“Do you think it is okay to stroke women’s faces when they are asleep?” For most of us, probably not a very difficult question to answer, but for Alex Salmond on BBC radio 4’s Today programme, apparently the question was not so straightforward. In an interview with Mishal Husain on 1st April, Salmond refused to say that, as Husain put it, “I have reflected on those things (the things that you admitted to), and I realise they were wrong and I wouldn’t do them again”. Instead, Salmond seemed to simply demand we all move on, without really engaging with the charges brought against him or the behaviour to which he admitted in the trial, including “sleepy cuddles” and the aforementioned face stroking. While Alex Salmond is not really a figure I consider worthy of philosophical reflection, his response to accusations of sexual assault is.
In the interview, Husain literally gave him the words to say he regretted what he’d done, but all Salmond, could (repeatedly) say was “what I said and what I reflected on, the most significant thing is the verdict of the jury [sic]”. And indeed, Salmond was cleared of nine counts of sexual assault, two of indecent assault, and one count of attempted rape, which was found “not proven”. However, his QC did still describe him as a “sex pest” and “an objectionable bully”, The Times reported – and by “reported” I mean “published a video of the QC literally saying that”. My issue here is not with Salmond’s particular response or whether or not he acted inappropriately, although I did find his engagement with Husain’s line of questioning rather hard to stomach alongside my morning porridge. Rather, what I want to consider is the more general idea that we, as a society, need to – and are in a position to – “move on” from the issues of sexual assault and rape.
We might be tempted to say that if a matter’s been settled in court, then it’s truly settled. Indeed, everyone knows juries always get it right. Like the jury who convicted the footballer Ched “Convicted Rapist” Evans of rape. And then at a subsequent trial somehow found him not guilty. We’re also four and a half years out from the explosion of #MeToo on social media. We all know about sexual assault now and how common it is, and all those “bad men” that did it and how they ruined it for everyone else. You can’t do anything these days, you can’t stroke a woman’s face while she’s sleeping. You can’t even be a nice guy and offer to take a drunk woman home, and then take her back to yours and try and have sex with her, in case she’s actually just faking it to entrap you. Or at least that’s what audiences discovered this spring in the Oscar nominated rape revenge dark comedy Promising Young Woman.
Like Salmond’s response to Husain, Adrian Horton’s review of Promising Young Woman in The Guardian also had a flavour of the “change the record” about it. Horton’s article, headlined “How Promising Young Woman shows the Limits of #MeToo Revenge”, suggested that the film felt like “a very recent relic of the early, heady days of public #MeToo rage … watching it in late 2020 felt unsettling, like a song just out of tune”. In his view, the film
“boils an archetypical assault story into its starkest shades – vigilante and bad, unchanged people, a woman whose trauma subsumes her personhood. Where is the insight in that exposure? What’s left when the rage boils off?”
But who’s to say the rage has boiled off? Horton extolls us to move on, he wants to “understand the next chapter, to believe in healing, or change, or potential, or complication, or moving forward, which could also be the sweetest revenge.” To which I say: get f*cked. To demand “the next chapter”, when this one is not yet over, smacks of David Cameron telling Yvette Cooper to “calm down, dear”. Horton seems bored of the rage response to sexual assault. But this misses the point. It is not a leftover anger from 2017, but a new refreshed anger that nothing has really changed.
The point of Promising Young Woman that Horton seems to have spectacularly missed, is that we can’t move on. To “move on” from a moment in which structural change was demanded and yet none was brought about is to live in denial of the reality of the situation – to try and paper-over the cracks and pretend everything is ok, and that the problems have been solved, when of course, they haven’t. And the film makes this point very well. We see the lead character, Cassie, attempt to “move on”, but the structural failures of the system – the police who *spoiler alert* are too willing to believe she’s a damaged woman who might have taken her own life, when she disappears; her “nice guy boyfriend” who protects himself and his mates rather than show any remorse about witnessing a rape and failing to report it. A demand to “move on” when nothing has changed is precisely what this film is objecting to.
Yes, some of the film’s dialogue appears clunky, until you realise that lines like “you know they put themselves in danger, girls like that”, is actually what people say (this is almost a direct quote from my step-mother-in-law at a family BBQ (step-mother is crucial here, my mother in law is lovely)). The clunky dialogue is not just an instance of poor writing, rather it highlights the inadequacy of the public discourse around sexual assault and rape that still exists four and a half years after the “watershed” moment of #MeToo.
One might suggest that we need to get over our rage, not just to “move on”, but in order to have a “serious discussion” about sexual assault. In the history of Western philosophy, extreme emotions such as anger have traditionally been seen as “irrational urges” that need to be controlled by reason (see Plato’s Phaedrus for example).But what more rational response is there to a situation like that of systemic gendered violence than white hot rage? In her 1989 paper “Love and Knowledge: Emotion in Feminist Epistemology”, Alison Jaggar observes
“the usefulness and effectiveness of anger in achieving various social goods… For example, anger becomes feminist anger when it involves the perception that the persistent importuning endured by one woman is a single instance of a widespread pattern of sexual harassment.”
To demand that we move on from this anger is to potentially bar us from achieving these “various social goods”. So, for now, I’ll continue to spit out my porridge when I hear a famous MP refuse to apologise for his conduct, or see a male reviewer suggest that “moving forward may be the sweetest revenge”. The rage has not yet “boiled off” and it won’t until serious structural change has been achieved.