Friday, August 29, 2008

Sex, Lies, and Digital Images: The Politics of Kyle Payne's Sexuality

A white feminist blogger suggested another question for me to ask Kyle:
Essential Estrogen said...
One more question for your list: Why did he video himself in public buildings? And, yeah, he did.

This is news to me. Thank you, E.E., for the link, the commentary, and your thorough coverage of this story over the months. I don't think you have anything to explain to others about why you have focused in on this case. It warrants at least as much attention as any other sexual assault case.

I hope Kyle's victim and her family find justice, somehow. Peace follows justice; if it doesn't, we aren't doing enough to change what needs to be radically transformed.

This newest revelation about Kyle doesn't upset me because he has been masturbating. It is of concern because the acts are done publicly. This doesn't mean that men's private sexual behavior is less troublesome. In contemporary Western society, a man videotaping himself being sexual, even in the privacy of his own home, can be and frequently is an act of bolstering the man's sexual self-importance--the sense that he's more of "a man" (in the patriarchal sense). In this society, males learn that an erection becomes functional only when someone else is being objectified or violated, in fantasy or reality. In Kyle's case, videotaping himself was not enough. He had to physically and photographically violate another human being; one who was as vulnerable as an adult human being can get.

This newer information, about his public acts, is also a profeminist issue. Men engaging in behavior that aggrandizes ourselves, makes our dicks into objects of patriarchal prominence, equates being stiff with being powerful, especially when it involves sexual behavior with others, is one significant element in making oneself into a gender-privileged person with a propensity to be sexually selfish and callous to the humanity of other people. This selfishness might take the form of a man only caring about the level of his own pleasure, or only wanting to engage another person in an activity in which his dick is the center of attention. There are men who insist that the other person with him must kneel down before it, such as by insisting on getting a blow-job while he is in a standing position. It's not "natural arousal" the man is interested in here. It's the act of degrading or denying another person their humanity. It may also be expressed through acts repeatedly performed in order to be a predatory exhibitionist. Kyle has demonstrated that he is both a predator and an exhibitionist, which makes his entire social universe dangerous to others.

We don't get to know precisely why Kyle wanted to engage in that behavior and later see himself do it, or make it available for others to see, "by accident" or not. But him doing this in places where others could be disturbed or violated by him has to be considered creepy at least, and a way to alarm women and undermine their sense of safety and well-being. I don't know many people who would be unaffected should they witness either the solo activity, or the videotaped version of the activity, especially if it is not wished for or welcomed by the viewer in the first place. Children and women are frequently traumatized by suddenly finding a man alone, jerking off. I have known several women who were terrorized precisely in this way.

Were these places children could wander? Were they places women would likely access? If he did it only in what are predominantly all male spaces, such as in many CEO boardrooms, in a men's locker room, or beside a basketball court, for example, I'd be little bit less concerned. Call that a bias. But in my experience, men, who are disproportionately not sexual trauma survivors, seeing men jerking off is quite a different experience than children or women seeing it happen in public. Some men I know wouldn't be troubled by it in the least. Some would be annoyed. Some would find it seriously alarming. But the range of the impact on boys, girls, and women exceeds those responses. I'm not saying what women would feel, or that all women would have the same response or reaction. (That would depend on the individual woman, her history, etc. There might be women who would laugh, others who would scream.) I'm saying that his behavior exists as one piece of a whole cultural-political puzzle, in which women, girls, and boys, are inundated with images pro-male supremacy folks (of whatever gender) produce. The dominant capitalist culture of the US is one where dehumanizing sexual images abound where women of all colors, men of color, and all children are degraded and debased, for profit. And in this society "dehumanized" is disturbingly synonymous with "sexual."

In the so-called private and public spheres, men's real time non-cyber spaced activities are unrelentingly assaulting, at least to people's psyches and often to their bodies and spirits. What Kyle has been doing, in these public acts, is reinforcing and perpetuating key elements of a rapist culture.

And him privately sexually violating a woman in various ways is especially rapist behavior, fortunately criminal, unfortunately not a felony.

Men in male supremacist cultures are renowned for creating environments that are scary, disturbing, or traumatic for women. Usually those spaces are where women grow up, where women currently live, where women work when they work out of the house, and where women pass through social space, getting from point A to point B.

I have been in conversation with women using cell phones in public spaces, while I am not in those locations. An astounding number of times, through the phone, I hear men call out to them, to "compliment" them, to harass them, or to try and rent them for sex. Virtually every woman I know who is not very elderly, who lives in an urban environment, and appears to be "a woman" to men, is harassed or otherwise intruded upon by unrequested daily male attention and commentary, often overtly misogynistic in content, intent, and effect. And it's not just construction workers who do the harassing. It's men in suits, men in cars en route to god knows where, men who get out of their cars and follow the women to get their attention and phone number, men who will not leave women alone after the women make it clear that they do not wish to be approached by strange men. Women I know are generally polite about disengaging with these arrogant or oblivious pricks. But the harassers and intruders are not only in the public realm. Inside the home, older brothers, fathers, step-dads, uncles, and grandpas are sexually predatory. As are male doctors, dentists, clergy, bosses, co-workers... the list is long. Many women I know grew up with men who, if they did not incest them overtly, did show them "special attention" when they reached puberty, commenting on their changing bodies in ways that made those (then) girls uncomfortable to say the least.

Frankly, I don't give a damn about people masturbating in places where they cannot be heard or seen, and where the knowledge or evidence of them masturbating there doesn't create feelings of unease, unsafety, or disturbance in other people. One more time with feeling: it's not the masturbation itself that is problematic; it's the social-political context in which it is happening and its impact on others. In this case we are talking about someone who has repeatedly gone out of his way to make himself intrusively sexual, for other people to find him. Kyle carrying around a video camera 24/7 is beginning to be plausible, and additionally disturbing.

Kyle the white profeminist, has, apparently, been engaging in overt sexual behavior in public and in private, and has been recording and saving it, for a reason. And those who live anywhere near him ought to know the extent to which he did this. If he were sexually abused as a child, this information might lead me to conclude that, in part, this is "acting out" behavior; that he was being foolishly risky in order to get caught and feel bad. But because he's twenty-two, not six, or even eleven, his past stops being an excuse or an explanation. Individualistic psychological explanations ought not be applied to overly political actions that have a structural and systemic root.

This new information adds something to the "Kyle Payne is a hypocritical sexual violator of women" story. This blog entry is related to and flows from the observations Essential Estrogen brings to the discussion. Kyle's sexual practices, the one he makes sure people can and will know about, not only demonstrate a propensity to engage in overtly sexual criminal behavior. Sheila Jeffries wrote a substantive analysis of gay men's sexual behavior and its negative impact on lesbians and other women in a book I recommend queer communities read and discuss; the book is titled Unpacking Queer Politics. I especially recommend it to white queer people, as that is who she is discussing primarily. In one section of that book, she analyzes how men engaging in public sex impacts women's lives.

Women have so few places, public or private, where they are not being confronting with something traumatic or triggering that men are doing around them or to them; this includes a female-only households where the grim details of another rape is reported on the evening news. My hope, as a profeminist man, is that we men will be honest about our struggles before we are caught; that we make public what we do but not in ways that are in and of themselves irresponsible and insensitive to an audience that includes survivors of sexual abuse and other white male supremacist oppression.

It is likely Kyle is without his camera, or soon will be. Any masturbating he does in the future will, let's hope, not be recorded for anyone other than his courtroom prosecutors to see. With Kyle put away, for six months, the public places he committed these acts might now be less predatory places for people to be in. Using social calculus for measuring creepiness, women may be a tiny bit safer because one more abuser of women has currently been removed from a mixed gendered environment, for six months. Six months isn't a very long time.

Am I implying that I think Kyle Payne, please forgive the pun, is getting off easy?

What I actually believe about his sentencing is this: his victim should have determined the amount of time he spends behind bars, not US laws that do little to nothing to challenge white male supremacy as such, and rapist culture specifically.

Kyle Payne has been sentenced to six months in jail, not prison

Here is the story from the Iowa newspaper that has been closely following this case.