Victoria Coren, Roman Polanski and Being one of “those feminists” [content note for rape]

I’ve been mostly too cross to respond to Victoria Coren’s rape apologism in the Observer today. Or, more accurately, I’m too cross to respond to Coren’s response to being challenged on her article in the Observer today. As one of those who was clearly too dim to “understand” what Coren was saying , I’ve  decided to go through line by line to work out what it is that those of us who don’t understand, “don’t understand”. I’m fairly sure I’m “one of those feminists” Coren is complaining about on twitter. Of course, I’m not entirely certain Coren understands what “those feminists” are criticising which goes a long way to explain what’s wrong with Coren’s piece in the first place.

So, this is me, being too dim to understand what Coren meant when she wrote the following:

Roman Polanski and the sin of simplification:

Let’s be totally honest here, anyone who uses the term “sin of simplification” when discussing a case of child rape probably isn’t starting from a child-centric position. Roman Polanski groomed Samantha Geimer. He took topless photos of her. Several weeks later, Polanski took Geimer to Jack Nicholson’s house, fed her a quaalude and champagne and anally raped her. While she was saying no and crying to go home.

A adult man groomed and raped a child. I’m not sure how accurately describing an event counts as “simplifying” but, hey, I’m one of “those” feminists.

The Samantha Geimer/Roman Polanski case demonstrates our terrible dread of nuance

Technically, this is the stand-first so it’s unlikely that Coren wrote it. Whoever did was clearly confused about the topic of the article. I’m fairly sure there are no “nuances” to child rape but I’m basing this on research by Rape Crisis and a number of other women’s organisations who I’m sure Coren would class as “those feminists”.

Samantha Geimer, the girl in the Roman Polanski rape case, has published what might be the most important and valuable book of the century so far.

Hyperbole is perhaps not the best way to start a serious article on a woman writing her story of sexual violence. Geimer’s book is very important, not least because of the sheer number of people who think Polanski’s art should be reason enough to forgive him for raping a child. Geimer has consistently been written out of her own life by journalists and celebrities obsessed with Polanski and his privileges of fame.

It may prove to be one of those books that a lot of people talk about without actually reading, like A Brief History of Time, or The Tipping Point, or most of the school syllabus.But that’s OK.

The value of Geimer’s book, The Girl, lies in the debate it stirs up; this is already happening through serialisation and widespread, articulate interviews with the author. If that triggers a bigger discussion among non-readers, then she has still done something useful and important.

This is the start of the “missing the point completely” bit. The problem with the “debate” about Polanski is that far too many people have an opinion on a topic they don’t actually have any knowledge of.  A brief survey of the comments published under any media piece, blog and arguments on Facebook demonstrates just how many people don’t know about the grooming or the drugging of Geimer and just how many people think that Polanski only “fondled” Geimer. Much of the public “debate” involves people who genuinely don’t know that Polanski put his penis in Geimer’s mouth and anus without consent. They don’t know that Geimer said no repeatedly and was crying to go home.

Suggesting that it’s okay that they don’t read the book whilst participating in a debate about the rape of a child is ridiculous.

And, honestly, this bit: “then she has still done something useful and important.” Really? Did Coren really mean to include a statement that implies that Geimer’s only done one useful thing in her life: start a debate about being raped as a child? Because I keep rereading that paragraph and twitching.

And, really, what “debate” are we supposed to be having? The one where everyone excuses Polanski because he’s an “artiste” because I am genuinely beyond sick of that “debate”. It’s simply rape apologism.

How much do you know about the story? I knew a bit, but still experienced what hurried book reviewers call “an emotional rollercoaster” while reading one of her interviews.

Actually, I know quite a bit. In fact, I know more than I think is appropriate about the rape of a child. I know because I got angry reading article after article written by a journalist squealing about how amazing Polanski’s films are. These articles almost inevitably list Polanski’s rape of a child as something bad which happened to Polanski. And, something that Polanski was almost justified in doing after his wife Sharon Tate was brutally murdered. References to Polanski’s status as a Holocaust survivor are frequently mentioned as a mitigating factor.

If we lived in a culture where the bodies of women and children were not tortured and raped on a daily basis, we would not need to know more than the fact that Roman Polanski raped a child. He would be in prison and Samantha Geimer would never have been placed in a position where she was forced to go public with her experiences.

And, frankly, any journalist or reviewer who used the words “emotional rollercoaster” about the autobiography of a child victim of rape would not have their review published.

When Samantha Geimer was 13, the famous 43-year-old film director Roman Polanski said that he was photographing young American girls for a feature in French Vogue. With forgivable naivety, Geimer’s mother allowed him to take her out alone. He photographed her topless, which she did not tell her mother.

This is quite clearly evidence that Polanksi groomed Geimer.  We need journalists start using the correct terms when writing about male violence against women. Terminology matters. The AVA project has guidelines which are easily accessible via google.

Suggesting that Geimer’s mother showed “forgivable naivety” is a back-handed way of blaming Geimer’s mother for the rape perpetrated by Polanski. It was not “naivety”. Most people believe that no one would ever contemplate raping a child. People hand over their children to priests, scout leaders, piano teachers, and relatives without  ever contemplating whether or not that adult will rape the child. We assume the best of men despite a large amount of evidence to the contrary.

The only person responsible for the rape of Samantha Geimer was Roman Polanski. And only Roman Polanski.

A few weeks later, Polanski took Samantha to Jack Nicholson’s house, gave her several glasses of champagne and part of a sleeping pill, then had sex with her. It was statutory rape. Geimer says: “It was rape in every sense of the word. I said no.”

Roman Polanski “did not have sex with her”. Roman Polanski orally and anally raped a 13 year old girl.

The moment we start using phrases like “had sex with her”, we are obfuscating what is a very clear case of rape. Secondly, there is a strange disjoint in this paragraph: Comer goes from “had sex” to statutory rape to rape. Now, technically this was a case of statutory rape since Geimer was only 13 and too young to consent. Children can not consent, however, had Geimer been 18 the case still would have been rape because she did not consent. The use of “statutory rape” within the context of this paragraph reads as a minimisation, like Whoopi Godlberg’s infamous “rape-rape” comment.

Roman Polanski groomed and orally and anally raped a child.

The way in which he had sex with her is indelicate to include, but important. Geimer’s book expresses it with literate sarcasm: referring to a sympathetic psychological report after Polanski’s arrest, which cited his “solicitude concerning pregnancy” as a mitigating factor, Geimer says this was “an interesting new euphemism for sodomy”.

Polanski did not “have sex with her”. Yes, I’m repeating myself but, honestly, it’s not actually that difficult to note the difference between rape and sex: one is a crime. The other is not.

I don’t know how this makes you feel. It fills me with thoughts of violence. I imagine being alone with Polanski, kicking and punching him. The anger I feel, at the thought of this being done to a drugged child, seems to be an instinctively brutal one.

Then you read about the life of Roman Polanski. How shameful and how pointless to punish him with violence, even in the imagination.

I honestly don’t know how to respond to this with anything other than despair. I feel a tremendous amount of anger about what Polanski did. I want him to held responsible by the criminal justice system in the state of California. I am furious that he has managed to evade justice for all these years.

I also know his personal history and nothing in it makes me think that holding him accountable would be shameful or pointless. Punching him in the face does nothing. Holding him criminally responsible for his crimes does change things: it sends a clear message that we do believe, as a society, that there is no excuse for child rape.

Aged six, he saw his father taken to a concentration camp. His mother died at Auschwitz when she was four months pregnant. At 35, with God knows what ineradicable scars, Polanski married Sharon Tate and they started a family immediately. Tate was eight months pregnant when a gang broke into their home, stabbed her to death and smeared “pig” on the front door in her blood.

Polanski is a Holocaust survivor. His first wife Sharon Tate was brutally murdered whilst 8 months pregnant. These are both horrific and traumatising events. But, so is being orally and anally raped. It is not shameful or pointless to imagine punishing Polanski with violence. He has been both the victim of crime and perpetrated a crime. One does not negate the other. Yes, Coren’s next paragraph starts with “this is not an excuse” but stating that after having listed excuses for the rape is problematic. Their is a disjuncture between Coren’s intention and what is understood by the reader.

This is not an excuse; other survivors have not become rapists. But it silences my violent instinct immediately and creates a sharp and terrible sympathy in parallel with the anger. A second complicating factor is that Polanski’s work is filled with beauty and humanity.

Ah, the old “Polanski is an artiste” defence. I honestly cannot count the number of times I’ve read this exact same defence in the Guardian, never mind the rest of the media. There is absolutely no correlation between Polanski’s “work” and the brutal rape he committed.

The idea that Polanski’s work is a “mitigating factor” is rape apologism. It doesn’t matter how much “beauty and humanity” are in Polanski’s films: he raped a child.

Polanski groomed and drugged a child. Then he orally and anally raped her. His career is irrelevant to this. After all, a plumber convicted of a similar crime wouldn’t be excused because of their job. Artists must be held to the same standard as anyone else, which, frankly, in our culture isn’t that  high to begin with.

These are unfamiliar feelings; our modern world does not invite us to treat anybody as nuanced. People are heroes or villains, victims or victimisers; sometimes neither, but never both.

People are nuanced. Child rape it is not nuanced. It is a crime, regardless of who perpetrates it.

And, yes, our modern culture does create a dichotomy of heroes or villains and victims or victimisers. But, articles like this do nothing to challenge that dichotomy. It is very clearly arguing that Polanski is a hero because of his “art”. He is a hero because he is a victim. Our celebrity culture with its obsession with “important men” doing “important art” is something we need to destroy. But, let’s do this without giving excuses for child rapists.

When Roman Polanski, who has lived in exile from America and its justice system for decades, was nominated for an Oscar for directing The Pianist, Samantha Geimer called on the Academy to “judge the movie, not the man”.

She has been exchanging emails with Polanski for several years.

I’m not quite sure what Coren is trying to say here. It reads as though Coren is suggesting that we all stop being mean to Roman Polanski because The Piano was a good film and Geimer emails him. I’m sure this not quite what Coren intended to say but, as with the rest of the piece, Coren seems to be arguing the exact opposite of what she meant to say.

She says that the police investigation, hospital exams and reporting of the case were more traumatic than the attack itself. She says: “I did something wrong, I was stupid… To pose topless, and to drink and to take the [sleeping] pill.”

Many rape victims feel that the police investigation, hospital exams and reporting of the case are more traumatic than the rape itself. This is not news. This is the result of of a woman-hating culture where women are held responsible for being victims of rape. Our first instinct is to believe women are lying. It is to make excuses for their rapists. The treatment Geimer has received for the past 30 years by the media, by Hollywood and by the justice system is a disgrace to humanity. Her voice has been silenced. Repeatedly.

Coren hasn’t done much to ensure that Geimer’s voice heard here.

It is so easy and tempting to knock this into a pigeonhole: the misguided self-blame and denial of the victim. But this woman is too smart and articulate for us comfortably to assume we know better. She puts these complicated thoughts out there, alongside her anger, not because she’s too damaged to think clearly but because she can’t bear the world’s oversimplification.

Does this mean that women who aren’t “smart or articulate” aren’t allowed to define their own experience? Can we “comfortably assume we know better” than other victims for sexual violence? I am also very uncomfortable with the idea of victims being “too damaged to think clearly”. That’s precisely the excuse given by rapists, the police and the criminal justice system to prevent rapists from being held accountable for rape.

We know that Roman Polanski orally and anally raped Samantha Geimer when she was just 13 years old. No one who has experienced sexual violence or has actually listened to victims of sexual violence would ever assume there was a “pigeonhole” for victim’s experiences to be slotted into. That “oversimplification” is rape culture. Suggesting that there are victims of sexual violence who are “too damaged to think clearly” fits into that discourse and not in a helpful way.

When a therapist on the Oprah Winfrey show explained that Geimer was suffering from “victim’s guilt”, she said this was “patronising”; who would dare patronise her further by saying that it wasn’t?

In The Pianist, Polanski transformed his ghastly knowledge of the camps into an act of artistic self-expression. In The Girl, Geimer does the same with her rape. That is a powerful response, from both of them. But what an incredibly complicated common bond.

I honestly just want to put my head on my desk and cry at this statement. The arrogance of Coren in writing this is just breathtaking.

Polanski raped Geimer. They do not have “an incredibly complicated common bond” through art. Polanski is a rapist. Geimer was raped.

It is the complication that we need. People have become desperate to reduce everything, including each other, to mindless categories of good and bad, as if the world can be divided into Facebook likes and dislikes.

And, it most certainly is not a “complication” that we need. And, frankly, if anyone is guilty of the sin over-simplification, it’s the mainstream media who reduce everything to soundbites with little analysis.

When I wrote about the Muslim women in Birmingham who were protesting against a ban on the niqab, and the argument that they are so deeply in the patriarchal grip that they cannot choose as freely as they think, I pointed out that people have said the same to me about taking my husband’s name. Many readers asked why I was defending the veil. Others pointed out the differences between veiling your face and changing your name. It was as though there is no room for analogy unless it’s a direct comparison and no room for words on the niqab other than “Hurray for it” or “Ban it”.

My first thought when I got to this paragraphy was that Coren only wrote about Geimer and Polanski because she was still having a tantrum about being questioned over the piece on Muslim women in Birmingham. Having read this paragraph, the rest of the piece seems to be nothing more than an adult whining about being “misunderstood” and demanding people apologise for deliberately “misunderstanding” here.

Here’s a hint: if a large number of people don’t understand your point, it’s possible you didn’t do a very good job of conveying your point. This is a time for a little bit of self-reflection and not writing articles about the “sin of simplification” in cases of child rape.

Similarly, we yearn to know if we should be cheering or booing at Operation Yewtree, political leaders or the idea of bombing Syria.

So what is to be done with Samantha Geimer’s story? She does not condemn Polanski nor exonerate him. She does not blame herself nor refuse to examine herself. Her voice is strong and complicated. You cannot simplify her, or him.

Her current battle is not with her original oppressor but the reporters of then and now, the lawyers, the psychologists of reality TV and everyone watching – all of whom objectified her further. She is fighting against reductive simplicity. She forces us to think hard, to use muscles that must not go slack.

There’s an irony in this last paragraph in relation to Coren’s response to the criticism of this piece on twitter. Her immediate dismissal of any response which she does not approve doesn’t make me believe Coren is actually arguing against over-simplification within the media.

Mostly, it sounds like a woman cross at not being lauded for another article and using the rape of a 13 year old girl to get in some snide digs at those who disagreed with her last week.

I’m not overly upset at being dismissed as one of “those feminists”. It’s always code for that group of weirdos who think women are human too. And, I’m okay with being too dim to understand what Coren thought she was saying since the problems within Coren’s piece reflect pretty much everything which is wrong with rape culture.

2 thoughts on “Victoria Coren, Roman Polanski and Being one of “those feminists” [content note for rape]”

  1. Perhaps if you think of me as a sexually active teenager, which is what I was, it might help you break out of the need to put your own feelings and emotions into what happened to me. I have spent my life being told my many that it was worse than it was. That I am more damaged then I know. That others understand my experience while I do not. A feminist should not judge other women for not being what they expect them to be. You should also consider the additional damage done to women by those who insist that they feel the pain and damage others believe they should. We are all free to survive and to overcome, victims of sexual assault each have their own experiences and reactions. To take even that away from them and replace it with your own judgment is a very unkind thing to do. We should be allowed to feel okay, to tell the truth and not be forced into boxes by others opinions of things they did not experience.

    1. Thank you for taking the time to comment, I appreciate hearing your words about your circumstances and your criticisms of my article.

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