Shia LaBeouf’s rape claim

And why it’s ok to think it’s annoying

During a performance art piece in which he sat alone in a room and invited audience members to do whatever they want, Shia LaBeouf was raped. This statement makes many people uncomfortable, and some have responded with anger and harsh criticism. While my stance is always to support survivors when they come forward, I do believe it is important to maintain critical thinking around issues of rape and sexual violence. With that in mind, there is a valid critique of this particular rape claim.

However, before we get to that critique, here is a short list of unproductive responses to this event.

  • He can’t be raped because he is a man. Bullshit.
  • It’s not rape because he didn’t fight back. No.
  • It’s not rape because he stayed silent. Nope.
  • He was asking for it. Making art is not asking for it. Stop saying this.

The only valid criticism is that the violation took place in the context of a performance in which LaBeouf willingly gave up his personal agency. He was creating a space where normal social rules don’t apply and made it clear that people were allowed to “do whatever they wanted.” This, along with the table of implements that included weapons, was a direct reference to Marina Abromovic’s famous performance in which she similarly provided a crowd with a selection of objects and the invitation to do whatever they wanted with them. In her case, people were timid at first, then they cut off her clothes, cut her skin and eventually pointed a loaded gun at her head. Importantly, she says she absolutely felt violated during that experience.

Similarly, we should respect that Shia LaBeouf was violated. There is no reason to argue that he isn’t experiencing trauma and pain. However, the context of his performance does make this a different type of violation than what we normally think of as rape. He sat in a room and invited strangers to do whatever they wanted to him. To be clear, this doesn’t mean that he was asking for them to hurt and violate them. It means he was erasing his own agency. He wasn’t asking to be raped any more than he was asking not to be raped, and therein lies the problem.

It should be understood that a person is never ever asking to be raped, even when they make the conscious decision to create an art space that negates their own agency. It takes a vile, predatory person to encounter this performance and decide that intercourse is an acceptable interpretation of “do whatever you want.” Make no mistake, what happened was wrong. However, this is the line that Shia LaBeouf’s piece is playing with. His performance is a provocation that tests the limits of human decency by offering explicit instruction to disregard his will. It goes a step farther than Abromovic’s piece in that he is sitting alone, away from the relative safety of the crowd.

This particular provocation strikes me as deeply irresponsible, particularly in light of contemporary conversations about consent. Good consent education rests on the idea that no one ever has the right to do whatever they want to another human being. It took a lot of effort for marital rape to be considered valid in the eyes of society and the law because marriage was understood to be a contract that allowed for any and all types of sexual contact. Education campaigns are launched to make it clear that a person passed out or drunk is not inviting others to take advantage of them. Slutwalks exist so that people know that sexy clothes aren’t an invitation to deny a person’s agency. Naked, squirming, sexy women still have to be respected as people and not just objects to be acted upon. Respect for personal autonomy is a foundational element of good consent.

So when an artist, willingly and knowingly, removes their personal agency from the equation in the context of a performance, I can’t help but feel frustrated when he describes the outcome as rape — the same word that people use when they weren’t given a choice about the violation of their autonomy. I believe that someone violated him, and I do believe that we should be building a world in which it is understood that even a clear invitation to do whatever you want to another person doesn’t include sexual violations any more than it includes killing them.

But I am frustrated that someone is playing with that line at all. It is right to criticize fictional stories that use rape as a plot device without giving proper weight to the impact that has on survivors. Performance art involves real people and real life, but it is still a creation. In this way, giving up your personal autonomy in a performance piece a lot like telling a rape joke. It is not something just anyone can or should do.

I hesitate to go so far in this critique as to say that he wasn’t raped. He was clearly violated, and I think that people should be allowed to name their own violations for themselves. In an era when the vast majority of rapes are never prosecuted, the fact that this situation will never reach conviction doesn’t preclude the violation from being classified as a rape. But this situation does test my empathy as a survivor, and for that I am annoyed. There are some boundaries that should be not tested lightly, and there is little in this story to indicate that this performance was done with consideration for survivors who were never given a choice when their bodies were violated.

Update: Shia La Beouf’s collaborators say there were never instructions to “Do whatever you want.” That means he wasn’t testing that boundary, and I was mistaken.

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