Rape and Discourse

I went to high school in Framingham, Massachusetts. It was senior year, and I had managed to get myself into the closest class to philosophy offered, political theory. My teacher was a woman of rare substance, who managed to challenge and eke out strands of logic and thought many of us hadn’t previously met. I could go on about her teaching methods or her character in a post all its own, and perhaps someday I will. Today I’d like to focus on one particular story from her classroom. Earlier in the week, a student had been raped. A freshman girl had been forced into oral sex by an upperclassman (and member of some sports team). Those in the know had been expressly forbidden from discussing the matter. This wasn’t something that went into the papers, nor something which spread around campus quickly, like when we had our Columbine scare (which fortunately turned out to be a false alarm). What still sticks with me is Ms. F starting the class by closing the door stating this was a topic she was not allowed to bring up, but one we needed to talk about. The chairs were in a circle, and we started to talk. About the rape being covered up. About what we would do if it was us being forced. If it had been a friend in either position. About what rape itself was.

In that moment when Ms. F closed the door, she was trusting us. Trusting her students with her career. She saw the clamp down on discourse as antithetical to the schools mission to educate us, and to our own health as citizens. To discuss the rape was to discuss the culture it occurred in, and its failings. It was to discuss the fear of rape, and the fear that always accompanies incidents of rape, the fear of false accusation. I would like to discuss how the fear that surrounds rape relates to discourse as my contribution to Take Back the Blog.

In discussing rape, there are a few points I want to touch on:

  • How our culture influences and is influenced by rape
  • How the fear of rape affects us
  • How discourse can allow us to fight back

The first thing to realize is how our culture is one of rape. I’m not saying you see billboards advertising “Rape, Yay!”. What I am saying is that a few very important and in some cases formative aspects of our culture create victims and rapists, and create the perspectives we view the victims and rapists through. Nezua of The Unapologetic Mexican has written eloquently as a father about how we create rape victims (emphasis mine):

In this particular example, it teaches the little girl that her feelings and her personal boundaries are secondary to the feelings and wants of the person who wants to get some lovin’ from her. Years of this, and how easy will it be to say “no” to some guy with a boner who gets her alone after the prom? You know all the lines he’ll drop on her, and I bet they won’t sound too different than her parent’s. She’ll be inculcated from years of forced affection (“Give your grandpa a kiss…don’t be rude,” “Tell me you love me, now” “You’re hurting my feelings by not saying you love me”) and the idea that her own body and feelings are inconsequential in the face of someone else’s desires and wants. And then god forbid, should a day ever come when a man forces himself on her, or even coerces her when she’d rather say NO but doesn’t feel empowered to

It seems like such an innocent thing at first. “Say I love you”. “Say yes”. I’m sure many readers can remember those unwanted hugs and kisses at family get togethers. Where some large adult figure suddenly was squeezing you in an embrace that made you vow never to use that much perfume or cologne. The rasping kiss that made you realize even lips wrinkle and dry out with age. And when you pull away and make a face, admonishment comes. Perhaps not from your enlightened parents, but perhaps from a relative who had previously been watching the display of affection with a sighing approval. I remember seeing my little sister apprehended by perhaps the worst of the offenders, the cheek pincher. “Oh how young you are! How big you’ve gotten!”. So being the odd kid that I was, I walked right up to said relative, pinched her cheeks and remarked in my most emotional voice “Oh how old you’ve gotten!”. The look of surprise on her face was an amusement my sister and I shared the rest of the day. We weren’t bothered again. But that kind of reaction was so clearly out of bounds. It simply wasn’t socially acceptable. The idea that not all displays of affection are welcome, and that it is ok to want to avoid them is does not come up frequently in public discourse. I have no idea if it is in any books or articles on parenting. Honestly when I read Nezua’s post, it was quite startling.

Another startling point is that I think we create a culture that values rape.

Jessica at Feministing has a post up on pornography that centers around the humiliation of the woman:

And perhaps her most important point:

The realest thing about humilitainment porn is the way it buttresses long-held assumptions of women’s inherent inferiority, even if that’s not foremost on the minds of those who get off on it.

If we start wandering from porn into more mainstream culture, we can see this is a little more prevalent. There is a very pernicious idea that if you reverse the roles, sexual violence is funny. Take the trailer for My Super Ex-Girlfriend for instance. When the guy tries to break up with the woman, she slams him against a wall, destroys his car, attacks the woman he is with, and mentions at the end she knew he’d come back, which is why she didn’t kill him. Now imagine this movie with Superman and Lois. Lois decides she wants to date someone new. Superman slams her against a wall. He trashes her car. He tries to kill the new guy she is dating. He uses violence to get her back, and the threat of violence to keep her. How the hell is that a funny movie? Yet that is just what “My Super Ex-Girlfriend” was marketed as.

The problem is this normalizes violence centered around sex and relationships. It makes the reaction of the person being denied love/sex/relationship understandable. Suddenly Toby Keith’s very disturbing music video makes more sense. We expect people to get violent around a break up. This is essentially expected violence to result from being denied access to another person. This is mainstream. The unacknowledged side of this is a recent rise in humiliation porn. The idea that when you are with a person that their lack of enjoyment is a part of yours. Specifically sex is framed as being about a man enjoying himself, and a woman actively suffering in some way.  And if she denies herself to the man, violence is an expected result.

If we look at media coverage of rape itself, the results are even more telling. From a FAIR article on rape coverage in the media:

Few facts are given about the survivors of the assaults in these stories, except the victim-blaming detail that the women were reportedly drunk at the time of their assaults. (This is mentioned twice in the Times‘ story.)While there are conventions protecting the identity of rape victims, there is nothing to prevent them from being “humanized” at least as fully as their assailants. In neither of these stories was that even attempted.

In a special report on rape on campus (New York Times, 1/2/91), Celes suggests why the Times might show equal or greater sympathy for rapists than for the women they assault. “Sexual activity that goes too far and becomes abhorrent to the woman is not new among college students,” writes Celes. “But calling it date rape is,…defining sex between dates or acquaintances without the woman’s consent as a form of male assault rather than a form of female error.”

The idea of blaming the victim is nothing new, but the media in some cases actively excuses the perpetrator.

But helpful reporting on rape is the exception, not the norm. Instead of hearing the cries of survivors, the press is hearing the complaints of apologists; instead of condemning cruelty, the press promotes excuses.

When you hear bullshit about biological drives, or what the woman is wearing, you are seeing an attempt to frame rape as a natural occurrence. Perhaps it is a crime, but it is hardly anything to get worked up about.  Sexual violence is expected. What is left unspoken is that sexual violence is valued. It is a fantasy for some men, and at least an understandable urge to the rest of our culture. But above all it creates fear. It creates a fear that stops words and actions. That is why rape is valuable: because the fear of rape is valuable.

A little less than a year later I started attending UMass, Amherst. I almost immediately heard about the rapes that had occurred in recent years. The girl who had been raped by the campus pond in broad daylight. I heard for the first time that the trail connecting the Sylvan and Orchard Hill living areas was called “the rape trail”. It probably still is. College was a time when we were free to discuss, and acknowledge, but our words and actions still carried the scent of childhood. When we held “take back the night”, the campus would fix the broken callboxes and lights, and maybe add some more lighting, but for the most part things remained the same. Of course during orientation we were told to be careful. Women were advised on where to go and where not to go. Callboxes were pointed out, as was the escort service.

In all of this was an element of fear. Bitch Ph.D. has very illuminating words about fear:

And again: why would women fear this more than men? Random internet person develops some weird obsessive fixation on another random internet person, stalks and threatens him/her. I’ve seen this happen to both women and men. But guys don’t seem to fear it the way women do.

And what hit me suddenly–duh!–is that the only reason women fear this shit is because we are trained to fear it. And of course, underneath all that training is the fear of rape.

From the moment you walk on campus you are hit with a few facts: The prevalence of rape, and the need to take precautions to avoid it. You already walk onto campus knowing that you need to show affection even when you’d prefer not to, and that if you are raped it is likely your own fault for being drunk or dressing the wrong way. All of these thoughts create fear, and the result of fear is ice. Your words and actions become frozen. Fear doesn’t always produce fight or flight, it produces “oh shit, headlights!” and then roadkill.

So how do we combat this fear? One way to do it is through discourse. One obvious benefit is being exposed to new ideas, such as Nezua’s and Bitch Ph.D.’s respective posts. Another is that the act of discussing rape and the culture that surrounds it is itself of great benefit. The act of discussing rape and its implications allows us to go being the implicit and explicit notions of rape that pervade our culture. They also allow us to confront and move beyond the fears that surround sexual violence both personally and socially. When we had that discussion in high school, we covered how fear of violence itself was a form of violence. The fear that you or someone you know will be subject to sexual violence is partly one of our oldest fears, that of the unknown. Talking about rape is a direct way of diminishing its ability to frighten us.

Freedom from sexual violence is a basic human right, and a necessity in a democratic society. Fear of sexual violence is itself a form of sexual violence, and one we can start fighting right now. The more we talk about how we create victims, the less victims we will create. The more we discuss how we normalize sexual violence, the more we can recognize and call it out for what it is when we encounter it in popular culture. The more talk the more likely we are to find ways to promote safety without making everyone afraid to move, live, and be in our society.

Rape is a very violent, very personal, and downright terrifying topic. Don’t be afraid to bring it up more often.

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One Response

  1. […] Posted on April 15, 2009 by Dan (Fitness) Its hard to say rape, nevermind talk about it.  Yet talking about rape is the surest way to fight it.  Leaving rape as an unspeakable part of our discourse leaves victims and criminals out of the […]

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