Oh Sinnerman, where you gonna run to?
Sinnerman, where you gonna run to?
Where you gonna run to?
All on that day
It has been nearly two weeks and it is now time to move on a little.
But I need to start resuming a normal life, one where I do not spend hours replying to emails and comments about this affair. You know there is something wrong when I am probably losing more sleep over all this than the rapist himself.
Anyway, I am sure my thesis advisor and my girlfriend will both appreciate regaining my undivided attention. And the three regular readers of this blog who come for pictures of cats and wacky Engrish signs will be happy to read about non-rape-related stuff again…
Before I temporarily close this chapter (and also because I cannot see myself following the last post directly with pictures of kitties doing adorable things, or some post about my love of bacon for breakfast), I felt there were a couple things I should share. A mixed bag of reflections, observations and justifications. It is long, rantish and all over the place, so you will be forgiven for skimming through to the parts you are interested in (that’s what the section titles are for).
At any rate, please stay topical in your comments and keep any remarks specifically about Mr. De Angelis’s case for the appropriate post.
(Also, I haven’t had time to edit it yet. Expect plenty of tpyos)
Here we go:
No, you are not a rape specialist
One of the many striking things about being involved with the aftermath of a rape claim, is that you soon discover that everybody is a rape specialist with in-depth knowledge of how authentic rape victims behave.
Wait. I meant to write: “everybody think they are a specialist”.
I am not impervious to the irony of commenting on this when I am about to spout my very own uninformed opinions on the matter. I do not have the slightest credentials on the topic and less first-hand experience than most women (or men), who may have been confronted at one point or another in their life with some form of aggressive sexual behaviours.
But this is precisely my point: I don’t know anything about what it feels to be a rape victim, and most likely, neither do you.
I do know enough, however, to know there is no such thing as a “normal” rape victim behaviour. It does not take a genius to figure that there are way too many factors (age, personality, cultural background, conditions…) to even attempt gauging the credibility of a claim based on the sole victim’s behaviour before, during or after the rape. If you ever hear somebody wonder aloud why an alleged victim would not have immediately run to the police the second they were free to do so and questioning their credibility based on this: first, slap them upside the head on my behalf, then point out at the unusually long prescription period for sexual abuse in practically all developed countries. There is a specific reason why rape often carries a much longer statute of limitation than other equally violent crimes: legislators are aware of the many possible issues that might psychologically or physically prevent a victim from seeking legal help immediately. Rape complaints, sometimes as late as many years after the fact, are still examined by the justice system and can result in convictions (despite the added difficulties in gathering material evidence).
It should be self-evident to anybody that reporting one’s own rape is not remotely in the same category as reporting car theft or even violent assault of a non-sexual nature. Rape carries its own millennia-old cultural baggage of humiliation, shame, (self-)blame and/or casually dismissive handling by the authorities. There is a number of places in the world – places with running water, electricity, television and elected representatives – that still consider the fairest punishment for a convicted rapist in the year 2012 is to be “forced” to do the honourable thing and marry their disgraced victim. In many countries, the police will be reluctant to call “rape” on anything short of violent coercion by a complete stranger in a dark alleyway: having shared a drink at a bar or wearing a mini-skirt will be considered “partial responsibility” or at the very least a mitigating factor. Which countries, you ask? You’d be surprised.
Little wonder then how many people have commented on this blog, insinuating that an authentic rape victim would never have let her own rapist stay in her house the morning after instead of immediately running for help, that she would not have waited a full day before sharing her story, let alone going to the police. None of these people seem to fathom that a rape victim might be in any state of shock, or have a complex web of psychological and social obstacles to overcome before they are even able to share their experience. I honestly envy the sort of rainbow-tinted unicorn playground of a world they inhabit.
Along these people, you find a slightly different category of comments, whose content could advantageously be summed up by a lesser grammatical variation on “not sayin’ she deserved it or anythin’, but you know, sometimes bitches be calling for it, amirite or amirite?”… To be honest, they bother me slightly less than the above. Sure, they are perfectly vile, but it is all too obvious that they are overwhelmingly typed by barely-pubescent, sexually frustrated boys: an average demographics not famed for its advanced cognitive abilities, nor its concerns for the deeper ethical issues in our society. But also fortunately one that is transient and tends to improve on many things, once their brain stops drowning in hormones, the acne wears off and they learn to interact with the opposite sex in ways that do not exclusively involve a credit card and the internet. Call me hopelessly optimistic, but I have good hope most of these moron commenters eventually grow up into decent human beings.
“10% of men are rapists” is a statistics that is often bandied around. Is it accurate? Probably not. I am, literally, paid to know that 74.3% of all statistics are made up. This one is too vague and arbitrary to be even credible, but I would not automatically discard the figure as an overestimate1. Another, more convincingly sourced, statistics is that only one in ten rapes gets reported, in the US (I strongly suspect many countries would have an even lower rate). This one I can easily believe. Not just because I saw my friend’s reaction and how close her rape was to never get reported (not that the report really made a difference in the end), but also because of the staggering number of comments or private messages posted by women, sharing their own experience of being raped and, in most cases, not reporting it. Of course, there is no proof that all these stories are true, but given the lack of incentive to lie, you could assume at least some are… And it is quite a depressing thought.
“Living in Japan is making me a feminist”
Long before I even contemplated setting foot in Japan, feminism was one of the most unquestioned part of my political beliefs. Despite the thousand arguments I could get into with other self-proclaimed “authentic” feminists2, I cannot remember a time where I have not strongly embraced the belief that genders should be treated as equal by society and largely were not. More specific aspects, such as an awareness of widespread institutionalised sexism and rape-apologetic attitudes in many societies, slowly developed over time. Working in the nightlife & bar industry and seeing some of the worst in men’s behaviour certainly contributed a good deal to that3.
And yet, there is a huge difference between being a theoretician of feminism in a typical Western country and the reality of living in Japan: a modern, highly-developed country that sits in an alternate timeline where the feminist movements of the 20th century never happened.
Countries that mistreat their women are a dime a dozen throughout the world. But Japan is not Afghanistan, Sudan or even Iran. Japan is one of the most developed country in the world, with a high standard of living, a modern legal system and (somewhat) democratically elected lawmakers. It is also a country where, 60 years after Simone de Beauvoir, the overwhelming majority of men (and many women) expect married women to immediately quit their job to raise kids, take care of the house and prepare their husband’s meals. A country where it is established that, for the same level of education, women will get hired as secretaries and office assistants, to serve tea to their male counterparts, with little hope for evolution or promotion (beside marriage). A country where younger women will routinely dodge workplace groping by their male colleagues with uneasy laughs and little in the way of official complaints. A country where a 20-year-old attempting to report her own rape at a police station, will be met with a thirty minute informal conversation and sent back home with a pat on the shoulder and some advice on how to report it earlier “the next time it happens”…
A country where the majority of women do not see what’s so shocking and unusual with all the above: you call it sexual harassment, they call it Monday.
Yes, living in Japan will make you a feminist.
The many meanings of “conviction”
When I first heard my friend’s story, writing in public about it was about as far from my mind as could be. I (and all her other friends) did what any angry, yet reasonable, person would do: urge her to report him to all relevant authorities (the Japanese police, CouchSurfing…) and offer as much support as we could.
A week later, when it became clear that CS would not lift a finger and the probability of him arrested was slowly vanishing, I was still not particularly taken with the idea of going public. What decided me, was reading this CS forum thread (forwarded by a friend who was aware of the Kyoto episode). Exchanging messages with the next unfortunate victim of this guy’s antisocial (to put it lightly) behaviour, made me realise that I shared a part, however thin, of responsibility in what had happened. We all knew Mr. De Angelis was going to Tokyo, we knew he was using CS and we certainly knew he was a bad person. While CS admins should have been the ones taking care of the situation (more on that later): they had not, and showed no sign of changing their attitude. Given the specific conditions at the time, two very distinct paths of action were available (and little else): do nothing more (send an umpteenth email to CS, keep hoping that our friend would press charges and that the Japanese police would care enough to have him arrested at his next Asian destination…) or take the matter in my own hands and go loud and public with it, in the hope of warning both potential victims and acquaintances who may be unaware of his true personality.
A smart man once said that all that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing. I am not presumptuous enough to think myself a particularly good person, but I sure know evil when I see it.
Once I had made the decision to write that post, there were still a few different ways I could have gone about it. I more or less purposefully picked a direct and emotional tone. In part because that is how angry I felt, but also for some very calculated reason: my main goal in writing these details in a publicly accessible web page, was to strongly and irremediably attach the word “rapist” to “Cristiano De Angelis” in search engines4. Hence the tabloid-ish title and straightforward wording of my first post.
Of course, this confrontational approach made many people uncomfortable. The seriousness of the claim and willful omission of the magically self-exhonerating words “alleged” or “accused” in front of “rapist”, prompted many to accuse me of “not respecting the presumption of innocence”, in turn causing other, well-meaning people, to berate them for being “rapist lovers” etc. Both groups fundamentally misunderstood the issues at hand.
There are two intertwined aspects to this: a moral/ethical and a legal one. People who question my moral right to write “Cristiano de Angelis is a rapist” in the absence of legal evidence, are missing an important point: I am neither judge or executioner, I am an accuser. I know the victim and trust her word as my own. As such, I am entitled to write my accusation without qualifying it as “alleged”. This does not mean you or any third party have to follow unless you have yourself a moral certainty that I am telling the truth (and are willing to hang your own word on the balance). If somebody kills a person in front of your eyes, he is not an “alleged” killer: to you, he is a “killer, period”. Presumption of innocence has nothing to do with it. It merely means that I am not morally (or legally) entitled to write “a convicted rapist”.
As for my legal right to throw such an accusation: in absolutely any democratic country I can think of (and most definitely in any of the possibly relevant countries here), I have the unfettered right to grab my keyboard and start accusing absolutely anybody of anything, regardless of whether a judge has made a pronouncement before me. This is why even the most cautious journalist will not shy away from calling Hitler, Staline or Pol Pot mass murderers, even though none of these have ever been convicted by a formal tribunal. They could just as well decide to write that Mother Theresa is a mass murderer. The only important difference, is that in the latter case, her estate would likely successfully sue for libel.
Libel (and in the case of non-written accusations: slander) law, is the only reason it is not legally advisable to make such an accusation if you cannot back it up. Making the accusation itself is not illegal (and certainly not “criminal”, as suggested by some moron about my post).
I may have been angry, but I am not completely stupid: when I posted, I fully realised the legal implications of a direct accusation and made the decision knowingly. For one, it was a matter of honour, ethics and credibility to put my word on the line, rather than using weasel words as a legal protection (“It is said that this man is an alleged rapist”…), but I had also a good level of confidence that Mr. De Angelis would not even consider filing a suit, risking to bring more attention to his actions. In fact, I welcomed the idea (however unlikely), that he might engage legal proceedings against me: this would have caused all testimonies and evidence to be examined, not to mention probably require his presence on Japanese soil, and I had no doubt such a confrontation would not have been to his advantage.
So there you have it: there is no need to consider the gravity of his actions to justify hypothetically breaching the “presumption of innocence” (even the most abject criminal is entitled to it), this just does not have anything to do with it.
The fact that I considered myself ethically and legally entitled to write this accusation, does not mean I felt fully comfortable doing it. And above all, my biggest concern was (still is) to prevent this legitimate anger turning into a lynch mob.
Internet and the power of mobs
In October 1988, Michael Dukakis, the Democratic nominee for the US presidential election sat an electoral debate with his Republican opponent: George H. Bush. Referring to Dukakis’ public stand against capital punishment, the moderator presented him with the hypothetical situation of a person raping and murdering Kitty Dukakis (his wife), and asked him if he would then favour the death penalty for that man. Dukakis gave the only answer a civilised, principled man could by reiterating his personal opposition to the death penalty in all cases. The debate (and this particular answer) famously sunk his national poll numbers from 49% to 42% and is widely credited as partly costing him the elections: rather than his position on this particular issue, what allegedly turned people off, was his cool rational reaction to a hypothetical situation they felt called for an emotional reaction.
The tactic has been used many times ever since, trying to destabilise politicians deemed “soft on crime” by appealing to people’s emotional fiber. Modern politicians, regardless of their inner convictions, would know better than trying to coldly appeal to their constituents’ reason and respect for the legal process and instead spin something appropriately personal while weaving their position in as subtly as they can. In fact, the ideal(ised) liberal candidate of today would answer Dukakis’ question by vowing to personally go after the rapist/murderer and kill him (emotions: check) while accepting the consequences of their action and facing jail time for it, therefore acknowledging the supreme importance of due legal process regardless of personal impulses (strong unbending principles: check, and mate).
My point is: the general public (that is: you) likes emotions. And among these emotions, there are few that they like more than righteous anger. Every crowd loves a good lynching.
Despite crowdsourcing advocates’ idiotic statements to the contrary: a crowd (online or offline) is not intelligent, and certainly no more intelligent than most of the individuals that compose it. A crowd is powerful, and that is why people use them. The purpose does not have to be nefarious, but the means practically always rely on questionable principles. By definition, crowds are not moved by reason or logical thinking, they are moved by emotions. Even the most earnest politicians do not rally their troops with detailed statistics and 200-page philosophical treaties: they use catchy one-liner and meaningless made-up anecdotes.
I am a scientist by training and a notorious reason-over-emotion skeptical pain-in-the-ass by personality. Yes, I am that asshole who drily replies to your fervent chain letters with relevant debunking link on Snopes, or comments on your Facebook post how unlikely it is that Little Timmy really would need “1 Million Likes” on his page in order to receive a life-saving new liver… This makes me one of the least likely defenders of internet mobs and all too aware of the risk that my post might be interpreted as encouraging one.
But sometimes you do need crowds if you want to reach a wide audience; and in cases such as this one, reaching a wide audience is the goal in itself. Getting a few friends and strangers interested enough to skim through my post was not enough: I needed them to be compelled to share it with their own network. Which they thankfully did, to great results, where the positive overwhelmingly made up for the negative.
As it turned out (not so surprisingly), this crowd momentum and the large exposure the news got, resulted not only in warning many people who may have otherwise fallen victim to his behaviour, but also brought back dozens of testimonials from separate sources that Mr. De Angelis had so far successfully erased from his trail. This ability to connect the dots and reveal a stupefying string of abuse, from one host to the next, is why you sometimes need crowds.
Of course, I should not have been the one doing this. Which brings me to my last, and no less important, point:
CouchSurfing is Broken
When I discovered couchsurfing (or to be exact: “hospitality exchange” services) a few years ago, I was immediately taken with it. Having grown up heavily multi-cultural, having spent most of my life travelling and as a strong believer in the hopelessly naive idea that a large part of the world’s problems could be solved if people just got more exposure to other cultures, I adhered to the concept (more than the actual company/website) without reservation. I did and still do think that hospitality exchange websites are some of the most beneficial contributions of the web to our society.
In practice, however, my enthusiasm was somehow tempered by how horribly clunky and unergonomic the website was. From its start in 2003 (and with close to no improvement to this day), CouchSurfing’s website has been worthy of the worst mid-1990s web designs. Despite the quantity of features and awesome community backing the site, the horrible interface makes using it a very frustrating experience5.
Well aware of the volunteer-driven nature of the site, and having already worked on open-source projects of similar range, my immediate reaction was to offer my time and try contributing to the site’s development. I was naturally expecting the source for such a self-proclaimed volunteer project to be fully open and accessible (if not open-sourced) to the user community that funded it: if not just for transparency, at least for all the obvious reasons that make OSS projects far stronger than many commercial counterparts. Instead, I discovered that the codebase was completely private, code contributions not particularly welcome and management (of the code and the overall website) fully opaque. In that context, most volunteering felt strongly like a one-way street: putting effort into an opaque organisation with no idea of the way it was used. Despite these uncomfortable feelings toward the way CS was managed, I had nothing but love for its community and happily overlooked the negative to focus on the positive, during my many years of active usage of the site. The reasons for this lack of transparency became abundantly clear when CS management unilaterally announced their incorporation, erasing any need to justify how resources had been used until that point.
I had until now refrained from involving the Couchsurfing corporation, and their recently acquired status, in this discussion, as I initially did not think there was much of a connection to be made: what happened to my friend seemed a mere case of Humanity Fail, a thankfully rare occurrence part of the risks inherent to the nature of hospitality exchange. But as this story unfolded, it revealed a much deeper, systemic, failure of CouchSurfing as a company, made only worse by their stubborn refusal to take any action well after the facts, opting instead to retreat behind official policies and corporate-speak form emails.
It is hard to list all the things that went wrong with CS’s handling of this case (and of security issues in general), but I will try to mention some of the more egregious ones:
First, there is CS’s officially recommended system for establishing trust: getting one’s profile “verified” by making a donation6. Of course, all this “verification” does, is ensure that your name (and possibly address) are really what you claim they are, which offers about the weakest possible guarantee of physical safety (particularly for hosts, whose address is hardly a secret to their visitor). What used to be a questionable method to encourage donations (without any transparency regarding their use) has become outright reprehensible now that CS no longer has any claim to be a non-profit and is a corporation with regular VC funding and a commercial purpose.
At the other end of the security protocol, lies their policy for dealing with complaints. Previous cases (such as a notorious string of theft by a single rogue CSer through all of Germany that took months to be disclosed to the community) have shown that CS will not deviate from its official “neutrality” policy7: “no police report = no action”. By the time the police is involved, there is often little left to do for CS. And even a police report is not guarantee of much action on their side. Their casual attitude toward even the most serious complaints cannot be explained by some dubious concern for the presumption of innocence: nobody asks that they disclose personal details or even take any rash action against the user implicated (a quick look into their site logs should be enough to decide whether there is need for further action).
Some have suggested a conscious effort on CS’s part to avoid bad publicity by silencing any negative news, but my personal guess is that technical incompetence, rather than malice or conspiracy, is the reason for their lacking responses. I have no doubt that many smart, dedicated people work (or volunteer) for CS, but I would suspect that their security team is, at the very least, severely understaffed and insufficiently skilled to deal with this type of issues8.
Want to improve the safety of Couchsurfers but cannot be arsed to hire a team of skilled dedicated database engineers with your recently-received millions in funding? How about plugging one of your most glaring security hole: make it impossible to delete profiles with negative reviews. Better yet, freeze certain information (such as name and photographs) after a number of negative reviews and add a distinct warning at the top. Do that instead of, you know, deleting the profile but allowing all forum posts to remain posted, and maybe it would not be so easy for people like Mr. De Angelis to keep contact with their future
victims hosts, long after they have deleted their profile.
CS’s oft repeated motto regarding safety is that community references are the best (the only) protection. Maybe after close to 10 years in the business, it would be time they realised what any 1st year psychology student could have told them: many people (especially in some cultures) do not like conflict. I am as guilty as the next host/visitor of occasionally glossing over the small negative details, when I feel there is enough positive to counterbalance. This is how manipulative people like Cristiano De Angelis manage to dodge most negative references, despite leaving a trail of unpleasant experiences behind them. There is no easy solution to that, but it certainly obliterates CS management’s argument that they do not need to step in to ensure safety.
I wish I could say that this rant will serve a constructive purpose and lead to some major improvement in their future handling of similar cases… But they have made it abundantly clear by their follow-ups (or lack thereof) and resounding silence on official channels, that self-preservation, rather than user safety, is their main priority. This incident is not the first (nor even the worst, I suspect). Similar controversies have occurred at regular intervals over the years, with similar common-sense suggestions for improvement each time (such as the ones above) and absolutely zero implementation on their side.
Feel free to contact CS’s management and let them know what you think of all this. As for me, I am more than ever decided to put my time and energy in a more transparent and accountable organisation instead.
As for you, Mr. De Angelis: you may have successfully escaped any retributions so far, thanks to the combined incompetence of Couchsurfing and the Japanese police, but you will no longer be able to hide behind some made-up websites and manipulated references. Run all you want: this page is not moving and neither is your Google problem.
But the Lord said, go to the devil
The Lord said, go to the devil
He said, go to the devil
All on that day
So I ran to the devil, he was waitin’
I ran to the devil, he was waitin’
Ran to the devil, he was waitin’
All on that day
- If you can’t imagine one in ten men ever committing a rape, I suggest you look at a few of the recent ethnic conflicts in the world. [↩]
- Yes, I do think some jokes about rape can be funny. Just the same as jokes about cancer or nazis can be funny. I also think many of these jokes are not funny, but that is beside the point. [↩]
- To be clear: nightlife people are in no way worse than average, quite the contrary. There is just something about clubs and bars that seem to encourage women-hating creeps to come out in the open. [↩]
- Yes: I am a spiteful mothefucker. It does not mean I am not right. [↩]
- One very typical example: unlike pretty much every single newsboard software written after 1999, CS newsboard does not let you edit your own comments in any way. In fact, until 6 months ago, it was impossible to delete or get a post a post deleted, even by the group admin themselves. [↩]
- When I joined CS, I did try making a donation, thinking it was a nice way to combine my appreciation for their work, while receiving a “seal of approval” that might make up for my lack of references at the time. My effort was thwarted as usual by the site’s clunky system and its inability to deal with multiple addresses. In retrospect, I am thankful that it prevented me from giving to a fund that presumably ended up lining the pocket of a happy few at the top. [↩]
- You know who else was “neutral” on matters of sexual abuse? I would advise CS to ask the Vatican how that policy has worked for their PR. [↩]
- Behold an actual screenshot of a CS Support Rep email declining to act on a user report because only the – globally unique – username had been provided, instead of an internal user ID. Seriously. [↩]