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Poor Karla, my ass
Since when does feminism mean women
have no responsibility for our actions?
Copyright 1995 by Lynna Landstreet. This column originally appeared in Xtra magazine. Published by Pink Triangle Press, 491 Church Street, 2nd Floor, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M4Y 2C6.
very now and then, you run into these "click" experiences that bring home to you exactly how differently different people can sometimes see things. One that's been coming back to me lately took place when I was speaking with a gay male artist about media sensationalism and the way it can serve various political agendas -- in particular, the way the right-wing used the murder of Emmanuel Jacques in the 1970s to demonize the gay community. "And now we have this Bernardo thing," he commented, "though of course that one doesn't have any political implications."
Unless you're a woman, I was tempted to reply, but didn't. Even now, looking back, I'm amazed that anyone could think that sexual violence is ever devoid of political implications. Issues around rape and sexual abuse of various types have caused deep divisions in both the feminist and gay and lesbian communities. It doesn't matter if you're Andrea Dworkin or Camille Paglia (or some third, relatively sane alternative) -- where there's sex and violence, there's politics.
One of the strongest factions to arise from the infighting in the women's movement over issues of sexual violence is what has been termed "victim feminism." While this strand of the movement grew out of work with the very real and vital issues of rape and sexual abuse, it has become something of a monster. The incessant emphasis on woman-as-victim has shifted the focus of mainstream feminism from empowerment to protection. Women don't need to learn strength and survival skills, we're told; instead, we need to be coddled and kept safe from threats ranging from corner store porn to sexist language to transsexuals at music festivals.
Along with this celebration of victimization comes a denial of responsibility. It is not permitted to question a battered woman's decision to go back to her abusive husband for the fifteenth time, or a teenage rape victim's choice to get drunk and pass out a frat party. Victims, by definition, are not responsible for their actions. Neither is it permitted to question anyone's story of victimization -- whether the alleged perpetrators were siblings or Satanists, whether the story was freely told or extracted by a therapist who makes big bucks manufacturing victims, all must be believed. Every tale of abuse is holy writ.
This can create a few interesting contradictions -- especially when the abusers are women. When women first began tentatively speaking out about battering in lesbian relationships and sexual assault by women, many feminists' response was simply to deny that it was possible. When the Vancouver feminist magazine Kinesis ran a story entitled "Women Who Rape" in the mid-80s, they were deluged with hate mail. But soon the answer to the dilemma became clear. Women who victimized others weren't really abusers -- they were victims too, and therefore not responsible for their actions.
Not surprisingly, victim feminism has become very popular with the media. For some reason, the image of women as passive and powerless doesn't seem to threaten very many people. And thus, a woman who participated in raping and murdering two young girls and even handed over her own sister to her hubby as a Christmas present is portrayed as a helpless victim with no responsibility for her actions -- and nobody bats an eye. Even the Toronto Sun, not normally known for being soft on accused criminals, ran a full page photo of Karla Homolka with a bruised face and the caption "Paul did this to me."
Let's get real, people. Being a battered woman does not give you permission to kill anyone except the batterer. I don't care how much abuse she or anyone else has been through -- that does not grant the right to abuse others. The endless stream of poor-abused-Karla stories make me want to puke. Once and for all, Homolka is an adult woman who is fully responsible for her own actions, and she deserved a hell of a lot more jail time than she got. In fact, while I normally oppose the death penalty simply because I don't consider the state competent enough to administer it with anything resembling normal intelligence, I'd be delighted to make an exception for both Homolka and her other half.
If women ever want to attain any kind of equality, it has to be on every level. We can't expect to be considered strong and independent when things are going well and then revert to being mindless little victims in conflict situations. With freedom comes responsibility, and anyone who isn't prepared to accept that should just damn well grow up.
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