Ellison Vs. Franken: How We See Domestic Violence In The Age of #MeToo

Photograph Source AFGE | CC BY 2.0

There are two cases. They have similarities. Al Franken, liberal Senator from Minnesota, was accused of sexual harassment by eight separate strangers. Because of this, his career was sunk. This was despite the Franken scandal stemming at least in part, from GOP hitmen, as evidenced by Roger Stone’s inside knowledge of the accusations. Keith Ellison, former liberal congressperson and current Democratic nominee for Minnesota’s Attorney General seat, is accused of a pattern of psychological abuse in an intimate relationship, as well as at least one instance of domestic violence. A similar story by a different woman can be found here. His career is in no jeopardy. The DFL remains behind their man, despite his allegiance to the more left Bernie Sanders.

It is telling to see the different responses to the two cases. The accusations against Franken caused widespread hysteria while the accusations against Ellison have been dismissed by almost everyone. Why the difference? Both men are hugging the middle ground between Sanders (center) and Clinton (right). The left-wing men always seem to fall easier, but in these cases, the politics between the two men are similar.

With that in mind, let’s investigate the differences between the two cases and how they are treated by the media and political class. Al Franken’s accusations were strictly singular instances of sexual harassment. None of these claims were close to rape, although the discourse in #MeToo often talked about sexual harassment as if it was rape, which completely trivialized rape.

That being said, I was happy Franken was forced to step down. Sexual harassment should be taken seriously, and even if #MeToo will only reach this far, we can say it is a victory. I would add though that #MeToo hasn’t gone nearly far enough. It doesn’t mean much to change ‘rape culture’ without addressing economic inequality. As a society we seem to be more interested in a petty sexual hysteria than systematic financial power structures. When push comes to shove, poor people aren’t protected from rape, no matter the culture of the bourgeois. The police, the bosses, the 1% and almost everyone else is against them. The reality is especially grim for prisoners, military folks and undocumented people.

I am less interested in the fate of either Franken or Ellison as I am in the reasons for their two high profile cases being treated differently. Franken’s crime was a public and sexual one. Not only was it an assault on women (which the establishment cares little about) but an expression of sex (which the establishment is deeply fearful of). In a country that is restricting reproductive rights, cutting sexual education and criminalizing sex workers, one has to wonder, is this about women or is it about sex?

There is an argument that this is all about sex when one sees the way the nonsexual accusations against Ellison are dismissed. This is especially surprising given how racist and Islamophobic this country is. Imagine if the black Muslim Ellison was accused of a sexual crime? Would this push us to war with Iran?

Donald Trump began his xenophobic campaign to the Presidency by declaring that immigrants were raping “our” women (note the possessive). A similar scare has been used to justify war with ISIS, despite the proof that war greatly increases rape. In our deeply sexually conservative culture, it is the sexual crime that is always used to justify increasing prisons, border control, war and other patriarchal interventions via the state. These interventions always create more lawlessness, not less.

Rape is seen as the public crime of the sexual deviant. It justifies public fear, public scapegoats and public punishment. Some have noted the lack of due process involved in #MeToo. It is certainly true that these primarily public cases usually involve a public trial driven by corporate media and that there is no rule of law in most of these cases. In the absence of a legal system that takes these issues seriously, #MeToo is certainly better than pre-#MeToo, even if a legal system would be preferable. Regardless, the glee of public shaming remains if not the primary driver, then certainly a backseat one.

The deeply conservative American culture does not give the same amount of attention to abuse within the family, whether that be sexual or otherwise. The family acts as a contained heteronormative place where citizens are controlled. Men control their wives. Mothers control their children. Bosses control the men. This is the conservative ideal that is accepted in American culture.

The family employs us to control each other’s private lives. As long as conflict and hierarchy within the family remains, the family is doing its duty for the state. Bogged down by the interpersonal injustice, we can ignore public injustice done to us by our corporate masters. Public sexual crimes get the coverage that they do because they reinforce our general skepticism of the public. If familial crimes were shown in the same way, we would realize that most everyone has a messed up family and we would be best to unite together as a public working class rather than divide ourselves into private abusive homes.

When it comes to rape itself, it most often comes from the family or from someone you know. Strangers account for only 7% of rape. Marital rape happens in 14% of marriages, with only 16% of these victims reporting the crime and one-third of these victims being raped over 20 times. Spousal exemption exists in 30 states.

Sexual violence aside, physical and psychological violence should frighten us just as much. We live in a society that has normalized violence. Our culture oozes with military propaganda. Our citizens are strapped, our police are more strapped. Our military even more strapped. Yet we remain most scared of sex. Sex, unlike physical violence, is most often the antithesis to hate. Done between consenting people, sex stands alone as the most radical and joyful act humanity is capable of.

So I say to my fellow citizens. Fear not the terrorist sex monster looming behind every corner of the corporate media’s imagination. Fear instead your boss, your police officers, your controlling husbands, your bankers, your pastors. With great power comes great abuse and little accountability.

Human relations remain far more complicated than the moment of climax, condemnation, exile and persecution via a single transgression. Most abuse is daily, sophisticated and normalized. A smart abuser is physical when necessary and psychological most other times. We should not fear our drive for sex, but our drive for a cold ambition that dismisses sex as power. Those sexual feelings, temptations and fantasies are normal, even the not-so-normal ones. These sexual acts, as inexplicable, uncontrollable and incredible as they are, are even more normal. As long as one does not become occupied with power, self-importance, and repression of the self, they will, for the most part, act morally; sexually and otherwise.

I cry no tears for the phony liberals Al Franken and Keith Ellison. But if one had to go, why did it have to be the guy accused of grabbing a few butts rather than the guy accused of a continued pattern of controlling and abusive behavior? As the late great Sex God Prince would say, it’s a sign o’ the times. In a society that is increasingly isolated, divided and unequal, joining together in any meaningful way, sexual or otherwise, seems impossible and we are left alone with our private suspicions and superiority.

Nick Pemberton writes and works from Saint Paul, Minnesota. He loves to receive feedback at pemberton.nick@gmail.com