Throughout the now nearly five year history of this blog, I’ve written extensively about the dynamics of rape, who the rapists are, how they operate and what has to happen in the culture to make them stop. Much of this is broad, and involves decades of change. In the words of an old Jewish saying imparted to me by Jaclyn Friedman, “it is not yours to complete the work; neither is it yours to desist from it.”
But rape the social problem takes decades to solve, and the rapes that happen to us or our friends or the people we love don’t happen over decades, they happen all of a sudden. When people read things like my responses to Emily Yoffe, they want to know, “I don’t have decades. What do I do now?”
The activist answer to this question, in the broadest terms, is really easy. You do what you can, with what you have, where you are. What does that mean practically? Here is what I think it means, today, and starting tomorrow. Because this is coming up on the context of the Yoffe piece, I’m going to primarily address one common area where repeat-offender acquaintance rapists operate, adult and young adult social environments in the US, especially those where alcohol is the social drug of choice. This leaves out stranger rape, where the dynamics are very different. It also leaves out a whole slew of other circumstances that repeat rapists use. For example, in institutional settings, like inpatient facilities and prisons, or in the armed forces, or in the certain sports environments or workplaces, there are very different dynamics and, probably, very different solutions. I am not going to try to address those, though, because I don’t know enough about them.
What To Do Today: Cockblocking Rapists
The paradigmatic repeat rapist uses a set of tactics that work, and they go like this: push alcohol, test boundaries, physically isolate the target, and narrow the target’s options. Look for that, and break it up. In the rapes of juveniles now being reported in Missouri, what did the older boys do? The girls were already smashed, but they pushed more alcohol, they put them in separate rooms, isolated from each other and with no friendly faces around. The person looking to get the drunk drunker, and then alone, is not to be trusted.
Spot The Boundary Testing
Look for the boundary testing. If a rapist wants to buy someone a drink, and doesn’t take no for an answer, what he got for his money is that the target can be talked out of “no.”
Not everyone who pushes boundaries is a rapist. Some people think they can touch without asking, because they have absorbed some terrible ideas, or because they are in social circumstances –like some highly sexualized environments — where they think they can touch whoever and however they want. That’s boorish, but it’s not the same thing as what the rapist does because the motive is different. Someone who gropes or smacks like they have permission even when they don’t may think it’s funny, may think it’s cute, may think it’s a good way to get laid. I have a problem with that, because that behavior makes it tougher for everyone else to see what the rapists are doing. But what the rapists do, they do for a different reason.
What the rapists do is target selection. They are looking for someone whose boundaries they can violate, and who won’t or can’t stand up for themselves. The best targets, the ones who offer the rapists the best chance of getting away with it, are those who won’t report — or who will never even admit to themselves that what happened was rape. The way the rapist finds those people is to cross their boundaries again and again, progressively testing and looking for resistance.
That’s the pattern to look for. If somebody seems to be testing to see if one of your friends can be pushed off of “no,” has a limited ability to stand up for themselves, that’s the red flag.
The most important thing you can do if you see this pattern is tell the target you see it. Forewarned is forearmed. In fact, somebody who is being targeted and pushed and tested may think they see the pattern, but may not trust their own instincts. If they know you see it, too, then they may trust a bad feeling that they are already feeling.
If you think someone is acting like a rapist, sizing up a target — encouraging intoxication, testing boundaries — then one of their best tools they have is to limit the target’s options. The rapist wants to get the target isolated. But when “hey, let’s go be alone somewhere” isn’t working, it may be because the target already has a bad feeling. If the target needs something — a ride home, a place to sleep, that sort of thing — then they may be willing to overlook misgivings if the rapist is the one offering it. A rapist will always want to be the target’s only ride home, only place to stay, etc.
It’s pretty easy to keep that from happening. If the drunkest person in the room has been left by their ride, and the person who has been pushing them to drink more is offering to take them home, they may not want to go, but they may not have a better option. Providing that option may be what gets your friend away from the potential rapist.
Protect The Drunks
Of course, people don’t only get drunk or high because someone pushes them to. Lots of people get drunk or high because they want to. Longtime readers will know that I don’t, but it’s part of the culture and it would be unrealistic to ignore it. Lots of people want to get drunk or high. And lots of people want to do that and then be sexual with someone. Now, that’s not how I roll. I wish alcohol had a less prominent place in our culture, and I wish there were a lot less overlap between sex and substance use. But that’s a really hard problem to change, and the whole point of this post is to talk about what to do today and tomorrow, not what to change over the next couple of decades.
So maybe you have a friend who wants to get fairly drunk, and then finds someone to have some sexytime with. That’s fine. But just like we tell our friends when they’re too drunk to be driving, shouldn’t we tell our friends when they are too drunk to hook up? Nobody can really take the keys away, but there’s a point past which we’re all pretty clear something shouldn’t happen. People who can’t walk or form a sentence clearly can’t consent, and if we let people wander off like that with a potential partner, we’re abdicating responsibility to people who have no ability to exercise it. People can make their own decisions when they are capable of making their own decisions.
What To Do Tomorrow: Make Sure Everyone Knows
The thing is, rapists absolutely need one thing to operate. They need people to believe they are not rapists. Stranger rapists do that by trying to hide that they are the person who committed the rape. Acquaintance rapists do that by picking targets who won’t say anything about what happened, or by using tactics that, if the survivor does speak up, people will decide don’t really count as rape. If you want to do something about rapists, make sure people know they are rapists.
I’m talking right-now solutions, literally something you can do tomorrow, so I don’t mean that over time we can change the culture so that alcohol-facilitated assaults are understood as rape. Lots of people are working on that. What I mean is that you can tell everyone you know that the person that you know raped someone, because the survivor told you and maybe only a few other people, is a rapist. You may not be able to say how you know, because you may not have the survivor’s permission to talk about it. But you can quietly tell your friends.
Cliff Pervocracy wrote about this in 2012: someone that, within a tight-knit community, lots of people know or suspect is a rapist, so much so that they kind of work around that person:
Have you ever been in a house that had something just egregiously wrong with it? Something massively unsafe and uncomfortable and against code, but everyone in the house had been there a long time and was used to it? “Oh yeah, I almost forgot to tell you, there’s a missing step on the unlit staircase with no railings. But it’s okay because we all just remember to jump over it.”
Some people are like that missing stair.
And what people do is, without being able to prove it, sort of take for granted that this person can’t be trusted, stick someone on them to monitor them and keep them from being able to commit rape. Cliff was very critical of this, as effectively if unintentionally covering for the rapist. And I agree. What communities need to do with the rapists in their communities is not to find a workaround; they need to actually deal with them, catch them and hold them accountable or throw them out. But that has to start somewhere. It starts with sharing information about the rapist. It starts with the new people knowing what the allegations are, the old people knowing what the allegations are, the leaders knowing what the allegations are, and all the people who would make excuses for the rapist knowing what the allegations are.
Because of the way people work around rapists in social circles now, the communities keep kicking the can down the road. New people often don’t find out until they’ve been around for a while, and some people know part of the story but not the whole story, and other people have a story about how one survivor isn’t credible but never have to deal with the commonalities between the several survivors’ accounts.
I drew a flowchart for my There’s A War On series, which dealt with consent violations, rape and abuse in kinky communities. Here’s the flowchart. What it shows is that if the stories of each individual survivor exist in isolation, the problem never gets dealt with. The survivors are each on their own, and the fear or the reality of resistant community reactions will tend to silence them. When those silos get broken down, the community can (and may be forced to) consider all the evidence together, which is really important to getting the fence-sitters and defenders to recognize that the behavior they are looking at is a pattern of abuse.
In the first instance, telling people what has been said, to the extent you can, will lead to the “missing stair” phenomenon, where people are wary of the accused rapist but feel like they can’t take decisive action, and so work around the person like a broken stair tread. But what happens is that letting the stories grow legs will bring other stories out. The serial rapists leave a trail of survivors; if the all speak up at once, the rapists can’t hide what they’ve done.
What can people do with unsubstantiated accusations? Quite a lot, actually. If you’re watching someone pushing one of your friends to have another round and getting handsy, would it be better to know if another person in your social circle said, “that person raped me”? Yeah, that would be important to know. And if two different people said it? And, given the silence around rape and the low reporting rates, one story is often an important catalyst for another. Once one story is out there, others tend to come up. The more data, the easier it is to compare, and evaluate credibility based on multiple data points. And what then? Then, accountability. That can look like a lot of different things. It can look like prosecution. It can look like some model of transformative justice, though I won’t try to make a pitch for transformative justice models because I won’t do it as well as its advocates would.* It might look like ostracization, because any social group, when someone harms its members, ought to be able to say, “you’re not welcome here anymore.”
Some people will say that’s rumormongering. Yes. Yes, it is. If stopping rape isn’t a good enough reason to spread rumors to you, then you and I have nothing further to discuss.
Some people will say that it’s unfair to do that, to simply take the survivor’s word, to say things about people without due process. Well, due process is for the government, to limit their power to lock people up or take their property. You don’t owe people due process when you decide whether to be friends with them. You don’t have to have a hearing and invite them to bring a lawyer to decide whether to invite them to a party. And let’s be honest, most of us repeat things that one person we know did to another person we know based on nothing more than that one participant told us and we believe them. We do it all the time, it’s part of social interaction.
So if you want to do something, take the label, plant it on the missing stair in your social circle, and make it stick.
It Can’t All Be On The Survivors
I’ve seen the following two things happen:
(1) someone gets sexually assaulted, whether raped or violated in another way, and people say to the survivor, “you have to do something! If you don’t do something, who will protect the next victim?”
(2) someone gets sexually assaulted, whether raped or violated in another way, and the survivor yells and shouts for people to deal with it, and the people who are friendly with both the survivor and the violator shrug their shoulders and try to stay “neutral.”
What these two things have in common is that in each case, the people around the situation place all the responsibility on the person who most needs help and can least be expected to go it alone.
That’s lazy, and that’s selfish, and it’s really easy. It’s really easy because it requires nothing of the bystanders. The people who are friends with both people may not want to accept that their friend, someone they are close to and think highly of, could do such an awful thing, because it calls into question their ability to judge people.
Or, they may just be afraid to confront people. Confronting people is emotionally taxing, and it often irreparably ends the friendship. In fact, about something as serious as rape, it invariably irreparably alters the friendship. If you believe that your friend raped your other friend, and you say, “hey, you raped my friend,” then the old friendship is gone forever as soon as the words leave your mouth. What remains is either enmity, or a relationship of holding someone accountable, just as tough and taxing as staying friends with a substance abuser who is trying to get clean and sober. That’s not easy. That’s a lot of work, and most people are not up for it.
The option most people choose, because it gets them out of that, is to choose to not make up their minds about what happened. Now, you might think that people can do that with one accusation. But believe me, people, that I could name several people who still “don’t know what happened” about a person — not the same person, but different ones — who has been accused not once, not twice, but at least three times of similar violations by three different people.
Just think about that. “Hey, you’re still friends with Boris. But X said Boris raped her.” “Well yeah, but I don’t know what to believe.” “Well, but you know what Y said, and Y’s account was a lot like X’s.” “Yeah, but I don’t know what to believe.” “But Z said Boris violated consent, too, and that’s three people …” “Well, I’ve been friends with Boris a long time, so I kind of don’t know what to think …” (Trust me when I tell you, folks, I’m not making that up.)
What can you do tomorrow? Don’t let your communities do that shit. Hold your friends to a higher standard.
Now you may be saying to yourself that this isn’t relevant to you, that you never are in social circumstances where you see someone pushing people’s boundaries and pushing alcohol and looking to be the one to take the drunk “home.” Or that in your community you don’t have someone who everyone kind of knows but doesn’t want to know is not to be trusted. Or that you never see the bystanders sitting on their hands and making rape an issue between the survivor and the rapist.
And if that’s true, it must be nice where you live.
*I’m not a fountain of good references for transformative or restorative justice, either, but the restorative justice Wikipedia entry looks like a good place to start, and Tranformative Justice Law Project, and RestorativeJustice.org might also be useful reading.
I wrote earlier today about Emily Yoffe’s longish post about how there’s nothing we can do about rape except tell girls not to drink with boys. She may not say that’s what she says, but that is, in effect, what she says.
I’m not the only person who thinks what she wrote is deeply wrongheaded and offensive. In fact, virtually everyone whose opinion is worth a damn to me is hoping mad about this piece. And part of it is because this is a routine for her. Quoting Alexandra at Feministing from the last time she pulled this stuff:
Last January, you told another reader whose friend was considering pressing chargesagainst a man she believes raped her while she was drunk that “trying to ruin someone else’s life is a poor way to address one’s alcohol and self-control problems.”
Six months later, in the one column last year in which you accepted that intercourse with a drunk woman might be rape, you managed to spend a good chunk of your response talking about how women set themselves up for assault by drinking; in a follow-up, you defended your victim-blaming as pragmatism. (It’s unclear to me why this account avoids your usual critiques; it could be written by the voiceless friend from the most recent letter.)
Later in 2012, you answered a letter from a woman who had been raped by her husband years ago, and had spent much time rebuilding trust in him through an active focus onconsent and communication. She was shaken after waking up after a recent night of wine unable to remember consenting to sex, but you laugh her off as “prim, punctilious, punitive” because her story doesn’t sound like a Law & Order plot.
I have some thoughts on all the reasons Yoffe is wrong.
Yoffe is wrong, as her Slate colleague Amanda Hess, tells us, because you don’t solve a structural problem with a personal self-help solution. We didn’t deal with drunk driving in this country by telling people, “hey, you can’t control drunk drivers, so minimize driving when the bars are closing!” We dealt with it by a combination of a massive public awareness campaign, and imposing real accountability- not just jail sentences, but more prosaically, license suspensions. Drunk driving costs the drunk drivers something now, and it didn’t three decades ago. We didn’t end drunk driving deaths, but we knocked them down a lot.
Yoffe is wrong because rapists are not weather systems. I mentioned this earlier today, and I’ve written about it before. The implicit model of rapists in her piece is one of an unthinking phenomena, one that does not respond to stimulus, that therefore we can’t do anything about but get out of the way. There’s a pernicious undercurrent to this thinking in many areas, from forest fires to global climate change – but for a moment, let’s just accept that there are some things we can’t prevent or deter. All we can do it look out for them, avoid encountering them, and minimize the damage when they occur. Yoffe, and many others, treat rape like this. That’s wrong. Often, they start from the proposition that rapists are bad people who don’t misunderstand, but rather rape because they want to. That’s true. But they take the wrong lesson from the research that shows us that. They infer that the rapists are irrational and can’t be influenced, when the Predator Theory research indicates just the opposite: that they do, in fact, respond to stimulus, by choosing the tactics that are least likely to get them caught. I’ve seen it in small, tightly-knit communities, too. When they have enough victims report and can no longer convince people of narratives about crazy victims, misunderstandings or one-time poor judgment, they move on to new communities where they can get a fresh shot at bullshitting their way through their victims’ reports. Since we know that they use the tactics that work and respond rationally to stimulus, we know that they are not like weather systems and we should discard that model.
Yoffe is wrong because if men, women and alcohol are a bad combination, it is sexist and unjust for women to be the ones excluded. Jaclyn Friedman was eloquent on this subject five years ago, and Ann Friedman brilliantly flipped Yoffe’s construction on its head this morning, and Soraya Chemaly picks up the same theme. Yoffe manages to re-make a Victorian, angel-of-the-hearth argument about how women’s moral purity will protect them and into the bargain civilize the savage male: but then she has the gall to call it a feminist argument!
Yoffe is wrong, continuing the same thought, because she ignores the moral agency of men. There are a group of people who can consistently be counted on to argue that men’s sexuality is animalistic, feral, uncontrolled, dangerous; that men just can’t help themselves. These people are the rape apologists. If men can’t help themselves but to rape, why is it even wrong? This argument usually isn’t stated explicitly, because when stated explicitly it’s too over-the-top. But it is at the core of every comment that rape has to do with how the victim was dressed or whether she gave off the “wrong” signals. There is a group of people who can be counted on consistently to argue that men are people with both the ability and responsibility to be moral actors and control their impulses, sexual or otherwise. These people are antirape feminists.
Yoffe is wrong because what she proposes will not fix anything. It is, in fact, a vicious cycle. The rapists’ Social License to Operate allows them to get away with it if their offenses fit within certain paradigms where society will largely side with them, but not if they don’t. Rapists who jump out of dark alleys and rape strangers with weapons, if they are caught and their identity can be proven, are often actually convicted. There are a lot fewer excuses for them. Rapists who rape their acquaintances using alcohol and no overt force usually are not even reported, and if reported are rarely prosecuted. They are very likely to get away with it. The whole society will agree in the abstract that rape is wrong, but there are many kinds of rape that the culture will refuse to call what it is. Because rapists are rational bad actors, it is those kinds of circumstances where many of the rapes happen.
Here’s the part where Yoffe creates a self-fulfilling prophecy: woman drinking heavily with men is one of those areas where, if a rape happens, prosecution is very difficult. It’s difficult because the survivor’s memory is impaired, and that we can’t do anything about. But it is also impaired because the thing that never doesn’t get said by internet trolls, “she deserves it” or “what did she expect?” is in the back of a lot of people’s minds. Yoffe is repeating that. I expect she would deny she said they deserve it, and literally, she didn’t. But “what do they expect? In this situation it’s bound to happen” is an entirely fair characterization of what she did say.
[Content note for description of rape aftermath]
Let’s say you are Yoffe’s daughter – hey, she brought it up – and you get drunk with the cute guys down the dorm hall, black out, and wake up leaking semen and vomit on the sheets. What are you going to do? She can’t tell her mom. Would you? And get an earful of I Told You So? Worse, she already got an earful of I Told You So. I can’t think of a rape survivor who I’ve ever talked about it with who didn’t self-blame. The whole culture speaks with that voice. So Yoffe’s daughter can only have internalized a double dose of it. She wouldn’t report to anybody, and I’d be surprised if she ever manage to stop blaming herself. And … the rapist wins. Nobody knows what he did! No consequences, no attention from authorities, not even the social sanction of the ladies from the dorm floor avoiding him. And there will be a next victim. The more Yoffe’s idea prevails, the more free he is to do what’s already working for him. The stupider we all agree that her conduct was, the less chance she will ever get, or even seek, redress. Yoffe is making the tactic work.
Yoffe is wrong because if she thinks it’s too hard to change the rapists’ behavior, she has no basis to think that we can change drinking behavior. Her argument about rapists is hazy and poorly constructed, it amounts to an educational administrator saying that catching rapists isn’t their core mission. Well, neither is not discriminating based on race or sex, but we expect them to do that, and they can be sued if they fail, so they put systems in place to comply. We all have to do things that are not our core mission. That’s life. Yoffe seems to get that the rapists are a small subset of the population – but then throws up her hands. We can’t change them, weather theory, done. But her call to arms to control how the unladylike ladies drink to excess, that, that she treats as if, now that Emily Yoffe has spoken, we’ll get right on that. At a minimum, if someone who has more patience for her crap than I do (I admit to really disliking her for a long time now) will sit her down and pin her down on this, she’d probably concede that changing young adult drinking behavior is a decades-long mission. Well, if that’s a decades-long mission, and removing rapists’ Social License to Operate is also a decades-long mission, why is the first the better project? Implicitly, Yoffe writes the second off as impossible and elides the difficulty of the first, when at least parity-of-big-job seems the more reasonable analysis.
Yoffe is so full of fail, and on this issue consistently so, that there are other ways she is wrong that I have not thought of, or at least permutations I have not explored to the ones I’ve listed. But this is what I have for now.
I have not been writing much due to other demands on my time. However, sometimes things happen and I feel it’s just too important to sit out. I don’t really have time to write, so I’ll do what I can now and then try to add more later.
I’m not linking to Yoffe’s piece. You can find it. It’s infuriating. It’s long, thoughtful, and morally bankrupt. Because this is a habit of mind with Yoffe, I’m really personally angry at her and I think she needs to lose her job, but I’ll take that up in another piece. I don’t think Yoffe is just wrong about a thing that people reason together about. I think Yoffe is doing harm, that she’s throwing up her hands and declaring that the rapists won, and there’s nothing we can do about it except to try to avoid them. Basically, it’s the “weather system” theory of rape. That’s wrong. Saying that will not protect anyone, will not help fix the problem, and actually makes it easier for people to stop attempts to hold rapists accountable.
What she said, basically, is that if women don’t want to get raped, they shouldn’t drink with boys. She tosses in the occasional aside that she blames the perpetrators. I’ve addressed that sort of thing here already and I’ll quote only briefly:
The argument will proceed from the dreaded BUT to focus on what SHE did, and how wrong and stupid it was, and ultimately conclude that if women just curtailed their behavior in one or several additional ways, the problem would be solved.
The sort of disclaimer Yoffe deploys — the sort that says of course the perpetrators are solely responsible but … that sort of disclaimer is utterly without value, or as Tyrion Lannister of the G.R.R. Martin canon said, “nothing someone says before the word ‘but’ really counts.”
Here’s the real objection I have to Yoffe: she belongs to the surrender caucus. Not only implicit, but really explicit in her analysis is that we can’t or won’t do anything to hold the perpetrators accountable. She cites Lisak, so she obviously knows and doesn’t contest that the rapists are doing it on purpose, that they use alcohol a tactic. But she instead of looking for ways to treat the disease — the repeat rapists, and the social constructs that allow them to get away with it, rape culture and more particularly, the Social License to Operate — she argues at length for treating the symptom. She gives up on catching and punishing them, in favor of telling women that they can’t do something men take for granted the right to do.
That’s pragmatic, she argues. But it’s not pragmatic. It’s negotiating with terrorists. That’s a loaded word. But when a small portion of the male population keeps virtually all women in fear and causes them to curtail their freedoms to avoid violence, doesn’t it fit? The argument Yoffe makes would follow if she bought the story that most rape is miscommunication, a story that she seems to understand is discredited. But it doesn’t fit with the story she seems to acknowledge, which is that the problem is the repeat rapists who know that what they do is wrong and do it anyway using the tactics least likely to get them caught.
If the presence of women, men and alcohol together is a catalyst for mostly men to commit criminal acts of rape, then why are the women the element to remove from the equation? Ann Friedman picked that up right away.
Look, people whose response to terrorists is, “let’s give them what they want and maybe they’ll leave us alone” are both cowardly and immoral. We heard a lot of patriotic chest-beating in the Bush years about how some people hate freedom. But there’s a kernel of truth there, the old saw that is a very rough paraphrase from Ben Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac, those who give up liberty for a little temporary security deserve neither. The people who are full of “pragmatic” advice about how not to “get raped,” well, their advice always comes down to the same thing: curtail your liberty for security. That’s un-American. Those people really do hate us for our freedom.
I won’t believe any of those people are serious about stopping rape until they actually do something to hold a rapist accountable.
There’s a challenge, Emily. Go find a rapist and make something happen: prosecution, expulsion, public shaming, removal from the party invite list — I am not being facetious. Something, anything. Go blame a rapist and try to make it stick. Go. Now.
Imagine the following rape statute: “If a person over the age of twenty-one years has sexual contact constituting oral-genital or genital-genital contact with a minor under the age or fourteen years, such person shall be guilty of a Class A felony and shall be imprisoned for life without the possibility of parole.”
If the legislature passed it, it still wouldn’t happen. Law does not exist in the abstract. Law is a power structure, something that operates in a culture and operates largely consistent with the society’s values. Lots of people in the process, from parents to school administrators and counselors to cops to prosecutors and judges to juries would collude to make sure that a statute like that would not work the way it is written — it would for some people, who didn’t meet societal approval, but it wouldn’t for others, who do. Just like the “war on drugs”. And the reason is that no matter how much lip service we pay to the notion that statutory rape is wrong, our culture (I’m speaking very broadly here, meaning the entirety of the world that is governed by a criminal justice system in the Anglo-American tradition) doesn’t really think that adults having sex with children are always wrong.
Think this is an isolated event? All these people signed a petition in support of Roman Polaski, maybe the world’s most famous child rapist. And Whoopi Goldberg, defending him, said it wasn’t “rape-rape.” You know where she was going with that? That what he pleaded guilty to was statutory rape, which she thinks isn’t real rape. (And she pointedly ignores that the woman Polanski raped told the Grand Jury and everyone who asked since that she said “no,” that he drugged her, that she still said no, and that he forced her.) Even the term “statutory rape” conveys the impression that it isn’t “real rape” –after all, there’s a statute outlawing the conduct that is forcible rape, whatever it is called in each jurisdiction, so those are just as statutory as laws saying that fucking someone under a certain age is inherently nonconsensual and illegal. We call it by the different term in a tacit acknowledgement that it doesn’t count the same. Why don’t we call it “child rape?”
You know what Polanski (who reportedly has other victims including Charlotte Lewis and Nastassja Kinsky) had to say, to Martin Amis in a 1979 interview that has been quoted more recently by journalists rediscovering just what manner of person he is: “Everyone wants to fuck young girls!”
Or this shit, where Terrebonne Parish’s corrections officer repeatedly raped a fourteen year old inmate and the parish is trying to blame her for contributing to it because, being an inmate and pretty much at the mercy of her jailers, she acquiesced instead of yelling, kicking and probably getting beaten or disciplined by the corrupt guards.
So this guy Niel Wilson in England fucked a thirteen year old, and the system focused on the same old slut-shaming shit. In rape cases with adult victims, there’s at least the figleaf of relevance, the pretension that this is something more than an exercise in attempting to label the victim a “bad girl” undeserving of vindication, because the defense argues that it goes to consent, or failing that, the defendant’s subjective belief in consent. If that were true, then there would be no point in trying the same thing in a statutory rape case, where consent is not a defense. But the same issues come up. A barrister for the Crown Prosecution Service in this latest case said, “The girl is predatory in all her actions and she is sexually experienced,” he reportedly told the court.” Leave aside for a moment that this is a vile thing to say … how is it relevant? It’s not a defense!
Except that law isn’t a set of words, it’s a discourse of power that will tend to bend the way the people in the process see the world. Arguing that this child was somehow a slut undeserving of protection, indeed culpable for seducing this poor defendant (who was also in possession of child porn, by the way) seems relevant to the people in the process because the whole frame of reference in a rape culture is not actually consent, but whether the victim is a good girl deserving of protection. That’s always the real question, the crux of what passes for the moral substrata in matters of rape. It seems relevant to people that this thirteen year old was the alleged pursuer, that Mary Doe in Terrebonne Parish had drug problems and a sexual history … (she’s fourteen, which unless her partners were all similar-age means she has a history not of sex but of being victimized).
I’ve written before about statutory rape and I’ve written that I think there should always be a so-called “Romeo and Juliet” exception for similar-aged partners. And I still think so, though in most places 13 is too young for those provisions to apply, and rightly so. I also think that statutory rape laws ought to be enforced: not just when the parents dislike one of the participants, and not just when the prosecution is homophobic — these laws have a history of much stricter enforcement against same sex couples and anyone else whose conduct violates race, class or other norms.
Of course age is arbitrary, but there is no better option that an arbitrary line based of age. Some sort of sophistication test would inevitably bring us right back to the discourse of “bad victim.” While we might on this blog all agree that actual sophistication would mean the teens with the most ability to make mature decisions and advocate for their needs, the rest of the world out there would decide that it meant that the teens who drank and did drugs and were sexualized earliest — the ones the least able to advocate for themselves, sometimes — would be the ones not entitled to the protection of the law. The same way that the system routinely finds ways to decide that sex workers are not entitled to the protection of the law, even if the law says that they are.
And the conduct of a child victim needs to be utterly irrelevant. The principle is simple: no matter how not-innocent a child is, no matter how much they “invite” sexual conduct, being a grown-up means having the responsibility and obligation to say, “No, that would be wrong.” If a thirteen year old lies down in Times Square naked and shouts, “won’t someone please fuck me?” all the adults have the obligation — the absolute obligation — not to. Right? And if they instead fuck a child, regardless of the invitation or provocation, they belong in prison. Is that really a radical statement?
The cases I discussed above are about girls, but this is not only a girl problem.
Adult men who are not incarcerated are very rarely raped, [Edited: see comments] Rapes of adult men are less talked about, and far less common, than rapes of adult women, but boys are raped with horrifying frequency, and they are raped by grownups. (And, in fact, the lower one goes in age, the more likely that the adult who sexually molests a boy will be a women. People consistently underestimate the prevalence of women as molesters because it doesn’t fit essentialist notions of uncontrollable male sexuality, and instead reminds us that rape and sexual abuse are at least in significant part about power and control, though this dynamic cannot be entirely separated from the eroticization of abuse.) I know a lot of people treat cases like Mary Kay LeTourneau as jokes, but I think this does a tremendous disservice to boys. I think they are presumptively (and I mean a conclusive presumption) not ready for, and shouldn’t be subjected to, adult romantic and sexual relationships with adult partners. Just because the damage to them isn’t as widely acknowledged doesn’t mean it isn’t real.
There is a terrible double-standard for minors. In many places, particularly the US, people get very shouty about not “corrupting” minors by giving them accurate information about sexual health, pleasure and relationships. So much of this smacks of purity obsession. But when people violate minors’ innocence, not by giving out information that can help teens become sexual adults with agency, but by fucking them, there seems to be a lot of willingness to blame the teens for participating, or for not resisting, or for not resisting enough. That’s a lot of shit. If we were serious about protecting our youth, we would hold adults who molest them 100% responsible and not even raise the issue of the victim’s conduct. That’s what we would do if we were serious.
The way the common political “sex scandal” gets framed is of no use to me. The dominant political discourse reinterprets the facts and people’s reactions to them along the lines of the existing mores, which is exactly what I want to challenge. Insert Foucault analysis here, blah blah. It’s really hard to jump off those rails that track the discussion into familiar narratives. I’m going to try anyway, because I’m stubborn.
I have a problem with what Anthony Weiner did, for a few reasons.
Thing Number One: Nude Photo Sharing Is For Consenting Adults
As Melissa McEwen said, Consent Matters. Weiner didn’t limit himself to trading pictures with consensual partners, which exchanges without more are totally acceptable. He sent explicit photos of himself to at least one woman who didn’t ask for or want them. Sending explicit photos to someone who has not consented to receive them isn’t innocuous. It’s a kind of sexualized bullying. (See also McEwen’s more recent post.)
Thing Number Two: Pressuring Isn’t Consent
If there’s any question that Weiner’s tactics in sending Cordova a photo of his erection were pressure tactics to turn a conversation about policy with a young women who knew him from his legislative career into a sexual exchange for his gratification, we have confirmation from at least one additional source. As reported in the UK paper routinely called the Daily Fail, Lisa Weiss said, “I’d want to talk about politics but he would turn it creepy.” Weiner had a built-in fan club because of his national media presence, but it’s clear that at least some of these women really wanted to engage him in policy discussions. Instead, he pushed them to engage in sexualized exchanges. The additional privilege of being a national political figure isn’t what makes this unacceptable, but it does make it worse. Some of these folks did Democratic Party volunteer work or related stuff that put him in a position to grant or withhold favor.
Thing Number Three: How You Treat The People Closest To You …
With very few exceptions in political sex scandals, the one issue in the background is monogamy; (1) the assumption that all couples are monogamous and that that means the same thing to everyone; (2) the political cost of telling the public otherwise; and (3) the question of whether a failure to keep to a monogamous arrangement matters to one’s public life.
I’ll take the last one first. I don’t think the faithfulness of politicians is entirely a private matter. I don’t need or want my political leaders to be monogamous; I don’t care if they are. But I do want to know if they can be trusted. When they say what they intend to do, we as voters often feel like we’re going to be played for suckers by unscrupulous self-servers who run for office largely for personal self-aggrandizement. Because we usually are. But one really material way to know if that’s what’s going to happen is whether the politician in question remains true to the people who they know best and have the longest, closest relationship with. That’s often their spouses. I don’t care that they promise monogamy, but if they do and ignore that promise, I hold it against them.
The problem is that public profession of monogamy is about as mandatory as public profession of religiosity. Those political couples with more flexible arrangements, and there are surely some, won’t tell us. There would be a serious political cost, because the world doesn’t share my values. Remember 1996? (I’m old, okay?) Roger Stone had a job with the Dole campaign. He and his wife had an add in a swinger magazine. I have no problem with this. They want to have sex with other couples? Go ahead. Have fun, play safe, etc. But the campaign and the voters did, and it cost Stone his job. (Stone is a vile muck-dwelling bottomfeeder for many reasons including his reputed – but unproven – involvement in the “Brooks Brothers Riot” in 2000, but his sex life isn’t something I revile him for.)
So we can’t know for sure that Huma Abedin and Anthony Weiner didn’t have a relationship where trading explicit text and pics, or even meeting up for sex, with other people was permissible. We don’t know for sure, but it seems incredible in the circumstance.
Weiner had a seat in Congress, and he resigned. If he had the “I worked it out with my wife and it was acceptable” card to play, the cost of that couldn’t have been higher than what he lost anyway, which was a seat in a safe district. If he had that card to play, he would have played it.
Further, the surrogates talking to the press after the latest round of revelations say that Huma wasn’t even aware of the exchanges with the most recently disclosed “digimour”, Sydney Leathers, until this Fall, and that she hit the ceiling when she found out. That’s not consistent with the story of a couple who built in some flexibility to accommodate Weiner’s desire for virtual partners.
The picture it paints, rather, is a guy who, after nuking his political career and publicly putting his wife in the middle of a shitstorm, then found a young admirer online and talked about setting her up in a condo as his girlfriend on the side, looking for a better deal in case he decided to bail on the marriage. This, while Huma was participating in his public rehabilitation. If that’s how he treats a person he’s close to, who has been loyal, who he can be expected to feel a sense of duty … then how will he treat the people of the City of New York? It’s outrageously selfish, even by the standards of ego-driven political animals.
The Media Wants To Have The Wrong Conversation
First, the salaciousness sells. Like casual dining chains with faux-leather booths know that fat, salt and sugar keep people coming back, in the news business, the veneer of seriousness is used to dignify appeals to fear and judgment. They want this to be a jaw-dropping peek into someone else’s sex life and marriage, because it draws eyeballs and brings the advertising dollars.
But it’s not just the news. The prejudice of the pundits and the population alike is to reframe a story to answer the same old questions about sex, which are basically, “Normal? Or Not Normal?” They want to discuss it only from the stance of applying unchallenged assumptions about what “Normal” is. It’s very hard to disrupt that dialogue. The only way I know is to keep refocusing on what matters.
And what matters to me is not what he does with his schwanz, but how he treats people. On that score, he fails the moral test.
I’ve argued against this tendency to say that a rape isn’t a rape unless the survivor makes a police report and the rapist is prosecuted and convicted. But I’ll give that process one thing: it at least offers finality. Right? Right?!
When talking about a rapist, in the media and in everyday life, but always in the media, if the word “rape” is used at all, it is so often preceded or followed immediately by “allegedly.” There are reasons for “allegedly.” One is that we don’t want to be wrong. I could examine that in more detail, but I won’t. I’ll just take that as a reasonable goal. The other, especially in media, is the liability concern: that calling someone a rapist, if not true, is defamatory.
And at some point, these concerns go away. At some point, the issue is decisively resolved. Not for most rapes, but for that tiny sliver where there is an arrest, and a prosecution, and a conviction. The jury returns, gives a verdict. The judge reads the word “guilty.” Verdict, sentence, finality. It happened. It is no longer “alleged,” but proved.
Not to Whoopi Goldberg. In this clip from The View, Whoopi says that the Steubenville rapists are “alleged.” There are a lot of problems with this clip, but I am going to focus on just this one. The Steubenville rapes are not “alleged.” The allegation is contained in an indictment or prosecutor’s information. The allegations are tested at trial, where documents and witnesses are admissible evidence. A jury, or in the Steubenville case because the defendants were juveniles, a judge, makes findings of fact. The judge decided. They were convicted. They did it. That’s fact.*
Whoopi said “alleged.” It’s not because she doesn’t understand. It’s because Whoopi is a rape apologist. I was willing to believe, after the Polanski “Rape-rape” debacle, that Whoopi felt the need to defend people with powerful friends in Hollywood, like Polanski. She has, like Jodie Foster and others, also defended Mel Gibson, who is a racist, anti-semite, domestic abuser who threatened to have his ex gang-raped, misogynist beyond all reasonable defense; but this too could be written off as Hollywood insiderism. But here, she’s defending a couple of convicted rapists from the Rust Belt. Her reasons are her own; she owns this defense and it speaks to her moral character.
But this is not just a Whoopi problem. Barbara Walters then talks about Mike Tyson. She doesn’t say “allegedly,” but she dances carefully around what happened. She says “he was accused of raping a young woman named Desiree Washington.” And she says “he went to prison.” And she says “when they were criticizing Desiree because she went up to his room, they said ‘what was she doing in his room’ … she was being villified as a victim. And he did go to prison.” But she never says that he did it, and she never says that a jury decided he did it. She seems to deliberately make room in her comments for the interpretation that she doesn’t think he did it, that the conviction was wrongful. And she says he is now a “wonderful performer.”
He’s a rapist. This is as proven as proven will ever get. Mike Tyson was convicted by a jury. He appealed, and his appeal was denied. He served his term. It is proved beyond a reasonable doubt, all legal challenge to the fairness of the trial has been resolved. That’s it! We’re not waiting for further word! Res, as the lawyers say, Judicata! So when does he become a rapist in the eyes of the public?
Never, of course, because people like him. Polanski makes wonderful movies and the Steubenville boys were star football players, and people fondly remember Iron Mike from his boxing career.**
“Allegedly” isn’t an attempt at fairness, or a defense against defamation. Here, we see that even when all the facts are in and conclusively resolved, “allegedly” never dies.
I conclude from this that what “allegely” really means is “I’ll never believe it.” There are those who will never accept that the person they know or admire is a rapist, simply because they don’t want to. Because they can’t square what they know with what they wish. Because if it’s true they feel tarnished by association, so instead they reject. Because it’s easier to insinuate that some usually nameless, faceless women is a liar or irresponsible than to change their mind about the man.
It’s easy to be against rape in the abstract. Everybody says they’re against rape. It’s hard to be against the rapist when the rapist is your friend. But if we can’t even be against the rapist when the rapist is just some guy on television that we don’t really know, then it’s going to be awfully hard to make any progress.
This isn’t about “allegedly.” This is about accepting that the rapists are not space aliens or zombies or the “other” from somewhere else. This is about accepting that the predators look just like everyone else.
* Of course, it isn’t. What happened and what a jury decides may be two different things. The determination of the all-white jury in the Scottsboro Boys trial doesn’t make it true, and the acquittals in other cases don’t change what the defendants did. But we’re talking about media, liability and external validation. Should the media treat the allegations as unproven until verdict, and then treat the verdict as questionable forever? There’s no risk management reason to do that. The only reason to do that is to take the side of the rapist.
** Folks around the feminist blogosphere a long time may remember my rant about Tyson in comments at Feministe, writing as a boxing fan, and I won’t repeat it, but I stand by it and I probably know more about boxing than anyone who reads this blog.
This is a guest post by my friend Aurora.
[Content Note: describes sexual assault on a sex worker.]
It is late at night, after I’ve taken my medication. The necessary conversations have been had – he knows not to touch me sexually in my sleep, but cuddling is okay. We’ve seen each other for over three years now and slept together before. He knows my history, my struggles, my slow process of returning from the knife’s edge of mental illness. He pays me for my time, and I choose to have sex with him. Earlier in the evening we had played together enthusiastically, me using my erotic experience and skills to keep him melting with pleasure. We both know what the deal is. We both honor it. Except for tonight.
More than half asleep, I feel his tongue lapping at my pussy. I wake and his face looms in the cold light from the bathroom, greenish-gray, monstrous. We are in a tangle of limbs and blankets, but it never included blanket consent. I roll over and pass out, and wake in the morning thinking that it was a nightmare until he makes a casual joke over breakfast.
He is a rich businessman, a world traveler. I am a woman recovering from mental illness who sometimes moonlights as an escort. I tell him that eating my pussy while I was asleep was a violation of boundaries, and he dismisses my concerns about STIs and consent. He stopped, after all, and let me go back to sleep. There is no contest here because I haven’t yet been paid – I fake a smile over scrambled eggs and keep him company during the elegant activity he has planned for the day. As soon as I can, I take my money and move on.
He’d hired me for the night, so perhaps he felt entitled to my body when jetlag left him feeling bored. Maybe he’d hoped to wake me up and turn me on enough to play with him again. Maybe he was getting off on sexually assaulting me, though I don’t think that’s it – if I’d picked up that vibe, I wouldn’t have trusted him enough to share intimacy in the first place. I suspect that like many people grown used to wielding power without consequences, he simply didn’t respect my boundaries and choices as legitimate when they conflicted with his own desires.
I write this so that others who may have had similar experiences will know that they are not alone, and it is not their fault. I write this because like a skilled musician, I played a man a violin concerto, and later at night he put the bow in my hands and tried to make me saw away at it like a puppet. I write this because I am not a musician, but an escort, and that unlike other women we are assumed to be selling our bodies rather than our services when we choose to provide paid companionship. I write this because I was sexually assaulted, and I will not go to the police or prison-industrial complex seeking any type of justice, because like Sun Tzu I will not engage in a battle that is sure to be a loss.