Recently, actor Shia LaBeouf claimed that he was “raped” while performing in an art installation. The performance was that he sat in a room in silence for 5 days, dressed in a tuxedo with a paper bag on his head, in a room supplied with “implements”. Members of the public were invited to enter the room to enjoy his inert presence. Bizarrely, it sounds like people actually went instead of just leaving Shia LaBeouf in a room on his own with a bag on his head like they should have. In an interview with Dazed Digital about his experience, Shia shared this:
One woman who came with her boyfriend, who was outside the door when this happened, whipped my legs for ten minutes and then stripped my clothing and proceeded to rape me… There were hundreds of people in line when she walked out with dishevelled hair and smudged lipstick. It was no good, not just for me but her man as well. On top of that my girl was in line to see me, because it was Valentine’s Day and I was living in the gallery for the duration of the event – we were separated for five days, no communication. So it really hurt her as well, as I guess the news of it travelled through the line. When she came in she asked for an explanation, and I couldn’t speak, so we both sat with this unexplained trauma silently. It was painful.
The picture we get here is that he remained inert to maintain the integrity of his art, while a woman proceeded to “rape” him. Given that women cannot actually rape men, the collective interpretation of this event is that the woman somehow made him penetrate her. He then continued his art performance in silence when his girlfriend wanted to know why a dishevelled woman with smeared lipstick ran from from the room. Later, Shia’s collaborators confirmedthat “As soon as we were aware of the incident starting to occur, we put a stop to it and ensured that the woman left”. When asked by professional arsehole Piers Morgan why they had ensured the ‘perpetrator’ left, they responded: “It wasn’t clear at the time precisely what had happened, & the 1st priority was to ensure everybody’s safety in the gallery… She ran out, rather than simply walking away. Beyond that, it’s not my place to comment”. That they simulatenously “ensured” the woman’s departure but were also unable to apprehend her because “she ran out”, and that they simultaneously were “aware of the incident starting to occur” but unsure about what happened is somewhat perplexing, and pretty much concludes the sum total of available information. Some people believe it, and some don’t. I don’t particularly care. What I do care about, however, is the spate of feminist think-pieces pretty much all saying it’s our duty to believe this guy.
One such article declares that this circus is “a test for feminism”. The logic appears to go something like this: if our first reaction was to question and disbelieve a female victim of rape, it would be heinous and anti-feminist. If we do this to a man claiming ‘rape’ by a woman, it is therefore just as bad, and lends credence to people who do it to women. The premise of this position is that a man penetrating a woman is a two-way street; the balance of power, on both an individual and societal level, is not such that women are disadvantaged, and so we can make the same assumptions of males and females in the case of rape. The implication is that men and women have equal access to the rules of the ‘consent game‘, and so we can make identical assumptions in both cases. The recent trend in treating men and women as equivalent sexual actors, and women as sexual aggressors, dovetails with liberal ‘equality’ politics and the erasure of sex differences between men and women. The fact is, however, that penetration is very much a one-way street, and the roles of penetrator and penetratee are profoundly different in terms of material power and impact. This difference underpins a feminist analysis of rape. It is how rape – aka penile penetration – is used by men to control the free movement and behaviour of women in every single society on earth. The converse scenario where women oppress men as a group with the act of “forced envelopment” has literally never happened, and it never could. Can we envisage a world where men are hasty to get home before dark, lest a woman force him to fuck her? Do we think a society has ever existed where men’s typical concern when left alone with a woman has ever been that he is vulnerable to being “enveloped” by her? If not, why not? Do we think a woman who has been raped while drunk by a drunk man technically “raped him too”? If not, why not? We lack explanatory answers to any of these questions if we genuinely entertain the position that ‘penetrator’ and ‘penetratee’ are equivalent. This sex-based power differential bleeds into all relations between the sexes, and it is the very foundation of women’s oppression. This is why, when the article asks “would we ask the same questions of a woman?” the answer is a very obvious “no”. Because women are not, in fact, the same as men. To pretend otherwise elides reality and functions to the detriment of women.
Another recent opinion piece claims that believing Shia LaBoeuf – and men who claim victimisation in general – is “a feminist imperative”. The logic goes that rape victims (usually women) are typically disbelieved, and men are told by patriarchal society that they can’t be weak. Therefore, as feminists who are opposed to both rape and gender roles, it’s our duty to believe Shia. It has surface appeal, but a little unpacking of this position exposes something of a non-sequitur. Gender roles are a mechanism by which patriarchy is upheld; victimhood is incompatible with masculinity, because masculinity is the dominant role in the oppression of women (which, as we’ve established, includes the role of rapist). It is for this reason that feminism is opposed to masculinity (and, for that matter, femininity). This is also the reason feminism opposes society’s indifference toward the widespread rape of women, and supports them. Nowhere in this analysis does it follow that a man claiming sexual victimisation by a woman should be believed by default, or that doing so is an act that challenges patriarchy. The fact that applying the “I Believe Her” rubric to men goes against a lot of obvious facts isn’t lost on proponents of this view. In each instance, believers are required to handwave away the fact that Shia LaBeouf was incredibly unlikely to be at a physical or power-related disadvantage; that the point of most of his ‘art’ is constructed vulnerability; that attention has been motivation enough for a litany of lies and plagiarism; that by all accounts his claim is “unusual to the point of anomaly”; and so on. The fact that male sexual victimisation at the hands of a woman (in this case and in general) is so unlikely is acknowledged by the astounding addendum that even if he’s probably lying, it is right and feminist to believe him anyway:
This small print attached to I Believe Him betrays that they probably don’t actually believe him, but for whatever reason think they should show him public support despite all their misgivings. This is in stark contrast to the principle of “I Believe Her”, which flows from an analysis of women’s oppression by men, the widespread prevalence of men raping women, and society’s treatment of women’s rape (as either false or inconsequential) in service of male power. We Believe Her because – get this! – we do actually believe her. We believe her because of the evidence, not in spite of it. ‘I Believe Him Even Though It’s Pretty Damn Unlikely’ is not a logical or feminist application of this concept.
Note here that I haven’t advocated treating men who claim victimisation by women in any particular way – believe him or don’t, I don’t care. I am contesting the idea that we’re under some obligation as feminists to believe such men. “Rape” is the name given to a specific tool of oppression men use against women, and using it to imply a female perpetrator elides this feminist analysis entirely. Perhaps our duty as feminists is to point out that, if Shia LaBeouf was assaulted by a woman, it wasn’t rape. Perhaps our duty as feminists is to raise concern about the dishevelled woman who fled the room. But I’ll be damned if my duty as a feminist is to believe a man.