In the last year or so there have been a bunch of confessions by people within various musical communities regarding sexual and intimate partner violence. One of the most recent to come to light is one you might have come across involving Michael Gira, a core member of popular noise band Swans, and founder of Young God Records.
The accuser, Larkin Grimm, was an artist Gira was working with. She describes an incident where Gira began having sex with her without her consent. She was unconscious when he allegedly penetrated her but apparently, according to Gira’s official statement published in FACT Magazine, the relationship was not in fact consummated. I won’t pretend I know what occurred between them.
PULL QUOTE: Many don’t feel the legal system is adequately equipped for sexual abuse incidents.
For any feminist—and indeed for any decent human—that’s an open and shut rape case on paper.1 But Gira’s denial, and indeed the informal online process used to expose this alleged incident, can create confusion or ‘blurriness’. Perhaps the reason for the public nature of a lot of these claims is a sense that survivors won’t be heard when accusing against those in a more privileged position to them. Many don’t feel the legal system is adequately equipped for sexual abuse incidents, or just feel shamed or confused by their own trauma. So Grimm’s approach is becoming a common one: an approach that turns into a battle of identity, hence what the ‘facts’ are all becomes rather blurry.
However, their individual public responses to the incident aren’t the only factor in creating blurriness around this kind of rape. These cases where a passive general public ‘entertain’ both sides of the story and lead survivors down a path of performing their trauma were all too common well before the internet, and their blurriness is perpetuated by all of us – encouraged, in a systemic way, so that we’ll overlook cases unless they’re blood-curdling or brutal and undeniable.
PULL QUOTE: Where the violence isn’t visible, it’s deemed too difficult to just admit that it is Rape with a capital R.
It’s not just that they’re not ‘proven in court’ that cause perception of these kinds of rape allegations to be ‘blurry’. It is also because it’s so very common for consent to be overlooked when it occurs in a ‘non-violent’ way. Where the violence isn’t visible, it’s deemed too difficult to just admit that it is Rape with a capital R. Perhaps because, on a more personal level, this is something many people have lived through, on either side, maybe even ‘unknowingly’ (such as Michael Gira’s claim). Maybe it’s too difficult to name this, lest we implicate ourselves or open up wounds around our own sexual history. So we call it ‘blurry’.
What Grimm alleges happened to her is similar to experiences I’ve had at least two times that I can remember clearly, and something feminists have discussed for many years—mostly privately—because the pain of having to argue your case or ‘prove yourself’ when it comes to sexual trauma is just too much at times.
Words like ‘unknowingly’, ‘blurry’, ‘unintentional’, etc. are constantly thrown at survivors. They’re the kind of words that can send a wave of anxiety over the sites of trauma in a survivor’s body, wrenching up that inexplicable nausea that alerts them to their trauma’s recurrence. That nausea that first clarified the blurriness around experience, turning what they thought was ‘just an awkward incident’ into something that routinely and randomly comes up in therapy—or at the supermarket—distracting and terrorizing them in unavoidable ways. For a while it can feel as though words won’t adequately describe your experience. The experience and the remembering of it are inherently physical both in terms of how they’re played out and also in how they exist in the survivors body for sometimes years afterwards. Even the survivor can spend years not knowing, feeling a blurriness, an unknown nausea when that person’s name is mentioned, a feeling that the word ‘rape’ doesn’t seem to adequately explain because that word is so scary and real. So we use words like ‘unclear consent’ to ourselves before we can actually admit to rape having occurred to us. Once that clarity around our experience is gained, hearing someone else utter the word ‘blurry’ or ‘unclear’ can be like a punch in the gut. Being put back into a box where things are unclear or blurry can be incredibly re-traumatising.
PULL QUOTE: This current wave of feminism is unleashing a new understanding around consent that is both long-awaited and painfully necessary.
Ever since I started the feminist music collective LISTEN I have been in the unfortunate position of bearing witness to so many people giving words to their trauma, including myself. As with previous movements, this current wave of feminism has given many people the opportunity to gain clarity on their sexual and romantic history. This process is as harrowing as it is cathartic. This current wave of feminism is unleashing a new understanding around consent that is both long-awaited and painfully necessary. We are seeing all the nuances that we didn’t previously see, noticing all the imbalances, excuses and awkward silences within our communities, and we are starting to name them. This isn’t going to be easy.
The bad news is – we were never taught about consent. Not properly. We were never taught to value our own bodies and the autonomy of another person/people, never taught to know when to check in with a sexual partner, or that people can and do change their minds. We weren’t taught that alcohol isn’t always an awesome idea when sex is involved, or that one yes doesn’t mean yes forever, or that a yes after saying no several times is sometimes not actually a yes, more of a compromise or perhaps even a moment of dissociation. We weren’t taught that when someone is really tired they might just say yes so that you stop annoying them and let them rest, that someone might say yes to avoid more overt forms of violence, that sharing a bed with someone doesn’t immediately mean they want to sleep with you, or that when you’re a young teenager you aren’t actually able to consent to an adult having sex with you – oh, and of course, that consciousness is essential for consent.
The act of penetration (or whatever the physical act of violence is) within a sexual abuse context isn’t the entire story, or even the only factor that defines it as rape. No single sexual act exists within a vacuum where everyone is equal. Not only are there blatant imbalances of power, such as Michael Gira’s position being capable of making or breaking Larkin Grimm’s musical career, there are also many more subtle imbalances that appear to need further clarification. Because, guess what – the person you’re sleeping with or want to sleep with is a complex human being with all sorts of prior experiences and confusing emotional landscapes. Not just a thing there to enact or withhold pleasure from you. Perhaps rather than focusing on the details of what happened in any given incident, we should be looking at how it happened, and what feelings were involved. The forensic, legal approach to incidents of sexual violence often falls very short of the more ‘whole person’ approach to sex and consent that ideally, most feminists and other activists are working towards.
I can’t help thinking about how in the Gira–Grimm case—as Grimm alleges it happened—the dude was on the floor feeling unwell, and so Grimm invited him into the bed she was sleeping in, in an act of friendship and kindness. But despite what the Hollywood version of this scenario might suggest, inviting someone into your bed isn’t asking that person to have sex with you. That version of human sexuality, the Hollywood one—the one where anything suggestive of sex ultimately leads to sex—is written by the cis male imagination. Real life isn’t written from that perspective, though: it’s varied and complex, and sex involves two (or more) people, each bringing with them their own realities.
PULL QUOTE: Anyone who has grown up with body dysphoria and self-esteem issues has grown up also being told that sex is the ultimate validation – if you are seen as sexy, you have won.
Unrelated to Gira and Grimm, but indulge me as I tease this out: one of the many elements included in being a complex human being is body dysphoria. Body dysphoria or sexual insecurities of other kinds are pretty much a given for anyone who is marginalised by normative ideas of beauty, race, sexuality, gender, or mental health. Many people work through them and don’t feel the impact, but some people struggle with it their whole lives. Anyone who has grown up with body dysphoria and self-esteem issues has grown up also being told that sex is the ultimate validation – if you are seen as sexy, you have won. You are now acceptable as a human, because another person has deemed you to be acceptable by desiring you deeply. Sex can often be seen as an answer to loneliness, self-loathing, or an escape from anxiety or depression. We are objectified constantly, leading us to believe that we are consumer products that are only alive or worthy when people consume us, devour us, can’t control themselves from wanting us so much that even our being asleep or saying no several times won’t deter them. Rather than sex being merely a moment of connection between two (or more) people with separate realities who are super into each other in that moment, sex is often this deeply psychologically confusing terrain. A terrain governed by the fact that, in the absence of proper education around consent due to a conservative and sex-ashamed western view of sexuality, we have filled in the gaps with films, TV shows, and porn that is geared towards the stereotypical white cis male gaze. All these media constantly reiterate the fact that sex or heteronormative love is validation. They also frequently suggest that the more harassment involved, the more desirable and incredible you actually are. If a lover continues to pursue you after you’ve said no, it really is love.
There’s been plenty of writing on these themes within film and TV criticism. In the music scene, though, while we suffer under the same narratives, they are harder to pinpoint due to the (often) non-narrative nature of the artform. But one of the ways they are played out is when folks are more willing to listen to the popular dude in the semi-popular band because he’s respected enough that we feel we should believe him over the survivor. Such is the case in Michael Gira’s response – he’s pleading with us to use our better judgement, or refer to his track record of being an awesome dude in music, and have his cultivated artistic reputation be the deciding factor in this incident, and simultaneously implying that Grimm is not a reliable source due to her mental health (or “demons”).
This has been the response I’ve noticed in every incident I’ve witnessed that has unravelled within various smaller scenes in Melbourne.
If we’re to fully understand consent within this messy, imbalanced terrain, we need to hear what all survivors are saying, and take their word as legitimate. We need to notice all the different ways in which people can be violated, not only the really shocking ones that are portrayed with voyeuristic glee in movies that punish teenage girls for being ‘too available’ in the back of cars in the sixties, etc. Creating terror or more blurriness around rape is not the desired outcome. We need to create a cultural context where people can enjoy sex with their entire being, knowing that the person with whom they’re choosing to partake in this joyful interaction understands that they have boundaries and needs beyond just the desire for an orgasm. This also comes along with a need to acknowledge all the different kinds of bodies that exist, all the different kinds of sexualities that exist, and being aware that the person you’re sleeping with may not feel like following through with the idea you had about what you want to do with your body in that moment.
PULL QUOTE: Perhaps for some comfortable white cis men the idea that people need to be more cautious with their partner creates a kind of fear that they’re going to mess up.
Perhaps for some comfortable white cis men the idea that people need to be more cautious with their partner creates a kind of fear that they’re going to mess up. Perhaps they imagine a scenario where they’re frozen in tiresome or dry negotiations instead of doing what they might enjoy doing: racing head-long through all insecurities straight to the part where they enjoy physical pleasure. For many people though, the fear of being raped is trained into us. The fact that comfy white cis men might need to experience a little more uncertainty—by, perhaps, having difficult conversations—is not really a big deal when compared with a life of being told “it will most likely happen to you eventually” or “don’t show too much skin or you’ll get raped”, for example. The fear of rape that many people are raised to carry is one thing that makes our side of consent the most blurry. Not only do survivors fear it happening before the fact, we also fear owning the fact that it has happened to us afterwards. It’s such a huge thing to admit. Even just the most basic, binary, and heteronormative sexual encounters are fraught with potential for misunderstanding or internal compromises that maybe shouldn’t be being made. Then if you add to the mix that gender isn’t necessarily fixed, and the many and varied ways in which racial or financial or other imbalances can impose themselves on relationships, it becomes clear that communication is not an annoyance – it’s utterly essential. Assuming that everything is cool with a partner is something that people do when they’ve not felt any fear related to sexuality before, so don’t know that they need to be aware of their partner’s (or partners’) various hangups or fears.
The words ‘blurry’, ‘unintentional’, and ‘unknowingly’ need to be erased from the vocabulary around sexual violence. If a person has gotten to the point where they want to expose their sexual trauma to a faceless sea of internet trolls (and also real humans) they are definitely not feeling blurry about what happened. That’s a moment of public vulnerability that no person wants to walk into, and it is often the last resort for survivors who are not being heard. The people I know who have exposed their abusers in the music community have seen their lives change for the worse, just as much or more than those of their perpetrators.
PULL QUOTE: The people I know who have exposed their abusers in the music community have seen their lives change for the worse, just as much or more than those of their perpetrators.
The thing is: a disclosure of violence is not an act of violence. The act of violence was the rape, the assault, the violation that is being disclosed. There is no space for feeling sorry for perpetrators of violence, because, in reality, the folks exposing them almost always experience greater scrutiny than their perpetrators do. Of course there is also work to be done to support people through the process of realising that they are a perpetrator of violence. Survivors often just want their abuse acknowledged more than anything else. But supporting perpetrators through their rehabilitation cannot happen when silence is the norm, and ignorance remains bliss. In nearly all cases the first step needs to be shifting the perspective to focus on the survivor.
When I write or talk about sexual trauma, I’m prone to generalising and projecting my own experience around my own trauma. Every survivor’s experience is different. For some it is essential that they go public. For others, there might be other outlets. But I am so glad that folks are brave enough to go public at this time, because we need to have this conversation. We need to shift our focus to survivors, and we need to become believers. We need to help highlight the many subtleties that can exist between partners. We need to help create clarity, not more blurriness.
1. Editor’s note: As Grimm has delcined to press charges against Gira for her own reasons—her original statement says “as a prison abolitionist, an anarchist, and a nice person I [don’t] want to destroy [Gira’s] whole life with a rape charge”—we will never know if a jury would concur with this description. Unless legal action is taken, which at this stage seems unlikely, these allegations remain allegations.↩