Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Blame Patriarchy: Notes on Steubenville and "Jock Culture"

In a recent polemic Dave Zirin asks if "jock culture" is to be blamed for the Steubenville case.

Responding to evidence that adults around these football players conspired to cover up the shame and the crime of it all, Zirin tackles the social structure framing the story. "Steubenville," The Nation's headline announced, "shows the bonds between jock culture and rape culture."

To summarize the Steubenville story: a group of football players raped a young woman and then went on to laugh and joke about it, and to broadcast the fun they had within their circle. Mass media outlets recently harmonized their headlines as they moved toward concluding the story cycle, presenting the case as a personal tragedy - for the men on trial. Cue a collective groan from Jezebel, Gawker, Feministing. I join the chorus here, but instead of thinking from CNN et al, I want to think from Dave Zirin's writing, which has been among the most heart-felt and intense from a sports writer.

The problem (as I'm sure Zirin knows) isn't football or jock culture. The problem is patriarchy. But "Steubenville shows the bonds between patriarchy and rape culture" doesn't make for a catchy headline.

That is part of the problem: sexism isn't news.

In other words, the problem isn't football, it isn't sports culture, it isn't the media. It's patriarchy itself. Those institutions are all ideological organs in a bigger body. Zirin writes, "We need to ask whether there’s something inherent in the men’s sports of the twenty-first century, which so many lionize as a force for good, that can also create a rape culture of violent entitlement." We could ask if there isn't something inherent in the military that creates "a rape culture of violent entitlement." Sexual abuse of men and women in the military has been described recently as "an epidemic." A little reading on the subject makes one wonder if the word "endemic" isn't more appropriate. What do mainstream sport cultures have in common with the military?

Patriarchy is such an old-fashioned word. It's so unsexy. Such a drag. And I feel like a throwback, an old feminist from another time for naming it.

I throw it out here, however, as the word for naming what the Penn State scandal has to do with Steubenville (for example) or with the ubiquity of sexual violence within the military and with the latter's inability to confront the problem. For naming what football has to do with the media's inability to tell as story about rape without recuperating men as tragic heroes of a sort. Of course people are sympathetic to these guys. They are teenagers; their lives are a mess. They are going to jail. Who wants to relate to the person who was too drunk - or drugged - to remember anything? Who was, in fact, unable to know or feel what was happening to her body? Who identifies with the person who was made into an abject thing used for collective entertainment?

Scenes of Instruction

I want to turn to an anecdote that Zirin recounted in another column, also about Steubenville. Earlier this month he shared a memory of being on a team as a high school student, of being in the locker room when a teammate made a rape-joke. The coach, whom Zirin recalled as a very left leaning and sensitive man, hauled off and slapped the offending player.

Zirin writes:
In a flash, Coach Dan backhanded Tim across the face. Seeing a coach or adult authority figure hit a 14-year-old, even a huge one like Tim, was shocking enough. Seeing Hippie Dan do it was akin to watching the Dalai Lama stomp someone with his sandals. We all stood there breathless and I’m not sure if Tim or Dan was shaking more. Coach Dan finally spoke and said, “I’m sorry but there are some things you don’t joke about.” He then walked out of the locker room and practice was done. The incident was never mentioned, but Dan was never quite so positive, Tim stopped making jokes and that was the first and last locker-room rape joke of the season. (Steubenville and Challenging Rape Culture in Sports)
That is a complicated moment - it is seared into Zirin's memory for good reason. But I don't read that slap as a feminist intervention. It is a classically patriarchal moment: the good father disciplining the bad boy; a figure of masculine authority intervening in order to protect women. A fair amount of discourse on the Steubenville case has this shape.

There's no conversation in Zirin's story. Just the "understood" of realizing there are some things that one doesn't joke about - and that these are the same things that one doesn't talk about. Learning that seems to make them men.

It's helpful to look more closely at the story. It's a locker room - it's all men and boys. It's a scene of instruction and intimacy. The joke is made when the boys are told that a female member of the coaching staff at the school is coming in to talk to them. It happens at the threshold of a gendered and a desegregated social space. The joke arises at the idea that a woman might enter their (masculine) space. The imagined introduction of her body changes the imagined nature of the space. It is at that juncture that we find violence and shame, swirling around each other. A joke, a slap.

Rape isn't external to patriarchy - it is, in fact, its internal symbolic engine. Sex as violence; sex as dehumanization; sex as the rendering of the other into a thing. This is why the call to teach men "not to rape" is so ineffectual. It is no call to action. It isn't adequate to the imperative: Rape - because it's better than being raped. Rape, because that is, in fact, what makes you not a woman. Rape, dare I add, is something that men also do to each other.

In a feminist space, I imagine not a slap but a difficult, messy conversation - not between men, or between men and women - but between people negotiating gender and power. A conversation about what that joke was about. About what rhetorical work that young man imagined it would do in the service of his own power and authority - about what anxiety regarding his relationship to his teammates that joke was expressing.

In the story Zirin tells, there is no discussion. An action is committed on behalf of that woman. She doesn't figure in the story; the story isn't about her. It's a story about patriarchal authority (good and bad).

I wouldn't draw a line from Zirin's anecdote to the Steubenville thing were it not for the fact Zirin told the story in a story about Steubenville. Zirin is smart enough about sexism and sports to know that the world he's writing about (sports) it structured by sexism. Are we, collectively, feminist enough to know what it means to imagine a sports culture structured by something else?

The sociality of the sexual violence committed in the Steubenville case reminds us that these things are not about women: they are about men's relationship to each other, in which women - as objects of jokes and objects of violence - are used as props in a competition for power. This power, this authority is built on shame and fear. Teach men not to rape. What does that even mean if we don't make that lesson about how men relate to each other?

As I was thinking about this "jock culture" problem, I found myself talking to a woman who was asked to write about @SKCboobs - a Twitter account that solicits women MLS fans to broadcast pictures of their tits. (I have no idea if the account holder is a man or a woman.) That writer is a woman, asked by the guys she works with to write a story about this thing (because she has tits?).

She called and asked me what I thought of it.

Moralizing about what women do with their tits is not my idea of feminist sports writing. The media outlets that will cover Steubenville, or SKC Boobs give nothing to daily coverage of women's sports. That's what I think.

The media's idea of a women's sports story is a story about rape. Or a story about sexism. Or it is just a picture of tits presented as a story. The sports media's idea of a women's sports story does not express an ongoing commitment to the story of women's sports, it in fact expresses an ongoing commitment to NOT covering women's sports.

The whole conversation about "jock culture" and "rape culture" presumes a deeply segregated world in which one can separate men out from women and give them unique sets of instructions. 

Don't rape. Don't get raped.

Mainstream sports - football programs, sports networks, media outlets, regulatory bodies like the NCAA, the IOC and FIFA - turn patriarchy's root - the drawing of a line between man and woman, a line that marks the human and the not human - into the ritual and rite that we call "jock culture." That doesn't make jock culture the problem. It makes jock culture a tool.

How else to understand the "jocks" who pissed on a woman, and laughed about it? Who secured their bonds in relation to each other by joking "you don't sleep through a wang in the butthole" or "Finally saw a dead body." [Tweets captured as screenshots by blogger Alexandria Goddard.]

That behavior is not specific to sports. Would that it were so. Because then we could just get rid of football, and call it a day. 

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