin himself- were not labelled.

Game of Thrones also pushes the “slut” trope to its breaking point with Pia. In the books, Pia is a servant at Harrenhal who uses her beauty to get Lannister soldiers into bed…or cupboard. Some of Gregor Clegane’s equally unsavoury companions decide that this means she’s always available to them- whether she wants to or not. Jaime Lannister executes them for rape, with the last rapist protesting that Pia had consented at other times. This scene seems to be asking, ‘OK- if someone is a ‘slut’, then, well, so what?’ The idea of a “slut” seems to be that the woman is always available (sexist ideas pose women as passive, so ‘sluts’ are “available for sex” instead of “pursuing sex”) and for some reason, this is interesting or scandalous. As the Pia story shows, however, ‘sluts’ don’t actually exist in this way as nobody is consenting all the time to everyone. They aren’t “always available”. And so if someone is more interested in sex than average, well, so what? George R.R. Martin was ahead of his time with this one, as rape victims’ sexual history was allowed as evidence in rape cases until the early 2000s in the UK. The last rapist’s comments would therefore actually have been accepted as evidence!

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Manic Pixie Dream Girls

Though Game of Thrones hasn’t completely avoided using violence against women to show how bad a villain is or elicit emotion from a man, it has at least steered clear of manic pixie dream girl syndrome- when a relationship or friendship with a two-dimensional female character leads a male character to an epiphany or self-improvement. For example, foster sister Sansa’s abuse and birth sister Yara’s capture did not motivate Theon to shed his torture-induced cowardice and help them. He fails to help Sansa by signalling and though he murders Myranda, he doesn’t save Sansa. They escape together. Later, he flees from battle instead of saving Yara.

Game of Thrones might seem a totally different series (regarding its female characters) from its first couple of seasons, but its current empowerment of them was always there in the background. Like most TV shows it’s far from unproblematic, but hopefully the series will continue to improve in the way it deals with gender issues.

 

How the political correctness debate is being manufactured

silenced

Has political correctness gone mad?

That was the title of Trevor Phillip’s latest Channel 4 documentary which aired a few days ago. The docco contends that Brexit and Trump happened as a result of the ‘hard left’ refusing to engage in debate and using political correctness to silence opponents. And you’d be forgiven for thinking that it’s topical. That there’s suddenly a Liberal-versus-Conservative divide imported from across the Atlantic threatening to disenchant the ‘ordinary people’ who will rebel against their feminist, LGBTQ and POC oppressors by voting in a British version of Trump.

But that’s just not true.

This PC Gone Mad/Liberal Elites Oppressing The Masses trope is a myth created and endlessly cycled by the media. Just days after Has PC Gone Mad? aired, another version of this self-created debate- though at least this segment was an actual debate- was shown on BBC Newsnight. With each iteration of this myth, no new information or current event is added. Instead, the same incidents are recycled over and over- mostly Germaine Greer and Julie Bindel being no-platformed (refusal to be invited as a guest speaker to student societies or clubs) by certain student unions.

Now, student unions are not all-powerful holdfasts of the “liberal elite” (or the Establishment, for that matter). They’re, well, groups of young people elected by other young people at the same university who could be bothered to vote. They do not have “agendas” which are meaningful forces at the national level (in the case of no-platforming someone). Their compositions change with each new influx of students, making it very difficult to deploy a consistent political agenda across decades to change an entire country.  The ‘PC Gone Mad’ myth has simply borrowed from America’s over-hyping of a few incidents of students asking for trigger warnings* on course material (which have existed for decades at US and UK universities; even TV has trigger warnings before certain programmes). In any case, a union or two no-platforming a speaker does not equate to a liberal elite oppressing the masses. Governments owe their citizens and residents free speech. Universities are not governments and neither are student unions. Student unions are groups of people who can no-platform if they feel like it. no-one has an inalienable right to speak to any group of people, any more than I have the right to demand that you continue to read this.

The myth of political correctness gone mad also assumes that ‘ordinary people’ desperately crave the freedom to say sexist, racist and homophobic statements. Most of us would disagree with that assessment of ourselves and our loved ones.

And while proponents of the myth claim that we suddenly aren’t allowed to say racist, sexist or homophobic things any more, in reality these laws have been in effect for decades. The Race Relations Act came into effect in the 1970s. It wasn’t invented by the liberal elite a couple of months ago. The Channel 4 documentary used the punishments dished out to online trolls who targeted the feminist campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez  as an example of political correctness gone mad. Prosecutions for online trolling may seem new to those who’ve barely heard of the internet, but harassment has always been a crime whether it’s committed to your face, in a letter, through a third party, over the phone or indeed online. This is similar to how conspiracy, slander or extortion are actionable whether they’re committed face to face or not. Or how murder is still a crime even if you don’t kill the person face to face.

Prosecutions for online harassment did happen before Caroline Criado-Perez. They just didn’t make the national news because the victims were not famous enough (Criado-Perez was fronting a national campaign at the time). It’s not uncommon for those who profess their activism online to be the targets of abuse. It’s just that people who aren’t middle-class, who aren’t deemed respectable, who are seen as deserving of their abuse because they’re sex worker activists or queer activists or kinksters, won’t be newsworthy. Just because something isn’t on the news doesn’t mean it’s not happening. Kind of like how people are dying of cancer every day but their families’ grief won’t make the headlines, while celebrities who survive cancer do.

Trevor Phillips did raise important points: virtue-signalling can and does lead to harmful overreactions against powerless individuals, leaving systemic oppression intact. And shutting down debate is not a solution. But overall, the message of Has PC Gone Mad is not simply wrong, it’s mostly irrelevant.

The fact is, “liberal elites” and “ordinary people” are not in conflict. Brexit was not caused by harassment prosecutions or students no-platforming. It was caused by widespread ignorance of what the EU is and the benefits it offers as well as UKIP’s conflation of the unrelated issues of EU immigration, non-EU immigration, benefits ‘scrounging’, and illegal immigration. The only recent UK political clashes have been about Brexit, austerity, and so on- mostly against the Conservative government and certainly not against liberal elites. While these very real protests are sometimes played down in the news, these same news agencies are only too happy to regurgitate years-old incidents and inflate incidents which appeared in student newspapers into a fake national debate on political correctness. If a liberal versus conservative divide does ever happen, it was manufactured by the media.

*’The Coddling of the American Mind‘, which very eloquently criticises these students, is actually one of my favourite online articles due to the structure of its arguments and the important points it touches on. However, even this gem cites just a handful of very low-key, non-newsworthy incidents across the entire US. This proves that the ‘PC debate’ is an overhyping of unrelated trivial events. It’s a very well-written piece though and I’d recommend reading it.

Qatar to host World Cup despite appalling human rights record

First published on Mint Press News on 27/6/16

 

Recently, Qatar jailed a Dutch tourist for having sex after she reported her rape. The case revealed to the West how rape victims are treated in Qatar.

As Qatar will be the host of the 2022 World Cup, this raises the question of the risks faced by soccer fans if they are sexually assaulted during the World Cup. However, another pressing issue is that of how locals are treated. As MyMPN reported, local women and men who suffer sexual assault are likely to be at even more risk of prosecution than tourists.

Qatar has an appalling human rights record more generally — especially when it comes to women and migrant workers. The workers building the World Cup projects are being exploited by the Qatar state and corporations.

Migrant workers from Asia and Africa make up 99% percent of Qatar’s workforce but are forbidden to unionize. They are unable to leave Qatar as employers routinely seize their passports. Workers who lack official documentation are at risk of deportation and further exploitation. As wages are not paid on time — or at all — many employees live a life of de facto slavery in unsuitable housing conditions. Exorbitant recruitment fees further increase the financial strain.

In 2014 Qatar promised to update its labor laws. However, in 2015 Amnesty International criticized Qatar for not delivering on its promise to initiate reforms. Even if the reforms were made, Human Rights Watch believes that they “will not adequately protect migrant workers from human trafficking, forced labor, and other rights violations. It is unclear whether they will provide some protection for migrant domestic workers, mostly women, who are especially vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.”

Women walk through an airport in Doha, Qatar on June 30, 2010. Two of the women are wearing niqab. (Flickr / Juanedc.com)

Migrant domestic workers are overwhelmingly female and face sexual abuse in addition to the physical and verbal abuse suffered by workers of all genders. Under current law, no protection is afforded to them. However, the legal protection available to non-migrant women in cases of sex crimes is likewise questionable; for example marital rape is not a criminal offence.

According to Amnesty International’s website, “Migrants from Bangladesh, India and Nepal working on the refurbishment of the showcase Khalifa Stadium and landscaping the surrounding gardens and sporting facilities known as the “Aspire Zone” are being exploited. Some are being subjected to forced labour. They can’t change jobs, they can’t leave the country and they often wait months to get paid. Meanwhile, FIFA (football’s global governing body), its sponsors and the construction companies involved are set to make massive financial gains from the tournament.”

FIFA president Gianni Infantino has promised to create a panel to ensure “decent working conditions” for laborers working on the stadium. However, the effectiveness of these measures against Qatar’s “Kafala” (sponsorship) system, which bonds the employee to the employer in an unequal relationship, is still in question.

The 2022 World Cup’s corporate sponsors include McDonalds, Budweiser, Hyundai, Adidas, Visa and Coca-Cola. In 2015, the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre contacted the companies with a list of questions regarding their FIFA sponsorship, human rights, and workers’ rights. None responded to the questions asked.

However, in a statement Adidas admitted “everyone recognizes that more needs to be done in a collective effort with all stakeholders involved.”

Coca-Cola said it was encouraging FIFA to respect human rights and that “We believe that through our partnership and continued involvement with FIFA we can help foster optimism and unity, while making a positive difference in the communities we serve. The Coca-Cola Company does not condone human rights abuses anywhere in the world.”

Adidas has a Human Rights Charter. Its website states, “The adidas Group recognises its corporate responsibility to respect human rights and the importance of showing that we are taking the necessary steps to fulfill this social obligation.

Adidas’ Policy on Forced Labour and Human Trafficking prohibits forced labor “in all company operations and in our global supply chain.”

This stance is bound to raise questions about why Adidas feels that sponsorship of the 2022 World Cup is appropriate. However McDonald’s sponsorship is perhaps less surprising. In 2013, police investigated McDonald’s for violation of labor laws in Brazil, following a 17-year-old’s complaint that she had not been paid in eight months. Belizean migrant workers in Canada claimed they were treated as slaves when the corporation forced them to share an expensive penthouse apartment then deducted huge amounts from their salaries to cover the rent.

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The multinationals’ involvement has been satirized with the creation of “anti-logos” criticizing their support for human rights abuses. This questioning of why these sponsors have not pulled their funding is likely to carry on as human rights abuses continue to be perpetrated in the building of World Cup projects.

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