For those living in Southern Ontario, these are interesting times, in the Chinese-curse sense of the word. An air-force colonel from CFB Trenton is currently standing trial for a stunning series of offences ranging from stalking and break/enter to rape and murder. Any of these crimes is a shocking thing for a prosperous man in uniform to commit, but the media have fixated inordinately on the sexualized nature of his ugliest offences.Take, for example, the Toronto Star‘s Heather Mallick. Normally she gets it right, but today, she fell into a predictable media-dumbass trap: the inability to distinguish between two things that must not be confused. See if you can spot what things I’m talking about:
No, I don’t know why he did what he did, and I have the awful feeling that we’ll never know. It just may be that the result of his guilty plea is that we won’t discover what seed was planted that gave root to this level of perversion and cruelty. The court won’t dig deeply enough.It’s not sufficient to say that he liked doing what he did, the best and most customary explanation for psychopathology and fountain-like cruelty.What this day revealed is the awful specificity of the human sexual impulse.Did you spot it? I’ll give you a hint, in case you didn’t. It lies in the last three words. What Col. Russell Williams did was not due to the “human sexual impulse”, although it may look as though he did. It’s hard to blame Heather Mallick for making that blunder; she was surely not the only one. Peter Mansbridge, on CBC, fell into the same trap when interviewing a criminal profiler about the case. So, I’m sure, did many other reporters, covering this story from the whole gamut of slants and angles. Williams’s crimes had a sexual overtone that was impossible to miss. He stalked single women and girls. He broke into their homes. He rifled through their clothing, particularly their underwear. He photographed himself wearing said clothing, particularly the victims’ underwear. He masturbated on their beds. He stole hundreds of pieces of underwear and other intimate objects, and kept extensive photographic files on his computer as trophies of his violations. And when that didn’t suffice him, he graduated to sexual assault, and then to killing. As far as the major media are concerned, it appears that Russell Williams is a sexual fetishist gone off the deep end. He isn’t.He is a predator. There are several crucial differences between the two. These are the differences:For a fetishist, an object (or specific body part) stands in for a human being in a sexual context. For a predator, a human being becomes an object; the objectification is sexualized. A fetishist usually doesn’t steal fetish objects; s/he prefers to buy them or barter for them. Fetishists prefer to obtain the consent of the person from whom they get their things.A predator invariably steals. Consensual activity does not interest him. Stealing, for the predator, is a form of control; it renders victims uncertain, ashamed and afraid. The predator is aroused by the notion that he has control over a victim’s emotions. He appropriates what is not rightfully his, often making it his by wearing it, posing for photos in it, or mutilating it. Often, the more intimate the object–underwear, for instance–the more desirable it is as a means to scare his victims. This is why a predator’s thefts should not be laughed off as a kind of solitary panty raid, but taken seriously an indicator of more devious criminality below the surface.Fetishists don’t always act alone; they may share with a fellow fetishist, or a club of like-minded individuals, if so inclined. Usually their activities are consensual. They rarely feel the need to impose themselves forcibly on someone else. In fact, they usually derive comfort from knowing they are freely accepted.Predators usually act alone. If they take an accomplice, it is never an equal partner but a subordinate; see Paul Bernardo and his battered wife/accomplice, Karla Homolka. Some accomplices are taken under extreme duress, in keeping with the predator’s controlling nature, or are gradually persuaded through some form of brainwashing. But in any case, they are weaker than the predator, and thus easily manipulated. Predators impose themselves on their accomplices, who in a sense are also victims.A fetishist isn’t generally interested in controlling a person; s/he is content to play with an object or collection of objects, and obtains sexual gratification that way. This activity usually doesn’t escalate. A predator collects human victims as trophies, rendering them into objects to be controlled. When he grows tired of taking easy, inanimate trophies–stolen jewelry, underwear or other personal effects–he begins to entertain the notion of taking humans themselves as his trophies. He escalates his violations over time, in both frequency and intensity, as an addict will increase his dose of drugs when he becomes habituated.Fetishists are rarely violent. Many are quite odd, but this is beside the point; their oddity generally harms no one. They tend to respect the dignity of others.Predators are increasingly violent. Often they do not stand out as odd on first glance; their cultivated façade of normality IS the point. It enables them to escalate their crimes until they die or are caught, whichever comes first.So, we can see that a fetishist ≠ a predator. If anything, they are diametrically opposed.This is why I get so angry when I see the media falling into the trap of fixating on Williams’s alleged sexual fetishes, instead of understanding that he is a predator, one who sexualizes power-over. The media’s job is to clear up our confusion, and instead, they are adding to it. And in so doing, they hang women and children–the persons most likely to become a predator’s victims–out to dry.Is it the mention of sex that flips the switch? I think it must be. We live in a society full of strange sexual double standards. It’s okay to use sex to sell everything under the sun, but “obscene” for a new mother to breastfeed in public. It’s okay to show people being blown up in a bloody mess on TV, but not a happy couple making love. Porn sex? That’s another matter altogether. It’s commercial, it often looks sterile, mechanistic and unreal, therefore it passes muster with the censors. It seems that anything which objectifies people is all right, while anything that humanizes them or shows them in their natural form is suspect, to be viewed askance.The predator has infiltrated the media, infusing it with the sex-object mindset. Often, the media itself is the predator; think of all the times the various outlets have been liked to hunting wolves or circling vultures. Is it any wonder, then, that crime stories lead the nightly newscast? They are the pornography of those who would never watch a blue movie or an amateur sex tape. Blood and guts are sexy. If it bleeds, it leads.The only problem is, that blood has to come from somewhere. Or rather, someONE.And in the case of Russell Williams, it came from living, breathing, beloved women. Somebody’s daughters. Somebody’s sisters.Williams stalked females whom he saw as unguarded and alone. It was the typical cowardice of the predator: pick off the one who is further away from the herd than the rest. T
o designate them the weakest, fit only to be culled. In his mind, as in the minds of all predators, they were isolated and therefore fair game.They were not. They belonged to others. Families who suffered when these daughters, these sisters, were brutalized and killed.Of course, to point out the psychopathy of one who would do such a thing is less sexy than dwelling in minute detail on “the awful specificity of the human sexual impulse”, as Heather Mallick calls it. To look away from the queasy spectacle of a man posing and prancing and masturbating in women’s underwear and try to open a window into his head, where the victim is coldly and clinically isolated from her near and dear, is much less likely to sell papers or glue eyeballs to the commercial-flashing screen. But it is necessary. It is the media’s duty to get behind all this, to talk to psychologists and psychiatrists, criminalists and profilers, who know the difference between a fetishist and a predator, and to convey this difference to their readers, listeners and viewers. Knowledge is power, but the media only seem to give it while in effect they are taking it away. And in the process, women and girls are being disproportionately made to suffer, and are also disproportionately made invisible, their truth concealed even as sexualized object-females dance merrily across screen and page, everywhere, all the time.And we, the consumers, do we go on consuming this falsehood blindly? If we do, we are complicit. We enable our own abusers, our objectifiers, by letting this slip by and not speaking out. We are infiltrated. We become inured to the predatory mindset; we may even fall victim to a form of it ourselves.If we let that happen, we become accomplices. Shake hands with our predator, people–the predator is us.