It’s been a busy few weeks – months, really – and there’s a gazillion things I haven’t updated, we’re releasing the pod version of our Christmas show early and I have a new book out next week – I’ll throw in some links when I get the chance. All of that’s just work though, and right now it’s just not important.
What is important is the overwhelmingly courageous, exhilarating and saddening response to a small idea I had on Tuesday night, zonked out on my sofa watching Friday Night Lights for work and talking to people on twitter about how difficult it is to even think about the Assange case in a rational manner. Even if we’re able to unthink the troubling consequences for Wikileaks if the allegations turn out to be true, and even if we’d by magical means find out the facts about what really happened in the contested situations, we probably still wouldn’t agree on how the facts should be interpreted.
It struck me that most of us just don’t have the language or the conceptual apparatus for completely honest sexual negotiations. The cultural ideas around acceptable sexual expression weigh too heavy upon us. We’re horny and sometimes drunk, we’re embarrassed, impressed, afraid, grateful, ashamed, in love… We don’t speak our minds, even to the people we love the most, and certainly very rarely to people we’d like to impress. And this is just us, just people, trying to love and get laid. Then there are the predators, and the people blinded by their power, and the people who are so needy or hurting that they don’t even notice that what they take for their comfort was not willingly offered.
It is often very clear what a rape is and what has happened, but even then we know it’s difficult for the parties to get a fair hearing in court. Then there are the situations in which acts have been performed which may or may not be illegal, depending on the parties’ negotiation of consent. This principle makes legal situations complicated, but it is of vital importance: we should not and cannot legislate acceptable sexual practice. But given how difficult it is sometimes to draw a line even in the best circumstances, given that we lack a language and fora to talk about these things, how can we be expected to have the strength to say “no” and “yes” and mean it when it really matters? How can judges and juries and the media be expected to speak honestly and think coolly about things we can’t even say to ourselves without shame?
I remembered, just then, that I’d been in a situation once that had made me unconfortable and disappointed, but that I had never thought about in terms of rape: I woke up in a sexual situation with a partner with whom I has just a few hours earlier had consensual sex on the condition that we use a condom. This, during the night, he had conveniently forgotten – or just selfishly ignored. I was embarrassed to speak out and didn’t draw a line, even if I probably could have: I had no reason to be afraid of this person who, all in all, was a pretty decent guy.
Under Swedish law, initiating sex with someone who isn’t in a position to express consent is illegal.*** It feels weird to call this a rape but I guess it technically was. What made me feel violated though was something else – that the penetration had happened without a condom. I don’t even know whether consent can be defined conditionally under Swedish law. I suspect it hasn’t been tried. But I could have just said something just then, I could have withdrawn consent at any moment. I didn’t, for all kinds of cultural and psychological reasons.
I’m not trying to diminish the importance of the situation. The dude was a being douche, obviously, and he broke the law. But I also betrayed myself, and to me that’s a bigger deal.
I talked about this on twitter for a few hours on Tuesday night, very casually, and it seems like mostly everyone who was reading me just then (a few hundred out of maybe a thousand followers) retweeted me or responded or sent me an email thanking me for talking. I was surprised, but fascinated that I wasn’t alone in finding it very difficult to even think about right and wrong in situations like these.
I suggested that I might write my story up in a newspaper: people said that I should, embarrassment be damned. I considered that embarrassment for about ten seconds, and came up with an easy fix. I will write, I suggested, if I’m not the only one. If twelve people write their personal stories in twelve different papers on the same day, then it won’t be embarrassing, and it can be nuanced, and it might open a little space for a few days where people in the blogosphere might feel safe to share their stories, and that might actually be the beginning of a real conversation.
I didn’t make any calls, I didn’t write any emails. I tweeted that, and writers and editors messaged me back. By next morning all who had responded (most of them normally competitors in one way or the other) were on a mailing list and sorting out in a very self-organised manner who should write what and where. This was Wednesday and we realized that it wouldn’t be practically possible to get everyone to publish on the same day. I tweeted, again very casually, that this thing in the papers was happening, and mentioned that obviously anyone who wanted to start on twitter was welcome to #talkaboutit – #prataomdet. I remember thinking that we would need a hash tag for the links to the articles. I remember thinking that maybe a few people will start sharing in the next few days. It might create a little buzz for the stories in the newspapers.
One of the writers in the #prataomdet movement, Mymlan (Sofia Mirjamsdotter), a very influential blogger, picked up the tag and started tweeting her experiences. Others tentatively started doing the same. Wow, I thought. And also: this is sad and terrifying (because a lot of the stories were). And then: this is exhilarating (because just reading about it felt liberating). Did I post something about this on Facebook? I don’t remember. I went into the studio and spent a few hours making radio, and when I emerged, a friend asked me, “are you reading #prataomdet? It’s been about a tweet a second all afternoon”.
I don’t have any metaphors for what happened that aren’t dead or trite. Imagine your own floodgates! Apparently, what we had needed to be able to speak was for someone, anyone, to said that we’re allowed. That night the #prataomdet movement put up a web page to link to blog posts where people #talkaboutit, to publish texts by people who don’t have their own blogs or prefer to write anonymously, and of course to link to the articles we are now publishing in conventional media.
Yesterday, I wrote in Dagens Nyheter. Today, Sonja Schwartzenberger writes in Svenska Dagbladet. The tabloids are publishing pieces (although, predictably, at least one couldn’t quite restrain itself from also running a counterproductive “celebrities share sex crime stories” article). The list of participating media keeps growing, but last I checked it covered most newspapers in Sweden, large and small, as well as cultural and political magazines and a great number of professional and semi-professional blogs. And that is important. But not as important, not by far, as the hundreds or thousands of people who share their stories on twitter and in the blogosphere right now. As I’m writing this, it’s trickling out, into Norway and Denmark, onto the English-speaking internet. I spotted a tweet in Hungarian in the #prataomdet feed last night.
Predictably, the trolls are out too. But not to the extent one would have expected. I don’t think I’ve ever followed an online conversation about an issue this difficult which was more loving or more respectful. Men write, women write. Victims of brutal rapes write and people who are embarrassed because they can’t sexually satisfy their spouses write. A word I hadn’t heard before this week – “tjatsex” (nagging sex = sex that you talked someone into having even when they didn’t feel like it) – is entering the mainstream. I’ve read descriptions here about feelings and situations I have never encountered in literature or the media before, yet recognize absolutely. Many of the stories make me cry, but I feel oddly elated. I’ve come to think the most powerful sentence in any language is “I have never told anyone about this before”.
I didn’t make this happen. Neither did the movement of writers, editors and other volunters who are putting in the hours running the web site, writing and getting competing media houses to run intimate stories on uncomfortable topics at the same time. The internet made this, because #talkaboutit was enabled by its two most fundamental principles: That people want to be connected, and information wants to be free.
Teresa Axner lucidly explains what #talkaboutit is all about. The official website increasingly has content in English, but since we’re not an organisation in any formal sense and we all have day jobs we’re spread a bit thin on stuff like translation resources.
***EDIT: I got a really good comment below which unfortunately I coudn’t publish for linking reasons, which stated that having sex with someone who is sleeping isn’t automatically illegal in Sweden if consent is already established. This seems to be correct! However, in opposition to what I have earlier believed, use of a condom seems to be a valid condition of consent, which could mean that consent is automatically withdrawn if the agreement is ignored by one of the parties. (I’d still be curious to know whether this has been tried in court).