Seventh article for Secular Woman’s Sexual Assault Awareness Month Series

By Renée Neary, of NiftyIdeas

‘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.

Adults treat them like heroes, students treat them like rock stars, and amidst classes, club meetings and exams, there exists a gutter economy where women become a form of currency. Dave Zirin, The Verdict: Steubenville Shows the Bond Between Jock Culture and Rape Culture, The Nation, March 18, 2013.

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’?

“No.”

“Then your answer was ‘No’.”

“But she said, ‘Maybe’!”

“But, did she say ‘yes’?”

“No.”

“Then your answer was ‘No’.”

“But she seemed like she was not sure, maybe she wanted to consent!”

“Did she say ‘Yes’?”

“No.”

“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.

Further Reading:

How a victim-blaming system excuses rape, Jen Roesch, socialistworker.org, January 7, 2013.

Acquaintance Rape of College Students, Rana Sampson, USDOJ, COPS Problem-Oriented Guides For Police, no.17.

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