How Rolling Stone Failed Rape Survivors

[Content note: sexual assault]

My new Daily Dot piece discusses the Rolling Stone mess.

Last month’s groundbreaking Rolling Stone piece about sexual assault at the University of Virginia recently came under scrutiny from reporters at Slate and the Washington Post, leading Rolling Stone to retract the piece on Friday.

Unfortunately, many are taking this to mean that “Jackie,” the college student who described her brutal gang rape in the original piece, was lying about her ordeal. Based on everything I have read about this story, however, I find that exceedingly unlikely.

One major criticism of the original Rolling Stone piece has centered on the fact that the reporter, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, did not reach out to the students Jackie accused of rape or to the fraternity where she claimed the assault happened. In the retraction piece, the editors wrote, “Because of the sensitive nature of Jackie’s story, we decided to honor her request not to contact the man who she claimed orchestrated the attack on her nor any of the men who she claimed participated in the attack for fear of retaliation against her.”

I understand this decision, and I understand how difficult it must’ve been for Erdely to try to keep Jackie comfortable enough to speak publicly about such a traumatic experience. But this goes against journalistic ethics and leaves the journalist, the publication, the readers, and the subject of the piece—Jackie—vulnerable. Since Jackie was already going on the record with her accusation, refusing to try to interview the men she accused would not have helped prevent retribution against her. Unfortunately, that is a risk any time a rape survivor goes public—in fact, any time anyone publicly accuses anybody of anything.

Reporting the story ethically and rigorously doesn’t have to mean disbelieving Jackie or treating her insensitively. There’s a difference between a reporter who says, “I’m going to interview whoever I want regardless of what you want” and a reporter who says, “I understand your concerns, but in order for this story to be as powerful as we want it to be, I need to reach out to the people you’re accusing.” If Jackie refused to speak given these terms, perhaps this was not the right time to try to write this piece. As Audrey White writes at Autostraddle:

Erdely’s job as a reporter required she create a bulletproof story to protect Jackie, avoid libel against the alleged assailants, and achieve her ostensible goal of revealing a culture at UVA and in Greek life that promotes and protects sexual assault. … If respecting Jackie’s wishes meant the reporter couldn’t contact anyone else related to the assault, even to confirm basic details like a person’s membership in the frat or the date of an event, she should have found a different source or approached the narrative from a different angle. As it stands, she put the integrity of her story and of Jackie’s search for resolution at risk.

Indeed, it’s now unclear how willing Jackie was to be a part of this story at all. The Washington Post reports: “Overwhelmed by sitting through interviews with the writer, Jackie said she asked Erdely to be taken out of the article. She said Erdely refused, and Jackie was told that the article would go forward regardless.”

While Jackie doesn’t specify exactly how or why she was overwhelmed by this process, the fact that there appear to be “inconsistencies” in her recollection of her gang rape gives a possible clue.

Read the rest here.

Why You Should Believe Shia LaBeouf

My latest Daily Dot piece is about (male) actor/performance artist Shia LaBeouf’s claim that he was raped during an art piece.

What’s the worst thing that could happen if you believe that Shia LaBeouf was raped?

I ask because plenty of people seem entirely unwilling to entertain that idea. For example:

It’s unclear how exactly believing a survivor “demeans” other survivors. There is not a limited amount of empathy and concern in the world. You can care about survivors like LaBeouf and you can care about survivors who look and act like whatever you think survivors should look and act like.

Some people have said that they can’t believe LaBeouf because he’s an “unreliable narrator.” I was initially tempted to look up and comment briefly on the actor’s apparent history of twisting the truth, but then I realized that it absolutely doesn’t matter. Everyone lies, albeit to varying extents, and lying about rape in particular is so rare that I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt even if he has lied about other things before.

At the Guardian, Daily Dot contributor Lindy West writes:

A victim doesn’t have to be relatable or reliable or likable or ‘normal’–or even a good person–for you to believe them. You can be utterly baffled by someone’s every move and still take their victimization seriously. LaBeouf’s bizarre behavior and his sexual violation are in no way mutually exclusive, nor are the latter and his gender. ‘He was asking for it.’ ‘Why didn’t he fight back?’ ‘Why didn’t he say ‘no’?’ ‘He must have wanted it.’ ‘He seems crazy.’ These are flat-out unacceptable things to say to a person of any gender.

Others have pointed out that LaBeouf did not resist the alleged rape. Some of them acknowledge that survivors often “freeze” and are physically unable to resist, but claim that because LaBeouf has stated that for him the reason was that he did not want to compromise his performance art piece, then it’s not “really” rape.

I will grant that this may seem confusing. After all, if he was ableto stop the rape but didn’t, how is it still rape? If he allowed it to happen “for art’s sake,” isn’t that the same as wanting it to happen?

It’s pretty simple, and thinking of rape in terms of affirmative consent may help. Did LaBeouf make it absolutely clear that he wanted this woman to have sex with him? Did he verbally or nonverbally indicate that in a way that would be unmistakable?

No, he didn’t.

Read the rest here.

Four Better Ways To Prevent Sexual Assault Than Blaming Victims

My newest Daily Dot piece is up. It’s about Don Lemon’s inappropriate remarks to Joan Tarshis about her allegations against Bill Cosby, and how we can do better.

As allegations that Bill Cosby raped 15 different women continue to ripple through the Internet and the entertainment world—spurred, perhaps, by the fact that a man finally signal-boosted them—controversial CNN news anchor Don Lemon wants to know: Why didn’t accuser Joan Tarshis simply bite Cosby’s penis to avoid being coerced into giving him oral sex?

This, apparently, was the question on Lemon’s mind as he listened to Tarshis’s story.

Lemon later apologized, stating that he “never want[ed] to suggest that any victim could have prevented a rape.” While this is notable, unfortunately, that’s exactly what was suggested.

While Lemon’s question, which he claimed that he “had to ask,” stands out in its graphic inappropriateness, it’s a common practice to ask survivors of sexual assault why they didn’t “just” this or “simply” that. Whether it comes from prurient interest or supposed concern, many people who try to discuss sexual assault with survivors get caught up in the details of what the survivor could have theoretically, in a perfect universe, if they had thought of it in time rather than experiencing (as many victims do) too much fear or shock, done to prevent the assault.

First of all, it is not the responsibility of people targeted by sexual assault to prevent said assault. The fact that this still needs to be repeated, over and over, is disgraceful.

Second, there are many more survivors than there are rapists, and rapists get away with it because they are rarely held responsible for their actions.

Throughout history, the responsibility for preventing sexual assault has been placed on the shoulders of its potential victims. People like Don Lemon have probably been giving women these “tips” for millennia. Yet it hasn’t seemed to do any good. Isn’t it about time to try something else?

Maybe Lemon should be giving us some tips on how to hold powerful men accountable instead. Here’s a start.

1) Recognize celebrities have power.

In general, people seem to be pretty bad at thinking of social dynamics in terms of power. Many have trouble understanding the fact that white people and men have excess power in our society, for instance.

So do celebrities of any gender, and male celebrities especially. People who are so widely and strongly admired and valued wield a tremendous amount of influence without even intending to. When they do intend to, it gets even stronger.

This is especially true when a celebrity has something a non-celebrity wants—like fame, access, and opportunities. Many (if not all) of the women who have accused Bill Cosby of rape were young aspiring entertainers to whom Cosby offered mentorship. When people dismiss their allegations because some of them took a long time to come forward, ask yourself—what would it take to get you to destroy what might be your only shot at the career you want? Would accusing a famous, beloved man of sexual assault—and probably being dismissed, harassed, or even threatened as a result—really seem worthwhile?

Men like Cosby know this. They know that they have the power to make or break these young women’s chances in the industry. They know that they will be allowed to get away with it. And so they keep doing it.

Read the rest here.

Sexually Assaulting Someone As A “Prank” Is Still Sexual Assault

[Content note: sexual assault, sexist & ableist slurs]

A British YouTube personality named Sam Pepper recently posted a video of a “prank” in which he walks around grabbing random women’s butts as a joke and films their reactions.

Or, to rephrase: A British YouTube personality named Sam Pepper recently made a video of himself sexually assaulting multiple women, and then posted that video online, presumably without the permission of the women being assaulted in it.

To its credit, YouTube has taken the video down after a large outcry from (former) fans, various well-known YouTubers, and many Tumblr and Twitter users. In its place is now an odd notice: “This video has been removed as a violation of YouTube’s policy on nudity or sexual content.” As though the problem were “sexual content,” rather than sexual assault.

I’ll skip over all the tired rehashing of how this sort of thing seems to be Pepper’s M.O. as a YouTuber and as a human being, how Pepper’s boringly regressive ideas about women are easy to glean from the videos, how there’s now a backlash calling his detractors “butthurt little pussies” and “tumblr cunts,” how folks are claiming, as they always do, that this is somehow okay because some of the women laughed or smiled (because that’s what we’re taught to do to survive, and besides, other women literally said “I don’t like that”). Because all of this happens every single time and it’s a cycle with which many of us are now resignedly familiar. So I’ll jump straight to the analysis.

Sexual assault is not (just) a prank. A prank is putting rubber insects or plastic poop in your friend’s bed. A prank is coming home from school with a fake note from the principal to your mom. A prank is, in one slightly extreme case that I heard of, a bunch of friends getting together and having tons flowers and cards saying “Sorry for your loss” delivered to another friend at work, forcing him to explain to his concerned coworkers who he “lost.”

Pranks can run the gamut from wonderfully hilarious for everyone involved to scary, spiteful, and cruel. Pranks can cross the line. Even if we are to believe that Pepper did this because he thought it would be “funny” rather than because he wanted to make women feel violated and creeped-out, then this is a very unambiguous example of a prank that crosses the line. Specifically, it crosses the line into sexual violence and criminal activity.

Of course, this isn’t uncommon. Daniel Tosh made a video about touching women’s stomachs (specifically, their belly fat) and also encouraged his fans to make their own (which they did). YouTubers LAHWF and Stuart Edge made videos of themselves kissing random women on the lips without their consent and of themselves picking women up off the ground and trying to carry them away. All of this is assault. Not a joke. Not a prank. Assault against women.

Sam Pepper and Daniel Tosh and their sympathizers appear to believe that there are two mutually exclusive categories of human speech and behavior: “just a joke” and “not a joke.” Moreover, these categories are so painfully clear and obvious that anyone who mischaracterizes “just a joke” as “not a joke” is “an idiot,” “a r****d,” “a stupid feminist bitch,” etc. The only dimension on which items in the “just a joke” category can be judged is funniness. They cannot be judged on, for instance, ethics. So if you try to judge those items based on how ethically acceptable they are, then you’ve clearly placed them into the “not a joke” category and are therefore “an idiot,” “a r***d,” and so on.

Obviously, a joke can be funny or not funny to a given person. But it can also be experienced by a given person as not a joke at all, especially since many types of humor seem to rely on “saying a commonly-believed/-endorsed thing and then acting like you don’t really believe/endorse that thing” as their main mechanism. A joke can also be hurtful or unethical, even if everyone understands that it is a joke.

I hate to keep trotting out that “intent isn’t magic,” but it really isn’t. When I am being sexually assaulted, I don’t care what the person assaulting me truly deeply believes about this encounter and what it means to them and how they feel about it in their heart of hearts. I am being sexually assaulted. I would like them to stop sexually assaulting me now.

Now, if someone stumbles on the train and accidentally touches my breasts or butt, I might be momentarily startled, but I’m usually okay because I understand that they did not intend to touch me. Sam Pepper intended to grab the asses of the women whose asses he grabbed; he just didn’t intend–or pretends he didn’t intend–for them to feel uncomfortable or disgusted by this. Well, unfortunately, you can’t will people’s feelings in or out of existence.

Pepper later claimed that the video was a “social experiment”–the last resort of those who can no longer even claim a botched attempt at humor. If you unpack this a little bit, “social experiment” usually just means “doing something wrong/weird/unusual/inappropriate to see how people will respond.” You know, like a baby who discovers the ability to throw toys out of the crib to see what will happen.

There is no need to conduct an experiment to see how women will respond to being sexually assaulted by a stranger. It happens all the time, and has been happening all the time for centuries. If you’re curious, you could try speaking to a woman.

This also seems to be contradicted by another of Pepper’s claims, which is that everyone in the video gave “prior consent.” If the women knew exactly what was going to happen, how is it an “experiment” or a “prank”? And even if they did, how are viewers–some of whom may be survivors of sexual assault–meant to understand the original video?

On Twitter, Laci Green responded to Pepper’s defense of the video:

Nevertheless, it is entirely possible–and I am even willing to briefly entertain the idea–that Sam Pepper absolutely got the consent of everyone involved (for the touching and for the placement of the video online for the perusal of 2 million fans), that nobody was uncomfortable, that everybody involved had a great time (and the women who appeared uncomfortable in the video were just acting [why?]), but what concerns me is, as always, that others will see in Pepper’s defenses a get-out-of-assault-free card. “It was just a joke!” “She’s only pretending to be creeped out as part of a social experiment!”

Of course, this sort of thing already happens all the time. Rapists say that they were absolutely certain that they had the person’s consent and were totally not raping them on purpose, of course not, what kind of person do you think they are?

But believing that you have someone’s consent and totally not intending to assault them isn’t the same thing as actually having their consent and actually not assaulting them.

And I’m not so sure how many of them actually believe it.

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Related/relevant:

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Addendum: Despite the title of the post I linked to just above, and the views I’ve expressed here in general, I no longer stand by the claim, “sexual assault isn’t funny.” The reason I don’t stand by it is because it’s false. Sexual assault is funny. To certain people. “Sexual assault isn’t funny” is more a statement that I wish were true than one that is actually true at the moment.

Ten Ways Sexual Assault is Not Like Getting Robbed

[Content note: sexual assault]

Anytime someone speaks up about victim blaming and the expectation that women drastically limit their own lives in order to prevent themselves from being raped, someone will appear like clockwork to go, “Yeah, well, shouldn’t people lock their homes so they don’t get robbed?”

I am not an authority on what people should and should not do (besides not rape people), but I would argue that sexual assault has vanishingly little in common with robbery, and preventing sexual assault is not at all like locking your front door.

All analogies are imperfect by definition; if they were perfect, they would not be analogies anymore, but rather comparisons between two nearly or practically identical things. You can always find spots in which analogies fail.

But the sexual assault-robbery analogy fails on so many levels that I believe it to be useless for any sort of explanatory function.

None of this is to say which is “worse.” I’ll leave those pointless exercises to Richard Dawkins. I would personally imagine that most people who have experienced both found sexual assault to be “worse,” but it doesn’t matter. What matters is that they are sufficiently different that an analogy between them doesn’t really make any sense and is usually only used to silence people who speak out about sexual assault and victim blaming.

So, here’s how sexual assault is not at all like robbery.

[Read more…]

Are Anti-Rape Devices the Best We Can Do?

[Content note: sexual assault]

Four students at North Carolina State University have developed a nail polish that can detect the presence of certain drugs used to facilitate sexual assault and change color in response. The team said:

All of us have been close to someone who has been through the terrible experience, and we began to focus on preventive solutions, especially those that could be integrated into products that women already use….Our goal is to invent technologies that empower women to protect themselves from this heinous and quietly pervasive crime.

The students have created a startup, Undercover Colors, to produce the nail polish. The company’s tagline reads, “The first fashion company empowering women to prevent sexual assault.”

I do want to say, before anything else, that I think it’s commendable for an all-male team of engineering students to choose this issue as their focus. Although I, like many others, am extremely critical of the expectation that women (and only women, even though they are not the only rape victims) buy products and seriously restrict their own lives in order to “prevent” sexual assault, the Undercover Colors team is not ignorant of the importance of true rape prevention work. In a recent Facebook post, they linked to the pages of RAINN and Men Can Stop Rape as examples of other organizations that are doing such work and need support.

[Read more…]

Not All Men™ Categorize People Into Unhelpful Categories

[Content note: sexual assault]

Let’s talk about Not All Men™, and specifically about the disconnect between people who say “not all men!” and people who maintain that this is a useless thing to say.

One bitterly funny and perhaps illuminating meme I’ve seen over the past few weeks goes something like this:

You say not all men are monsters?

Imagine a bowl of M&Ms. 10% of them are poisoned.

Go ahead. Eat a handful.

Not all M&Ms are poison.

I’ve seen many variations on this, and all of them get at the idea that it doesn’t matter that “not all men” are violent, just that a significant, non-zero percentage of them are, and when you don’t know until it’s too late which ones those are, you can never be too careful.

(I would love, by the way, if not a single man who has ever seriously said “not all men” has ever believed or stated that women should “take precautions” to avoid getting raped, such as not talking to strangers, accepting drinks, flirting, etc. I would love it if that were the case, and nobody could possibly be so hypocritical as to hold both of these beliefs in their heads simultaneously.)

The M&M metaphor certainly makes sense. But if I rewrote it to be more in-line with the way many people actually think about sexual violence, it would go something like this:

Imagine a bowl of M&Ms. Most M&Ms are delicious and safe to eat, but some very small percentage of them are poisoned. Luckily, the poisoned M&Ms are easily identifiable: they have a gross sewage-green color and are marked with a skull and crossbones rather than the usual M&Ms logo. Most responsible M&M eaters are easily able to avoid them and stay safe. But others are careless, snatching M&Ms at random and not even bothering to check whether or not they may be poison. Of course it’s terrible that some people get poisoned by M&Ms, but they really should’ve been more careful.

So it is, supposedly, with sexual violence. Predators are easy to spot. They’re Bad Boys; they give off a lot of red flags. They have tattoos. They drink and smoke excessively. They’re not white or middle-/upper-class. They hang out in seedy bars, not in fraternities, prestigious companies, government offices, or schools. If you’re careless enough to ignore the warning signs and interact with someone like that, well, it’s not that it’s okay that you were sexually assaulted, buuuut you should’ve known better.

This version of the metaphor also takes some of the focus away from the fact that the M&Ms are poisonous and transfers it to the people eating the M&Ms and their behavior. Are they “careful”? Are they aware of the “risks”? Are they “attentive” to the “warning signs”? Are they “smart” about the way they dress and where they go? Have they “prepared” themselves by taking a self-defense class or carrying pepper spray? Now I’ve gotten my metaphors mixed up.

This view of sexual assault holds that rapists are “evil.” They’re “monsters” who bear no similarity to other men: “Good Guys,” the “not all men” being referenced by men eager to dissociate themselves from the subjects of #YesAllWomen tweets. This view is convenient for a number of reasons:

  • “Good Guys” never have to consider their own role in the perpetuation of sexual violence. (And yes, there are roles in its perpetuation that do not include actually committing it. I am not saying you are all rapists. I’m saying that most of you to some extent buy into a dangerous and toxic masculinity that makes widespread sexual violence possible.)
  • All rape prevention work must fall to potential victims, because it’s easier to demand that women drastically limit their opportunities for work and play (even more than they already do) than it is to try to proactively stop perpetrators who are evil unstoppable monsters. It’s easy to say Don’t Walk There Don’t Work There Don’t Live There Don’t Wear That Don’t Drink Don’t Smile Don’t Flirt Don’t Dance Don’t Relax when you’re not the one upon whom the burden of all those Don’ts will fall.
  • Our emotional responses to stories of sexual assault will be less painful and severe if we are able to shrug and say that the poisoned M&Ms were clearly labeled and the victim should’ve bothered to look before eating than they would be if we had to acknowledge that usually there is no amount of carefulness that will actually keep anyone safe.
  • When someone we know and like gets accused of sexual assault, we are able to avoid the cognitive dissonance of realizing that someone we like did a very bad thing by refusing to believe it. That’s impossible! He’s such a great guy! He’s so great with kids! He’s so white, conventionally attractive, and middle-class! (Though we never actually hear this one in those words.) Look at everything he’s done for our community! Look how great he is at catching a ball and running all the way to the edge of the field with it without being tackled by the other men!

It’s very important to understand and analyze what’s at stake when it comes to ideology. In this case, that means understanding why people are so vested in this view of Rapist-As-Subhuman-Monster, and there it is.

In this view, it’s understandable (if not justifiable) that well-meaning men get so offended during discussions of sexual violence that do not explicitly state “not all men.” Because those discussions are happening in a way that acknowledges that we’re not talking about some rare, recently-discovered species called Homo rapus. Because there is no subtype of man who rapes; people of all genders rape, and they’re much more likely to be men, but otherwise there are no distinguishing markings or migratory patterns that help us identify rapists in the wild.

To these men, to whom it seems so obvious that rape is something that Those Other Men Do, it’s offensive to have that distinction blurred or ignored altogether.  To all people who are used to thinking of other people in terms of categories rather than degrees or spectra–so, most people, because we’re all taught to think that way about other people to some extent–the intentional refusal of many anti-sexual violence advocates to make that distinction seems ignorant at best and insulting at worst.

They hear “It’s impossible to tell who’s a rapist and who isn’t just from looking” and interpret it as “Anyone could potentially become a rapist.” The latter claim is inaccurate and not what’s being said. There are plenty of people who would never, and will never, rape anyone. But we have to be very careful when we consider how much information we need to be able to say that with near-certainty. It’s more than you think.

That risk-assessment calculus will look different for every individual. I try to stay away from making definitive statements about what anyone I know would or would not do, and when it comes to people I don’t actually know, or don’t know very well, all bets are off.

People will continue talking past each other on this issue until there is widespread acknowledgement of the fact that our brains are designed to categorize everything, and while this can be a useful heuristic and an obvious evolutionary adaptation, it’s leading us astray when it comes to sexual assault prevention.

~~~

*I should emphasize that there are definitely competing and intersecting popular views of sexual assault besides the one I’ve discussed here. Some people claim that you can’t tell who’s a rapist, and that’s why women should just avoid “risky” behaviors altogether. It’s possible to understand that you can’t tell who’s a rapist and still put the onus on women to avoid rapists, and it’s possible for this view to actually coexist with the view that rapists are Monsters and Others. People tend to haul out whichever popular view best serves the point they’re trying to make at the time, or whichever one makes them feel the least cognitive dissonance in that particular situation.

Force vs. Nonconsent: The Fight to Redefine Sexual Assault

[Content note: sexual assault]

My piece at the Daily Dot today is about efforts to legally define sexual assault.

Like all laws, the legal definitions of crimes have changed throughout history in response to social, cultural, scientific, and political forces.Sexual assault especially is a crime that depends on social consensus for its definition. After all, while killing another person isn’t always considered “murder,” most of us at least agree on what it means to kill a person. Not so with sexual assault.

Feminist activists have been fighting for decades to expand and improve that definition, from including marital rape to deemphasizing vaginal penetration as a criterion. (Yes, people without vaginas can be raped.) They have also urged state legislatures to rewrite laws so that rape does not have to be “forceful” to count. After all, what matters isn’t whether or not force was used, but whether or not consent was given.

Yale law professor Jed Rubenfeld, however, wants definitions of rape to re-emphasize force. The reason, he claims, is that using consent (or lack thereof) as the basis upon which rape is defined leaves room for all sorts of ethical quandaries.

For instance, if someone falsifies their identity in some way to convince someone to have sex with them, then that person did not technically give informed consent, and could consider the act rape even though they appeared to fully consent to it. If we criminalize non-consensual sex, how could we not also criminalize sex under false pretenses?

Rubenfeld does include the caveat that the definition of force should be broadened. He says, “I’m in favor of an expanded force requirement, an understanding that sees force in threats, in drugging, in physical restraint (holding the victim down, locking the victim up), and so on.”

But even then, many (if not most) sexual assaults do not involve any of these things. Nor should they have to in order to be considered sexual assault.

Read the rest here.

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How the Purity Myth Perpetuates Rape Culture

[Content note: sexual assault, racism]

I was thinking about the source of all the problematic ways in which our society views and responds to sexual assault–the victim-blaming, the simplistic construction of “real” victims and “legitimate” rape, the erasure of certain social groups of victims–and I realized that much of it comes down to antiquated views of female sexual purity.

I don’t doubt that there’s much more to it, obviously, but this is a piece of the puzzle that isn’t discussed as often as it should be. The purity myth, as Jessica Valenti calls it in her book of the same name, includes several interlocking beliefs about women and sexuality that are enforced by many religions and ideologies and continue to inform many Americans’ views of sex–even those who consider themselves liberal or even progressive.

Some components of the purity myth include:

  • There is such a thing as “virginity,” especially for women, and once you “lose” it, your value as a partner decreases
  • Having sex makes women, but not men, “dirty”
  • “Good” women don’t “really” want sex, so men try to persuade and coerce them into it
  • Even if you’re not actually sexually active, there are things you can do that suggest that you are, and therefore make you seem “dirty”
  • The only type of sex that is not “dirty” is that between a husband and a wife

In case it’s not immediately obvious how any of this relates to rape, here’s how: traditionally, in many cultures, rape was construed not as a crime against the women who was raped (only women could be raped in those legal definitions), but against her father (if she was unmarried) or her husband if she had one. The rape of a virgin was often seen as worse than the rape of a non-virgin (whether because of marriage or less socially acceptable choices), because it meant that something–namely, purity–had been “spoiled.” Some women, such as sex workers, were not “rapeable” at all. Some sources, such as the Old Testament, suggest that the proper thing to do if a virgin has been raped is to force her to marry the rapist; then it’s sort of retroactively not a big deal anymore, because all that happened was that she had sex with her husband shortly before marrying him. And, of course, there’s no way a husband can rape his wife, because marriage involves the privilege of sex-on-demand, and the wife’s “purity” is long gone anyway.

Although the laws regarding sexual assault have been steadily reformed over the centuries, many of these attitudes about rape and sexual purity remain. Here’s how they play out in some common myths about sexual assault:

1. Rape is “the worst thing that can happen to a woman.”

This probably seems like the least harmful of all the myths, so I’m starting with it. This idea originates from the fact that a woman who has been raped (and was presumably a virgin before) loses her “chastity,” and thus the bulk of her value as a potential partner. This essentialization of sex and sexual purity frames sexual violence as necessarily the worst type of violence a person can experience, to which all others pale in comparison.

It’s certainly true that for many survivors of all genders, sexual assault is a traumatic experience that may cause or exacerbate mental illness and change the individual’s life forever. (Although it’s hard to tell what’s caused by the assault itself and what’s caused by society’s fucked-up response to it.) For others, however, sexual assault is not significantly worse than other crimes they may have experienced, and being expected to be traumatized can be harmful, even a self-fulfilling prophecy.

When rape is viewed as “bad” only to the extent that it traumatizes its victims, it can prevent people from taking sexual assaults seriously when they do not cause trauma. For example, an actual university professor argued last year that raping an unconscious person might not be such a bad thing because they won’t feel a thing.

2. Rape can only be committed by a (cis) man against a (cis) woman.

If the problem with rape is that it “spoils” a woman’s “purity,” then it doesn’t make sense to conceive of nonconsensual sex involving any other combination of genders as sexual assault. A man has no “purity” to lose, and a woman can’t take away another woman’s “purity” because only a man can do that.

The repercussions of this view should be obvious: rape between same-sex partners is routinely ignored, rape of men is routinely ignored, and laws are only now starting to recognize the fact that men can be raped at all.

3. A woman who has had sex before, especially with the alleged rapist, can’t really be raped.

Most people can probably grok the idea that having wanted to have sex in the past does not necessarily mean you want to have sex in the future, even with someone you’ve already had sex with. Yet female rape survivors’ sexual histories are still being trotted out in court proceedings to attempt to discredit their claims. Why?

One convoluted argument that people make to defend this practice is that “Well if she’s had sex before how could he possibly have known that she didn’t want to have sex this time?” It’s actually pretty easy: you ask. This idea that once a woman has been spoiled by a penis, she’s fair game for all links up easily to the idea that such a thing as sexual purity exists.

4. A woman who belongs to a group considered “impure” by definition can’t really be raped either.

At least in the United States, sexual “purity” is a concept that largely applies only to middle-/upper-class white women. Many women of color, for instance, aren’t thought to be “pure” regardless of whether or not they’ve even had sex before. They are immediately suspect as rape victims because they don’t fit the profile that we imagine rape victims to fit: innocent, chaste, white.

Throughout American history, white people have focused on the specter of Black men raping innocent white women, while ignoring entirely the actual reality of Black women being raped by white men. As Black women aren’t assumed to have any “purity” to lose, their rapes are not nearly as tragic as those of white women. This is what happens when two terrible ideas–racism and sexual purity–combine.

5. If a sexual act doesn’t make a woman “impure,” it can’t really be sexual assault.

While women can and do get shamed for engaging in behavior other than sexual intercourse, it’s only intercourse that can supposedly “take” your virginity (and therefore your purity). Definitions of rape have historically specified vaginal penetration, although they’re now starting to expand a bit. But if sexual assault were framed in terms of consent rather than in terms of sexual purity, it would make no sense to minimize forms of sexual assault that don’t involve vaginal penetration. Violating someone sexually is violating someone sexually regardless how you do it.

To make things worse, this framing of sexual assault is part of the reason male victims and women who are assaulted by other women frequently get erased from the conversation, since their experiences are presumed, at best, unfortunate events that have little to do with capital-R Rape.

6. A survivor who was behaving “provocatively” when the assault happened wasn’t really assaulted.

Insert standard victim-blaming tropes here. Of course, just about anything gets classified as “provocative” when it’s expedient to do so: drinking, flirting, making eye contact, dressing a certain way, dancing, wearing makeup, discussing sex. The implication is that once a woman has behaved in a way some would consider “unchaste,” she may as well have already had sex, and any subsequent assault doesn’t really “count.”

7. Sex workers cannot be sexually assaulted.

Since they have already been “spoiled” even more than typical sexually active women. Some people will refer to the assault of a sex worker as “theft,” which I consider degrading and dehumanizing in the extreme. A sex worker doesn’t sell or give away their right to bodily autonomy; they sell a specific and agreed-upon service. If I walk into a store, take a package of cheez-its off the shelf, open and eat it because I’m starving, and then pay for it as I walk out, I haven’t stolen anything. But even if you sexually assault a sex worker and then pay them, you’ve still assaulted them, because you still violated their consent. It’s pretty simple.

A lot of people think they have abandoned the idea of female sexual purity simply because they are liberal and/or nonreligious. As a person who runs in liberal and nonreligious circles, I can tell you that this is not necessarily the case. People just find other ways to justify the purity myth, or they don’t bother trying to justify it at all. Atheisty types love to use evolutionary psychology (or unscientific permutations thereof) to draw conclusions about what men and women respectively value in their (obviously opposite-sex) mates, claim that women just aren’t “as sexual” as men (a convenient way to vilify women who have lots of sex while high-fiving men who do), and, in the most extreme cases, justify rape as an adaptive evolutionary mechanism.

Once you hold a belief strongly, perhaps because your parents or your erstwhile religion taught it to you, it’s difficult to let go of the belief even if you’ve let go of the overall ideology that originally spawned it. So it’s easy to twist science or “folk wisdom” to maintain the idea that women are, or should be, or can be more “pure” than men, however you happen to define “pure.”

The idea of female sexual purity is as nonsensical and irrational as the ideas atheists and skeptics criticize every day, and it’s about time it got more attention as such. Not only does it mess with people’s sex lives and give them all sorts of unnecessary anxieties and guilts, but it also feeds into the myths surrounding sexual assault and ensures that they continue to harm survivors. It’s long past time to let it go.

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“You Would Call It Rape”: Sexual Assault in China Mieville’s “Perdido Street Station”

[Content note: rape, torture; spoilers for Perdido Street Station]

Cover of Perdido Street StationAfter reading almost nothing but nonfiction for years, I finally decided to check out China Mieville’s work and have developed a bit of an obsession. As in, five books of his in a row in the past few weeks.

Mieville has a talent for incorporating contemporary social issues into settings as fantastical as you can imagine (or can’t, in some cases). His novel Perdido Street Station tackles rape at the end, when the main character learns that the friend he is trying to help is a rapist.

Some background for those who haven’t read it:

Early on in the novel, the main character, Isaac, receives a visit from a mysterious man seeking his help. Yagharek belongs to the garuda, a nomadic race of people with human bodies, birdlike heads, and huge wings with which they can fly. However, Yagharek’s wings have been sawed off as punishment for a crime that he is unable to explain to Isaac due to the differences in their cultures. He calls the crime “choice-theft” and explains that among the garuda, the worst thing one can do is take away someone else’s choice. He seems horribly ashamed of both what he did and what happened to him as a result, and wants to somehow regain the power of flight.

Yagharek has traveled to the city of New Crobuzon to see Isaac because Isaac is a rogue scientist who researches arcane and experimental forms of physics, and might be the only one who can help Yagharek fly again. Isaac, horrified at the brutal punishment, accepts the huge sum of money Yagharek offers and agrees to try to help him.

This ends up indirectly leading to the main plot of the novel, which involves creatures called slake-moths terrorizing the city and feeding on people’s sentience (long story). At the end, the slake-moths have finally been killed with the help of Yagharek and others, and Isaac is finally ready to return to the problem of helping Yagharek fly again.

But then, Isaac receives another garuda visitor, Kar’uchai. She asks Isaac not to help Yagharek fly, because their community has judged him guilty and carried out the appropriate punishment. Isaac protests, saying that Yagharek is his friend and saved his life. He demands to know what Yagharek has done to deserve such a punishment, and Kar’uchai tries to explain:

“He is guilty,” said Kar’uchai quietly, “of choice-theft in the second degree, with utter disrespect.”

“What does that mean?” shouted Isaac. “What did he do? What’s fucking choice-theft anyway? This means nothing to me.”

“It is the only crime we have, Grimneb’lin,” replied Kar’uchai in a harsh monotone. “To take the choice of another . . . to forget their concrete reality, to abstract them, to forget that you are a node in a matrix, that actions have consequences. We must not take the choice of another being. What is community but a means to . . . for all we individuals to have . . . our choices.”

Kar’uchai continues to explain how the garuda classify choice-thefts: for instance, some are done with respect, such as when a child steals the cloak of an adult they love to sleep with it at night. Others involve disrespect, such as killing someone. But in each case, the garuda view the primary crime as being taking away someone’s choice–to use their cloak, to continue to live, or whatever the case may be.

Isaac, still frustrated and confused, asks once again what Yagharek did. This time, Kar’uchai replies, “You would call it rape.”

Oh, I would call it rape, would I? thought Isaac in a molten, raging sneer; but the torrent of livid contempt was not enough to drown his horror.

I would call it rape.

Isaac could not but imagine. Immediately.

As Isaac tries to make sense of what Yagharek did, Kar’uchai reveals that she is the one he raped. And although she gave him the word to understand the crime, she resists his attempts to imagine the crime through the lens of his own human culture:

“Yag . . . a fucking rapist,” he hissed, and she clucked.

“He stole choice,” she said flatly.

“He raped you,” he said, and instantly Kar’uchai clucked again. “He stole my choice,” she said. She was not expanding on his words, Isaac realized: she was correcting him. “You cannot translate into your jurisprudence, Grimneb’lin,” she said. She seemed annoyed.

Isaac tried to speak, shook his head miserably, stared at her and again saw the crime committed, behind his eyes.

“You cannot translate, Grimneb’lin,” Kar’uchai repeated. “Stop. I can see . . . all the texts of your city’s laws and morals that I have read . . . in you.” Her tone sounded monotonous to him. The emotion in the pauses and cadences of her voice was opaque.

“I was not violated or ravaged, Grimneb’lin. I am not abused or defiled . . . or ravished or spoiled. You would call his actions rape, but I do not: that tells me nothing. He stole my choice, and that is why he was . . . judged. It was severe . . . the last sanction but one . . . There are many choice-thefts less heinous than his, and only a few more so . . . And there are others that are judged equal . . . many of those are actions utterly unlike Yagharek’s. Some, you would not deem crimes at all.

“The actions vary: the crime . . . is the theft of choice. Your magisters and laws . . . that sexualize and sacralize . . . for whom individuals are defined abstract . . . their matrix-nature ignored . . . where context is a distraction . . . cannot grasp that.

“Do not look at me with eyes reserved for victims . . . And when Yagharek returns . . . I ask you to observe our justice—Yagharek’s justice—not to impute your own.”

So much to unpack in this dialogue. Mieville almost seems to be speaking through Kar’uchai, and through her cultural lens, to critique the sexualized framing of rape that is so often used in our society. In a discussion with friends recently, I noted how rape is often considered “the worst thing that can happen to a woman” purely because constructs like “purity” are so essentialized. It brings to mind the old debate of whether rape is “about sex” or “about power.” Kar’uchai introduces a new frame: rape is about theft. Specifically, the theft of someone’s choice not to have sex.

Although this sounds a little like the icky libertarian practice of viewing everything in terms of theft of property, the garuda don’t seem to see it that way. Rather, they combine what we’d call individualism and collectivism: they consider all individuals part of the “matrix” of society, but they also view individual freedom and choice as extremely important. Although Mieville (regretfully) doesn’t expand much on garuda culture apart from these passages, it seems to me that the garuda understand that the only way a nomadic and interdependent society like theirs can function properly is if its members respect each other’s freedom to choose for themselves.

Without knowing what exactly the gender politics of the garuda are, it seems that this framing of rape does away with a lot of the problems that occur in our own society. When Yagharek later reflects on what he did, there is no hesitation from the other members of his band about his guilt. It didn’t matter to them what a “nice guy” Yagharek had previously been, and whether or not Kar’uchai somehow “asked for it” never entered into the judgment. Her sexual history was never brought up, because sex had nothing to do with it. Yagharek stole her choice, and admitted to it when asked. (I do wonder, though, what would’ve happened if he’d given in to his initial urge to deny it.)

After Kar’uchai leaves, Isaac ruminates over the situation and can’t seem to find a way out of it. He thinks of his partner, Lin, whom he recently freed from her imprisonment as a hostage, and who has bruises that suggest rape. He thinks of how Yagharek fought beside him and saved both him and Lin. He thinks of Kar’uchai and thinks of her ordeal as “rape” even though she has asked him not to.

He realizes that no matter what he does, he is judging someone and something. Here his thoughts start to follow a familiar path to what we often hear when someone’s accused of sexual assault: “It’s he said/she said,” “Well I don’t know the facts,” “Who am I to judge them,” and so on:

He tried to extricate himself.

He tried to think himself away from the whole thing. He told himself desperately that to refuse his services would not imply judgement, that it would not mean he pretended knowledge of the facts, that it would simply be a way of saying, “This is beyond me, this is not my business.” But he could not convince himself.

He slumped and breathed a miserable moan of exhaustion. If he turned from Yagharek, he realized, no matter what he said, Isaac would feel himself to have judged, and to have found Yagharek wanting. And Isaac realized that he could not in conscience imply that, when he did not know the case.

But on the heels of that thought came another; a flipside, a counterpoint. If withholding help implied negative judgement he could not make, thought Isaac, then helping, bestowing flight, would imply that Yagharek’s actions were acceptable.

And that, thought Isaac in cold distaste and fury, he would not do.

After this realization, Isaac suddenly knows what the right thing to do is. He writes Yagharek a letter explaining Kar’uchai’s visit and revelation, and his decision not to reverse Yagharek’s punishment. He leaves the letter in the hut where they’ve been staying and, along with Lin and their friend, flees the city to avoid capture by the militia. The novel ends as Yagharek finds the letter, relives his crime and his shame, and resolves to live in his new home as a flightless being, a man.

While this treatment of sexual assault is not without its issues (as all representations of pretty much anything are), I think Mieville does an amazing job of having his characters grapple with the ethical issues raised. Part of Isaac’s dilemma is that he considers Yagharek’s punishment so gruesome and cruel, which influences his decision to try to reverse it. Interestingly, while Yagharek desperately wants to fly again, he pushes back against Isaac’s judgment of the punishment by pointing out that New Crobuzon’s punishments, which often involve a torturous procedure called Remaking that alters and disfigures people’s bodies in macabre ways, are really no better. Isaac, who runs with a group of radicals who protest the city government’s cruelty, immediately agrees.

I don’t get the sense that at the end of the novel, Isaac has decided that having his wings sawed off was a just punishment for Yagharek’s crime. However, he feels that reversing the punishment would nevertheless imply tacit acceptance of what Yagharek did. He is able to acknowledge that the punishment was grotesque and that Yagharek nevertheless did wrong. And as the reader, I felt sympathy for Yagharek as he tries to find his way in a new city, an exile not just from his community but from his entire race; nevertheless, I held him fully culpable for his crime.

In our own society, punishments for sexual assault are not even remotely on the level of that of the garuda. Yet people constantly bemoan how “unfair” it is to hold rapists accountable for what they did, how “tragic” it is that their lives have been “ruined.” Rape survivors are publicly excoriated for naming their rapists, as Dylan Farrow was when she named Woody Allen. Even the suggestion that people stop inviting a friend who has violated another friend’s boundaries to parties is often met with disdain, because it’s “unfair.”

Through Isaac’s moral dilemma, Mieville points out that “neutrality” in these cases is not truly neutral. It sends a message of acceptance in the form of a shrug of the shoulders.

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