Rape Culture, Sexual Assault, and Domestic Violence

EJ Graff has been on FIRE at the American Prospect with a series of posts about the rape culture, sexual assault, domestic violence and ways to confront and change the world.

I don’t think it’s stretching things to say that sexual assault and domestic violence are linked.  Before I go to far, I want to point out that women can be perpetrators of both sexual assault and domestic violence.  And, importantly, men who commit both sexual violence and domestic violence are the minority.  The goal eliminating sexual assault and domestic violence no matter the gender of the victim.  Women are far more likely to be victims of both than are men.  In a recent post, Graff addressed the Steubenville case and called for a move from rape culture to respect culture.

Some background is necessary on Steubenville.  The basic outline feels all too familiar.  A group of local school athletes have been accused of raping a 16 year old.  The case went viral when a video surfaced:

Goddard originally posted a YouTube video of former Steubenville student Michael Nodianos cracking joke after joke about how “dead” (read: unconscious) the rape survivor was the night she was assaulted by Mays and Richmond, but most people didn’t watch it until Anonymous re-released it last week. Nodianos’s smug giggles and nausea-inducing commentary (“She is so raped,” he says. “Her puss is about as dry as the sun right now”) really struck a chord throughout the country — the incident was reminiscent of the Todd Akin “legitimate rape” debacle.

Steubenville, coming after an election year in which more than one Republican made a giant public jackass of himself talking about rape in stunningly tone deaf and ignorant ways, has captured people’s attention.  Back to EJ Graff:

Here’s one: the guy saying “that’s not cool.” Oh, I’m glad he’s saying that rape, and joking about rape, aren’t funny. But “that’s not cool” isn’t enough. If two football players took the body of a drunk and unconscious young woman and used it as a plaything all night, why didn’t someone intervene? For god’s sake, even if it was too hard to take her body away from them, why did no one call the police?

Democracy Now reported on the case, a typically interesting and thorough report that’s worth watching all the way through.  One of the guests makes the point that in small, football crazy towns, its best to have someone from outside involved in the case.  The Steubenville case is getting attention because it involves football and small towns, both of which are oddly sacrosanct in American culture.  That the alleged criminals are 16 years old, as is the victim, is part of attraction.  It’s cheap and easy to pretend that we’re shocked, shocked I tell you!, at the things these young people are doing.  In too many places, football player are valorized, treated as heroes.  Joe Paterno’s legacy was tarnished because Penn State prioritized football over . . . well everything else.  Penn State is the university where kids got raped and officialdom turned a blind eye to it.  In lots of places, especially high schools, football has a strangely narcotic effect.  It gets people excited they give money and show loyalty and it feeds a sense of greatness.  Successful football teams bring the school and the community glory.  And football players are often given a pass on small indiscretions and before you know it, big ones.  Throw in some booze and you’ve got a recipe for disaster.  Which pretty much describes what happened in Steubenville.

In an earlier piece at the Prospect, when Graff mentioned football almost as an aside, it set off a long discussion with lots of folks defending football – in essence, “Oh you can’t paint all football players with such a broad brush because of a few bad apples and football isn’t the problem any way!  Everyone loves football!”  Her piece about respect culture is an obvious response.  We’re talking about a broader culture behaviors and values which far too often involves sports players, sex, alcohol and a tendency to blame those darn slutty women who are so provocative the poor football players can’t help themselves.

We need to engage one another in creating a respect culture.  The first step is developing our own awareness about situations in which date rape are likely to occur and intervening.  Graff links to two videos designed to show ways to do exactly that (here and here).  The first is about a minute long, the second eight minutes long and both show strategies for bystander intervention.  These strategies aren’t foolproof (nothing is) but they don’t require conflict.  In the second video, from New Zealand, my favorite part is the roommate who says something like, “Your date brought you home?  Where are you sleeping mate?” He replied, “I thought I’d sleep here,” and she says, “I’ll get you a blanket for the couch.”  The first video was designed for a college setting and shows a group of students distracting the male while getting the female out of the situation.  With drunk people such tactics can work pretty effectively and alcohol is a huge factor in acquaintance rape.  Bystander intervention is built on the concept that we’re mutually responsible for one another – call it a declaration of interdependence.

In Our Whole Lives high school curriculum there’s a workshop on date rape.  It walks through a scenario that ends with date rape and asks participants “How could this outcome have been avoided?”  I’ve never been a part of this workshop that females aren’t more critical of the girl in the scenario than the males.  They’re frustrated at the girl’s lack of common sense, at her indecisiveness and her generally passive behavior.  At the same time, the scenario offers a host of points during which bystander intervention could have made a difference – at the restaurant, the college dorm and so on.  At the same time, the scenario plays out like a very normal date and the circumstances get out of control step at a time not suddenly and violently.  When, as always happens, I’m asked what I would do, I say the same thing – “I’d rather say over dinner ‘I’m not sure I’m ready to have sex with you so let’s not do it’ and break the romantic mood than be involved in any kind of date rape.”

The date rape workshop is part of a series of workshops on dating and relationship violence and abuse.  In India, there’s a campaign call Bell Bajao which in Hindi means Ring the Bell. The idea is simply that if you overhear an incident of domestic violence, ring the door bell make an anodyne request – disrupt the act of violence.  Their site has some videos showing how anyone can “ring the bell” and disrupt domestic violence without putting themselves at risk and send the message the violence isn’t okay.

Going back to the Steubenville case, how many points during the evening did bystanders have opportunities to prevent what happened?  And how many times did they let them slip by?  How many times did the alleged perpetrators hear messages that told them they could get away with doing what they were doing?  How much of what happened in Steubenville is connected to a culture of hazing and initiation and hero worship of school athletes and athletics?  How often do you young athletes imbibe a strong sense of entitlement because the community around them tells them they’re special and wonderful and cheers for them?

When public officials outrageously and completely untruthfully, turn one woman’s public testimony about the need for contraception into a public spectacle of slutshaming and name calling, they’re reinforcing the rape culture.  When elected officials try to convince us that some rapes are legitimate and others aren’t, they’re reinforcing the rape culture.  When legislators were trying to regulate women’s rights and a woman used the word vagina in public and it caused an uproar among conservatives, it was all about regulating and controlling women.  And the rape culture is a way of keeping women in line – and then blaming women when something bad happens as a way of reinforcing the control.  When someone says, “She was asking for it,” they’re blaming the victim.  They’re trying to shift the conversation away from the real problem – sexual assault.  I saw a sign from a protest; the headline read “Rape is caused by . . .?”  And below, the woman carrying it had six boxes with things like “Short dresses” “High heels” and one, she’d colored in, that read “Rapists.”  High heels, sexy clothing, makeup, drinking alcohol, don’t cause rape.  Rapists cause rape.

It’s time to remake our culture into one that’s safe for everyone.

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