Finding My Feminist Anger Over the Stanford Rape Case and Sara Ahmed’s Goldsmiths’ Resignation

June 13, 2016 | Bridget Moynihan

[tw: discussions of rape, sexual assault]

Sara Ahmed’s making-visible of the willful subject’s feminist role in her widely-cited 2010 article Feminist Killjoys (and Other Willful Subjects) continues to resonate deeply with intersectional feminist communities, and the significance of reclaiming the feminist killjoy cannot be overestimated. [1] Recently, I have been newly reminded of a very important point that Ahmed makes regarding anger in this same article. She states that:

A feminist call might be a call to anger, to develop a sense of rage about collective wrongs. And yet, it is important that we do not make feminist emotion into a site of truth: as if it is always clear or self-evident that our anger is right … Feminist emotions are mediated and opaque; they are sites of struggle, and we must persist in struggling with them.

Why are we angry? What effect does our anger have? What are the sources of this anger and what is our position in relation to these sources? These are important questions that in no way diminish the role of anger for the willful subject – quite the opposite. These are the very questions that ensure that even feminist anger continues to be willful and conscious of its own conditions and effects.

Feminist anger has been justifiably explosive since a young woman recently made public her powerful statement in the wake of the lenient sentencing passed down to her convicted rapist, Brock Allen Turner. This anger has been directed toward Turner, toward Turner’s father, who wrote a letter trying to negate his son’s culpability, toward the judge who gave Turner less than the minimum sentence for his crimes, and toward all of these individuals’ involvement in the perpetuation and justification of rape culture. Anger at the role of class, gender, and race privilege in Turner’s sentencing has been given voice, loud and clear. Every instance of this anger is powerful and necessary and inciting and I feel it too. However, I need to question my own anger to ensure its willfulness.

I certainly know why I am angry – justice has fallen short and a woman has been victimized not only by a man, but by the intersecting systems of repression that support this man. What effect does this anger have? Undoubtedly, it has prompted me along with many, many people to speak out, to yell, for change and feel solidarity in this yell. But does it have other, simultaneous effects? I can’t forget that every angry share and denouncement of a letter in support of Turner is nonetheless a moment wherein his story is shared instead of the woman’s. I can’t forget that every post, even this one, contributes to a media spectacle that is utterly ambivalent to effect as long as content is being generated. I am trying to be mindful, willful, of what I link to and how I participate within the very systems that I decry. I must keep in mind questions like: Whose voice is being heard? Is it the woman’s voice or someone else’s (including my own)? What systems of privilege (relating to, for example, ethnicity, class, gender, sexual orientation) are shaping the voices that I am hearing? What other voices are being silenced, denied even the chance to voice their own anger? Although the Stanford case deserves attention, I must ask how many other cases of sexual assault, especially among minority groups and communities, are currently going without action or attention? [2] Part of this willfulness also means asking: to what sources am I directing my anger? When I was re-reading the woman’s statement amidst all my anger over the lack of legal consequences for Turner, I was suddenly reminded by her that:

[Turner] has been found guilty of three serious felonies and it is time for him to accept the consequences of his actions. He will not be quietly excused. He is a lifetime sex registrant. That doesn’t expire. Just like what he did to me doesn’t expire, doesn’t just go away after a set number of years.

Ensuring that Turner did not go “quietly excused” was a battle hard-fought by this woman, and I owe it to her to acknowledge this very conviction as a source of my anger. Unlike, for example, the Canadian trial of Jian Ghomeshi, Turner was not acquitted. That does not mean that I am content that “at least” Turner was found guilty. The Stanford case is not a win, there is no joy in acknowledging that Turner, with his six-month sentence, has received more punishment than most rapists in the United States, an estimated 98% of whom are never incarcerated.[3] No, indeed, it raises a whole other source of anger for me besides Turner’s sentence. Anger that this conviction remains a lateral step within a feminist push for change. Anger that this case serves as a reminder that definitions of linear progress, with each step drawing closer to a goal, cannot apply in a system where even a guilty verdict, which has been denied in the cases of so many other women seeking justice from our legal systems, is not a sign of forward progress. But it is anger that will persist in identifying its sources, even, and especially, when these sources are actors that feign progress, like a legal system that will convict but not follow through with sentencing.

I end here by returning to Ahmed, who exemplifies this willfulness to evaluate the sources of her anger. For years, Ahmed directed her killjoy anger toward rape cultures perpetuated on university campuses the world over, including Ahmed’s own institution of Goldsmiths. Earlier this month, however, Ahmed’s willful anger could take no more of Goldsmiths’ inaction regarding campus sexual harassment and assaults. The institution revealed itself to be not just a site, but a source, of the problem, so Ahmed resigned her academic position in protest. Her resignation is not a giving up. As she discusses on her feministkilljoys blog, Ahmed’s angry, brave protest serves as proof of the power behind willful anger that refuses alliance with actors that are the very source of this anger, and, although not tied to the Stanford rape case specifically, directly condemns the intersectional systems of oppression that undergird so many similar violations on our campuses and in our courtrooms alike.


Notes

[1] For Ahmed, “willful subjects, feminist killjoys, angry black women” are those who not only “point out that racism, sexism, and heterosexism are actual” but who also expose “how happiness is sustained by erasing the signs of not getting along” and thus by a refusal to consider the costs and conditions of said happiness. Willful subjects like the feminist killjoy are therefore often seen as difficult, as outside, and yet, as Ahmed says, this condition of being “‘estranged from’ can be what enables a ‘consciousness of’. This is why being a killjoy can be a knowledge project, a world-making project”.

[2] See, for example, Victoria C. Olive’s Sexual Assault against Women of Color for a discussion of the ways in which women who are intersectionally marginalized are more likely to experience harassment, assault, and rape, while being less likely to report these crimes due to systemic racism and differential access to resources. As Olive quotes, in the United States “7.2 Native American women are sexually assaulted per 1,000 women, African American women 4 per 1,000, white women 3 per 1,000, Latina women 2 per 1,000, and Asian American women 1 per 1,000” (2).

[3] RAINN The Criminal Justice System: Statistics

About Bridget

I am currently a PhD researcher in English at the University of Edinburgh studying the archives and scrapbooks of Scottish poet Edwin Morgan. I have a passion for printed texts that push the boundaries of what it means to “be” a book, and am fascinated by the emerging role of digital media in our cultural imaginations. Running this site is my first foray into academic blogging, but it certainly won’t be my last!

Article Edited by Sarah Stewart and Adam Clay.

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