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Jan 03 2013

Rape, American Style

India Gang Rape

By Sikivu Hutchinson

When I was five years old I was sexually assaulted by neighbors.  Ours was a tranquil post-white flight neighborhood of beautiful single family homes, obsessively tended lawns and keeping-up-with-the-Joneses home improvement.  It was the mid-seventies; before black women’s experiences with rape had come into broader public consciousness through works like The Color Purple and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.  The term sexual assault was largely unknown.  The language that rape prevention activists now use to validate the everyday terrorism girls and women deal with was not a part of our vocabulary or classroom curriculum.  In my critically conscious upbringing I was raised to clearly understand the racist police who abused and murdered us, the racist criminal justice system that jailed us, and the racist cultural history that rendered us invisible.  I was taught to revere the black warriors who crusaded against the holocaust of slavery and its aftermath.  But I was not taught to know, understand or identify the casual predators that moved in and out of our lives without detection or censure; the parasites who posed as strong upstanding black men in the light of day and terrorized with impunity behind closed doors buttressed by violent silence.

Last month’s barbaric gang rape and murder of a 23-year old female student on a bus in Delhi, India was a stark reminder of this violent silence and the global expendability of poor women of color in so-called democratic societies.  The suspects—who were recently charged with rape and murder—allegedly attacked the young woman in order “to teach her a lesson” for being out with a man.  Commenting on the international outrage that the crime has elicited against the backdrop of India’s economic ascent, writer Kishwar Desai reflected that “a certain class of men is deeply uncomfortable with women displaying their independence, receiving education and joining the work force.  The gang rape becomes a form of subduing the women, collectively, and establishing their male superiority.”  India is dead last on Trust Law’s 2012 list of 19 best and worst countries for women’s rights.  Muslim fundamentalist Saudi Arabia is number 18.  The U.S. is number six.  But like South Africa (number 16) and Brazil (number 11), institutional racism, sexism, and heterosexism determine access to health care, reproductive rights, and economic opportunity in the U.S.  In her article “Black Women, Sexual Assault, and the Art of Resistance,” Brooke Axtell writes that “the Department of Justice estimates that for every white woman that reports her rape, at least 5 white women do not report theirs; and yet, for every African-American woman that reports her rape, at least 15 African-American women do not report theirs.”  Between 40-60% of African American women have experienced sexual assault by the age of 18.

Decades after “Denim Day,” “Take Back the Night” and other global rape awareness movements were popularized my students are still living the reality of violent silence.  Nearly every girl in my Women’s Leadership Project (WLP) feminist mentoring program has been the victim of sexual assault or abuse.  Initially, most have no language to articulate their anger, much less their post-traumatic stress experience.  The repressed rage that girls of color carry with them about rape and sexual harassment comes out in shame, blame, and self-hatred.  It’s spit out in the casual misogyny of their embrace of epithets like “bitch” and “ho.”  It’s displayed in the yards of Rapunzel-esque hair that they swath themselves in to obliterate their “ugliness.” And it is manifest in the increasing number of “very young girls” that are sucked into prostitution; brutalized by gang rape and “pimped out” by men they view as father figures.  During a recent day of dialogue moderated by WLP students at Washington Prep High School many girls were loath to identify sexual violence as a significant factor on campus.  There were numerous anecdotes about girls being threatened with gang rape as well as adult male campus security guards sexually harassing girls.  Nonetheless, it was female behavior, and not male behavior and the culture of the school, which was criticized.  In the grand scheme of the community the experiences of girls of color don’t matter.  Far too often in mainstream discourse, rape is only politically significant when it is framed as a phenomenon that happens “over there”, in the backward “third world,” or “here” to a young white female victim in the civilized U.S.

In the aftermath of the young Indian student’s death, the outcry against the country’s misogynist culture of rape, murder, and dehumanization will hopefully be a watershed for legislation protecting women from sexual assault and intimate partner violence.  But the patriarchal nationalist resentment that writer Desai portrays as India’s affliction also drives the savage anti-feminist backlash in the United States and its culture of violent silence.

9 comments

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  1. 1
    logicpriest

    It seems like in America there is some sort of chart of disqualifications for whether or not the public consciousness cares about an assault. If the victim is sexually active, a person of color, drunk, poor, assaulted by the “good” boys such as athletes etc then they aren’t important or “made it up.”

    My best friend was young, middle class and white yet the police and many of her “friends” assumed she had been complicit when she was attacked because she had known the assailant and been sexually active with someone in their shared social circle. Any tick on the chart makes the victim not a victim to Americans. Hell, I was dating someone who had been assaulted by one of her best friends (who I too had hung out with before I knew) but she didn’t even consider it assault despite her guilt, disgust and such. She was not white so had been culturally conditioned to automatically assume her own complicity.

    While I am at probably the lowest risk for assault myself, I don’t understand how anyone can excuse and silence and allow such violence to go on. Why is violence excused when their is a sexual element of it? I would think that makes it a thousand times worse.

    Just rambling at this point because it really bothers me. Victims need to be either perfect white Christian angels or in a “savage” land for Americans to give a shit.

    1. 1.1
      blackskeptics

      “Victims need to be either perfect white Christian angels or in a “savage” land for Americans to give a shit.” Well said. When researching this and similar articles I have always been hard-pressed to find any examples of non-white American victims of rape or gang-rape that received ongoing national mainstream media coverage. Rapes in the so-called backward “third world” merely prove that they are not the civilized “us.”

  2. 2
    karraflarra

    That is not an attitude unique for America. I am Swedish, we have the same issue here.

    1. 2.1
      ludicfallacy

      Have you seen the documentary called The Gender War (Könskriget) ?

      tinyurl com/ab9dv8y

      I’m sure you are familiar with Eva Lundgren. What is your opinion of her belief in Male Satanist Cults ritualistically murdering babies ? I believe it lead to a Satanism hysteria in Sweden in the late 80s early 90s.

      What is your opinion of Eva Lundgren’s analysis of the Södertälje case ?

      (some skeptic atheist groups in Sweden think she’s a QUACK)

      What is your opinion of Margareta Winberg ?

      I fully support women’s rights and organizations like ROK et al but when your leaders think like Eva and Margareta your movement has serious leadership problems. I find it humorous that radical feminists like Eva use quasi sciences like evolutionary psychology when it suits them. Read up on Eva and some of her scholarly papers.

      PS she was the chair of sociology at Uppsala University but is a theologian.

  3. 3
    ERose

    In fact, being a perfect angel means next to nothing, as long as the perpetrator is seen as above reproach in his own communities.
    In my town, a high school senior just found the courage to tell the authorities her father’s friend raped her when she was 13. She is a “good” victim- a middle-class white virgin child, and her attacker has heavy support because of his reputation as a “good spiritual man” in this community. There will be people in this town who will forever believe the victim is at worst a liar and at best tragically troubled because they are so used to trusting him.
    When you are used to trusting Whiteness over Color, Man over Woman, Prominence over Obscurity, or Age over Youth, it’s the same thing. The instinct is to trust the person you would ordinarily be comfortable trusting, and that person is almost always the person with the most privilege.
    That’s why it matters to fight the more subtle attitudes that support unmerited privilege. The more we can change cultural narratives, the safer we all are, and the more the truth will be a matter of fact rather than knee-jerk reaction when we are not.

    1. 3.1
      blackskeptics

      Thanks for the insightful and devastating reflection. There has always been a hierarchy of proper victims in the West/U.S. which is deeply informed by the dominant “cultural narratives” that you allude to. That said, the issue of credibility and visibility of course cuts across all communities and underscores the deeply ingrained misogynist mindset about women as objects for territorialization, control and disposal.

  4. 4
    logicpriest

    Like I said above, there seems to be a checklist. If anything on it is checked, it was your own fault and/or made up. One of the checks is if the attacker is more “respectable” than the victim. Should pass out the list so women know when it is worth reporting assaults, apparently.

  5. 5
    Ibis3, Let's burn some bridges

    There seems to be so little privilege in being white when one is talking about victims of sexual assault. There’s so much misogyny and ubiquitous patriarchal cultural assumptions that devalue every girl or woman, it doesn’t look at all like racial privilege could be a factor. It’s like you’re already staring at the bottom of the barrel. Then you look at how (for a pertinent Canadian example), aboriginal victims often have an even worse situation. You think, what could be worse than the cop blaming *you* for your provocative clothing and thereby being the cause of your own rape? How about not even bothering to care that you’re missing. Gah.

  6. 6
    gubulgaria

    “During a recent day of dialogue moderated by WLP students at Washington Prep High School many girls were loath to identify sexual violence as a significant factor on campus. There were numerous anecdotes about girls being threatened with gang rape as well as adult male campus security guards sexually harassing girls. Nonetheless, it was female behavior, and not male behavior and the culture of the school, which was criticized. In the grand scheme of the community the experiences of girls of color don’t matter.”

    Or the opinions of girls of color, apparently.

    If you’re going to censor their views out of existence, then why even mention them? Or have I missed something?

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