An Unofficial Enquiry into the Fetishisms of the Oslo Police
by Reidar Visser
Legal reasoning is not of much help in my situation since Norwegian police keep waging an illegal campaign against me even though they officially admit they don’t have any criminal case against me. I will therefore instead turn to the specific and frankly absurd arguments they are using to convince the local population to participate in their criminal operation. Such local-level analysis is often the best angle for throwing light on the general phenomenon of extra-judicial punishment and witch hunts in modern states.
The Role of Sexual Orientation Strictures in Police Persecution
Since I wrote my earlier analysis of the modalities of the police operation, I have been able to obtain some additional clues about how the police’s campaign of persecution is being justified vis-a-vis the general public locally. In addition to spreading rumours about my sadomasochistic sexual orientation, the police claim that I am fetishistically inclined towards objects in the pictures I have taken: This, in turn, ostensibly serves as a link between my photography and my sexuality, and explains, at least inside the police’s own heads, why so vast resources must be spent on persecuting me and punishing my street photography.
I have suspected this tendency ever since I encountered a drunk guest at Grand Hotel Huis ter Duin in Noordwijk in the Netherlands in December 2011. I was complaining to neighbours about severe noise at night, whereupon the neighbour, who worked for a Dutch telecom firm and was staying in the room beneath my room where guests were routinely asked by police to disturb me, broke out in laughter and shrieked hysterically, “It is the guy in the room above us! Nike! Nike! Nike!” I asked what had Nike had do with this, but he just kept screaming it again and again. I was stupefied at first, since I hadn’t been wearing any Nike apparel for ages, and since that brand certainly hadn’t featured prominently in the photography for which I was ostensibly being punished by the police.
With my latest findings, I am more convinced than ever that this outburst by a rather drunk stalker is a clue to understanding the police’s illegal campaign. The operational manifestations of this line of thinking are myriad:
One of the main street theatre activities (quasi daily life scenes staged by the police) involves locals walking in circles on the beach collecting seashells in great quantities. This ritual – which has been performed with remarkable regularity from the Netherlands to the Pacific region – supposedly goes back to anthropological studies of fetishism, in which shells are a common object of worship.
Stalkers have been fitted with apparel that appeared in my photographs but that is deliberately worn in unseasonal contexts on instructions by the police, such as fur hats and winter boots in the middle of summer.
The police appear to take a particular interest in feet and shoes. Repeatedly, stalker cars have featured young women sitting in the front of the car with their legs outside the car windows while the car is driving at full speed, or the stalkers walk barefoot in autumn or winter.
Installations of differing artistic calibres supposed to reflect fetishist themes have been tirelessly arranged by the police wherever I venture, from Boston in the USA to Asia. Particularly recurrent themes are abandoned shoes that litter the streets wherever I go, occurring with far higher frequency than one would expect in well-to-do, first-world semi-urban neighbourhoods.
Fetishism and Fashion Photography
As explained in a previous article, from the legal point of view the police’s musings in this regard are one hundred per cent uninteresting, since photography of the nature that I was engaged in is not an actus reus or an objectively defined offense under Norwegian law. Theoretically speaking then, in legal terms, even if what they said were true, it still wouldn’t have any legal relevance whatsoever. I would still be innocent, and their operation against me would still be a crime. The judicially correct answer to the police’s allegations is simply “I don’t have to answer you”. And to be honest, these are details with which I’d really prefer not to bother the general public.
Nonetheless, since Norwegian police have constructed an extra-legal witch hunt around this theme and exported it to altogether 12 other countries, it is worth taking some time to analyse their thinking and how it relates to my photography and sexuality respectively.
First, the photography. Yes, I confess, the majority of photos will have had specific clothing items and particular brands in them – including boots and hats which is what the police seem to be most interested in. This is after all quite unremarkable within the genre that we are dealing with here: To make a head to toe shot is the norm for almost all fashion photography. On the largest Flickr fashion subgroup, a specific injunction on etiquette indicates that images will be deleted unless they satisfy the head to toe requirement. Since Norway is a developed country and the images were taken in winter when temperatures typically reach minus 10 Celsius, it would be rather hard to avoid images with hats and boots.
Beyond that, certain items that feature prominently in the police’s harassment campaign against me – including fur hats and various footwear brands – were indeed among the principal variables that defined distinctive street fashion looks which I was documenting in my project. As such, they were deliberately included. Specifically, among the most recurrent variables included in the sample (alongside other items that I have seen no trace of the police taking any special interest in, like down jackets) were three boot brands and one fur hat type which exhibited interesting regional usage patterns and bottom-up tendencies in the shaping of Nordic street fashion. Firstly, the Hunter welly which enjoyed something of a meteoric rise after Kate Moss had been spotted wearing a pair at the Glastonbury rock festival in 2005. The trend stayed for rather longer in Oslo, where for the subsequent half-decade a substantial portion of its female inhabitants would put on their Hunters at the slightest hint of humidity in the air. Their main competitor in the battle for pre-eminence in Norwegian streets was a second item that was also included in my sample, a lace-up welly by the Danish designer Ilse Jacobsen which appears to have become more popular in Norway than in Denmark. Thirdly, the Sorel boot, a Canadian Arctic winter design that goes back to the 1970s, is an example of a bottom-up fashion development after it became trendy among ski bums throughout the northern hemisphere since the mid 2000s, if not earlier; it eventually rose to stardom in 2009 through its inclusion in the catalogue of US fashion distributor JC Penny. Finally, various incarnations of the giant fur hat briefly became something of a must-have item around 2010. I included it in my sample since it was interesting to see how it was adapted to and made an impact on existing prototype looks.
Examples of looks similar to the photos I took and which the Oslo police has used as pretext for persecuting me in 13 countries
Beyond the theoretical assumptions that certain basis items like these influence street fashion and serve as a check on designer innovations, one very obvious advantage of using expensive garments as variables is that the universe of investigation becomes manageable. Contrast this with other, typically cheaper garments, especially jeans and sweaters, which exhibit almost endless variations. This again connects to theory: Given the higher price of these garments, they represent a higher investment on the part of the consumer, which in itself provides a plausible basis for hypothesising endurance. As a general point, many previous studies in fashion studies verge on fetishism in far greater way than mine did, including meticulous analyses of dress length etc. without accounting for the relationship between different kinds of garment. My intention was to rectify that rather mathematical bias as well as other methodological problems such as over reliance on normative sources (sales catalogues, fashion bloggers) instead of descriptive sources.
Sadomasochism and Fetishism
So much for the photos. They had lots of fur hats and boots in them, as indeed was the intention.
Let’s then turn to matters of sexuality. I assume the police have based their analysis on my web surfing habits – that is after all where the police tend to go whenever they encounter something unusual. And no surprise, they may have found a good deal of boots there and even some fur as well!
Eureka? Did we just spot a crime? Am I under arrest now? Judging from the police’s belabouring of their hypothesis in the operational modalities of their campaign, it surely seems as if they credit me with establishing the connection between sex and the shoe, or between fur and sadomasochism. But the truth is, if the Oslo police wants to find erotica void of references to particular materials or shoes and boots with particular connotations, they may well have to go back to the stone age.
Let’s nonetheless focus on sadomasochism. As a genre, it is littered with links to fabrics and shoes and boots. Regarding fabrics, SM connotations go long back in history, including furs which appeared in the ground-breaking Venus in Furs by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. Later, other fabrics have emerged as signifiers of sadomasochist subculture, including leather, latex and PVC. With respect to shoes, there are also multiple connections and connotations. For example, in SM, high heels can be associated with subjugation and dominance alike, according to context. In more recent decades, lesbian and gay pornography have developed dominant ideals and stereotypes centred on army boots and engineer boots, sometimes as part of broader leatherdyke and -men cultures. Lesbian butchism acquired iconic status in some of the great photography by Della Grace as reflected in the Love Bites anthology. Finally, certain shoe brands have achieved a certain fetishism status through the emergence of grassroots or indie porn; a case in point being Buffalo Boots in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
It should be added that within the context of sadomasochism, these objects are often signifiers rather than objects of worship in themselves. Subs may typically fetishize objects owned by their dominant partner; conversely if there is no SM context, the symbolic value disappears.
More broadly speaking, certain fashion subcultures such as goth, punk, steampunk, and emo subculture have at times also acquired a symbiotic relationship with sadomasochism as a sexual subculture, or have become associated with kink positivity more generally. This in turn have made for cross pollination in fashion, for example with items like studded belts, black leather jackets and shoe brands like New Rock, Demonia and Converse. Some of these brands come from or lapse into mainstreamism, again others remain marginal and hence continue to serve as subculture signifiers. New Rock is an examples of a shoe brand that has remained strictly subculture. By way of contrast, Doc Martens have oscillated. DMs may have been radical in the pre-grunge era of the late 1980s, but would not raise an eyebrow circa 1996. Various failed revival attempts meant that the brand recovered something of an underground position circa 2008, before another bout of mainstreamism took hold in 2010. Something similar happened with studded belts in the mid 2000s, whereas black leather jackets now seem to have become so irreversibly mainstream that they are pretty much devoid of subculture connotations.
To me, potential behavioural signifiers of the coveted dominatrix are more important than objects, as they tend to be more reliable. The best example is of course simply dominant behaviour in inter-personal relationships. That requires however both a high degree of social intimacy as well as duration of time. Potentially dominant behaviour that can be glanced from greater social distance include women who do martial arts or women who participate in social arenas traditionally seen as the preserve of men.
Aspects that could be labelled as fetishism are in my view inferior to behaviour as indicators of potential dominant instincts, since what people happen to be wearing in a fleeting moment on the street can often be quite difficult to relate to sexuality, and most certainly with respect to such a rare species as sadomasochists. To the extent that such things have mattered to me, fabrics have generally been secondary to aesthetical aspects – black leather can be great, but much cliche SM attire strikes me as rather tacky. As far as looks are concerned, I tend to associate certain fashion styles more generally with potential SM interest, such as military and punk. With respect to individual items, potential SM signifiers will have rather explicit and credible references to potential dommehood and stand out conspicuously in the crowd – metal belts, studs, spurs, metal-reinforced shoes or boots (say, steel-toed DMs or New Rocks) and other apparel that carries distinctive connotations of warrior potential, rebellion and general mayhem. Some of the porn sites I used to look at included SM scenarios with a focus on shoes and boots in settings of punishment and discipline; yet again others had no such content whatsoever and instead focused on a myriad of more physical themes ranging from tickling via medical SM to sounding and pegging as well as SM lifestyle themes such as cuckolding.
These ladies are doing it right. But my street photography never focused on styles like these.
Let’s then discuss how this all relates to the police’s grand theory. As already explained, there are no legal ramifications. I could have taken pics with perfect correlation to my sexual interests (say, just for the sake of the argument, hordes of young female skinheads wearing steel-toe DMs) and there would have been no legal issues as long as I did not commit any actus reus relevant to photography. As for the plausibility of the police’s kindergarten justice, it also fails. Their crude generalisation that I should be fetishistically interested in any fur hat or boot they would throw at me carries no credible relationship to my complex sexuality as just described. The single boot or piece of cloth, in isolation, has zero interest to the cosmology of dominant signifiers that I am describing. A simple parallel to hetero-normativity should illustrate the implausibility and banality of this kind of thinking: Hetero-normative women are no more interested in the average idiot male in the street just because he happens to have a penis between his legs! Should we call every hetero straight woman a penis fetishist? (There is of course a certain percentage of males who do think women are universally interested in their penises.)
At times, the police appear to take a particular interest in certain brands of shoes when they stage their theatre scenes. They will presumably have seen a pattern whereby my photography tended to focus on a limited set of garments, including specific boots and fur hats. As I have also explained, some brands are indeed imbued with a certain fetishist value in SM subcultures, albeit clearly secondary to more trustworthy behavioural characteristics: A punk who does kickboxing or a discriminating shoeaholic would be great examples of how fetishism and behavioural characteristics can merge in interesting ways. But there is a new sub-set of problems in the police’s thinking here. The first, again, relates to the reductionism involved in conflating interest in an object in an SM context with pure fetishism: The idea that any woman could put on a particular boot and it would automatically be sexually interesting is again absurd and insulting in the extreme to many sadomasochists. Many gays have spent enormous amounts of time having to explain they may not be really interested in other men unless there is mutual homosexuality at work. The same goes for sadomasochists, who fall in love with personalities above all, exactly like other human beings.
Beyond these overarching issues, in the police’s core argument regarding brands – as epitomised in the drunkard jumping up and down screaming Nike! after he had learned I was the police target at Huis ter Duin – they also fail spectacularly. The police’s claims may be due to the fact that a great German SM site that I visited a lot seemed to have a predilection for letting models torment their victims with Nike trainers. But the police’s reasoning exhibits some remarkable contradictions. First, there are some basic questions: Why do the police believe the shoe brand is the interesting aspect in these photos, when it is clearly the act of a beautiful lady subduing a man that makes them dramatically unique and totally different from run of the mill photos of girls on the street wearing Nike trainers? The fact that the domme is dressed in streetwear may perhaps play a role in creating next door connotations and as such form a welcome realism angle instead of the usual porn industry cliches. But the extrapolation that every woman wearing the same outfit should suddenly be a domme is the police’s own, and it carries no more weight than the crude assumption of generalised penis fetishism among straight heterosexual women. And as I have just outlined, in any case, the fashion preferences of that porn site actually did not particularly dovetail with my own ideas about fashion and SM correlations; in other words my interest in the site despite the lack of overlap with my particular military fetishist tendencies just goes to underline how it is the SM content that trumps any fetishism aspect.
Most important of all, though, concerning the Norwegian police’s grand theory of a Nike fetish which they have exported to altogether 12 countries, is the fact that I must have taken less than 1 per cent of photographs with Nike apparel in any shape or form – far less than the naturally occurring rate in a cross section of pedestrians in Oslo. If anything, Nikes were statistically underrepresented in my samples! Nike was one of several brands which I may have included in a couple of examples as possible harbingers of prototypes and micro trends, but which I eventually dismissed as uninteresting to the project (it gradually came to be more restricted to winter fashion). So if I have this intense Nike fetish, why do I systematically take pictures of lots of women wearing Hunter and Sorel boots, studiously avoiding the Nikes which are as plentiful in supply in Oslo as anywhere else on the globe? Is it perhaps because my interest in the SM website featuring Nike dommes derived from the fact that it offered something unique in terms of sadomasochism which had nothing to do with street photography at all? For the record, I also did no systematic photography of other brands associated with sadomasochist subcultures as outlined above. The odd DMs etc. that I photographed as possible signs of minor fads and revivals must have been less than 1 per cent and eventually played no important role in the portfolio overall.
In sum, the logic doesn’t add up even in the centrepiece of the police’s argument. To the extent that there are fetishism related themes in my sexuality, they are always subordinate to and defined in relation to an overarching s theme of sadomasochism. To posit a general sexual interest in shoes or boots or fur hats or whatever, as the police does, is a completely dehumanizing act, similar to what was done against gays for decades and centuries, when it was popularly thought that they were interested in anal penetration by anyone and anything. Whereas the last thing I want to do is to belittle other people’s sexualities, to me the shoelicking business in isolation actually comes across as slightly meek and repetitive compared to the adventurous gladiatorial schemes that I have concocted through the years. What about the pegging, the nettles, the hot wax and 1,001 other things that I prefer not to enumerate even in this moment of forced sexual glasnost – the police are not giving me much credit for that, are they? What about the femdom heroines in the medieval SM adventures of Anne Rice (writing as Anne Roquelaure in the Sleeping Beauty triology), or the Winter Journey story by Norwegian author Stig Sohlenberg (about E, a woman who gets abducted to a nun monastery; only available in Danish entitled En vinterrejse). Where do those mostly fur and shoe-less adventures fit into the police’s scheme? Maybe they are not interesting to the police because they simply don’t fit into their simplistic narrative?
A fetishist of the kind construed by the Oslo police might have been more interested in their own clothes and shoes, or even in the thing itself isolated from human context. Again, nothing wrong in that, but it just isn’t me. Fetishism of the truly objectifying kind is actually far more pronounced in the world of candid photography by straight hetero-normative males, which features a far greater degree of invasive photography than I ever engaged in, with endless close-ups of buttocks and breasts dominating the genre, often in such complete isolation from the rest of the persona that the label fetishism is fitting indeed. But tits and ass fetishism, where a pair of great boobs in many cases can make waves regardless of personality and intelligence, fits in with hetero-normativity. This, presumably, is also why it rarely becomes the subject of police attention.
Fetishism as an Intellectual Problem
The intellectual problem at work here is called reductionism: Extracting a detail from a complex pattern and then imposing it as a general theme. That is the police’s fetishism, i.e. limiting my complex sexual cosmology to something can be understood by the public at large. They were probably bubbling with excitement as I researched this article, shouting jubilantly each time a photograph appeared as I searched for suitable images to illustrate the various points. A shoe! Another shoe! How criminal isn’t that? They certainly appeared to be scrambling for resources for their endless theatre performances, presumably believing that I had a sexual interest in absolutely everything I was searching on.
What the police confirmed was their own fetishism. I am actually not surprised. I have seen and criticised exactly the same tendency in Iraq studies too for more than a decade. During my doctoral studies at Oxford, I was interested in complex interplay between Basra regionalism and Iraqi nationalism. After the beginning of the Iraq War in 2003, I quickly got reduced to a “Shiite expert” in Washington circles, where there was a fetish for a simplistic, sectarian understanding of Iraq as a compact of three mutually hostile ethno-religious communities. Quite like the police, many academics exclude everything that doesn’t fit their own narrative and interpret anything that conceivably fits their own ideas as decisive proof. Never mind some years ago the Oslo police paid for an expensive doctoral study in police errors precisely of this “tunnel vision” kind; they apparently didn’t read it. Only weeks ago a Norwegian court struck down yet another amateurish case by the Oslo police – the Klomsæt case relating to alleged leaks of evidence in the 22 July terror attacks. In no uncertain terms, the court made it clear that the police at an early stage of investigation had fallen in love with a particular interpretation of the case, and had subsequently shunned all evidence that pointed in different directions than their own preferred interpretation.
What the police need to wake up to is the reality of our complex humanity. There are many things in life that may appear with different meanings in different contexts and have “dual use” potential – a term that historically was used to starve millions of Iraqis during the sanctions in the 1990s and is currently making the sky unsafe for Iranians. If the police were to criminalize everything in life that had potential sexual connotations, they would soon be running out of things to do. In the academic world alone, there would be thousands of similar cases of potential overlap and tangentiality. What about a lesbian sociologist who may have an academic interest in the emergence of tomboy culture? Is she supposed to be treated as a potential predator? What about the kinky university professor at an arts institute who also has an academic interest in tattoos? And in my case as a Middle East expert, what about the deeply interesting case of boyat (tomboys) of Iraq and the Gulf region more generally, often defining the frontline of the clash between religion and secularism in the Middle East? Since I have just declared a sexual interest in emos and women with butch tendencies, is this dual-use subject now off limits to me as a regional expert? Oh, and while I am at it, dare I mention that the oldest surviving photograph of a human being by Louis Daguerre from 1837 depicts a man shining another man’s boots as they were unknowingly captured on camera? Should we perhaps prosecute the great Daguerre posthumously since this scene after all is brimming with homo-erotic SM themes?
When Fetishism Leads to Police Criminality
Maybe we should ask the Norwegian supreme court about these things? Or maybe not? The truth is that these are meditations over morals that have nothing to do with the law and hence nothing to do with the police. The Pope might be a more proper address, or perhaps the clergy of Islamic states. But the Oslo police persevered with their extrajudicial punishment of my academic quest for categorization – a time-honoured scientific exercise that goes back to Aristotle and Plato. It is exactly the same brain that took those photos that has produced some of the most cited academic work on the intricacies of Basra politics, the tribes and families involved in the regionalisms of Southern Iraq, and their various sectarian and sub-sectarian affiliations. Since every professional historian is on a constant lookout for original and unique sources, it made perfect sense for me academically to create those series of images. While working on a main subject, I have always used my left hand to maintain binders of numerous side projects that might potentially blossom one day, on subjects as diverse as Aden separatism, the status of Christians in Sudan, and demographic trends in seventeenth century Bergen. The advantage of using this approach is that when you finally put a side project centre stage, much of the source base is already there ready to use, enabling a kickstart. To me it was a perfectly logical choice to transform the boring daily commute through the icy streets of Oslo to something interesting, creative and systematic that would pay off academically in a future project.
Or so I thought. It is unsurprising the police never dared approach a real court with this travesty of a case. In judicial-sociological terms, what we have here are the workings of a kangaroo court. It is located in the central police complex in the eastern part of Oslo. It is strange court in several ways. There are no proper judges. Defendants are strictly prohibited from explaining themselves: Since the police have already made up their mind as to what happened and why, it is critically important that the accused is not given any opportunity to say something, lest the police’s own favourite storyline be disturbed. (Today, after the Oslo police have spent millions of Norwegian kroner conducting a global witch hunt based on their own preferred narrative, this point seems particularly important.) An inquisition? A too kind comparison. What we have here is actually inferior to the inquisitions of the sixteenth century: Whereas the ample use of torture and social harassment are common to both, medieval inquisitions did at least have formal judges and a process of questioning, sometimes with the general public as witnesses, providing a degree of transparency.
More relevant parallels are the ad hoc courts headed by vigilante Islamist groups of post-2003 Iraq. Sadrist extremist enforcement brigades form a particularly interesting, if technologically inferior, parallel to the workings of organised crime unit of the Oslo police. An even greater array of such groups materialised during the semi-official vigilantism of ad hoc de-Baathification seen in many Iraqi provinces prior to the March 2010 parliamentary elections, where any past connection to the Baath was used as a pretext for extreme threats and measures of social exclusion concocted by local politicians without any reference to the law. Yet another relevant parallel is the religious police of Saudi Arabia, whose fight against polytheism in any shape or form resembles the Oslo police’s crusade against perceived deviances from their hetero-normative sexual preferences. All of these parallels serve to underline how hypocritical Norwegian police are when they proclaim a battle against “morality police” among Muslims in Oslo. They themselves are acting in exactly the same fashion! The persecution of me in altogether 13 countries for my photographs means that few pictures have created such hysteria since the caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed.
In criminal terms, as I have already shown, the police’s operation against me constitutes an actus reus or a criminal act. This latest analysis of grotesque state fetishism adds information about the criminal mind or mens rea of the police, and underlines the particular monstrosity of their crime. It can be of central significance here do distinguish their crime from “ordinary” torture, and instead describe the similarities to a crime against humanity where the goal is to target minority groups in an entire civilian population. With the details that have emerged about the use of mass education institutions as elements in the police persecution (school classes are frequently enlisted to take part in harassment of me), we must assume that whole minorities in such population centres as Noordwijk and Maasdam in the Netherlands will likely have felt targeted when they saw what happened to me.
The basic message is that unless you subscribe to hetero-normativity or belong to an officially protected sexual minority group (most often LGBT), you can be targeted simply because of your sexual identity in many so-called liberal democracies. It doesn’t mean kinksters are systematically targeted, just that your human rights protection is weaker than ordinary citizens. In certain cases, deviance from the hetero-normative paradigm can be punished in the absence of any crime, exactly like heresy was punished in medieval times. The failure of the police both in Norway and elsewhere to prosecute photographers who shoot far more intimate and truly privacy-invading pictures of “hot babes” per the “tits and ass” paradigm speaks volumes about the hypocrisy at work. With regard to me, they even issued a formal letter to the effect they had no criminal case against me, yet went on to punish me extra-judicially. The message couldn’t have been clearer: My only crime is my sexual orientation.
It is humane to be reductionist. The police should not be afraid of their fetishisms. However, when they use their fetishisms to prosecute hate campaigns that amount to global witch hunts, their fetishisms become not only criminal, but a crime against humanity. Sadomasochism with all its diverse subgenres is part of that humanity; extra-judicial punishment is not.