In Ukraine, Russia and Belarus, many reactions to a recent online flashmob against sexual violence have been depressing and misogynistic. But this controversy can also be a path toward change.
You must not show weakness. You must not mention your vulnerability. Don’t kill the vibe with your sob stories. Stop making stuff up to get attention. Grow up.
After a Ukrainian journalist’s hashtag inspired thousands of Ukrainian, Russian and Belarusian women to publicly recount personal stories of sexual assault and harassment on social media, thousands more have responded with anger and irritation.
But both the stories and the reaction to them are part of an important process of acknowledging, evaluating — and hopefully changing the way people deal with trauma in this part of the world.
A toxic mixture of patriarchy and pseudo-liberalism
I was not surprised when the hashtags #ЯНеБоюсьСказати/#ЯНеБоюсьСказать/ #ЯНеБаюсяСказаць (translation: “I’m not afraid to say”) took Facebook by storm after journalist Anastasiya Melnychenko’s passionate post about the need to not stay silent on rape.
As psychologist Lyudmila Petranovskaya brilliantly argued in her own response to the popularity of the hashtags, women in this part of the world are forced to deal with a hypocritical blending of patriarchal and liberal norms that make them especially vulnerable to predators.
These women are expected to work. Returning home alone late at night is routine. Being alone with male colleagues and friends is also routine. Families are small and fragmented and most women can’t count on the “protection” of a male patriarch.
The blame will be on the woman for not using her paranormal abilities to read the man’s thoughts ahead of time and determine him to be unsafe
Yet at the same time these allegedly independent, modern women are viewed through a patriarchal lens. If they are vulnerable, then they are “available.” If they find themselves alone with a man, that man can theoretically do whatever he wants to them. The blame will be on the woman for not using her paranormal abilities to read the man’s thoughts ahead of time and determine him to be unsafe.
This state of affairs is further complicated by a legacy of prison camp culture that dictates that male-on-male rape is only problematic for the so-called “passive” party.
No man wants to admit that he has been raped, or that he’s lived with the fear of being raped. But considering army conscription and many other institutional and social settings that can be a breeding ground for violence, you can bet a great deal of men have encountered this phenomenon directly or indirectly — and were then forced into permanent silence. Their repressed rage then finds a convenient outlet in supporting rape culture.
We see that some members of this society have worked through their individual issues enough to be able to talk about them — not because they expect to be healed by a Facebook post, but because they want to draw attention to the scale of the problem.
How insults and mockery cover up fear and pain
We see that many others are not ready to address the issues the hashtags have brought to the surface. Hence the wave of anger, insults, and mockery.
In almost all of the angry posts on the matter of the hashtags, except for the blatantly sociopathic ones, you can see a great deal of pain hidden between the lines. You don’t decide to go to war with something if it’s not a big deal to you. A well-known Russian playwright, for example, reacted to my use and discussion of the hashtag by publicly accusing me of not having enough “strength” and “will”.
In comments to a barely related post, I had casually mentioned an attack I suffered just last autumn. A group of young men from Chechnya (one of them was screaming about taking me “for a trip” there) took turns yanking up my skirt and generally harassing me on the Moscow metro.
I had screamed and yelled throughout the ordeal, but was afraid to take physical action. You never know if your attacker is packing a knife or a gun
Three of them actively participated, with one going as far as trying to violently grab my hair (thankfully, he was too drunk to hold on to it) when I tried to get away, while a fourth seemed disinterested, then mortified, then eventually convinced his friends to leave me alone. I had screamed and yelled at them throughout the ordeal, but was afraid to take physical action. You never know if your attacker is packing a knife or a gun.
It was three against one. But, according to the playwright in question, since I didn’t go full-on ninja on them, I was to blame. He called me an “idiot” and an “eternal victim”. This was the man whose writing I had admired, whose productions I was always eager to see in the theatre. He unmasked himself, and it was painful.
But most obvious to me was, in fact, his pain. All his posts and comments on the matter of the hashtags (and there have been quite a few) can be summed up by one statement: “SEXUAL VIOLENCE CAN ONLY HAPPEN TO BAD PEOPLE, BECAUSE IF IT CAN HAPPEN TO EVERYONE, IT CAN HAPPEN TO MY LOVED ONES, AND I CAN’T DEAL WITH THAT.” Most of the posts and comments made by critics of the hashtags can be summed up by this statement.
The hashtags have also helped demonstrate a great deal of male “philosophies” on female sexuality.
For example, Denis Yatsutko, a writer and technology specialist, recounted his dealings with army conscripts from villages — where one young man openly boasted about participating in a gang rape of a village woman “because she lied about being a virgin.” The young man’s view of women was that a woman who is not a virgin is everyone’s “property”. If a woman tries to protect herself and lies about her status, she should be “punished”.
Another post, by a Ukrainian commentator and personality coach, boasted about his time working as an unlicensed taxi driver — and how he got into the habit of pawing his female passengers, most of whom, he claims, reacted positively. The idea that a woman, alone with a man in a car, would react in such a way as to not provoke a violent escalation, obviously did not occur to him. In general, the careful ways in which women go about trying to placate men seem alien to most of the hashtags’ critics.
There were the men who argued that “well-brought up” women always say “no” to a man, and it is therefore the man’s prerogative to “convince” them
Then there were the men who argued that “well-brought up” women always say “no” to a man, and it is therefore the man’s prerogative to “convince” and even “force” a woman to comply with him — “for her own good,” of course. This attitude is very helpful in demonstrating the mixing of patriarchal and liberal norms that Petranovskaya talks about: in this culture, sex is not taboo — it’s female desire that poses a problem. A woman who wants you and actually says so has something “wrong” with her.
Controversy as a step toward catharsis
All of this is dispiriting and, as some psychologists have warned, can even pose the risk of repeat trauma as you read it and take it in.
However, the most important thing is that a conversation, or, for the time being, two parallel conversations, are now happening. These conversations are awkward and painful, but, more importantly, they are sincere and involve real emotions.
Quite a lot of people are emotionally invested both in the problem of violence and trauma — and are also invested in public life and public discourse
We are seeing an example of real collective action — not sponsored by any government, not popularised by marketing or television. The very fact that there is such a big controversy, an outcry, criticism, and counter-criticism tells us that quite a lot of people are emotionally invested both in the problem of violence and trauma — and are also invested in public life and public discourse.
As a writer and frequent commentator on life in this part of the world, I often speak about how entire populations here are suffering from PTSD that began with the wars and repressions of the 20th century. This is where a lot of the patriotic chest-beating comes from. This is where the culture of violence comes from, of which both rape and the ritual humiliation of the rape victim is a major part. This is where the need to show solidarity with oppressors — both political and personal — comes from.
This problem of collective PTSD is largely unacknowledged. But the public discussion of rape and harassment has dragged the demons to the surface. The anger has been unleashed and the bile is spilling over.
None of this has been pretty to look at it, but there is also the hope that it is a step toward catharsis. A person can’t begin to heal without first acknowledging that something’s dreadfully wrong. The same goes for a society.
And even the critics of the anti-rape flashmob can’t deny that something is very, very wrong. They may dress up their acknowledgment of the problem in florid rhetoric, in jokes, in personal attacks, but by doing so they draw more and more attention to the very problem they so desperately wish to deny.
It’s a rickety start, but it’s a start.