[content note: discussion of violent hate crimes, e.g. lynching; quoting white supremacist killers]
On June 17th, a white supremacist murdered 9 black people at a historical black church in Charleston, NC. A survivor of the massacre reported that the killer told the church: “I have to do it. You’re raping our women and taking over the country.”
So, first of all, let me make it absolutely clear that I categorically repudiate this use of my body as a justification for racist violence. I am hereby publicly stating my rejection of the spurious and racist “protection” from people who are no harm to me, by people who are much more likely to be a danger to my bodily integrity. And I urge white women everywhere to take that very same public stand.
But, as stated in what I believe is the facebook post that started the #NotInMyName / #NotInOurNames hashtags, the public rejection of this argument can only be a beginning. We white women need to talk about this; we need to talk about the fact that “raping our women” has been a tool of white, colonialist patriarchy for a very long time. The racial and sexual “purity” of white women, the chivalric protector-role of white men, and the imagined animalistic aggressiveness of non-white men together constitute an important framework for the hierarchies of white patriarchy. When these hierarchies are threatened, anti-black violence in white woman’s name becomes the means to re-establishing them:
Lynching for rape upheld white privilege and underpinned the objectified figure of white women defined as “ours” and protected by “us” from “them” (Fraiman 1994, 73). These beliefs formed what Fraiman (73) calls the white chivalric phallacy: preservation of what masculine supremacy was refigured as protection of white females for white males. […] In this view, interracial sexuality destroyed what it meant to be a man because white masculinity was inextricably linked to race: To be a man was to be a white man who had sole access to, and the duty to protect white women. The lynching and castrating of African American men, founded on the protection of white women, was central to securing white male power and identity and, thereby, reconstructing a hierarchical masculine difference between white and African American men. 
Meanwhile in Europe, the same sentiment appears additionally as anti-immigrant xenophobia and islamophobia. Anders Breivik, the man who killed 77 people in Norway in 2011, was a white supremacist. Part of the extensive copypasta that is his manifesto dealt with the notion of an epidemic of Muslim immigrants raping white women:
The incidence of rapes carried out by Muslim men in Norway against non-Muslim women is many times higher than rapes by non-Muslim men. The rape frequency in e g Oslo per capita is said to more than five times higher than in New York City. And two thirds of these rapes are committed by immigrants even though they still constitute a rather small part of society.
In Brussels, Belgium, gangs of Muslim immigrants harass the natives on a daily basis. We have had several recent cases where native girls have been gang raped by immigrants in the heart of the EU capital. 
And let me repeat that this “white chivalric phallacy” is inherent to white colonialist patriarchy. It’s not just fringe elements and “lone wolf” mass murderers; it’s not just something from the history books of Reconstruction in the US. It is found ubiquitously, with not even much of an effort to hide it via dogwhistles. To use one example from the secular/atheist/skeptic community: Pat Condell, a YouTube personality once heartily endorsed by e.g. Richard Dawkins and still disturbingly popular in some atheist/skeptic spaces was one of the voices popularizing the meme of Sweden as the new “rape capital of Europe” far and wide enough that it can still be commonly found in atheist discussions on any vaguely related topics. Similarly, the effects of this white chivalric phallacy are everywhere: George Zimmerman not being convicted of murder; misogynoir and the tolerance of violence against black women; the entitlement-and-hate aspect of a lot of MRA/PUA toxicity, violence targeted at white women who’d date an “inferior, ugly black boy” over someone like Elliot Rodger who is, after all, “descended from British aristocracy”; et cetera. Silence in the face of all this will let it continue. We need to have an ongoing conversation about how to destroy the white chivalric phallacy instead of being its acquiescent tool.
TL;DR: this was a white patriarchal mass murder. It was textbook “white chivalric phallacy”. White women have a responsibility to stand up and refuse to be used like that; not just as individuals rejecting such violence being done in our names, but as a social class rejecting, uncovering and ultimately deconstructing the systemic role in the oppression of men and women of color assigned to us by white patriarchy. That is solidarity; that is intersectional feminism. Let us not be silent and remain complicit with white patriarchy on this.
But not in Dawkinsland, it doesn’t. Nope! Yesterday, in defense of Michael Shermer the Infallible King of Reason tweeted:
Officer, it’s not my fault I was drunk driving. You see, somebody got me drunk.” –Richard Dawkins
Astute readers will note that this is Richard Dawkins taking Smith’s allegations as true, knowing that by all accounts (including his own) Shermer was sober during the alleged incident, and then oh-so-very-cleverly sneering that she is responsible—by likening an alleged rape victim to a drunk driver.
He doesn’t appear to believe Shermer’s story, which is that Shermer had sex with Smith after she sobered up. Dawkins took Smith’s story as read, although he isolated it from Ashley’s story and Pamela’s.
Then he ignored the parts of that story that make Smith’s lack of consent and Shermer’s knowledge of it clear. He ignored that Shermer followed Smith away from the party. He ignored the promise to help Smith back to her room, only to end up in Shermer’s. Instead, he grasped the fact that Smith was drunk to the point of not remembering parts of the evening and used that to assign responsibility to her. He claimed Smith was responsible for the encounter despite the one fact that both parties agree on being that Shermer was sober.
He believed her story, not Shermer’s.
He believed she was intoxicated.
He knew Shermer was not, from all sources of information.
He believed Shermer deceived her in the process of getting her past the point of being able to consent.
Then he tweeted that she was responsible for the encounter.
Then he compared Shermer following Smith away from the party to Smith driving drunk.
Then he compared Shermer taking Smith to a different room than promised to Smith driving drunk.
Then he compared Shermer sexually assaulting Smith to Smith driving drunk.
I’ma say this once more for the cheap seats:
THE ONLY THING A RAPE VICTIM HAS DONE “WRONG” IS TO FIND HERSELF (OR HIMSELF) IN THE PRESENCE OF A RAPIST.
Fortunately, the vast majority of men do not rape. But those who do can always rely on victim-blaming shitweasels like Richard Dawkins to provide comfort and cover, so they can continue to operate unimpeded.
Then the Lord of All Logic tweeted this:
The REAL Rape Culture: “All occurrences of sexual intercourse are rape unless there is certified evidence to the contrary.” –Richard Dawkins
No, my precious little cupcake: All occurrences of sexual intercourse are rape unless there is consent. This is really not difficult for most people to grok. And I find it… telling interesting when people are so highly motivated not to grok it. Before he deleted this tweet (“claiming it was sarcastic. There’s no word on what part of it he didn’t mean, however…”), he responded to a follower concerned that he “might fall in trouble again with Feminists”:
With a certain kind of feminist, of course. Not with feminists who truly respect women instead of patronising them as victims –Richard Dawkins
This one sent PZ off on a righteous rant (which I highly recommend reading in its entirety):
Who are these mysterious patronizing feminists? They don’t actually exist. You are echoing a strategy of denial: you approve of feminists, but not the ones who actually point out sexist problems in our culture, or fight against discrimination, or point out that they’ve been raped, or abused, or cheated in the workplace, or any of the other realities of a sexist culture. This is what anti-feminists say: be quiet about the problems. If you mention the problems, you are perpetuating the sisterhood of oppression, you are playing the martyr, you are being a pathetic victim who must be treated with contempt.
But if no woman speaks out about the problems, how will we ever know to correct them? If we shame every victim for being a victim and daring to reveal her victimhood, it becomes very easy to pretend that there is no oppression.
Oh, silly PZ! You see, in Dawkinsville there are no “victims,” only irresponsible drunk drivers crashing themselves willy-nilly right into rapists’ penises!
But this morning’s tweet absolutely takes the cake:
Raping a drunk woman is appalling. So is jailing a man when the sole prosecution evidence is “I was too drunk to remember what happened.” –Richard Dawkins
HOLY SHIT HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!
Now, Twitter is a unique medium with pros and cons like every other; suffice it to say it does not particularly lend itself to schooling pompous assholes on the many wonders of reality. But I did my best:
@RichardDawkins false reports: est. 2-8%. Rape hugely underreported. 3% of rapist[s] do jail time. Now go away and learn how to think. –Iris Vander Pluym
(Incidentally, citations for these statistics can be found all over the fucking internethere and here.)
@RichardDawkins As if men are prosecuted when “the sole prosecution evidence is ‘I was too drunk to remember what happened.'” #dumbass –Iris Vander Pluym
Now, obviously there is a taboo on the removing of fundamental human rights from anyone, but as freethinkers I think we should be able to ask this question without heated emotions but with cool logic.
Now let us assume that Richard Dawkins is growing senile in age, and what is more, through this causing a great deal of harm with his public outbursts. In particular, say, let us assume these outbursts are hurting the public image of atheism and thus strengthening fundamentalist religion. Well, there can be no doubt that the net harm done to Dawkins by locking him away and censoring his freedom of speech-in this one instance – would have a net positive if it caused more people to leave fundamentalist religion. What’s more, we could provide Dawkins with a Spartan existence out of his own wealth and donate the rest to much better causes, like the rights of oppressed Muslim women(let us call her Muslima for simplicity.)
Now it must be recognized that this is a restriction of Dawkins’s freedoms, but they are not nearly so bad as those conditions in North Korea. This is not a defense of course of incarcerating Dawkins, but rather a thought experiment that I think raises interesting questions about the rights of individuals versus that of the greater good.
Now I know many are afraid of a Stalin like crackdown on those asking this sort of question, legitimately, but I think as freethinkers we must have the courage to apply logic to these sorts of questions.
And if you disagree on my hypothetical involving Dawkins, please feel free to use Harris or Hitchens or whoever you like! It is only a philosophical thought experiment.
How Sex Education Can Combat Sexual Violence By Miri Mogilevsky, blogs at Brute Reason
Comprehensive, evidence-based sex education is usually framed as a remedy for the usual culprits: STI transmission, teenage pregnancy, having sex “too early” or with “too many” different partners, and so on. Although this sex-positive feminist bristles at the fact that one of the goals of comprehensive sex ed is to delay sexual initiation and reduce teens’ number of sexual partners, overall these programs are extremely important to promote, and they are effective at reducing STIs and pregnancy in teens—unlike abstinence-only sex ed.
However, I would argue that the goals of secular, scientific sex education should not end there. I believe that we have the responsibility to teach young people sexual ethics and to use education to challenge a culture that too often excuses or even promotes sexual violence.
How do we accomplish such a monumental task? The same way as we teach kids to do school projects: by breaking it down into smaller, more manageable parts.
Rape culture is an ideology that consists of a number of interrelated but distinct beliefs about gender, sexuality, and violence. These beliefs are spread and enforced by just about every source of information that a child interacts with: parents, friends, teachers, books, movies, news stories (on TV, in magazines and newspapers, online), music, advertising, laws, etc..
Traditional, abstinence-only sex education promotes a number of these beliefs in various ways. Here are a few messages that these programs send to teens either implicitly or explicitly, along with how these messages support rape culture:
1. It is a woman’s job to prevent sex from happening.
Abstinence-only sex ed is full of religious ideology, and one example is the idea that women are “clean” and “pure” and must safeguard their own chastity before men can strip them of it. This idea suggests to women that 1) men who keep pushing them for sex are not doing anything wrong, and 2) if they eventually get pressured into having sex, that’s not rape—that’s just the woman not being strong-willed enough.
2. Men always want sex.
A corollary to the previous message, the “men always want sex” meme implies that men who use coercion and/or violence to get sex are only doing what’s natural for them. It also erases male victims of sexual assault, because if men want sex all the time, how could they possibly be raped?
3. Once you’ve had premarital sex, you’re dirty and ruined forever.
Abstinence-only programs promote this idea by using disgusting metaphors like a lollipop that’s been sucked on and discarded, or by having children spit into a glass of water that gets passed around, or by having them rip a paper heart up to symbolize each time they have sex before marriage. Tragically, rapists and abusers use this message against their victims, convincing them that nobody will ever want them now that they’ve been “ruined.” Sometimes this prevents victims from doing anything to try to escape the situation, as Elizabeth Smart attests.
4. Premarital sex is immoral and bad; married and monogamous sex is virtuous and good.
This false dichotomy serves to erase the fact that abuse, sexual assault, and plain ol’ bad sex can happen even within a committed marriage. It may also teach teens to expect that their premarital sexual experiences will all be “Bad” and there’s no avoiding it. This means that teens who are being assaulted or abused may not realize that there’s anything “wrong” with what’s going on; after all, they were warned that premarital sex is bad, weren’t they? Here’s a great take on this from another blogger:
Sex-negative messages don’t keep people from having sex. They keep people from having good sex. They keep people from having pride in their sexuality, from sexual self-awareness. They keep people from asking questions about sex, and communicating with their partners. They discourage experimentation. They blur the lines between consensual sex and rape by framing all sex as an undifferentiated mass of “bad.” They combine victim-blaming with generalized guilt about sex, so that perpetrator and survivor are equally culpable. Basically, they take logic and reason out of the equation.
5. If you have premarital sex, you are a bad person.
Similarly to the last message, the idea that having premarital sex makes you a bad or sinful person erases the distinction between ethical and unethical sex. If everyone who has sex before marriage is a bad person, why bother distinguishing between a bad person who gets consent for sex and a bad person who rapes? Why distinguish between a bad person who rapes and a bad person who “lets” themselves be raped?
There are many more terrible messages that abstinence-only sex education promotes, but I’ll stop there. To be clear, abstinence-only sex ed does not cause these messages to appear in our culture; they were already there. (Religion was probably a major cause, but it certainly wasn’t the whole story.) Children will learn these messages even if they are not religious and do not get this type of sex education.
But abstinence-only sex ed does promote these messages and cause them to become even more entrenched, and failing to challenge them is just about as bad as promoting them, in my view. Educators have a remarkable opportunity to challenge kids’ and teens’ ideas about the world in ways that parents may not be able to. Why not take advantage of that?
A truly evidence-based sex education program must do away not only with lies and exaggerations about STIs, pregnancy, and condom effectiveness, but also with the dominant, rarely-challenged scripts about sexuality that abstinence-only sex ed promotes. Here are some ways to do that. They’re just a start, but they would make a difference.
1. Sex education should center consent in the conversation. Consent, rather than arbitrary notions of morality, should be the standard by which we measure sexual activities to determine whether or not they are ethical. Consensual sex, of course, is not necessarily problem-free, but it’s a far better place for teens to start. Conversely, of course, nonconsensual sex (that is, sexual assault) is never okay.
2. It should emphasize that sex and sexuality are not shameful. While comprehensive sex education, unlike abstinence-only, does not explicitly shame anyone for having sex, it still treats reduction of sexual behavior in general (not just of risky sexual behavior) as a positive goal to aim for. That sends the message that less sex is better than more sex, and therefore that there’s something wrong with having sex.
3. It should challenge gender roles and stereotypes. Regressive, inaccurate ideas about gender don’t just keep women out of leadership roles and STEM jobs; they actually cause bad sex in the best case and sexual assault in the worst. The idea that men pursue and women are pursued; that men always want sex and women always want Tru Luv; that women should take it as a “compliment” when they are objectified and harassed—all of these things encourage and excuse sexual assault. Not to mention the fact that they’re extremely heteronormative.
4. It should remind teens that not wanting to have sex is okay. When sex ed programs discuss the option of not being sexually active, it’s usually framed either as a moral choice (in abstinence-only sex education) or as a smart move to prevent negative health outcomes (in comprehensive sex ed). Either way, not having sex is portrayed as a difficult but ultimately superior choice that teens must make by resisting peer pressure and hormones. But in fact, some people are asexual and have no sexual desire or attraction to resist. It’s important to validate this as part of the spectrum of sexual diversity, not only so that asexual teens feel accepted, but so that their peers learn not to pressure them.
5. It should deemphasize (although not completely negate) the importance of relationships and marriage. This is surely a controversial stance and I think nuance is important here. But my reasoning is this: the extreme importance that committed relationships (and especially marriage) are allocated in our society plays a part in keeping people trapped in abusive relationships. Teens who don’t feel that they can experience sex, affection, or love outside of the context of a monogamous relationship may feel pressured to stay in one that they know isn’t healthy, but that is providing them with some combination of those things.
It would probably take a book and dozens of paper citations to fully explain how and why sex education should combat sexual violence. But as these examples show, healthy sexuality is about more than just using contraception and getting tested for STIs. Unfortunately, our culture sends us many negative and harmful messages about sex, but good sex ed can help inoculate kids and teens against them.
About the Author
Miri Mogilevsky is a progressive feminist atheist and a recently transplanted New Yorker. She has a B.A. in psychology and is currently working on a Masters in social work. After that, she hopes to pursue a career that combines activism with counseling. When not doing school things, Miri spends her time reading and writing about social justice, mental health, sexuality, and politics. Occasionally she also interacts with people and sleeps. A few of her other interests include Russian literature, photography, and Cheez-its. In addition, she enjoys asking people about their feelings.
What do you think of when you think about rape? Be honest. Dark alleys, knives, blood, strangers – those are the things I usually hear when I ask that question. Ask the average person where women are most at risk and from whom, and the answer is usually 1. after dark walking anywhere, and 2. a stranger.
Most women aren’t raped while walking in the dark; they aren’t raped by some stranger with cruel intentions. Most women are assaulted in their own homes or the home of a friend. Most are assaulted by a boyfriend, husband, relative, friend, or acquaintance — the people they trust and should have no reason not to.
Now, when you think of a woman assaulted by her boyfriend or someone she knows casually, what comes to mind? Do you wonder, “Maybe she was drunk and sent unclear signals” – ? Do you think, “Maybe she woke up and regretted sex, so now she says it’s rape” – ? Do you think, “Well, that’s just not as bad as real rape, rape rape. This rape is something else, something less, something a woman could have prevented if she had just been a little more careful — not worn that hot dress, not made out with that guy, not invited him in for a drink" – ?
If those thoughts cross your mind, you aren’t alone. Sadly, these beliefs about sexual assault are pervasive in our society, and these beliefs are why people like Todd Akin call some rapes (and only those rapes) “legitimate.” They’re why Whoopi Goldberg felt the need to distinguish between "rape" and “rape rape.” They’re the reason that Ron Paul felt he could use the term “honest rape” when talking about which women pregnant by sexual assault deserved the right to terminate their pregnancy.
Rape is unique among crimes for many reasons, not the least of which is the special way it violates a person. But the main way it is unique is the way we treat victims of rape. Rape victims’ stories and motives are questioned in a way that no other crime victims are. When was the last time you heard someone (not in a courtroom or news report setting) talk about an “alleged mugging” or an “alleged break-in” or an “alleged theft?” When was the last time a victim of a break-in was asked by friends whether the crime really occurred, or whether maybe, just maybe, they were making it up because they wanted attention?
Never, that’s when. However, rape victims frequently face disbelief from those closest to them; friends, family, co-workers find it easier to believe the victim is lying than that they could have been raped.
Why is this the case? I think it can be traced back the way our culture has been infused with and shaped by Christianity.
Christianity has viewed women as liars and tempters since Genesis, when Eve seduced Adam to eat the forbidden fruit. And sexual assault has only been a real crime when committed against a virgin who has resisted with her utmost capability; anything less and maybe she was asking for it, maybe she wanted it. The idea of women as wanton temptresses or pure virgins permeates the Bible; Tamar, Jezabel, Mary, Rebecca, are all held up as archetypes of certain types of women. These ideas naturally influenced society and the law, which is why non-stranger rape was not even a real concept, or something that could be prosecuted, until the second wave of feminism began in the 1960s and pushed out new definitions of sexual violence. Advocates made the claim, radical at the time – and sadly still radical today – that a woman needed to consent to sex, even with a partner, and that anything else was sexual assault. Although laws have slowly changed, it was only last year that the FBI updated their definition of rape by removing the language around “forcible” and modifying it so that men could also qualify as victims.
Cultural ideas that once a woman has “given it away” she can’t really be assaulted find their root in the biblical idea that only virgins are real victims because a woman’s value lies with her virginity and giving it to only one man. Once a woman’s virginity is gone, she isn’t really rapable because there is nothing for the rapist to take away (from another man) any more. This is made clear in Deuteronomy 22:28-29, where the “punishment” for raping a virgin is that the man must pay a fine to the woman’s father and then marry her because he has sullied the father’s property.
Society has evolved somewhat past this notion, but not too far. Use of physical force is still an important factor in how our society views the legitimacy and severity of a rape. Use of physical force for most people takes away any doubt that the woman is lying because then she has an excuse for not fighting back and resisting the assault. This again can be traced back to the biblical stipulation that a woman (virgin) must “cry out” in order to be seen as a credible victim.
Women are viewed as the gatekeepers of men’s sexuality. "Good" women don’t tempt men; they reserve their sexuality for one man. "Bad" women sleep around and taunt men by dressing sluttily. And slutty women can’t be legitimately raped because 1. they always want sex, and/or 2. they flaunt themselves in front of men and then try to withhold sex. The expectation that after a certain point women “owe” men sex reveals how women are still viewed as property (another biblical concept) or things, not fully human with the right to decide their fate for themselves. There is still widespread belief that once a women takes things past a certain point, sex is inevitable and a woman doesn’t have the right to stop it.
These myths about sexual assault have all been debunked but, like the myths of religion, continue to spread and be believed even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. A secular perspective, informed by a desire for equality in society, helps shed light on misconceptions and myths about rape because secular (skeptical) people value evidence and use it to guide themselves through life.
I think a more secular society will result in a more just society because it will be less likely to revere ideas and practices that have no basis in fact. The more people are confronted with the truth about the experiences of sexual assault victims and survivors, the harder it will be for them to believe the lies that have permeated our collective consciousness for so long. A secular society will value these truths over the myths about women and sexual assault that the Christian perspective has helped perpetuate.
‘It’s really a sense of power that comes from specialness … anyone who finds himself at the center of the world they’re in has a sense of impunity. Ken Dryden, lawyer and Hall of Fame goalie for the Montreal Canadiens.
In a down-on-its-luck eastern Ohio town, the local high school’s star football players were powerful people. As the town’s pride and joy – its hope for the future – the young men in Steubenville enjoyed all the privileges of small town princelings, just like millions of young men in millions of small towns all over the world. One of the privileges of that power was that the football players had their “pick” of the town’s unattached girls. For star athletes, the privilege of first pick of the most desirable girls is like selecting ripe melons at Kroger. The athlete gets to choose or discard, never the girl.
The moment that a person – usually a female-bodied person – becomes the object of a more powerful person’s desire (whether for sex or some desire to exert control), her humanity ceases to matter. She becomes, literally, a thing – currency that the more powerful person feels entitled to spend. Human culture is patriarchal: heterosexual men are the only persons whose full humanity is never questioned, while women – and men who are suspected by other men of not being the right kind of heterosexual man – are treated by every society on earth as less than fully human. Their existence and worth is measured almost exclusively within the context of their relationships with and effect upon heterosexual men. Heterosexual men are persons whose living, thinking and taking action defines who they are, while women are men’s accessories: their mothers, their girlfriends, the mothers of their children. It is the thing that they are to men which defines what women are.
The young woman who was carted from party to party in Steubenville that August night was little more than a ripe melon – or a piece of meat – to those football players. They treated her like a plaything as if there was no human being inside that unconscious body because, on a deeply primitive level, for some young men there is no human being inside a female body. And when she somehow gathered the courage to press charges against the young men who raped her, she became the thing which her town raged could unfairly (!) ruin their princelings’ lives. Having also grown up swimming in the rape culture that still permeates nearly every human society, the rape victim feared she would be blamed and vilified for reporting the crime and pressing charges and she was right. She had to be persuaded to go forward with the case, but she finally did – courageously, and in the face of vicious condemnation from her former friends and neighbors.
“It wasn’t what I expected to see,” Westlake testified Friday at the Jefferson County Justice Center here in this old Eastern Ohio mill town, where Mays and Richmond stand trial for rape. “I wasn’t really sure what to think.” Why didn’t you stop it, special prosecutor Marianne Hemmeter asked? “Well,” Westlake said, “it wasn’t violent. I didn’t know exactly what rape was. I always pictured it as forcing yourself on someone.” Let’s ignore the obvious point that you don’t need to “force” yourself on a girl who is incapacitated by alcohol. Instead, let’s simply ask what did Evan Westlake do? “I said my goodbyes,” he testified. Goodbyes? And what exactly was the response from Mays and Richmond after having someone walk in on them in the middle of that moment – even if, as the defense is arguing, it actually was consensual? “They said, ‘I’ll see you Monday at football,’ ” Westlake said. Prosecutors may get conviction in Steubenville rape trial, but it will come at a cost. Dan Wetzel, Yahoo Sports, March 16, 2013.
How is it possible that a modern, educated teenager does not know what rape is? If inserting objects and body parts into the body of an unconscious person is not “forcing yourself on someone”, then what is it? How could it be that in a society which claims to abhor rape, a young man stood a few feet away while a rape was being committed, felt surprised but apparently undisturbed by what he was witnessing, then casually “said his good-nights” and walked away. He walked away without the slightest sense that a crime was being committed. The sight of an unconscious girl being casually violated by two young men aroused not a scintilla of basic human compassion in him. None at all. Three football teammates casually said their good-nights, (“see you at football on Monday”) while two of them were still raping an unconscious, vomit-spattered, urine-soaked girl and Evan Westlake was not sure what to think! How could he not know what to think about that?
Although most people strongly protest that they would never condone rape, the reality is that most people actually do condone rape. Like Evan Westlake, they condone rape because they believe that most kinds of forced sex are not really rape. Most people think that opportunistic or coerced sex, which is the modus operandi in the majority of sexual assaults, is normal, understandable or justifiable thanks to a culture which normalizes and excuses men who rape women. There may be a general rueful admission that “taking advantage” of a drunk woman or pressuring a date into sex may not exactly be polite, or the smoothest, coolest way to operate, but it is still after all just a guy doing what comes naturally when he wants something and that thing is apparently right there for the taking. If the object of his interest is incapacitated after drinking too much, her failure to say “no” can be taken for a “yes”- at his discretion. If the thing he wants is not 100% clear about her refusal (at least in his own mind – remember boys: no means maybe and maybe means yes!), then a guy feels justified in assuming that he has her consent and society backs him up on that. In essence, society hands over a woman’s ‘right to consent’ to men, who are permitted – even encouraged – to apply it according to their own interpretation of reality, however influenced that may be by anger, alcohol or unreciprocated sexual arousal.
Consider the following rape apologia:
“What did she expect to happen when she went out dressed like that?”
“What did she expect would happen?” reasonable people ask, “If she didn’t want to have sex, she ought not to have sent the wrong signal by getting drunk. If she has regrets in the morning, it was her own stupid fault.”
“If she didn’t say “No’, then she probably meant “Yes”. She wasn’t clear! How is a guy supposed to know, anyway?”
“Why should some poor man go to jail because of some lying slut who only got what she was asking for?”
“If something happened that she didn’t really want, then she ought to have thought of that before going on that date/accepting that drink/asking him in for coffee/smiling and flirting/trying to enjoy full rights to free citizenship while being female…” – pick any scenario because they all lead to forced sex somewhere every day.
And of course, the ever-popular “If men don’t pursue women aggressively, the human race will go extinct!” which both excuses male aggression and denies normal, healthy female sexuality in one astonishing stroke.
With very rare exceptions, not quite consensual sex is seen as the inevitable result of mistakes made by women (leading men on, dressing like sluts, asking for it with their ice-girl attitudes, expecting to enjoy the freedom to go places and do things that men enjoy, etc) and not as rape committed by a man. When made by a very young girl or teenager (who is still assumed to be a virgin), these “mistakes” are considered foolish but innocently regrettable (though the sexual assault is still the girl’s own fault), in the case of non-virgin women, the use of the word “mistakes” is a transparently insincere way of describing what is clearly believed by the culture to be calculated, provocative behavior on the part of a lying female who later regrets her own bad behavior but who inexplicably still wants to draw attention to it by accusing an innocent man of rape.
She must have led him on – how was he to know she only wanted to enjoy a flirtatious evening and then go home alone? Obviously, she didn’t – she just changed her mind after the fact!
Having internalized these attitudes thanks to the pervasive rape culture, most people are uncomfortable labeling such incidents “rapes”. It strikes people as somehow unfair to call a man who merely uses a woman’s body without her explicit consent a rapist. Most of the time, people agree, women only get what they deserve!
Then, there is the myth which goes something like this: the only real rapists are monsters. When they are not leaping out of bushes to attack a woman with a weapon, rapist monsters are hanging out at bars creepily stalking stupid women. Even so, it isn’t a crime to be a creepy guy – innocent nice guys are sometimes called creepy and just think of that slippery slope! If women weren’t so stupid, they would not provoke real creeps to stalk and/or attack them! But, the handsome, normal guy who won’t take “no” for an answer after a date is nothing like those monstrous rapists. Maybe he paid for a nice dinner date and she’s been smiling at him all night – so he can’t be blamed for having expectations! and anyway his making a move is a natural red-blooded male reaction to female provocation. People ought to give him the benefit of the doubt because he is such a nice guy but they should have a healthy skepticism about the honesty of the girl or woman. A man should be thought innocent until proven guilty; a woman should be thought a liar until proven to be telling the truth. Reasonable people should always be extremely cautious about casting doubt on a person’s character – it could haunt him for life! – so trashing a woman’s reputation instead is the only reasonable response to a rape accusation. The accused man is a person – a fully human being whose life could be ruined by the accusation that he is a rapist monster! – the accuser is merely a woman – just a female, and everyone knows how they lie…the question of whether her life might be ruined by whatever transpired is hardly worth asking. Females are, after all, made to be used by men, so why are feminists making such a big deal over this?
Another popular justification for rape apologia is the pretended even-handedness of criticizing young men for walking alone in unsafe places or getting drunk in situations where they might be assaulted and criticizing young women for walking alone in unsafe places (just about anywhere away from male protectors – and even then not so much, but that is for another post) or getting drunk in situations where they might be assaulted.
“Holding a girl responsible for her own stupidity is not victim-blaming! I’d criticize a guy, too, if he stupidly put himself in danger by getting drunk with the wrong crowd or hanging out on the dodgy side of town!”
But here is where this false equivalency breaks down: even if we accept the claim that society actually accuses young men of bringing crime on themselves through their appearance or behavior (something so rare that even a determined google search can find little evidence of it with the notable exception of too many cases which are suspiciously limited to young men of color or other marginalized groups, but again, that’s another post in itself), the difference is that no one ever suggests that because of a male victim’s stupidity, his attackers should not be held accountable for their crimes.
In no other assault scenarios are victims held responsible for inciting envy, fear, rage, a desire to hurt or control or any other emotion in their attackers. Only when girls or women are attacked – and in particular when they are sexually assaulted – is the onus for the crime placed upon the victim. It is not even sexual assault itself that is the exception but specifically sexual assault against women and girls which is reserved for this special victim-caused ‘incident’ category. Rapes of boys and men are not generally dismissed as “he was asking for it”. One only has to point to the recent public hue and cry over the sexual crimes committed by priests in the Catholic Church to see that this is true.
The rape of a child or teenager – or indeed any person who is in a subordinate position to an authority figure – is unconscionable and deserves to be prosecuted vigorously. However, the deliberately vague term “child rape” that is always used to describe these clerical crimes obscures the fact that most of those victims were not just “children” but specifically underage boys. The stark truth is that it is because the majority of these crimes were committed against boys and young men that society is as horrified as it is by them, and it is because this fact is obfuscated by the coy usage of “child” instead of “boy” that society can continue to pretend that it treats all rapes – of both male and female victims – as equally terrible. The truth, however, is that similar abuses have been visited upon girls and women in far greater numbers for all of human history – at least 1 in 4 girls and women are raped in their lifetime by clerics, teachers, family members, neighbors, boyfriends, employers, husbands and sometimes even strangers – but this ugly feminine reality has never elicited universal societal condemnation like the outrage over the recently uncovered sexual abuse of boys by priests. On the contrary, rape, forced pregnancy and assault of girls and women has been protected all over the world for most of human history by patriarchal social mores and laws, often justified by ‘respect” for religious freedom. Rape and male oppression is accepted as the way things are for women. Boys and men, on the other hand, are never supposed to be the targets of this kind of abuse. When it happens, it is considered an intolerable blight in society.
In first world countries, most women gained citizenship, the right to vote and legal recognition of their human rights over the last century. Nevertheless, most societies still do not accept that the majority of rape claims by women are really rapes. The hyper-vigilance over “false accusations” is not because assaults have not occurred, but because society denies that those alleged sexual assaults are equivalent to ‘forcible rape’. There is always a justification, always an excuse for why it was understandable for that man to force that woman into a sexual act.
The Rape Culture that pervades all human societies ensures that women are still considered less than fully human – even in the first world – so that abuse of their autonomy and consent is tolerated and condoned even by the justice system. By and large, the reality in most societies is that while there may be laws on the books criminalizing rape, society actually refuses to recognize most forms of sexual assault on women as legitimate rape, and in practice most societies regard nearly all women as unrapable. When the fault lies with the alleged victim, there can have been no crime committed. Rape culture reinforces the idea that women, by their very existence, are always sexually tempting men, always at fault, always to blame. Women make men force sex on them, so it is never rape.
In many parts of the world, rape is accepted as an everyday occurrence, and even a male prerogative. In 1991, at a coed boarding school in Kenya, seventy-one girls were raped by their male classmates, and nineteen died in the ensuing panic. The deputy principal reassured the public: “The boys never meant any harm against the girls. They just wanted to rape.” Michael Parenti, “The Global Rape Culture”, The Culture Struggle, 2005.
Rape culture serves up a double whammy to women – it not only dismisses the assault of women and girls as justifiable based upon the feelings of their attackers, but it also holds the victims responsible for those feelings. Young men raised in rape culture are accustomed to judging the morality of their behavior toward women according to their own emotions and desires – how they feel around a woman justifies their behavior toward her – and at the same time they are encouraged by rape culture to hold women responsible for how they, men, feel. Rape culture tells men that they are entitled to satisfy their own urges at a woman’s expense. Many, if not most, men who assault women believe that what they feel has been deliberately caused by the women they target, and, therefore, the women are responsible for whatever happens. Surprisingly frequently, especially if charges are laid against him, a rapist will actually claim (and actually believe) that he is the victim in the situation. Plenty of evidence supports the contention that society – steeped in rape culture misogyny – usually agrees with him.
Rape Culture is an environment in which rape is prevalent and in which sexual violence against women is normalized and excused in the media and popular culture. Rape culture is perpetuated through the use of misogynistic language, the objectification of women’s bodies, and the glamorization of sexual violence, thereby creating a society that disregards women’s rights and safety. Rape Culture affects every woman. The rape of one woman is a degradation, terror, and limitation to all women. Most women and girls limit their behavior because of the existence of rape. Most women and girls live in fear of rape. Men, in general, do not. That’s how rape functions as a powerful means by which the whole female population is held in a subordinate position to the whole male population, even though many men don’t rape, and many women are never victims of rape. This cycle of fear is the legacy of Rape Culture. (Rape Culture, Marshall University Women’s Center.)
Many women unwittingly support rape culture by taking comfort in the mistaken belief that rape only happens to a certain kind of woman and they themselves can avoid it by living properly (whatever they think that means). What they fail to realize is that by promulgating rape myths, they actually strengthen the rape culture that makes them more likely to be victimized. Rape myths provide cover for those who actually commit the majority of rapes: seemingly ordinary men who also believe the myths of rape culture and who thus believe that in many situations the consent of a woman can be considered implicit based upon how he interprets her behavior. If he feels that what she is wearing or where she is or how much she has drunk or how much she has flirted is an invitation to him, then it is an invitation to him regardless of whether the woman ever had any thought of issuing an invitation. What she thinks or feels simply does not matter because the possibility that she actually has real thoughts and honest feelings like he – a fully human person – does, simply does not exist. Many rapists have so thoroughly absorbed the poison of rape culture that they truly believe that they are entitled to take what they tell themselves women are offering and therefore whatever they have done, it is not rape.
Thanks to the warped view that rape culture propagates of what is normal sex, many men feel genuinely threatened by the idea that any non-consensual sex might be called ‘rape’. Most of these very concerned men consider themselves nice guys but some are uncomfortably aware that they may have skated over the consent line at times. Defensively, they insist that there are grey areas in the mating dance.
Women are hard to read! Sometimes ‘maybe’ can mean ‘yes’, not “no” Why should any red-blooded man accept that ambivalence is a form of “no” and be forced to hope lamely that on another occasion she will give enthusiastic consent? Why should women get to have the upper hand in sexual matters?
They argue that parsing the meaning of a woman’s “It’s getting late”, “I’d like to go home now” or “It’s not a good time” is a complex problem and that consent is a very vexing and elusive concept.
Women jerk men around! Why would she say ‘maybe’ if she means ‘no’? Maybe ‘maybe’ means ‘yes’! Why shouldn’t a guy interpret her ambivalence as ‘yes’? Everyone knows women want to be swept away. But if she doesn’t want that, then she should be clear about it. Who can blame a guy for pressing the issue? If he doesn’t press, he might never have sex!
They worry that to criminalize all nonconsensual sex is a slippery slope which could unfairly bring innocent men down with the (very, very few!) guilty ones.
Consent can be very ambiguous and difficult to determine! When she accepted the date/flirted/drank too much, who can blame a guy for thinking she was giving tacit consent to more? How dare she cry rape in the morning just because she regrets her slutty behavior of the night before!
Ignoring for now the constant underlying thread of misogyny that runs through all rape apologia (which can be boiled down to: women lie, they lie constantly and they enjoy lying just to hurt an innocent man for the evil pleasure of it), there is an interesting inconsistency highlighted by this claim that sexual consent is difficult to decipher.
At least one study has shown that human beings are perfectly capable of recognizing both verbal and non-verbal refusals, even when the word “No” is not used at all. In every other sphere of human interaction, human signals for ‘no’ – for refusal – are widely understood by both men and women and yet men who rape persist in special pleading that it is difficult to be sure in just one specific situation: when a woman is saying ‘No’ to sex. Rapists prefer the emphasis to be on whether a woman said “No” clearly enough because they know that there will be wiggle room for them to pretend that most forms of verbal and nonverbal “no” secretly mean “yes” when it comes to female sexual responses and, unfortunately, society allows them to make – and win – that argument.
“Did she say ‘yes’?
“Then your answer was ‘No’.”
“But she said, ‘Maybe’!”
“But, did she say ‘yes’?”
“Then your answer was ‘No’.”
“But she seemed like she was not sure, maybe she wanted to consent!”
“Did she say ‘Yes’?”
“Then your answer was – undeniably, unambiguously – ‘No’.”
In spite of the best efforts of women’s groups working to reduce sexual assault, no large-scale social movement to accept a working definition of consent such as “Only an unequivocal ‘Yes’ means ‘Yes'” has been forthcoming. Many men – who definitely do not see themselves as rapists – prefer the pliable, male-interpreted “No” because it would be much harder for those Nice Guys to kid themselves about their own opportunistic behavior – and harder for society to excuse them, too – if the only acceptable green light for sex was an unequivocal “yes”. “‘No’ means ‘No’ (except when Nice Guys™ think it means ‘Yes’ to them)” has been massaged by the rape culture to suggest the possibility of ambiguity and that leaves the door open for not-so-nice-guys to cash in on the sexual aggressiveness of a few men.
Thanks to the fact that women live in fear of sexual assault, less sexually aggressive men can still benefit from the rape culture which provides cover for more blatant rapists. By pretending to be confused by “mixed signals”, a so-called Nice Guy can pressure a woman into sex she doesn’t want by telling her that she made him think she had promised him something. More aggressive males pave the way for the Nice Guys because a woman’s fear of male anger if she refuses to honor this bogus “promise” seals the deal. By shaming women for being reluctant to trust that their intentions are honorable (even when they are not), Nice Guys often succeed in coercing women to engage in unwanted sex. By accusing women of teasing because they have interpreted a sexual invitation from a little light-hearted flirting, Nice Guys can and do frighten women into agreeing to unwanted sex because women have learned to fear the consequences of being labeled a “tease” (a “tease” can either put out what she has been “promising”, or have it taken from her forcibly, which society will judge she deserves). Nice Guys never do anything overtly aggressive, but they trade on the fear of male aggressiveness to manipulate and coerce women into unwanted sex. In other words, Nice Guys do rape, too.
The patriarchal culture which teaches men to view women as simultaneously both lying temptresses and sexually submissive subordinates ensures that self-aware rapists know they need not fear any negative social consequences as they continue to victimize women and girls. It will always be the woman’s fault. Meanwhile the self-deluding “nice guys” observe society’s acceptance and normalization of male aggression toward females, admire what they see not as rape but as other mens’ sexual conquests and regard their own sexual opportunism as perfectly normal and reasonable within that context. This is the reason why many men sincerely believe that false rape accusations are a real thing. If they – normal, nice guys! – have felt and done these things (or think it’s OK to do these things), then it cannot be rape! Only monsters commit rape and these nice guys are not monsters!
The Steubenville case, the Rehtaeh Parsons case, the UCLA water polo player case and countless other sexual assault cases, both reported and unreported, starkly illustrate how rape culture ensures that many young men and women really do not believe that forcing sex on a woman without her consent is always rape, especially if she was initially flirting or drinking at a party or has had sex before. A rape victim’s recovery from sexual violation is horrendous enough, but rape culture ensures that the society which is supposed to protect her will victimize her again through victim-blaming, slut-shaming, sympathy for the perpetrator and even erasing the victim from discussion of the impact of the crime which is viewed – like almost everything else in patriarchal culture – not from the female victim’s perspective but from the male’s. Isn’t it time that we took concrete, effective steps to dismantle Rape Culture once and for all? We’ve tried the ridiculously ineffective tactic of urging women not to get themselves raped. Perhaps, at long last, we can begin to urge men not to rape.
The first step is to raise young men who understand and respect that women are human beings whose feelings and wishes are as important as mens’. A man’s feeling of entitlement to use a woman’s body because he felt that she was offering it does not trump her feelings or her right to refuse consent or even to withdraw consent at any time if she becomes uncomfortable with the man. We need to change the sad reality that, because of our rape culture, men’s sense of superior entitlement is protected at the expense of women’s humanity. His feelings are of paramount importance, while it is often barely acknowledged that she has any legitimate feelings at all. She is a thing that causes uncomfortable feelings in a man. When rape happens it is deemed justifiable by society because of however the man felt (he felt he was led on, he misunderstood her “mixed signals”, he felt she had provoked him, etc) while the woman is held responsible both for whatever he was feeling and for the consequences when he decided not to exercise any self-control over those feelings.
Obviously, rape culture creates a win-win situation for would-be rapists. Unfortunately, it also creates an environment where the dehumanization of women is so normalized that even some nice, decent men ultimately perceive virtually every woman as “unrapable” in most contexts. In other words, because of the constant stream of misogynist rape apologia in our culture, too many boys and men unconsciously form the belief that almost nothing that they can do to a woman can ever be called rape – even though they still honestly believe that they consider ‘real rape’ a heinous crime.
The second step is to make men understand that the behavior that many of them do not consider “rapey” is, in fact, rape. That the women whom some men tell themselves were “asking for it” or whose consent some men believe they can assume because of how they, men, are feeling are not there simply for them to take. That when a man decides that because a woman has put herself in one situation willingly (a party, date or whatever) therefore it is perfectly reasonable for him to presume she has given her consent for anything else he expects the evening to lead to – even if he has to push it a little – that is rape.
Below is an ad aired in the UK which addresses Rape Culture in a gut-wrenching, all-too-common scenario: a party, drinking, the initial trust of the young woman, the expectations of the young man, and the eventual rape. This ad underlines the truth that rape occurs whenever one person coerces another person into sexual activity against the second person’s wishes. The only thing that will prevent rape is if rapists stop raping.
Teaching men how not to rape: Hey, it’s so crazy, it just might work!
Indeed, it is the only thing that will work.
TRIGGER WARNING! Please be aware that this ad portrays a common scenario where a rape occurs, and though very well-done, it may be painfully triggering to some viewers.
Rapists are monsters, evil. Child rapists are the king of that monster pack.
They never tell you that those monsters are good friends, a nice neighbor, someone with a good sense of humor, a person who will help a stranger fix a flat. Nobody tells you that.
They don’t tell you that they’re the person you fell in love with, your uncle, your brother, your father. Nobody tells you that.
These rapists, these monsters are someone else, not these people.
That child molester is someone else, not my father.
But he is my father. My father, who told me my feet smelled like roses; my father, who his nieces loved; my father, who taught me how swimming is like floating on air; my father, who bullied my brother; who shouted at my mother; my father, who raped my sister.
My father wasn’t a monster; flawed, yes, but not a monster.
But my father is that monster. Nobody tells you that.
Fifth article in Secular Woman’s Sexual Assault Awareness Month Series
by Jennifer Forester
When I was five, I decided that I wanted to accept Jesus Christ as my Lord and Saviour, and I went through all of the motions: I asked him into my heart, assumed he accepted, and was baptized before the congregation. I remember vividly how afraid I was to be baptized; the thought of the water closing in over my head filled me with panic, but somehow I went through it, understanding that I had been washed in metaphorical blood and was now sin-free in the eyes of God. What was not possible for me to process in my gloriously naïve five-year-old brain was that, in return for the unconscionably horrifying experience of vicarious redemption, I had agreed to surrender my will to a being who could not express his will to me excepting through the men who controlled what ostensibly came from him. My body was to be a temple, a living sacrifice to God, and no one ever explained to me that, in the end, the difference between person as temple and person as toilet are negligible: they are both things. Neither have the will to decide what will and will not happen to or in them, and neither have the capacity to protest when their will is violated.
Naturally, being five, I didn’t hear much about sex, although I was raised much more openly than most of my Christian peers. The twisted fascination of the religious fundamentalist with the myriad manifestations of sexuality did not start to interfere with my awareness of the conflict between my Christian faith and my own desires until early in my adolescence as I—who had precociously noted the beguiling nature of my masculine peers years before my body signaled any sort of readiness for their attentions—became the recipient of male attention, welcome and unwelcome alike. As men began following me when I walked in public, as boys began to return my affections, the exhortations to purity began. Boys would want to do things to me, but I should not let them. I was to remember, at all times, that my body was a sacrifice to Christ and a gift to my future husband (who, presumably, would be returning the gift; at least there was no double standard in my household). What negativity did not seep down from my mother, who at the least had a truly egalitarian vision of mutual abstinence for Christians, worked its way in from elsewhere, poisoning my understanding of my body and its new, unfamiliar hungers. Sex was something that boys would want to do to me; it was not something that I would do or share. There was never any conception that I might be getting what I wanted out of some hapless boy; no, I was a vessel, for my God and for the men who would try to use me. My virginity would be a sacrifice to the man who would love me enough to wait until I was married, but a sacrifice it would be.
At fifteen, rather than losing my virginity in a thoughtless moment of passion as did so many of my fellow Evangelical kids, I made the calm, rational decision that I was ready to have sex with my fiancé who, at fourteen years old, was obviously as equipped as I was to enter into a healthy, mutually fulfilling sexual relationship. We spent days getting our plans together, making sure that we would have a plausible excuse to feed our parents—who were most certainly not in on this or supportive of it—and that we would have condoms, unlike our less fortunate peers who did not plan ahead. Although I was still a Christian, I never felt the cognitive dissonance, guilt, or fear that I should have had about this decision; somehow all of that didn’t leak down to me. No, what was missing for me was a concept as powerfully positive as the abstinence-only guilt is damaging: I lacked a model of consensuality. Lacking this, he and I, two children with only our religious and cultural messages to go by, proceeded to have sex in precisely the way that you would expect. He held me still while he painfully thrust in and out of me and then, while I lay on the floor bleeding and weeping, feeling every bit the living sacrifice I had pledged to be, he told me to put my clothes on so that he could play video games.
This never struck me as odd, never felt like the stab in the back that it should have; after all, I had simply transitioned from temple to toilet, and it was natural that he would use me in the same way that God used women: as an uncomplaining dispensary for bodily fluids and ideas about myself. The time before he finally, irrevocably raped me, under circumstances that I could point my finger at and say, “Yes, that was it!” was filled with a thousand little transgressions.
The time he wanted to have sex in a practice room and I was afraid that we would get caught, but he told me that I would do it if I loved him.
The time he convinced me to perform oral sex on him—an act I found repulsive at the time—by telling me that he would find someone else to do it if I wouldn’t.
The time I was about to move to another state and he broke down and cried until I would have sex with him in a movie theater because “he would miss me so much.”
The time he broke up with me but told me that he still wanted me and, as I wept, he pulled my shirt off of me and proceeded to use my unresisting body.
The times I fell asleep at his house and woke up with him rubbing his penis on my lips, the time his idea of experimenting with BDSM was to hold a butcher knife to my throat while I cried out that he was terrifying me.
This, all of this, building to the time when I would finally say the word “no” with enough emphasis that this constant, unrelenting assault on my body and mind became something that I would be able to, once and for all, definitively attach the word “rape” to, even if it took until a year later for me to be able to do so. I, the teenaged version of the good Christian five-year-old who pledged her body as a temple to the Lord, functioned as if I had pledged my body as a toilet for the boy-man whom I loved every bit as much as I had loved Christ before. My consent, my will, were irrelevant, and so I treated them as such, hollowed myself out to make room for the verbal abuse and the affection and the hatred and the jizz, if only he would love me the way that Christ had when I had given up my right to consent in my youthful naivete.
It’s enough to say that he held me down, that he called me a bitch, that he told me that I fucking wanted it and that I had it coming; it’s enough to say that I bled again this time and that I tried to fight him off. What’s striking isn’t the violence of what he did or the extreme duress under which it occurred. No. The part of what happened that is so shocking is that the only difference between the time when he finally raped me for real and the time when I consensually lost my virginity is that he cursed me and I fought back. The rest was the same: the bleeding, the pain, the fear, the utter disregard for my humanity, the casual walking away. There was little difference, to me, between what I called rape and what I called sex; I had never been given a model for it other than “what married people do,” leaving me with “crying and bleeding on the floor” as my default for what unmarried people did. My options were to consent to cry and bleed on the floor, or to be forced to do so. I laid myself out on the altar and called it consent, not knowing that there were other options. It was what good Christian girls did when abstinence failed them.
Fourth article in Secular Woman’s Sexual Assault Awareness Month
by Claire Bardelux
My older sister has a room of her own now, which upsets me terribly—at five years old, I am afraid to sleep alone. Sunshine floods through my bedroom windows and I have just woken for the morning. I start shifting about in bed, yawning, rubbing my sleep-crusted eyes and untwisting my flowery cotton nightgown. As I squirm, I sense that something’s not right, but I can’t quite put my finger on it. I stretch and look about my sun-brightened room. Toys are scattered where I discarded them last, my favorite doll splayed in unnatural pose against the floor, stuffed animals in a variety of shapes and colors, crayons, books… And there on the sunny yellow rug is a small white blob that I don’t recognize. I roll out of bed and pick up the blob, confused. It is a pair of white cotton panties—the ones I wore to bed last night? Anxiety washes over me as I tentatively pull up the hem of my pretty nightgown to check. Sure enough, I’m bare. I’m instantly irrationally ashamed and desperate to be covered. I pull on my underwear and smooth down my nightgown, glancing around furtively to make sure no one else has seen this. How did my panties get across the room during the night? Could I have taken them off in my sleep? I squirm uncomfortably, feeling dirty, ill at ease. What happened last night and why don’t I remember? I pick up my doll and hug her tight.
It’s the middle of the night, and, at seven years old, I am sleeping in my big girl room for one. One alone. One unallied. One unprotected.
I am suddenly startled into alertness. I hear whispers and feel someone touching me between my legs—the center of my body, my most vulnerable of vulnerabilities. I panic. But to my horror, my eyes don’t fly open though I’m willing them to do so with all my might. I’m trying to scream, “Stop! Go away,” but my mouth won’t work. While I feel the scream building and intensifying inside of me, I am silent as Munch’s painting. My arms and legs won’t move. I’m trying to flail, to kick out, to close my legs, but my limbs betray me, remaining limp. I am utterly powerless. I can’t even cry, despite my terror. I am paralyzed—it’s not fear, it’s sleep paralysis. I am perfectly aware as they are touching me and mocking me. I feel invaded, attacked, frightened, ashamed, dirty. And, I am furious at myself for being unable to stop them. After several minutes, the paralysis eases and my attackers, perceiving that I am waking, are frightened away. But I can’t stay awake forever, and they know this. There is no such thing as safety. I am tormented all night—when I am being invaded, when I’m fearing that invasion, and in the morning when I don’t even know what happened while I was sleeping.
From around five years old until I was thirteen, I endured repeated nighttime attacks at the hands of my three brothers—sometimes they acted as a group, but, as we got older, my primary attacker was my older brother acting on his own. Or, at least, that’s what woke me up. I struggled with the sleep paralysis that held me captive and powerless even as I was being violated, and I never really knew what happened when I was asleep. Some mornings, I would wake with the tell-tale missing panties and feel sick with the not knowing, with the lack of control over my body. Those nights that I couldn’t stay awake to defend myself, when they or he (depending on the night) wouldn’t leave me alone, I’d flee to my mother’s bed for protection. She needed her sleep, maybe she didn’t quite understand what I was telling her, maybe she interpreted my pleas along the lines of, “Mom, he’s playing with my toys—make him stop.” But every time I begged and pleaded for help, she sent me back to bed, back to the big bad wolf. I was crushed, frantic. There was no help to be had. My father was largely absent, but even had he been there, he would have been of no help—he didn’t like having his sleep disturbed either, and he had taught us all that we were most definitely not entitled to bodily integrity and dignity. He was also a strong proponent of the “Children are to be seen and not heard” school of thinking, so excessive chatter from me was met with duct tape over the mouth. No, this was a battle I had to fight on my own, but I was failing. told them emphatically to leave me alone, but they didn’t listen. Locks wouldn’t keep them out—they’re the ones who taught me to pick every lock in the house. And I couldn’t stay awake forever or even trust myself to wake up to act in my own defense.
So, for years, I felt hurt, angry, frustrated—I felt all the pain of being a victim and all the anger at being ignored and dismissed, all the frustration and panic at not being able to control my body or access to it. I also felt horribly ashamed, as if this were my fault because I couldn’t stop them. This shame was intensified when my older brother defended his actions, telling me that he knew I really liked it. My everything revolted against this notion, but really, I had no way of knowing how I had responded in my sleep, no way of knowing fully what was happening to me. This made me feel even worse about myself and my predicament. I hated me, and I really, really hated him. I wished he were dead.
Our father was in a perpetual state of abandoning or having recently abandoned us or having temporarily renewed his residence with us. He was certainly not reliable, and when he was there he was violent and domineering. We were all frightened of him and his anger, his yelling, his throwing things, his kicking down doors, his indiscriminate whippings with the dreaded leather belt or a switch from a tree outside (he explained once that he was whipping me on general principle—in other words, because he could, he felt he should). He rode in like a tyrannical king, making decisions from on high that only made my life worse. It was he who decided my older sister needed her own room, thus stripping me of protection and comfort at night. I was afraid to sleep alone and with good reason. On another visit, he decreed that my sister should have the larger room, the one we’d once shared, and he moved me farther down the hall, adjacent to the bedrooms of my brothers—that’s right, the ones who were attacking me on a nightly basis. I cried and cried when he ordered us to change rooms, but I could never have explained to him why it was so important for me not to sleep at that end of the hall. He was just plain scary, and questioning his decisions was unwise.
I was envious of my sister, both because our father seemed to love her more and because she escaped the nighttime attacks. Why me? It felt so hideously unfair. Why should I, of all my siblings, be singled out for perpetual victimization? And, why would no one listen to me or help me when I asked? I was trapped and miserable. So, for years, it was “poor me.” I was filled with spite and responded to life with sarcasm and frequent escapes into reading. Finally, when I was thirteen, my older brother’s vicious lashing out forced my mother, who was at her wit’s end trying single-handedly to manage five children, to seek outside help. He had threatened my older sister, the one who was loved, the one who mattered, with a knife over a television channel dispute.
My older brother was admitted to a psychiatric hospital and we all had to go there regularly for family meetings, walking with trepidation (at least on my part) through two sets of heavy magnetically locking doors to get to the meeting room. It felt like a prison. One day, a couple of weeks into my brother’s hospitalization, his psychiatrist started our family session by asking us all how we felt about having to be there. Emulating my big sister, whom I envied and admired, I responded that I didn’t want to be there and didn’t think I should have to spend my time there because of something my brother had done—this was all heavily coated with my usual dripping sarcasm. The doctor decided that I was full of anger, and right there in front of my unbelieving eyes, she convinced my mother that I too should be admitted the hospital. It was like slow motion with me looking frantically from serious doctor to nodding mother. I was trapped. They’d already locked me in—I couldn’t possibly get past those two sets of heavy locked doors or break through two-inch thick, bullet-proof windows. There was no way out. My terror increased when I learned that they would be doing a thorough strip-search as part of my admission. Even though I wasn’t the one who had done something wrong, I was being punished (You don’t have to tell me life isn’t fair—don’t I know it). My small store of dignity and my futile grasping at control over my body were ebbing away.
I was locked away for eight weeks, during which time I experienced an even greater reduction of dignity and privacy. Aside from the strip searches performed on me every time I re-entered the unit (since I was attending regular meetings for victims of sexual abuse in the adult unit, these forced showings of my naked body to a complete stranger were quite frequent), my captors searched my room and even garbage can daily. I couldn’t say or write anything with the expectation of it remaining private. They’d pull my crumpled up notes out of the trash and put them in my case file to analyze and judge. They watched me literally every hour of the day and scored my behavior for each time increment on a scale of zero to three—they showed these scores to my psychiatrist and to me to make sure we both knew just how imperfect, how bad I was. Every single morning in full view of all the other adolescent patients, they weighed me (if you’ve ever been a thirteen year old girl with body image issues, you’ll know this is traumatic), took my temperature and required me to answer personal questions about my mood and bodily functions. They’d come into my room multiple times at night to make sure I was still there and asleep.
So, really, this wasn’t substantially different from what I was experiencing at home except that it was systematized, more thorough and done by people I didn’t know. This was all under the guise of trying to help me, but from the perspective of a child who has been traumatized and taught that her body and possessions are not truly her own, that she has no right or recourse to control and protect herself, the perpetual scrutiny of my body and lack of privacy was horrific. On top of this, I knew that my classmates couldn’t help but notice my prolonged absence and speculate as to my whereabouts. Now they too knew something was wrong with me. Privacy? Who needs privacy?
The nighttime attacks stopped after the hospitalization—I was moved back into a bedroom with my older sister—the same one we’d shared eight years prior—and Child Protective Services started visiting to check on me in particular. They offered to take me away (another punishment?), but I wanted to stay at the home I’d just returned to after a long and frightening incarceration. Family life continued to be dysfunctional and fraught with discomfort. I might not be able to avoid being hit, threatened, yelled at, derided, but at least I wasn’t being molested in the night. The fears and shame and sense of violation never really left me while I was in that home—in part because healthy boundaries still had not been introduced. We none of us had the skills to relate to each other properly. I continued to feel anger over my treatment, and I felt isolated because I was the one who had been chosen for the role of victim, abused and ignored, mocked and shamed, punished with imprisonment and degradation. My focus stayed on myself alone and how everyone else had wronged me, was complicit in my trauma. As I grew older, I couldn’t wait to leave my dysfunctional family, to escape the house of horrors—I often wondered why I hadn’t elected to leave when Child Protective Services had given me the opportunity. At seventeen, the day after I graduated from high school, I fled the home of my unhappy youth, moving into an apartment near the campus where I’d be starting college in the fall.
I’ve spent decades attempting to heal myself, to make myself emotionally stable, to stave off anxiety and panic attacks, to forgive my family and myself, to learn to trust myself and others. I’m making progress, but it’s not easy and I certainly have setbacks. I’ve come far enough along to step outside of the “poor me” perspective at times. I’ve come to terms with much of the trauma I’ve experienced, but discussion of these things with my family has been very limited. I don’t think I’ve ever told my brothers that I forgive them, but I do. They were just children too, raised in a chaotic and unhealthy family that set them up for failure in their interpersonal relations and their understanding of appropriate behavior. In traumatizing me, they were also traumatizing themselves. I have forgiven them, but unless they’ve done a better job than me at blocking out the past, they still have those memories—have they forgiven themselves?
Back then, I was angry too at my sister. She had told our school guidance counselor about what had happened to me, and the counselor took me off guard when she asked me about it—I felt that it was my experience to choose to share, not my sister’s. I felt exposed and once again out of control of my life. It all seemed so unfair because it wasn’t her that this happened to. Now, I realize that she too needed to talk about our home life to heal. It actually wasn’t just me suffering from what was happening to me, and it wasn’t just my story; it was all of us, every single one of us was sinking on that cursed ship.
It’s like we were all tossed into a moving blender, pushing off against each other in an effort to avoid the blades, but no one could escape unscathed—a pulverized family. Whether you landed directly on the blade or not, you were still going to subsist in terror, viewing and feeling splatters of the carnage. We didn’t all make it out alive. My older brother, the most severe of my tormentors and the one I’d wished was dead, passed away while I was in college. I never told him that I’d forgiven him or that I loved him—talking about such things was impossible. It’s painful for me to think on what his life experiences were, how much he craved love and approval, how much difficulty he had in forging intimate relationships. Recently, I’ve been able to talk to my sister a little about my experiences and how they made me feel, something we’d scrupulously avoided in the past. It was good for us both to connect, to tell each other how much we love each other. I hope one day soon to have the courage to broach the past with my living brothers as well.
First article for Secular Woman's Sexual Assault Awareness Month series
by Shanna Wells
“Hey baby, shake that thing.” “Mmmm, I like ‘em that size.” “Ugh, you’re a dog!” “Nice ass!”
For women, the simple act of walking down the street can become an exercise in navigating a minefield of unwanted comments. According to Author Deborah Tuerkheimer, “street harassment occurs when a woman in a public place is intruded on by a man's words, noises, or gestures. In so doing, he asserts his right to comment on her body or other feature of her person, defining her as object and himself as subject with power over her” (1).
According to one study, 87 percent of American women between the ages of 18-64 had been harassed by a male stranger, and over one half of them experienced “extreme” harassment, including being touched, grabbed, rubbed, brushed or followed by a strange man on the street or other public place (2).
The right of men to control the female body is a cornerstone of patriarchy. Street harassment “frightens women and reinforces fears of rape and other acts of sexual terrorism” (3). It is a human rights violation in that it restricts the free movement of women in public spaces.
For years, women have tolerated street harassment as a fact of life. But recently, a number of organizations have developed to address the issue. www.stopstreetharassment.org is a nonprofit organization dedicated to ending gender-based street harassment worldwide. The website provides strategies for women to address street harassment directly and to train bystanders, men, and boys as advocates against this form of sexual terrorism.
According to ihollaback.org, Street harassment is one of the most pervasive forms of gender-based violence and one of the least legislated against. It is rarely reported, and it’s culturally accepted as “the price you pay” for being a woman or for being gay or gender non-conforming. With the now common prevalence of cell phones, Hollaback encourages women to use the cameras on their phones to document cases of street harassment and share their stories on the Hollaback website. According to a study Hollaback completed in conjunction with the Workers Institute at Cornell, “Taking action generally has a positive influence on a target’s emotional response to the experience of street harassment. Targets who chose to take action, whether while experiencing street harassment or afterwards (e.g., taking a photo of the harasser, reporting harassment to officials), appeared to experience less negative emotional impact than those who did not” (4). Of course, the decision to take action against street harassment must be left to each individual woman, as safety should be her first priority.
Street harassment is a clear a violation of women’s human rights. Fortunately, there are now organizations working toward its eradication. To see what you can do to help wipe out street harassment, visit www.stopstreetharassment.org or www.ihollaback.org.
1. Street Harassment as Sexual Subordination: The Phenomenology of Gender-Specific Harm, Fall, 1997, 12 Wisconsin Women's Law .Journal 167.