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How Does The Change Happen?

January 14, 2009

I was listening to Jaclyn on the radio after my little ones woke me last night. Her long interview with Tamrika Khvtisiashvil on KCRL in Utah is available here. They had the following exchange at about 20:43 (and I transcribed it myself, so accuracy may be imperfect):

Tamrika: What do you think would work better — you just suggested perhaps telling — making men more responsible but how exactly do you see that happening?
Jaclyn: You know, I’ll tell you, if I knew exactly how to make that happen I would be a very powerful woman.
Tamrika: You would. The beginning of it is editing a book. That’s a start, right?
Jaclyn: I think it’s a real culture shift we’re looking for, and it’s one of the shifts that we’re advocating for in the book, to change to a culture where men are responsible for making sure that they are only having sex with people who are really psyched about having sex with them.

I can’t say that I know how the change happens either, other than that we can raise the next generation to know better, which I’ve talked about here.

Listening to Jaclyn, I was thinking something else. I don’t think we change the rapists. I think we change the environment around them.

Jaclyn said in the same interview, and I agree, that rape is not about miscommunication around consent; that while rapists find ways not to apply the term “rape” to what they do and justify it, they are not confused that their partners are enthusiastic or even willing. Rather, they think or say that it’s okay to force or coerce a sex partner under certain circumstances.

On my account, the rapists won’t change, but the “certain circumstances” can. Rapists believe that they will be defended and excused when they rape if their partners do not fit a certain very narrow victim narrative. In my Yes Means Yes essay, I call this the rapists’ “social license to operate.”

In the essay that opens the book, Jill Filipovic quotes Tennessee State Senator Doug Henry, who said, “Rape, ladies and gentlemen, is not today what rape was. Rape, when I was learning these things, was the violation of a chaste woman, against her will, by some party not her spouse. Today it’s simply, “Let’s don’t go forward with this act.” YMY at p. 13.

First, Doug Henry is wrong. “Let’s don’t go forward with this thing” is not rape. It’s communication. It’s a communication that conveys the absence of consent. Rape is when a person forces sexual activity on another who wants not to go forward with that thing.

Second, Doug Henry is the problem. He clearly doesn’t think rape is “real” when an “unchaste” woman, one who doesn’t fit his victim narrative, decides not to have sex but is acted on sexually anyway. Doug Henry does not believe in her autonomy or support her right to say, “no”, let alone accept that nobody should be trying to have sex with her unless she is clear and unconstrained in her “yes.”

It is because of Doug Henry, and all the little Doug Henrys out there, that rapists can do what they do. Doug Henry is every question we’re sick of. “What was she doing drinking alone?” “Why was she alone with him in his hotel room?” “After she said stop, how long did he keep going?” These are not real questions. These are a proxy for the real question: is this woman one who sufficiently fits the narrative for her rights to be enforced?

That’s the part where I think the change happens. Rapists are reaffirmed by that discourse. If the discourse starts with, “did she say she wanted to do that?” the entire analysis is different. As a culture, we’re wedded to a model of woman-as-gatekeeper, with lukewarm, bartered or reluctant acquiescence to sex constantly portrayed as normal. We need to talk about that as aberrant: that sex without clear, enthusiastic consent at any level is abnormal and requires explanation, while sex with fully consenting partners clearly interested in being sexual together is normal and requires no explanation.

Rapists may be impulsive, but they’re not stupid. They read the culture and understand in a gross way the relative privilege of themselves and their intended victim. They know for the most part which targets will not speak up, will not be believed, will not be able to get their rights to bodily autonomy vindicated. To make rapists rape less, we need to eliminate the circumstances where those things are true.

A huge part of that is that we need to stop declaring some women outlaws and accepting their lack of human rights. Miriam Zoila Perez has one of several excellent essays in Yes Means Yes about how some women are exposed for reasons of race, class and immigration status — put in a position where the individual circumstances are an afterthought because their social position is so vulnerable that many men know they can be raped with impunity. That will happen until we are committed to the proposition that no person is so lowly that we will tolerate their dehumanization. We are a very, very long way from that.

We are, perhaps, less far from the related aspect, which is the notion that the behavior of an individual woman and whether it fits the “good girl” narrative determines whether her bodily autonomy will be respected. So, to sum up, rapists will rape a woman who comes to their hotel room as long as they know that the first question will be, “what was she doing there?” They will start thinking twice when the first question is, “well, did she say she wanted to have sex with him?”

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. January 16, 2009 9:06 am

    Change happens two ways: you fight against what already exists or you create an alternative. I tend toward the latter as the former largely serves to reinforce what already exists and every action is a reaction.

  2. January 16, 2009 10:12 am

    FR, your comment reminds me of the part of Lee Jacobs Riggs’s YMY essay that I read at the KGB event:

    To say that sex and rape are unrelated, however, is to both ignore the deep scars actoss the sexual selves of masses of people and avoid the dismantling of the symbiotic relationship between a sex-negative culture and a culture that supports sex in the absence of consent.
    Let’s be clear. Consent is saying yes. Yes, YES! This is the definition in my experience, employed by today’s rape crisis services. Their models for prevention education, however, fail to teach young people how to really articulate or receive consent. They instead focus on how to say and listen to “no.” “No” is useful, undoubtedly, but it is at best incomplete. How can we hope to prodice the tools for ending rape without simultaneously providing the tools for positive sexuality?

  3. January 16, 2009 1:25 pm

    I’ll take that as a compliment then.🙂

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