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27 September 2011 @ 10:12 pm
Telepathy And Sexual Assault -- Star Trek: The Next Generation  
[Edit 3/6/12: It has come to my attention that the ST:TNG episode Dark Page has a telepathic man who is not dead, mentally unstable, or a rapist. This is YAY! I saw the episode, and indeed, none of the kinds of fail I describe below are present. I hope there are more episodes I also missed that don't fail!]

Star Trek: The Next Generation, is a series I grew up with and still overall have great fondness for. However, it is not without its problems from time to time, and its use of "telepathy as sexual assault" tropes is one of these problems. So, frankly, is its overall presentation of telepathic men.

Star Trek's use of telepathy as rape tropes falls under the category of "it just so happens that..." It "just so happens" that the only examples of rape or sexual assault in the whole series happen to have a telepath perpetrator. And it "just so happens" that the story focuses on a telepath victim. And it "just so happens" that there are very few male telepaths we ever see (who are alive and not unconscious, that is), and then it "just so happens" that most of them have their actions described in terms of sexual assault or "serial violation of others." But look, there's that minor character over there, he's a telepath and he didn't commit rape, he punished the bad male telepath who did! Yeah... I'm not that stupid.

Because Star Trek had (has) so many different writers playing in the sandbox, while it's reasonable to hold certain authors accountable for their particularly bad writing, it's hard to point fingers at individuals for the overall pattern. The overall pattern of a) almost never showing male telepaths and then b) showing them dead, unconscious, mentally unwell, or as serial rapists/cheaters/violators of others is really problematic. The sexism in the presentation of Deanna Troi is one set of problems (for another post), but the moral vacuum when it comes to the presentation of male telepaths is a different problem entirely. I am left with the impression that the authors, collectively, just could not imagine any other roles that male telepaths could possibly play in the storyline other than these extremely limited (and negative) ones, a problem I have seen in some other works of SF.

This is a problem not just for the messages it sends young psi folks watching the show (both male and female) about people like them, but also for the messages it sends the non-psi audience. These stories construct narratives in the minds of the viewers, narratives of whose stories are worth telling and whose are not, narratives about what good and ethical behavior is (and is not), narratives of who is safe and who is an insider vs. who is unsafe and who is a scary "other," narratives of who is trustworthy and who is untrustworthy, narratives about what it means to be a telepathic woman versus a telepathic man.

This post is about the men, because, in a raw deal overall, psi men usually get the worse treatment, and Star Trek is no exception. I will talk about the women in another post.

Let's start with a particularly obvious example of telepathy and rape, a Star Trek episode called: "Violations". Wow, real subtlety here, huh?

In this episode a male telepath comes on board the ship. Guess what? He's a rapist! Who does he rape? Three people, including the only telepath they have on their crew (Troi). Riker and Crusher are also raped, but we are shown repeated visual flashbacks to Troi's rape. I actually got the feeling that Riker and Crusher were added as token victims, so the writers could say "This episode isn't really all about Troi getting raped, this guy raped two other people, too! And it's not just about women, look, one of them is a man!"

Of course, we are not shown repeated visual flashbacks to Crusher or Riker's rapes. These characters also don't appear to suffer more than a minor inconvenience from the experience.

Once it is discovered what is going on, Riker explicitly refers to what happened to Troi as rape. I think this is the only time the word "rape" is even used in any ST:TNG episode. And again, it "just so happens" that we never see any non-telepathic rapists in the seven seasons of this show.

Only telepathic men commit rape.

I'm not sure what exactly is going on here. Perhaps the writers wanted to write about rape in a "safe" way -- since telepathic men "don't really exist," it's safer to have them doing the rapes because then the show doesn't have to tackle that in real life, almost every rape is committed by someone who is not telepathic (psi people, and telepathic people in particular, being few and far between!).

Star Trek takes place in the future, when humanity has supposedly evolved past raping, so clearly it has to be an alien doing it (as allegory to make the point that humans also still have the seeds of it). The rapist is "other." And for extra added "other," and "not really rape rape," and so that the writers don't have to show him physically raping her, we'll just make it a telepathic rape. That makes it "safe". Remember, Rape is OK when it's Sci Fi, especially if it's Mind Rape.

(And then, of course, the primary victim, Troi, is also part exotic "other," and the attacker was completely unknown to the Enterprise crew before this episode, because it's more plot convenient if the rapist is really, really "other". Even though most rapes take place between people who already know one another.)

It is ironic, that for all the talk of "humanity has evolved beyond this now," the writers pick an alien species that has evolved beyond this as well. From Wikipedia: "Tarmin tells the affected officers that physicians from his home world will help them with their healing. He adds that such attacks are almost unimaginable to the advanced Ullian society (emphasis mine); his people thought they had moved beyond such ways. Picard points out that humans were violent and savage, and that even though they have evolved, they still contain the seeds of that violence. He adds that this violence is still capable of consuming them, as it apparently did Tarmin's son."

So, rape is so rare as to be almost unimaginable to the people of Ullian society. It "just so happens" that we meet the one rapist on their planet. And it also just so happens that we never see the Ullians in any episode ever again (that I am aware of). This is a species invented entirely for a rape plot, but who apparently are so advanced that they never commit rape. Except this once.

Just so happens.

(And for what it's worth, Troi gets raped again in Star Trek Nemesis, right as she's about the have sex with Riker, for apparently no other plot purpose other than the writers wanted to show how evil the bad guy was. And this appears to be the only way Troi is even plot-relevant in the entire movie, judging from the Wikipedia synopsis. I must confess I skipped this particular movie.)

But wait, this can't be the only male telepath (aside from his father) who shows up on board the Enterprise, right?

Well, let's see. This episode, "Eye of the Beholder," has two human telepathic men (one is a person of color, too!), but one is actually dead at the beginning (and a murderer), and the other commits suicide at the beginning. It would have been cool to see a telepathic engineering officer, just being an engineering officer and not a Psi Plot Device, because, telepathic people can do things other than be plot devices, but no, they're both dead. And unless I'm mistaken in my survey of ST:TNG, these are the only two human telepaths who appear in the series.

This episode, "Night Terrors," has a Betazoid man lying in a mostly vegetative state for the entire episode. Again, it would actually have been cool to see a Betazoid science advisor, you know? A healthy, functional Betazoid doing something other than counseling or negotiations? But no. He's in a catatonic state. And what he thinks, in this catatonic state, is Key Plot Information.

In this episode, "Loud as a Whisper," the telepaths, who have no names and apparently no lines of their own, get killed at the beginning of the episode. Why? Because this is an episode about disability, and the telepaths were just a sort of communication assistance device. (So why did Data have to take over this role and not Troi...?) It's a story about disability, and achieving great things even with a disability. And our hero, Riva, doesn't even seem to give a shit that these telepaths were murdered, right in front of him, even though we have every reason to believe he's spent every waking moment with them. His people execute the murderer, so justice is "done"; they can now just get onto the plot, which is about him not having the telepaths around.

Now, for those who are not dead or catatonic.

In this episode, "Sarek," Spock's father is not a rapist (PHEW), because he's an Important Character in Star Trek canon, and Star Trek would not do that. He's mentally unstable, though.

This episode, "Tin Man," has a male telepath who is not a rapist, though he is mentally unstable as well. Basically, he has to run off and become a space hermit because he cannot live around others. Lovely. (Since we're listing tropes, it's important to also mention that this is a Telepathic Character Makes First Contact With Alien Life Forms story. More on those in another essay.)

This episode, "Man of the People," has a man who telepathically channels all his negative emotions into others (who are always women), altering their personality and killing them quickly. (Serial violator of women, someone who takes over their minds and bodies and kills them.) He picks as his next victim who but -- you guessed it -- Troi. In the end, Crusher breaks the link and he dies (poof) of all his own bad emotions, getting his "comeuppance." Once he dies, Troi ("poof") goes back to normal.

And there is only one more example, this episode, "The Price," an episode so bad, so flawed, so deeply WTF-y at every turn that it deserves its own blog post. (Caution, even the summary of it on Wikipedia is flawed.) In this episode, a male telepath is presented as a despicable, immoral "cheater," for doing exactly what Troi does all the time for the Enterprise crew. In this, one the most psi-negative Star Trek episodes ever (if not the most), using empathic awarenesses to help your side/employers/clients in a negotiation is portrayed as corrupt/cheating/evil; even Troi jumps on board the psi-negative bandwagon condemning this guy for doing it -- even though she does the exact same thing for Picard in many episodes.

When Devinoni calls her out on that, but she says it's OK for her -- it's "not cheating" when she does it because she is clear upfront with people that she is psi (and she works for the 'good guys'?), yet because he hasn't told anyone he has a Betazoid grandparent, he is "cheating." Lots of condemnation, shaming and public ridicule follows.

The problems with this episode are deep and numerous, and mostly beyond the scope of this post. I will simply say here that it's an especially painful episode to watch because it has a psi person as the main mouthpiece for psi-negativity and psi-phobia (backed up by the institutional white male (human) power of the Captain).

Then again, Troi's internalized oppression also deserves its own post.

And these are all the male telepaths you see. [Edit: See note at the top!] Dead, mentally unstable, "cheating," raping, killing, or a minor character there to bring justice to a "bad" male telepath (i.e. Tarmin).

It "just so happens" that none of these characters are mentally stable and healthy and not going around raping and killing and "violating" others, or doing things that the writers have an agenda to condemn as "cheating." It "just so happens" that we see no such examples of male telepaths, except for perhaps the occasional Vulcan minor characters, and we know they're "only" touch telepaths (and so not as dangerous).

[Aside from the one counterexample I have now found], there is no positive, or even neutral, presentation of psi men in this series. The "best" we get is the old, frail and mentally unstable Sarek. (Who happens to be mentally unstable in ways which make him act more "human," and hence more sympathetically.)

These stories present telepathic men as inherently predatory, and even if they're not, they're mentally ill/unstable or dead (and sometimes a combination of these three!). This is closely tied in with the idea that telepathic people "inherently invade other people's privacy/space," which is so common I've made it a "free space" on one of the psi fail bingo cards (also to be posted). Telepathic women may be sexy and passive and "useful," but psi men are always scary and dangerous and unstable and predatory. (And the women are sometimes, too.)

Star Trek is by far not the only body of work to play on these tropes -- there are maybe dozens of examples in American SF. It's so common, so silently assumed, that it does not get called out for the bullshit that it is. I hope that through writing this blog and calling things out, that people will start thinking about their use of these tropes, and about the messages that they send to young people (both psi and not psi) about psi people, and our "place" in the societies of science fiction.

One more thing before I close this out, and that is an encounter I had on an online dating site, because these messages in SF have a real impact. These attitudes exist In The Real World too -- SF sometimes creates them, sometimes reinforces them, and often justifies them. I cannot show you in one blog post the impact of all these little incidents over a lifetime, or even over a childhood. But I can show you one incident on an online dating site (where I am out), to illustrate exactly what it looks like when some stranger writes to me and pulls out psi-phobic bullshit justified by these tropes. (And yes I get to call it psi-phobia -- he explicitly says his reaction is grounded in fear!)

This clip is from over five years ago, so I am not sure I would have responded in exactly the same way had this happened very recently. It is, however, how I responded at the time.

Him: do I strike you as an odd fellow?
Me: yes
Him: well, no man is an island, so they say. and I am basically torn between my desire to be alone and my need to be with someone who can relieve me of the burden of being so isolated.
Him: that's me in a nutshell.
Me: /nod/
Him: maybe all my conflicted emotions would give you a headache! :D
Me: dunno... you would certainly not be the first
Him: I would be gratified if you were unable to "read" me
Me: well... that's highly unlikely
Me: best if we don't meet, then
Him: because my mind is my own. and I do not like the idea of anyone being able to know anything I do not expressly communicate to them.
Him: unless I want them to.
Him: otherwise I think I would feel quite violated.
Me: well then, I think we have irreconcilable differences.
Me: I am sorry
Me: that you feel that way
Me: but not for what I am
Him: you already said you had no interest in seeing me, why should you be sorry?
Him: hardly a great romance in the making :D
Me: I am sorry you feel that way about your feelings
Him: about my feelings? find me anyone on the planet who *doesn't* feel that way! :D
Me: most people?
Me: almost everyone I know?
Him: really?
Me: yes, really
Him: privacy and autonomy are for me the most important things in the world
Me: and *that* is what makes you different
Him: I would probably rather die than assent to live under the will of another
Me: you do, though. you follow laws, no?
Me: those were written by others
Him: yes.
Me: then you live under the will of many other people
Him: but this is tempered by the knowledge that we are blessed in relation to the vast majority of people who have ever lived in history.
Him: but privacy - privacy is the most important virtue. once we lose our privacy, we are at the whims of tyrants. it seems like your ability would be a pretext for tyranny of a more intimate sort... (emphasis mine)
Me: if someone were of an evil bent.
Me: of course, if someone is not, it can be used to help people, too, or you know what, just to live my own damn life
Him: but unless you lock yourself in a box, aren't you interacting with people every day?
Me: of course
Me: so are you and so is everyone else
Him: well, yes. but I do not have the ability to violate someone's personal autonomy without even trying. ;) (emphasis mine)
Him: perhaps I overstate the case. but the idea of anyone being able to know my thoughts besides me, whom I do not expressly invite inside my personal sphere... well, my skin just crawls. it's like something out of a horror movie. (emphasis mine)
Him: that's perhaps a reason why I am so uncomfortable around my parents, even though I do love them... because they know me so well, and it's not something over which I have any control.
Him: that had never occurred to me before.
Me: Well! Your hate-speech rant at me paid off for you!
Him: hate-speech rant?
Him: that was not my intent. [Intent! It's fucking magic!]
Him: ah well. the joys of internet miscommunication.
Me: For your future reference, calling someone "something out of a horror movie" and telling him/her that he/she is "violating" people just by living and interacting with others in the course of daily life is hateful, petty and *quite* unacceptable.
Him: I did not not mean to be hateful. I thought you, of all people, would be sensitive to privacy issues. [Haha, I "owe him" sensitivity to his hateful speech!]
Him: I most emphatically did not mean to offend you. and I do not consider autonomy a petty concern.
Me: You may be under the mistaken impression that this is "private", but to others it's as "private" as what you're wearing. You do not have a valid expectation of privacy over things in plain sight, or that you shove in other people's faces (such as strong feelings).
Him: but I don't. I try to keep a poker face in all my dealings, or at least a placid, unrevealing visage (sometimes mistaken for a grimace)
Me: And if it is in plain sight to me, then what?
Me: This is bullshit
Him: that's like Superman using the argument that privacy laws don't apply to him because he has X-Ray vision
Me: And maybe they don't
Him: if someone does not feel comfortable having their emotions read, you have an obligation to respect that [Now a lecture on my supposed "obligations" concerning my senses, in the name of respect.]
Me: And maybe Lance Armstrong shouldn't be allowed to compete because he's too good.
Me: And people with perfect pitch should not be allowed into music schools.
Me: This is 1. fear and 2. bullshit
Him: not the same thing at all. perfect pitch or good bicycling don't infringe on my personal space. (emphasis mine) [Here we are: I "infringe on his personal space" by existing in that space, unless I'm appropriately and sufficiently "self-repressed" for his comfort.]
Him: and yes, it *is* fear. bingo!

See how nice I was in respecting his privacy? I didn't even publish his name!
Current Mood: accomplished