Blog post

Virtue and Violence

Sita Balani argues that to understand sexual abuse, we must not only question the moral claims of supposedly virtuous institutions but also situate them in the material context of unequal distribution of resources and power.

Sita Balani23 March 2018

The widespread sexual exploitation in Haiti is made possible precisely because it comes with the moral cover of 'aid' and 'charity'.

Sita Balani is Lecturer in Contemporary Literature and Culture at King's College London.

In an interview with CNN, psychologist and former NBA player John Amaechi suggests that, in order to understand how it was possible for Olympic gymnastics coach Larry Nasser to have abused over 150 girls for more than two decades, we have to question our belief in sport as an inherent good; that we must push back against the way that its stars are mythologised, their talent justifying the way that professional sport is held apart from ordinary life. He proposes that the institutions where this kind of abuse is rife – most obviously the Church – 'tend to be insular, closed, governed in a way that is less than transparent, setting themselves up as paragons of virtue'. Feminists have made a similar observation about the nuclear family: it is the paradigmatic site of privacy; it is assumed to be both natural and commendable, the ideal set up for raising children; and because of these qualities, it is able to harbour and hide widespread sexual abuse. When something is seen as incontrovertibly good, any deviations from its virtue are considered aberrations, individual bad apples rather than a deeper rot.

This dynamic was particularly stark in the recent revelations about Oxfam's aid workers engaged in sexual exploitation in Haiti. The sense of shock and outrage across the liberal media seemed to be in seeing the heroic aid worker, apparently a paragon of virtue, fall from grace. Cambridge Historian, Mary Beard's now infamous tweet depended on precisely this idea of aid workers as selfless servants, vulnerable to corruption in chaotic and troubling circumstances. She opined: '‘Of course one can’t condone the (alleged) behaviour of Oxfam staff in Haiti and elsewhere. But I do wonder how hard it must be to sustain “civilised” values in a disaster zone. And overall I still respect those who go in and help out, where most of us would not tread.’ The imperialist implications of civilised values – and the ineffectual attempt to neutralise them with quotation marks – were quickly lambasted on social media. Beard was further taken to task when she posted a photograph of herself crying in response to the wave of social media mockery. The image so directly spoke to the idea of white fragility – especially to the accusation that white feminists use their tears to deflect accusations of racism – that Beard edged perilously close to caricature, giving new energy to the already sparky Twitter conversation.

Perhaps more significant than the image, however, was her caption: 'I am really not the nasty colonialist you say I am. I speak from the heart (and of course I may be wrong)'. Beard forgets, here, that even 'nasty colonialists' believe themselves to be good. Indeed, they believe that their colonial exploits do not happen in spite of this goodness, but that they evidence it. Oxfam staff did not simply hire sex workers – and this is not inherently any more of a moral issue than the exchange of money for other services – they withheld the aid they were there to deliver to bargain for sex. The widespread sexual exploitation is made possible precisely because it comes with the moral cover of 'aid' and 'charity'.

If we place the exploitation in Haiti within the historical trajectory of colonialism, we can see the ways in which ruthless sexual exploitation is dependent not on the chaos of a 'disaster zone' but on the massive imbalance of wealth and power in operation when wealthy Westerners arrive in the Global South, confident that their presence is a force for good, even as they view their new horizons as teeming with sexual adventure. Feminist scholar, Anne McClintock suggests that this fantasy of sexual possibility was key to the colonial mindset:

Africa and the Americas had become what can be called a porno-tropics for the European imagination.... a fantastic magic lantern of the mind onto which Europe projected its forbidden sexual desires and fears.

The most cursory glimpse at gap year advertising suggests that these projections continue to shape the European imagination, and aid workers’ desire to ‘help’ gives them no immunity from these ideas; arguably, they are co-constituting. An analysis of the neocolonial function of contemporary foreign aid and development policies is well established, though this perspective remains marginal in liberal discourse, hence Beard's certainty that aid workers are simply 'doing good' and her absolute shock at the suggestion that some may even be drawn to this work precisely because it might give them unparalleled access to vulnerable people. Even if one chooses to take a more generous view, it is hard to ignore the ways in which Oxfam employees in Haiti (and aid workers elsewhere) have tremendous power, and are able to wield this with little scrutiny. As such, if Europeans tend to view the global South as teeming with sexual possibility, then this projection can be made a reality through the exercise of their power.

This power imbalance is the result of possessing particular resources, which Patrick Wolfe refers to in the context of European colonial expansion as 'preaccumulation’. He describes this as ‘the historical endowment that colonisers bring with them and […] Natives’ countervailing historical plenitudes.’ These resources could include ships and guns, but also particular ideas, the ‘historically specific ideologies of race, class, gender and nation.’ This theorisation offers a particular view on the abuses committed by aid workers. Food, shelter, and medicine, as well as a set of cultural narratives that affirm one’s own moral rectitude, comprise a powerful arsenal of resources; these resources are themselves the legacy of colonial extraction.

A colonial voyage provides an illuminating historical touchstone. When the HMS Dolphin docked in Tahiti in 1767 under Captain Wallis, the crew were ostensibly there for scientific exploration, positioned in Enlightenment thought as a moral endeavour, a forerunner to the inherent good of 'aid work'. Indeed, when Europeans returned two years later on the HMS Endeavour, passengers included the botanist Joseph Banks. Yet the sailors were soon using their resources to forge the conditions of their own sexual licence. As Tahiti did not produce iron ore but had many uses for it, the crew quickly began to exchange iron for sex. As the accounts of this are largely drawn from the sailors' journals, this market has been narrated as the result of an exotic and licentious Tahitian sexuality. As such, in this version of the story, the sailors’ sexual exploits become a form of ‘going native’. The ship’s crew raided the ship's toolboxes for iron to exchange for sex, and when their supplies ran dry, they began prising nails and screws out of the ship itself.  When the HMS Dolphin set sail from Tahiti, so much of the iron holding it together has been removed that the integrity of the ship was compromised.

The great hubris in evidence here is suggestive of how these European men saw themselves; their sense of their own power in relation to the people whose land they sought to 'explore' and exploit was so vast that it made them feel invincible. Their access to particular resources, whether guns or nails, was taken as evidence of their superior intellect; their mission of discovery was constructed as a moral imperative. This sense of being all powerful is mirrored in the behaviour of some of the aid workers, who, according to former senior Oxfam employee, 'live the life of small gods.' It is easy to see how the combination of a tremendous wealth disparity and a sense of moral superiority could combine to create a particularly vicious, arrogant, and violent form of misogyny, which is able to flourish free of the fear of reprisal. Even after the story broke, it seemed that Oxfam were unable to let go of their sense of moral superiority, with chief executive Mark Goldring pushing back against the widespread critique, not by claiming that the allegations were untrue but by suggesting that the response was overblown, stating: ‘The intensity and the ferocity of the attack makes you wonder, what did we do? We murdered babies in their cots?’ His incredulous and bizarre response is indicative of the ways in which these forms of sexual exploitation may have been considered commonplace. This absolute licentiousness is not the result of Haiti as a 'disaster zone', but of a similar racism to that seen in Tahiti over 200 years ago, which views women in the global South as worth nothing more than a screw.

If we wish to understand sexual abuse, we must look with clear eyes at the conditions in which it thrives. Whether within closed institutions or in places where particular institutions (such as NGOs) have huge clout, it is access to resources, both material and cultural, that determines the distribution of power. Exposing the hypocrisy of supposedly virtuous institutions is an important first step, but it remains limited in its impact, as it leaves the structures that distribute resources intact. As such, we must place the moral claims of these institutions within the material context from which they derive their power.

Filed under: imperialism, racism