Sexual Violence, the Patriarchy, and the Government Shutdown

Sometimes current events that don’t seem related begin to overlap and parallel in weird and uncomfortable ways. Earlier this year I wrote about a string of oddly connected stories in Connecting the dots: Nice Guys™, MRAs, mass shooters, and aggrieved entitlement. I discussed how the thread of aggrieved entitlement (an unfortunate product of a deeply patriarchal culture) underlies the Nice Guy™, MRA, and mass shooter phenomena. This time, the release of a groundbreaking new study on young people and sexual assault, Chris Brown’s childhood rape, and the government shutdown feel eerily connected.

This week, a groundbreaking study on sexual assault among young people was published in JAMA Pediatrics.  The study found that 9% of young people have committed sexual violence: 8% reported that they kissed, touched, or “made someone else do something sexual” when they “knew the person didn’t want to”; 3% verbally coerced a victim into sex; 3% attempted to physically force sex; 2% perpetrated a completed rape. (The numbers don’t add up because some perpetrators admitted to more than one behavior.)

Perpetrators reported having higher exposure to violence pornography (non-violent porn had no correlation to sexual violence). They also found that 98% of perpetrators who committed their first perpetration at 15-years-old or younger were male, whereas by the time they reached 18- or 19-years-old, perpetrators were more evenly split between men (52%) and women (48%). Perpetrators who began perpetrating later in life were also less likely to get caught. To top it all off, 50% of all perpetrators said that their victim was responsible for the sexual violence committed against them.

On October 4, Chris Brown (notorious for his violent assault against his girlfriend Rihanna) told the Guardian about “losing his virginity” at age 8 to a teenage girl. Many outlets have appropriately acknowledged that this is rape. Olivia A. Cole deftly explained why Brown’s framing of the event is problematic: “Chris Brown was raped, but to hear him tell it, that experience was positive, healthy. Something to brag about. “At eight, being able to do it, it kind of preps you for the long run, so you can be a beast at it.” Cole writes:

Can you imagine being sexually abused and then growing up being told that this is a good thing? That your sexual potency has been enhanced? That rape was a “head-start” into the wonderful world of sex? The damaging system that tells girls they are worthless after rape has a disgusting flip side for boys: you have worth now. This violence has made you a god.

Then we have the government shutdown. The Tea Party and their conservative Republican friends are being the worst kind of sore losers — the kind that decide to flip the table over rather than play the hand they were dealt. The Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) is law, and shutting down the government is not a rational, reasonable, or in my opinion, legal way of trying to “undo” a law whose constitutionality was upheld by the Supreme Court.

Robert Parry suggests that this is about more than Obamacare. He places the debate over Obamacare within the historical narrative of federalism vs. state’s rights, which was, notably, a big deal when the country was divided over the constitutionality of slavery. He writes:

The relevance of this history to the present is not only that the ideological descendants of the Confederacy are now up in arms over the election and reelection of the first African-American president but that they are insisting on the slaveholders’ distortion of the Constitution, over its truly “originalist” interpretation and the plain reading of its words.

The overwhelmingly white Tea Party, with its foothold in the overwhelmingly white Republican Party, has now developed a new variation on the theory of “nullification,” asserting that the Tea Party’s Confederate-style interpretation of the Constitution must be accepted by the rest of the nation or the country will face endless political extortion.

Through this lens, the Tea Party’s hostage-taking stance is, in effect, a tantrum over the looming loss of privilege and power for white men.

So where is the connection?

A small but significant percentage of America’s young people are perpetrating sexual assault at alarming rates. They are most commonly using verbal coercion (including threats) and manipulation to do so, all the while while believing their victims were responsible for their assaults. A small but significant percentage of America’s adult leaders are using coercion, including threats, to shut down our government – an action resulting in harm to our nation’s most vulnerable populations. Populations that these same adult leaders believe to be responsible for their own poverty or vulnerability.

Chris Brown’s story reminds us of the role that aggrieved entitlement has to play here.

Aggrieved entitlement inspires revenge against those who have wronged you; it is the compensation for humiliation. Humiliation is emasculation: humiliate someone and you take away his manhood. For many men, humiliation must be avenged, or you cease to be a man. Aggrieved entitlement is a gendered emotion, a fusion of that humiliating loss of manhood and the moral obligation and entitlement to get it back. And its gender is masculine.

Patriarchy hurts men as much as it hurts women by eliminating any space for men’s victimization. It does not allow male victims to let themselves feel victimized, or allow the rest of us to take men’s victimization seriously. Instead, it teaches men to get revenge by victimizing others.

Unfortunately, sexual coercion has become a “normal” part of teenage sexuality. Aggrieved entitlement flourishes in a culture that treats sex like a commodity: we teach men to measure their worth by how much sex they “get” from women, while conversely we teach women that their worth is determined by what they “give away.”

Likewise, the patriarchy teaches men that their worth is derived from power. It does not teach young men how to share power, or how to put the needs of others before their own. It teaches men to lash out in revenge when they lose power. Today it seems our Tea Party politicians are fighting — the way they learned in the backseats and bedrooms of their adolescence — to regain their power through coercion, threats, and ultimately, the victimization of others.

It’s generally not a good idea to use “rape” as a metaphor, but in this case, the comparison is disturbingly apt.

What Ron Paul meant when he said “honest rape”

CNN’s Piers Morgan challenged Ron Paul about his position on abortion in the case of rape, asking “You have two daughters. You have many granddaughters. If one of them was raped — and I accept it’s a very unlikely thing to happen — but if they were, would you honestly look at them in the eye and say they had to have that child if they were impregnated?” In his wavering response, Ron Paul used the phrase “honest rape,” implying that only some rapes are valid — or as Whoopi Goldberg would say, “rape rape.”

Ron Paul used “honest rape” as code for rapes that fit the prescribed, social narrative of rape: When an innocent, attractive, young woman is attacked by a criminal stranger in a dark alley. Of all the rape narratives that actually exist (incest, partner violence, date rape, acquaintance rape, etc.), this is the only one in which predators “look like” predators and victims “look like” victims. When our predators look like choir boys or world leaders or women, the Ron Pauls of the world are less likely to believe the rape was “honest.” When our victims are not pure and chaste, or young and beautiful, or women, they are less likely to believe the rape was “honest.”

Of course, this is bullshit.

All rape is “honest rape,” no matter who perpetrated it, no matter the victim is (or what she was wearing or drinking), no matter where or how it occurred. The idea that some rape is more valid than other rape is a device used to preserve the false notion that some victims are “asking for it.”

Ron Paul seems to believe that “honest rapes” are rapes that are reported right away. But anyone who knows anything about the reality of rape and sexual assault knows that the majority of rapes go unreported. Why? Because the very idea of “honest rape,” the very same that Ron Paul is propagating, deters victims from coming forward.

Victims worry that their rape might not be taken seriously because they knew their attacker or because they don’t have physical injuries. Sixteen percent of victims say that they fear reprisal, while about six percent don’t report because they believe that the police are “biased.” Biased by what?  The idea that only some rapes are “honest,” and therefore only some victims are credible.

One more thing.

Just as there is no such thing as an “honest rape,” there is no such thing as an “honest abortion.”  You don’t need to be raped–“honestly” or otherwise–in order to deserve the right to terminate a pregnancy. (#justsayin’)

Why we need more earnest letters to men, and women, about the problem with rape jokes

Let me start by saying that I am tickled by how many people have shared and commented on my letter to guys about the problem with rape jokes. I am humbly grateful for all of the feedback and I wanted to address a major criticism about why my letter was directed to guys, even though women also tell rape jokes, and even though men can also be victims of rape.

James Landrith, like many others, called out my letter and the original Organon letter as sexist because of the choice to focus on men who tell rape jokes. Landrith argued that the letters were based on the assumption that only men promote rape jokes. He also argued that the letters minimized the importance of male survivors compared to female survivors. It’s tough to read that because I consider myself a fighter-of-sexism and I actually do agree with Landrith and support everything he is saying.

It IS important to recognize that women also tell rape jokes. It IS important to recognize that men can be victims of rape, and not just prison rape. It IS important to call out woman-on-man rape jokes, like in the movie Horrible Bosses, as despicable. It is so important because so few people recognize it as a serious issue and because we, as a society, have way too many fucked up ideas and misconceptions about masculinity and male sexuality. I hear that and I’m with you. But I still chose to write my letter to guys who don’t see the problem with rape jokes.

The goal of the letter was to reach a particular audience. It wasn’t written for every male-identified person in the world. It was written for a certain type of guy: the kind of guy who doesn’t get why rape jokes are a big deal — the guy who thinks that the only reason people don’t want him to tell rape jokes is because they don’t have a sense of humor or because they’re just prudes who are trying to make everybody “PC.” These are guys who actually might want to fight rape (or who are probably against rape, at least) but don’t yet recognize or understand the connection between rape and rape culture.

The letter wasn’t intended to be a manifesto on rape or a report on rape statistics. It wasn’t meant to cover all bases or speak to all the issues or players involved in the perpetration of rape culture. It was a letter, to a certain type of guy. It was designed to try to open his mind by presenting an argument that has nothing to do with political correctness, which he would most likely dismiss as over-sensitivity. I think what’s so powerful about the letter is that it reframes the issue by saying it’s not about “offending people,” it’s about unintentionally validating and normalizing the actions of rapists.

It was also written to address a certain aspect of guy culture — the kind of “bro on bro” socialization that’s all about demonstrating your masculinity, virility, whatever. It was directed towards men inhabiting the kind of all-male cultural spaces identified by Jessica Bennett and Jacob Bernstein in the Daily Beast that, like the Catholic Church and Penn State football, seem to promote or at least tolerate abuse. It was meant to appeal to the side of masculinity that’s protective and heroic, to say: “You guys have the power to shut down rapists, kick them out of your circles and protect the people around you who may be more vulnerable.”

That was what my letter was about. But we need more letters.

We need letters to all the different kinds of women who make rape jokes, as well as letters to all of the other kinds of men who make rape jokes. We should ALL be writing letters — personalized letters to our individual friends, brothers, sisters, parents, cousins, teachers, coworkers, classmates, local representatives, and anyone else who doesn’t get why rape jokes are a problem.

I just wrote one letter.

To whom will you write yours?

An earnest letter to guys about the problem with rape jokes; It’s not about being PC

A letter to “all those men who don’t think rape jokes are a problem” has been circulating on Tumblr. I think the point it makes is brilliant and critically important, but it’s not really written for the men it needs to reach. It’s written using the classic style of self-affirming snark commonly found on feminist blogs. Don’t get me wrong. I love the snark. But it’s not the most effective way to talk to people who don’t already agree with you. So here’s an earnest letter to men who don’t get why rape jokes are a problem, snark-free.

Dear guys,

I’m writing to tell you why joking about rape is a bad idea, and it has nothing to do with being PC or offending anybody.

I know a lot of guys feel like feminists are hyper-sensitive or quick to take offense, especially when it comes to off-color or edgy jokes. I don’t entirely blame them for feeling this way. The reality is that people embrace feminism in their own way and some are more likely to be offended than others. Unfortunately, much of the “work” of feminism is done within the context of offense, written in the language of outrage and accusation. While I don’t begrudge anyone the right to be angry or express their rage (I do it myself) I don’t think it’s always the most productive way to create change. Especially when we’re asking you guys to join us and become our allies in preventing rape.

The reason rape jokes are a bad idea has nothing to do with offending feminists or rape victims (although purposefully offending a rape victim is a pretty shitty thing to do). It’s not about how women react to the joke; it’s about how other men react.

The sad truth is that some men really are rapists. And they aren’t just the crazy serial-rapist-killers you see on Law and Order SVU or Dexter; they’re just guys. According to Robin Warshaw’s I Never Called It Rape8% of men admit committing acts that meet the legal definition of rape or attempted rape, but they don’t usually think of themselves as rapists. Other studies report this number is as high as 15%. This shit is happening, and the guys doing it aren’t freaks or psychos. They’re your classmates, they’re on the football team, they’re in your WoW guild, they were at your last party.

The problem with rape jokes is that these guys — these guys who seem normal but are actually rapists — hear the jokes and interpret them as a secret wink and nod that you approve of what they’re doing and that you would, or are, doing it too. Via Organon:

Virtually all rapists genuinely believe that all men rape, and other men just keep it hushed up better. And more, these people who really are rapists are constantly reaffirmed in their belief about the rest of mankind being rapists like them by things like rape jokes, that dismiss and normalize the idea of rape.

That is why you shouldn’t tell rape jokes. That is why you should stand up and call out your friends when they do it. Not because you need to worry about being PC or offending feminists, but because you’re actually helping prevent rape. By changing the “culture of rape” from one where rape is something normal and/or expected to one where rape is treated like the crime it really is, you can make a difference.

And it’s not like I’m asking you to be hyper-sensitive about every single joke. I think there’s a difference between jokes that make fun of rape, or rape victims, and jokes that make fun of rapists. I even made a handy flow-chart to help you figure out which rape jokes are validating rapists and which are shaming rapists. But those jokes that do validate rapists, those are the ones you need to do something about.

I know it’s asking a lot to expect someone to stand up to their friends or strangers. It really is, and it’s usually not fun. But think about it. Do you really want those guys out there — those secret rapists who look just like everybody else — to think you’re on their side? That you support what they’re doing? That you’re doing it too, or would be if you could get away with it?

A lot of guys say they would step in and stop a rape if they saw it happening. Heroic as the idea is, it doesn’t happen very often because rape doesn’t usually happen directly in front of you. But the rape jokes that encourage rapists to think that all guys think rape is funny or okay or not a big deal? Those do happen in front of you. And you can do something about that.

And if you do, it’s not because you’re the “PC police.” It’s not because you don’t have a sense of humor. It’s because you actually care about preventing rape, protecting women, and letting rapists know that you are NOT their comrade, their ally, or their bro.

***Edit 12/2/11: Please check out the follow-up post: Why we need more earnest letters to men, and women, about the problem with rape jokes.

Abortion riders: Just another way to support rape culture

Earlier this month, this happened (from the McPherson Sentinal, Kansas):

And Rep. Barbara Bollier, a Mission Hills Republican who supports abortion rights, questioned whether women would buy abortion-only policies long before they have crisis or unwanted pregnancies or are rape victims.

During the House’s debate, Rep. Pete DeGraaf, a Mulvane Republican who supports the bill, told her: “We do need to plan ahead, don’t we, in life?”

Bollier asked him, “And so women need to plan ahead for issues that they have no control over with a pregnancy?”

DeGraaf drew groans of protest from some House members when he responded, “I have spare tire on my car.”

“I also have life insurance,” he added. “I have a lot of things that I plan ahead for.”

It’s true. Sometimes it’s important to plan for the worst. Flood insurance, life insurance (though it really should be called “death insurance,” don’t you think?), car insurance – these things are important because shit happens. When I say “shit,” I’m referring to freak accidents or forces of nature that cannot be prevented or predicted. Things like getting struck by lightning, a tsunami, a freak accident where something falls out of the sky or runs in front of your car. Yes, these things happen and they aren’t preventable, controllable, or anybody’s fault. It’s important to plan for them because they could happen at any time, and there’s nothing we can really do about it.

But you know what IS preventable, controllable, and definitely somebody’s fault?

Rape.

When we say “shit happens,” we are absolutely, positively, NOT referring to predatory, criminal acts like rape. Rape is NOT something that we must accept as a statistical inevitability, nor is it a freak occurrence. Rape, and abortion coverage in case you become pregnant as a result of rape, is not something you plan ahead for.

Rape is a social illness supported by a culture that sexually objectifies women and children and portrays men as hormonal cavemen. Rape is preventable through cultural awareness, education, legislation, and social change.

An “abortion rider” purchased separately from your health insurance is NOT equivalent to carrying a spare tire or buying life insurance. It’s a much more comparable to buying torture insurance, just in case you end up getting tortured by a fellow human being.

Flat tires happen. Death is inevitable. We can tolerate them as unfortunate realities of life. Crimes against humanity like rape and torture are illegal because we refuse to tolerate them – a moral absolute that is fully contradicted by the idea of an abortion insurance rider.

A Society of Guilty Bystanders

We are familiar with the concept of “innocent bystanders”; these are the people who accidentally get injured in cross-fires or explosions. And we are familiar with those who “stand idly by”; they are the people who turn away and knowingly allow atrocities to happen. It’s considered a tragedy when innocent bystanders get hurt and it is repugnant when bystanders stand idly by. But these days, we have a different breed of bystander: the guilty bystander, the absolute worst of them all.

The guilty bystander is worse than the idle bystander because the guilty bystander does not turn their head and ignore atrocity; the guilty bystander watches it happen, records it on his/her phone, and uploads it to Youtube. For example, take a recent story from Vancouver in which a 16 year-old girl was drugged and gang raped at a rave, while onlookers took photos that they then posted to Facebook.  (Some of them are even refusing to take the photos down, despite threats of being charged with disseminating child pornography from the police.) Last year 15 year-old high school girl was gang-raped in the parking lot of her school during a homecoming dance, while a crowd watched, laughed, and took pictures. I do not know exactly how often this is happening, but it’s at least two times too many.

The idea of the watching, laughing, jeering bystander is nothing new; it’s an unfortunate, cowardly, human response. The 21st century addition to this offense, however – which pushes into a whole new category of evil – is that these guilty bystanders are actively participating by recording the rape, and disseminating it to the internet for others to enjoy. By adding those photos to Facebook, the guilty bystanders invited their friends to view them and add comments, all of which were of the slut-shaming variety (e.g. “Straight up WHORE,” a “complete slut”). Discussing why people would look at a photo of a gang-rape and direct their disgust at the victim is a whole other story. Now these photos have been unleashed into cyberspace and there is no way to destroy or delete them all, meaning that the victim will be forced to relive the event, and the subsequent bullying, over and over again each time a photo resurfaces.

So why the hell are people committing such disgusting acts? Why don’t people interfere and stop the rape? Why has the default response changed from “standing idly by” to recording the event with voyeuristic excitement? I really don’t know, but I do have one idea: reality tv.

We are a nation of voyeurs. We are now accustomed to viewing the misfortune of others as entertainment. We also know the rules of reality tv production – the film crew must not interfere, not even when a child (like we have seen on Jon & Kate Plus Eight or Teen Mom) is about to get injured. It’s supposed to preserve the “reality” of the show, but what this expectation has done, in fact, is create a new “reality” in which one does not interfere, not even when someone is getting hurt.

There is no hard data or scientific evidence that media messages categorically change and/or influence behavior; there’s only common sense. And perhaps it’s only common sense that a generation of young people raised on reality tv have gotten some very backwards messages about what is entertainment and what is reality. No wonder they can’t tell the difference between when you are supposed to watch and when you are supposed to intervene.

There was recently a story about a flight attendent who removed a baby from its parent’s custody on a flight because the parents were slapping it. I think the story confused most of us – we weren’t sure if the flight attendant was supposed to be a hero, or if she overstepped her bounds. We are a society that doesn’t have a clear idea of what is abuse and what isn’t, what is violence and what isn’t. (The infamous “Snookie punch” vs. when Amber hit Gary on Teen Mom?) And reality tv, unfortunately, is a part of that.

Now, I obviously have no data or “proof” that reality tv is the cause of disgusting displays like this. I am not trying to claim that I do, or that the issue is simple enough to be boiled down to just one cause. Still, as I sit here fuming with anger and disgust for my fellow members of the human race, it’s the best explanation I can come up with.

We may never be able to eradicate rape from society or cure the impulse to rape in rapists. But it is not a mental illness that causes bystanders to assume that an obviously intoxicated 15 year-old wants to be raped by multiple people in public; it’s a social illness. We CAN teach people to intervene in situations of public gang-rape or other types of violence and/or abuse. We can, at the very least, teach people to recognize public gang-rape ofor what it isn’t: guilty pleasure entertainment.