The rape trial of a large portion of the adult male population of the Pitcairn Islands has finished with guilty verdicts against 6 of 7 defendants on some charges.
There were serious legal issues in the case, which have attracted learned commentary in the inaugural issue of the New Zealand Journal of Public and International Law (2003)1 NZJPIL 229 (this links to PDF version of the article) and general media commentary. One of the issues was whether British laws of statutory rape (sex with a girl under a certain age is automaticly rape because the girl is deemed to be unable to make a valid decision to have consensual sex) applied and were known to be in force. As the trials progressed and as the case was reported in the media, the issue in the cases seemed to be more basic – did these men coerce young girls, did the girls report it, and why nobody else in the community seemed to care what was going on. There is also a lingering question of whether the cascade of allegations was simply uncovered by the investigation, or whether some allegations were collusive, imitative or vindictive. The sensational allegations made in some child sex abuse cases in Canada have turned out to have been largely the product of imaginative kids and zealous investigators. The Courts will continue to sort that out.
Dea Birkett made some points in an op-ed piece (this link leads to a registration site) in the NY Times (the column was reprinted in the Winnipeg Free Press on November 1, 2004 and has been reproduced online at a feminist pro-Choice abortion site). She is a freelance writer, with an interest in travel writing and feminist issues who visited Pitcairn for a few months in 1991. She wrote a book “Serpent in Paradise” about her sojourn which was published in 1997. She did not see or hear anything about the offences during her stay, and does not mention them in her book. She was generally not impressed with the culture of Pitcairn island.
Birkett says that small close knit communities put the survival of the community ahead of the welfare of women and children. The communities depend on the work of certain men and will give them great privileges, even tolerating and covering up sexual abuse, for the well-being of the community. She says women and children, or human beings generally, are better off in cities with independent law enforcement systems. She speaks in favour of the benefits of a modern, urban, liberal, democratic state and challenges the idea of the superiority of primitive cultures. I would agree with her on those points.
At the same time I think her analysis of the Pitcairn story is superficial. She stimatized all men in small or remote communities as potential rapists, and she overestimated the deterrent effect of law enforcement officers and systems. She did not address restorative justice and role of Britain, New Zealand and the outside world in supporting law and order, rehabilitation and community development.
The fact is that most men don’t rape, but some men do, with limited thought to the consequences. Small groups of men can develop a sick culture. It isn’t limited to small isolated communities. It can be any kind of connected group in a large city too. I can think of the stories of fraternity hazing or gang rapes by the men on a sports team.
She made a valid point about some of our cultural assumptions about primitive paradises. Much of the media’s fascination with the case comes through a general pop culture fascination with Tahiti and the South Pacific. Gauguin and generations of Frenchmen left France for a life of sexual licence with liberated – or libertine – native women. The sexual lures of Tahitian women led Fletcher Christian and his men to mutiny and to burn the Bounty, according to the Marlon Brando movie version of the story. Margaret Mead taught generations of Americans that there were happy sexually liberated societies in the South Pacific (“Coming of Age in Samoa”). We have learned through Derek Freeman, whose research is now generally accepted, that Mead was duped by her sources or lied to make her point and her reputation.
According to one stream of thought within the conventional wisdom, the descendents of the Mutineers of the Bounty could have created a sexually liberated paradise. For the last few generations, liberal thinkers influenced by Freud felt that sexual repression caused social problems. The implication was that if all human beings could be more like Samoans, Tahitians or bonobos (the horny and promiscuous species once known as pygmy chimpanzees) we would be much happier. It just doesn’t seem to have worked that way. The Pitcairn islands did not develop a peaceful culture of sexual satisfaction.
The discussion on the feminist Pro-Choice website I mentioned earlier looks at the story as a story of racial, colonial and sexual oppression. A culture in which (white Victorian) men believed that (brown) women should be sexually available turns out, in modern eyes, to have been or to have become a society in which male desire oppressed women.
I am skeptical of analysis that begins with supposed insights into the incorrect or unenlightened consciousness of members of past generations. I think the women who decided to leave Tahiti with the original mutineers must have had reasons that made sense to them at the time, and would have been quite puzzled by the idea that they had been oppressed. There may have been all kinds of second thoughts in later years, and probably a lot of blame and guilt, but the idea of oppression and coercion is an artificial hindsight.
There is also a tendency with that analysis to assume that men feel entitled to sex and commit rape to express their power. This strikes me as a very metaphorical theory, which says more about the people that believe it than it does about sex, freedom and consent among real people.
The simple fact is that several men who acted badly, contrary to the law and morality of most societies. Some possibly believed the Victorian Tahiti myth and fooled themselves into thinking that all women past puberty were available. There are some influences in popular culture to help men think that women want and need sex, even when they say no, but these popular ideas are rationalizations for desire, rather than univeral patriarchal archetypes. I think we have to look at the basic personal responsibility of these offenders for initiating sexual action, and their moral dishonesty in pretending or thinking that these girls were consenting adults.
The feminist analysis of freedom in sexual relationships attempts to be a modern or liberal analysis in that it does assume that sexual freedom is natural and correct – as long as women are free to choose their partners in “real” freedom. (Feminists presumably disapprove of bonobo sex because the female bonobos are enslaved by stereotypes of the female role).
The feminist analysis of oppression in sexual relationships is interesting because it ignores the real autonomy that women enjoy. Sex wasn’t invented by men to oppress women. Women want sex too. People make their choices about sex with any given potential partner at any given time within personal and cultural parameters. They may have strong feelings about basic issues, such as gender, age, chastity, matrimony, intimacy, love, history, place, time, ambiance, reward. Women seem to be more selective about the partner and the event, and more ambivalent, and this may be independent of cultural factors. Women don’t always make their choices clear and men don’t always listen. This also may be independent of cultural factors.
Persons are oppressed by their own desire – their attraction to the physical acts. They are oppressed by the fact that sexual encounters are part of relationships, which involves the question of using sex to get power or benefits in relationships. They are oppressed by their ability to articulate and believe stories about their power, their desire and their decisions which are always subjective and self-serving.
Bonobos on the other hand don’t care – they just do it. They are in the moment.