I’ve written more than a little lately about how rape survivors reporting to “the proper authorities” get stonewalled, abused and ignored. I wish I had said all that needed to be said about that. I have not.
[Content note, graphic description of the rape included]
Today’s story is about one particular survivor’s experience. She’s using her name, and she refuses to be ashamed. She is Emma Sulkowicz. She took her complaint to the “proper authorities.”
First, Sulkowicz went to the Columbia University administration, then the NYPD. What happened?
- Her best friend and chosen support person was disciplined by the school for talking about the rape in violation of Columbia’s nondisclosure policy- that is, their silencing rule.
- The friend was required to write a “reflection paper” from the rapist’s point of view.
- The university found the rapist not responsible, though she testified that he pinned her down and forced his penis into her anus with no lubrication.
He was found not responsible, so why do I think he raped her? At least one other woman independently reported the man to the university for sexual assault, according to the story I linked, but other sources say there are at least two other women who reported him. There’s rarely one roach in the cupboard, and most rapes are committed by serial rapists.
The Columbia Spectator has published his name. They explained their reasons here. He is reportedly one of the names that appeared on the fliers and graffiti at Columbia. Jezebel has also published his name.
So after Columbia’s bullshit process failed her, she reported to the NYPD. How did they treat her? The police officer who reported to the scene, according to the Al Jazeera story, told her: “You invited him into your room. That’s not the legal definition of rape.”
You can read the story for the rest of what the NYPD did, but I want to bold that part. This is a sworn police officer, making a statement that’s appalling not only culturally, but in its sheer, astounding legal ignorance. The cop, at least according to the account in the Al Jazeera story I linked above, purported to make a statement about “the legal definition of rape” and just made up some good-girls-don’t moralizing bullshit where rape can only be illegal if it’s done by a stranger in a dark parking lot. In addition to the cruelty and dismissiveness, the incompetence is breathtaking.
(Just for a grim, angry laugh, I’ll include here the actual statute:
§130.35 Rape in the first degree.
A person is guilty of rape in the first degree when he or she engages in sexual intercourse with another person:
- By forcible compulsion; or
- Who is incapable of consent by reason of being physically helpless; or
- Who is less than eleven years old; or
- Who is less than thirteen years old and the actor is eighteen years old or more.
I don’t see anything in there about inviting the rapist to one’s dwelling.)
The Columbia Spectator story adds details: she had had consensual sex with him earlier that night, but then he strangled her and anally penetrated her, which she told the police she did not consent to.
Sulkowics says to survivors, “If you want to go to the police, this is what to expect: You’ll be verbally abused. But at least no one will yell at you for not going to the police and getting verbally abused. Just take your pick.” But it’s not only survivors like her expressing the view that the system isn’t working for rape survivors. David Lisak,* the psychologist who started the research into undetected rapists and who regularly advises college administrators on rape, said that law enforcement has hundreds of years of history where any survivor without cuts, bruises or broken bones could expect nothing from reporting.
I want to be fair to the people in the system here. What we know so far is that Sulkowics said that her experience was searing and emotionally abusive. We don’t know that they won’t do anything. She just reported. It is possible that the police are investigating, and despite the way Sulkowics was treated, they will find multiple victims, put together a case and prosecute. It’s early enough to say that the way the police treated Sulkowics explains why many survivors don’t report. It is too early to say they didn’t do anything.
Sulkowics’s complaint, like that of almost all survivors, has never reached the punishment stage. Columbia had at least two and possibly three reports about the same man but let him go. The police report was recent, just days ago, and perhaps they will still make an arrest, but have not yet.
But even when a survivor reports to the police, the police make an arrest, the prosecutors file charges, go to trial and the jury convicts, it doesn’t mean that the rapist will actually go to prison.
In Indiana, David Wise drugged his wife without her knowledge, raped her, and filmed it. Not once, but as a pattern for three years! You would think that a person capable of this conduct – planned, premeditated, and keeping souvenirs — would be deemed so dangerous that any right-thinking judge would want him behind bars for a very long time. But the judge, elected Marion County Superior Court judge Kurt Eisgruber, sentenced him only to home confinement. By the way, he’s up for reelection this November.
Systems Are Made Of People
Police are people. Administrators are people. Judges, jurors, prosecutors … all people. The laws are interpreted and applied by people, who bring to them their prejudices. In a racist culture, the most perfectly written law will be applied and enforced in racist ways. In a culture that refuses to take rape seriously, no matter what the statutes say, the actual behavior of the people who interpret and enforce those laws will reflect the refusal to take it seriously. First degree rape is a Class B felony in New York, a really serious crime. People in the system are simply not willing to say that that applies to people who don’t fit their preconceived notions, and there is no magic bullet to change that. Changing the statute, training the police, giving the administrators incentives for transparency, there are lots of things to be done and not one of them alone will make all that much difference. The rapists’ social license to operate is woven deeply into the fabric of how people think the world works: it is a specific set of threads in a very big and interconnected piece of culture. Pulling them out, pulling them all out, one at a painstaking fucking time, is the work. That’s what we have to do, and if anyone tells you otherwise, they’re not serious.
*I’ve done a great deal to popularize Lisak’s research both into the identity and methods of rapists who have not been caught. It has filtered back to me that some people assume that I think everything he says is right, or that I somehow generally endorse him. I don’t. I don’t know him, I’ve never met him, I have not spoken with him, and I don’t have a good handle on what he tells consulting clients when the doors are closed. He puts on his pants one leg at a time just like the rest of us.
I’ve written before that when people say they rape people or say they hate women, we should believe them. But there are some people who say all the right things, and who are rapists. They say all the right things as a cover, so that nobody will believe they’re capable of it, and they can get their targets to trust them.
So am I saying that everyone is a rapist? No. The research shows that rapists are a small proportion of men, and an even smaller proportion are serial rapists responsible for the vast majority of rapes. The research on undetected rapists in the population so far is limited to men, and it will be important over time to expand that, but it’s the information we have now.
So if it’s only a relatively few people, but some of them say all the wrong things, and some of them say all the right things, how are their targets supposed to know who the predators are in advance, and avoid them?
They can’t. This is the point that antirape activists have been trying to make about prevention education forever. There is no magic prevention bullet. If it was easy to spot the rapists and avoid them, nobody would get raped.
Is Darren Sharper A Serial Rapist?
The New York Times ran a long story this morning about former NFL standout Darren Sharper. He had a reputation, not as a misogynist bigot, but as exactly the opposite — a guy who liked women, stood up for women, stood against misogyny in football culture. He wouldn’t be the first NFL standout to face multiple rape allegations. I’ve written about Ben Roethlisberger before, and the police who helped ensure there was no meaningful investigation of the allegations in Georgia. And Dave Meggett is one of the few genuinely well-known sports figures actually convicted of sexual assault against an adult woman. There was an arrest for an assault on a sex worker in Canada, and then an unrelated misdemeanor conviction before the felony that finally put him behind bars. But neither of those guys particularly had a reputation for standing up for women.
Not that I’d call Sharper a feminist. The former All-Pro defensive back, a safety who played with three team over fourteen years and won a Superbowl, seemed to be more about chivalry than equality. But he sponsored an NFL camp for women, and participated in an NFL dads-and-daughters campaign.
I’ll just summarize the allegations: that he had a pattern of spiking women’s drinks with generic Ambien, causing the women to become completely incapacitated or unconscious, and then raping them. He allegedly did this to one woman, then when she awoke hung-over and with no idea he had drugged her drink, offered her something to take the edge off her hangover, which he had spiked, and then raped her again. There appear to be nine women so far saying that Sharper did something similar to them, in different cities including New Orleans, LA, Miami Beach and Phoenix, but who knows how many may come forward now that the story is in the Times. The Times quotes some prosecutors saying something I’ve long said based on research, which is that the predators pick a tactic that they get away with, usually one involving intoxication rather than overt force, and they do it again and again.
There are two things I want to note here, which are really separate topics that deserve longer treatment somewhere. (1) It always comes up with celebrities and athletes that they don’t need to rape to get laid. While the second wave maxim that rape is about power and not sex is oversimplified (for at least many rapists, the two are not separable), it has explanatory power. A guy like Sharper clearly had plenty of consensual sex options; and if he did what’s alleged (I’m very confident he did given the frequency and commonality of the allegations from different women in disparate locations), he clearly preferred rape to, or in addition to, consensual sex. There are reasons why, having to do with masculinity and entitlement, but I’ll leave this here for now. (2) Alcohol is the most common date rape drug. But I’ve seen MRA propaganda asserting that women who say they were drugged can never show it, that they were always or almost always lying, that the toxicology screens always come back negative, and they really just didn’t realize how drunk they were. That’s always been bullshit; I’m hoping that the proof in the Sharper cases will provide a highly public, evergreen counterexample to that.
Talking The Talk
Remember Kyle Payne? Remember this guy? The guy I called Boris in this piece? That guy led the crusade to put another serial rapist out of action, and I have friends, friends who call themselves feminist and antirape, who absolutely stand by him.
Some of the guys who claim the feminist label, who claim to be against rape and misogyny, do things like try to murder their girlfriends, sexually assault their friends (or just engage in run-of-the-mill sexist mansplaining and shutting down of things women are trying to say). How can they do that? Doesn’t the cognitive dissonance cause them to burst into flames? If does not. Some of them have Axis II personality disorders — terminology is controversial here, but variously antisocial, sociopathic or psychopathic, and narcissistic personality features cause people to lie with not the slightest discomfort and, when confronted, with absolute comfort to spin another story to cover the lie. Maybe some of them are tortured by their own consciences, maybe some have powerful rationalizations to excuse what they do, and some clearly have no allegiance to any conception of right and wrong. I can’t divide it up more than that. It matters, for purposes of how to deal with them, and I would like to know much more about how they think and how they operate. I’d like to see research on this that isn’t specific to male predators, too. We don’t have that. Yet.
How Can We Tell?
We can’t. Not reliably. There is no not-a-rapist seal of approval, not one that can be inerringly trusted. That means that the option of spotting them before we hear that they’ve done anything horrible isn’t a panacea. Nothing is a panacea. The solutions to rape have to be widespread and systemic:
- We have to be on the lookout for people who say they’re rapists or say misogynist things, because it’s essentially propaganda that allows them to normalize what they do, and hide it.
- We have to create an environment that fosters acceptance and transparency for survivors, because unless they come forward we will always lack the data to spot many of the predators.
- We have to publicize tactics and normalize intervention. If we can’t spot the people, we may still be able to recognize the actions; a pattern of isolate & intoxicate is never really a good thing.
If it was easy, and free, and didn’t cost anybody anything, and didn’t require much of any of us, then we would have fixed this problem already.
Here’s what she said:
“You know, everyone’s a little bit gay,” she told the crowd. “It’s the truth. Everyone’s gay, all it takes is one cocktail. And if that doesn’t work, sprinkle something in their drink. That’s what I always do.”
Publications like The Guardian are giving her tremendous benefit of the doubt, proactively providing her a defense by calling it a “joke.” I’m not willing to extend that benefit without more.
What she said, what she literally said, is that people should use alcohol to get people to have sex with them, who otherwise would not do so — and that if they doesn’t work, they should drug the drinks. And she said she does that herself. She didn’t say she did it once. She said that’s what she “always” does.
I will not assume this is a joke. Serial rapists target people they know; they overwhelmingly use intoxication instead of overt force. They do this because it works, and by “works”, I mean people will supply explanations and defenses.
And the popular culture has already started supplying explanations and defenses. That it was a “joke.” That she didn’t mean it literally. That she is just courting controversy. Maybe all that’s true. Or maybe she actually does exactly what she says she does, and the people explaining and excusing her comments are doing exactly what she counts on.
We have not heard any Miley Cyrus victims come forward; at least I have not. But … would they? Why would they? Reporting to police even under the best of circumstances is an uncertain proposition. Look at it this way; what is the track record of rape allegations, by adult complainants, against celebrities? Dismal. How about against white celebrities? Well, as far as I can tell, in the US, the batting average of sex offense convictions for assaults on adults by white celebrities is zero, ever. No convictions.
Not one. (I’m being specific here. There are a handful of convictions for sexual assaults of children, like Roman Polansky. There are a handful of convictions against black celebrities, including Mike Tyson and former NY Giants standout Dave Meggett. No white people. Marv Albert is the closest, I think, but he pleaded mid-trial to misdemeanor assault with no sexual component and did not have to register as a sex offender.) Think about it. Every once in a while there is an allegation, but the ones by adults against white famous people always end up a dead end for the prosecution. Always.
The elephant in the room is that Miley is a woman, and we’ve constructed rape as a thing that only men do, and that only happens to women. That’s not the reality.
I don’t mean to ignore rapes that happen to men here — they are more common than many people suppose, and that gets too little attention. In my view, we also have not talked enough about the dynamics of age. How often rape happens to men is highly sensitive to definition (penetrated versus forced to penetrate) and is very differently distributed by age for men than for women; there is very little discussion of any of this. See generally this paper, which has gotten some attention lately, but we’re only at the start of that conversation. You’re not really anti-rape unless you’re against all rape. There are no good rapes.
Rape of men is not necessarily what Miley Cyrus alleged. She prefaced her confession (what? People are calling it a “joke,” based on assumption alone, simply assuming that it isn’t literal, so I’m going to go ahead and treat it as literal and call it a confession) with the remark, “everyone is a little bit gay.” So she’s talking at least in part about same sex rapes. When she says, “that’s what I always do,” she may be saying that she drugs women to incapacitate them so she can rape them. And that doesn’t particularly make it better or worse. Whether she means that she rapes men, or women, or both, or people who don’t fit on the binary, their gender doesn’t excuse drugging them and raping them.
It seems strange that someone committing a crime would essentially brag that it’s a kind of crime they commit. But Roman Polansky bragged about raping underage girls, and Woody Allen cracked jokes about orgies with children. In fact, rapists tend to assume that everyone sees the world the way they do and try to normalize their conduct. As the inimitable Kate Harding said about misogynist men joking about rape and abuse and getting men to joke along:
you have probably, at some point in your life, engaged in that kind of talk with a man who really, truly hates women–to the extent of having beaten and/or raped at least one. And you probably didn’t know which one he was.
And that guy? Thought you were on his side.
Rapists want to get all of us to nod along and giggle. Oh you! Courting controversy again! Making twisted jokes again!
Miley just said she rapes people. If we say it’s a joke in poor taste, we’re really just nodding along with it. What I want is a criminal investigation, but I won’t get that. At least I’d like us not to all treat it as a joke. True or made up, it’s a statement of criminal activity.
People who think I need a sense of humor need to get a sense of mission.
One thing that comes up over and over in discussing rape and how to stop it is the role of the criminal justice system. Advocates for survivors are adamant that survivors don’t have to report and don’t have to use the system. Many other people, for various reasons, think that survivors have an obligation to go to the police and prosecute. Some of these people are well-intentioned, and others really just want to say that any survivor who does not report should be ignored. I’ve written at the greatest length about this specifically with reference to kinky communities, where the “cops or STFU” brigade is not well-intentioned, but rather mostly composed of people who know full well that successful prosecution is almost impossible, that contact with the police will be affirmatively awful for the survivor, and just want a rallying cry to shout down all survivors.
I won’t repeat a general explanation of why the criminal justice system is broken here. For a lot of people in a lot of social positions, contact with the cops is not likely to go well. That’s just the reality we have to live with, and anyone who doesn’t see that is neck-deep in their own privilege. That explains why, for example, people of color, or sex workers, or trans people might decide the cops are more likely to be a danger to them than to help them, and that’s not specific to rape. But there is another reason even the most privileged folks may not want to go to the police about a rape. When the rape doesn’t fit the stranger-rape or overt-force storylines that make for the least difficult prosecutions (and sometimes even when it does), there is reason to believe that there may be no real investigation at all. It’s a journalistic convention to start with anecdotes, to humanize the story. These are systemic problems, and I’d prefer to start with how many rape complaints languish without real investigation, how many cases are dropped without an interrogation of a certain number of witnesses and whatnot. But that data is spotty or nonexistent; and people being people, it is necessary to start with a terrible story to humanize the problem. So I’ll do this in the usual way.
[Content note for an ugly story about a woman who was sexually assaulted, then stonewalled.]
Hannah at Howard and the D.C. Police
Hannah (the name Amanda Hess used in her excellent reporting back when she was with the Washington Citypaper) was at a party at Howard — somewhere in the house, and her friends didn’t know where. Her friends, her wingwomen, were looking for her, worried. A big guy who said he had been paid to keep people from the second floor physically prevented them from going upstairs to look for her; then he made a show of looking himself, but all the bedroom doors were locked. He was sweating. Hannah’s friends thought he looked nervous, like he knew something was wrong. The women yelled and made noise, ignoring the bodyguard’s and the owner’s orders that they leave, and eventually Hannah emerged from a bedroom: intoxicated, obviously out of it, barely able to negotiate the stairs. Her friends had been with her much of the night, and she hadn’t had enough alcohol to be that drunk. Something was wrong. As they left, they got half-way down the block before Hannah told them enough for them to figure out that she had been raped. Then she threw up. The women stormed back to the address of the house party, demanding to know who had taken Hannah into the bedroom. The men inside gave a fake name, then slammed the door. Hannah did what the “cops or STFU” crowd insist on. She went to the “proper authorities.” Hannah’s friends took her, still throwing up, to Howard University Hospital. Her friend filled out the intake form, “raped, possibly drugged.” Then, Hess writes: Read more…
I feel sorry for Jonathan Swift. The term “satire” and specifically Swift’s “modest proposal” about eating Irish children gets pressed into service to excuse and defend more offensive nonsense than Swift could have ever predicted. But the art of satire, as Swift employed it, isn’t dead, nor even entirely lost even after being used as the dumping ground for all that sloppy rubbish.*
A Denver-area kinkster and consent activist, Coco Jones (not the radio personality) has graced us with “I’m Taking Responsibility For Getting Raped.” If you’re writing a manual on how to satirize offensive, oppressive bullshit the Swiftian way, by treating it entirely seriously within the four corners of the text and letting it hang itself, you would do well to use this as your example:
I owe everyone an apology. I never expected to write this, I was stuck in a different mindset for a long time. But I think it’s time I accept something and admit where I have gone wrong. I have been pushing away, countering, debating, and made myself an all out controversial figure in the community. And what for? This whole time I just haven’t been listening. I’ve been deflecting and refusing to take ownership for something.
It’s time for me to step up and accept what so many have been saying. I am finally going to take personal responsibility for getting raped. Yep, you heard me. No more of this, ‘stop victim blaming’. I have gotten the message loud and clear. You are right. I did this. You finally broke through to me.
So, this is how I got myself raped and how I will be at fault for a future rape, or perhaps a mere consent violation, should it occur.
* * * Read more…
I’ll cut to the chase: a friend and activist is collecting stories and aggregating information about people who have left BDSM or kink communities and their reasons. I think this is important, and I want to encourage people to participate. There is a survey form here. There is a FAQ post about it here, and a follow-up here. The blogger, Motley Mayhem, has put the project ahead of the personality and I’ll respect that, except to say that I know and believe in Motley from consent culture work on Fetlife and I am really glad Motley is doing this.
The project has grown organically from a call to Motley’s friends to share stories, into a much bigger effort to capture the frequency and commonalities of these narratives. I don’t have access to any raw data, but I can tell you from the stories I’ve seen and heard over the years that I expect the real news to be the frequency and similarity of certain patterns. Regular readers will know what I think; what’s more important is to have thousands of accounts to back up the ways in which kinky communities drive off exactly the people who seek them out; the ways they act as power centers for the established members of the community and not as resources to guide or advocate for all the people who are or should be their constituents.
In the last two or three years, consent activism has exploded within kinky communities. A lot of people can share credit for a revolution in progress, because there is a revolution in progress, or, as I said in my biggest series of posts on this topic, there’s a war on. This survey is the forging of a powerful weapon in that war, a weapon made of truth. Please help. If you have a story to tell, please tell what you can, and if you don’t, please signal boost this so it finds the people who do.
Time flies when there’s too much to do. This blog launched when the book, Yes Means Yes: Visions Of Female Sexual Power and A World Without Rape, hit the shelves in November 2008. The book went on to critical raves and a solid position in college syllabi, while its editors, Jaclyn Friedman and Jessica Valenti, went on to other things — Jessica left her baby, Feministing, and ended up with a regular gig at The Nation, while Jaclyn wrote the follow-up workbook What You Really Really Want (I wrote the online supplement, and while I’m clearly biased, I think it’s a terrific book and it almost literally offers some useful tools for everyone old enough to read it). She writes for various outlets, does media appearances, runs WAM! and generally keeps a schedule that can make you tired just looking at it.
This was originally a group blog, and in the first year a majority of the contributors that said they would write for the blog submitted at least one post, but many only one or two. Some of those posts were terrific; Stacy May Fowles’s and Lee Jacobs-Riggs’s work particularly resonated with me. Before long, only a handful of us were writing anything for the blog, and then it was just me and Jaclyn, and a lot more me than Jaclyn, and for a long time now this has effectively been a solo blog. I never intended it that way, but that’s what happened.
When I started, I didn’t realize I had so much to say.
After three hundred posts of mine, and dozens of other folks’ from the early years, there is a heck of a back catalog. This is an entirely partial and biased list.
Rape and Rape Culture:
BDSM and Kink Community Issues:
Stuff I loved that nobody read:
Sometimes I think that some time I’ll be done, and then I remember what Jaclyn taught me: it is not yours to complete the work, neither is it yours to desist from it. So maybe I’ll still be here in another five. Thing will be better then. Not completely, but some.