There have been a few conversations going on online this week about what is and isn’t rape, who is and isn’t a rapist, and the Steubenville rape case and the HBO show Girls have been at the center of these conversations. Obviously, the two are not equivalent in terms of moral weight, but they both illustrate the complexities of sexual relationships and ways in which people we care about can be perpetrators of crimes.
We tend to agree that “no” means “no”, but what about non-verbal non-consent? What about inability to consent? What about coercion? When are these things rape? What are the terms we have for things that are not OK, but we’re not sure if they are “rape”? What does it mean if someone we like does them? What does it mean to label someone we know a “rapist”?
The episode of Girls in question depicted a man relapsing into his alcohol addiction and doing things to his girlfriend sexually that she was very uncomfortable with. It was a very graphic depiction, even for HBO, that some are calling rape.
The scene is incredibly uncomfortable, but a major contributor to the discomfort comes from the fact that the audience likes Adam and he’s doing something the audience doesn’t want him to do. Is it rape? Maybe not, but it’s definitely coercive and abusive. Is it possible to acknowledge that he did it and still like him?
And then there’s Steubenville. The level of outrage at the treatment of Jane Doe seems to be matched by the level of concern for the future of these poor boys who had such promising futures. Leaving aside for a moment how deeply troubling the discourse about promising futures is, as though Jane Doe’s future hasn’t been damaged or was less promising because she was woman who drank and had sex, there’s something worth examining about the concern being shown for these 16 year old boys being sent to prison.
They are, after all, just kids. Stupid kids who kidnapped and repeatedly violated a woman in need of medical attention, but entitled 16 year old kids who spent their entire lives being told they could do no wrong and worked very hard to succeed at their chosen passion. They are not just horrible rapists, there is more to them than that, but they are also rapists.
The thing about rapists, though, is that it is never the case that “rapist” is the only term that can be used to describe them. As easy as it is to demonize and vilify someone who commits a rape, the reality is that most rapists are friends or family of their victims. This is one of the tragedies of the crime — “rapist” often attaches itself to people who were already “friend” “star-player” “hero” “love-interest” and “protector”.
Add to this how ineffective, violent, and, yes, full of rape our prison system is, it’s really no wonder that people are sad that two boys have been condemned to that experience when they weren’t, up til now, labelled by any of the other labels that normally go with that. Instead of jumpstarting conversation about how we could fix the justice system or the moral complexities of dealing with young criminals, we instead have a fight about how Jane Doe is the real victim (she is), how these boys chose their own futures by committing the crime (they did), and how they should be punished so much more. What, exactly, does punishing them more accomplish?
I think there has to be a middle ground that says rapists are people and deserve some level of sympathy and the chance to make amends and have a future. And if we allow for that possibility, the possibility of forgiveness and a justice system that, yes, will convict rapists, but will also offer them help rather than just punishment, more victims who knew their rapists first as friends, lovers, family, and heroes could come forward with what happened knowing that three-dimensional people would be dealt with in three-dimensional ways. Perhaps we could then see rape victims as more than just victims, not just virgins and sluts, but three-dimensional people who had been victimized but were so much more than that. Dehumanizing rapists has the effect of distancing ourselves from the chilling reality that people who have raped aren’t uncommon, making them just monsters makes it that much harder for us to accept that “normal” people who are accused may well be guilty.
I am furious, absolutely furious, about how Jane Doe is not being treated as the victim, but the young men are. I am furious that there are no consequences to the other young men involved who did nothing to stop the rape and, instead, filmed and photographed the violations. I am furious that there are people who think that she deserved it because she was drunk. There are so many things to be furious about. But I am also furious that these boys are being sent to a prison system that will, in all likelihood, make them worse and possibly get them raped. And I am furious that our need for moral black and whites means that many women will never come forward because they don’t want that to happen to someone they care about, even if they are a rapist, and they don’t want to spend their lives being defined as victim when that often has so little to do with their futures.