August, 2010

Mad Men and Rape

Photo via AMC TV.

Confession: I have hopped aboard the A-line skirt and Gimlet bandwagon and am completely addicted to Mad Men. More specifically, though, Christina Hendricks, who plays fiery secretary Joan Holloway, is a solid source of intrigue. The curves! The sass! I find the way that character carries herself and flaunts her confidence sexy and enviable, and Hendricks is also the focus of one of the most resonating and powerful scenes in the show: the episode where Joan is raped.

In this episode, Joan’s fiance drops by the office after hours to visit her. Upon his suggestion, she reluctantly takes him on a tour of her boss’s office, where he begins to kiss her. Joan hesitates, playfully pushing him away, telling him that she doesn’t want to have sex. His advances become stronger (as does her resistance)- until he finally pushes her on the ground, violently hikes up her skirt, and renders Joan’s attempts to stop him into resigned passivity. She lies on her back, emptily staring into the middle distance.

At first I was upset, shocked, and frustrated that the writers completely dropped the rape subplot. But Joan’s silence, and her unwillingness to fault her fiance for his actions (they eventually wed), reflect the stories of thousands of survivors and tell a larger story about women and sexuality.

Christina Hendricks, in an interview for British GQ, described her favorite scene from Mad Men. She mentioned the scene in which Joan, while conducting a focus group for lipsticks, uses a two-way mirror to reveal just as much of her body to the onlooking men on the other side as she chooses. “She’s controlling the women – she has more knowledge than them – and she’s also manipulating the men at the same time,” Hendricks said. While Joan is hardly a feminist, she has a deliberateness to her sexuality. Though she is working within the misogynistic confines of the office, she still finds a way to be treated with respect by the men inside of it, conveying an unstoppable strength as she struts from desk to desk. She is also a proudly sexual being, comfortable with her body and okay with having flings with coworkers because she wants to. But when she doesn’t want to, as we see in the scene with her fiance, that power that she holds becomes her downfall. The look in her eyes as she is pinned to the office floor perfectly conveys that sense of betrayal.

Women today are still in Joan’s office. We are often told that our worth stems only from our bodies, our beauty,  and our willingness to be sexual objects. We often try to reach, against our better judgement, the ideals of our society- and they are thrown back in our faces when we are raped or sexually assaulted. Our outfits, demeanor, and looks are often used to justify our worst experiences.

Joan’s rape, and the context surrounding it, is no different from what we experience, and must fight against, today.

Attraction. Intimacy. Respect.


Author’s Note: I held a mini film screening of THE LINE recently at a friend’s house. I chose people who were from different groups in high school and attend different colleges; the group ranged in age from 18 to 20. This sticker stood out to me that night. I asked the author to write about it. She wanted to remain anonymous.This is what she wrote.

I wanted a one-night stand. I wanted the one-time experience of meeting a cute guy, going home with him, and never seeing him again. He would just be a memory, an image of pure pleasure. There would be no interrupting images of our get-to-know-you dates or the fights we had when I revisited that night in my mind. It would just be his face and bliss.

But of course, things never seem to go as planned. It started off at a party on my college campus, a very small liberal arts college in California where six degrees of separation is an understatement. I saw him from across the room talking to a friend of mine. I had never seen him before, so I assumed he was just visiting. In my inebriated state, it only took a second to work up the courage to walk up and introduce myself. We danced and seemed to make a connection, and it was not long before we were in another room together. Once there, however, I no longer felt like going through with it. It didn’t feel right. I didn’t know him. He didn’t know me. I could care less about him so I was sure I was nothing more than an easy lay for him. I said no a few times, but he kept insisting and after a while, I got tired of resisting and just gave in. I figured it could be fun and maybe he would be good and actually worth remembering.

He wasn’t. It was the most awkward experience I have had, one that would not be easily forgotten since he did indeed attend my school. I had just never noticed him before, and it seemed as though I saw him everywhere after, serving as a constant reminder of that passionless night.

Attraction was all I was looking for; I thought it was all I needed. But even that can be confused in a drunken state. I need that physical spark that can be recognized when we are both sober, not the one that is conjured up by alcohol. But beyond that, I realized I also need intimacy and respect in order to find that passion I yearn for. I want to know the guy, know about him, what he likes and how he likes it and I want him to know me and care about me as well. Only then can we be truly intimate. And of course, I want his respect. When I say no and don’t feel right about something, he should not insist. I should not have to repeatedly refuse.

Abstinence, Coming to a Store Near You

One of the most consistent problems with technology is how we use it. Culturally, we’ve been known to abuse virtual and digital technology for social purpose – we are, after all, the Americans that played “The Sims” without batting an eyelash at the absence of homosexuality, and the Americans that released, re-released,  and updated “Grand Theft Auto” without removing the violence against women. And now, we are going to use new, modern video game technology to scare women out of their sexuality – and reinforce that unwanted sex is their fault.

According to Gizmodo:

The University of Central Florida has developed a full-body motion-control video game that promotes abstinence. It lets tween girls control avatars that are placed in social situations that may lead to making out and, gasp, sex.

HOLD ON A MINUTE. So a new video game that depicts women in sexual situations – well, that isn’t exactly new. But this is certainly a spin on the situation: players, female players of course, are outfitted in motion-tracking bodysuits (think those fancy green-screen suits they use now to make accurate animated character movements) and placed into situations where “sleazy guys and sparkly vampires approach them to make out and pressure them to have sex.”

And, you guessed it- girls get points for saying no.

The premise of the game is to put presumably younger women into sexual situations that are scary and intimidating, and encourage abstinence based on an actual fear of sex. (I’m pretty sure a better game would have sleazeballs wearing suits and not harassing, assaulting, and coercing the women in their lives.) The main messages include: Sleazy men exist and will harass you, and that is okay. Sleazy men exist, and that is okay. Sex is not okay.

Casey Chan ends her Gizmodo piece with the remark, “I’m not saying it’s not going to work, but…it’s probably not going to work.”

Here’s to hoping she’s right.

Hotdogs for Breakfast

Last week, my partner and I had our first session of volunteer training for our local rape crisis hotline. It’s a pretty intense 40 hour training program for volunteers: there was even an application and interview process in which they called three references and ran a background check.  (I suppose there’s good reason to make sure the volunteer on the other end of the hotline is sensitive, stable, and well-informed.)

There are eight of us in the training, including my partner and me.  Two of us self-identify as survivors and one as a secondary survivor. We are all women, and the hotline coordinator expressed genuine sorrow that they only have a single male volunteer.  I couldn’t help but feel a little glad, though, that the room was exclusively female- it isn’t to say that men can’t comprehend the emotions of a rape survivor (or, for that matter BE a rape survivor), but, in my experience, men tend to get a little defensive when generalizations are made about the behavior of men in reference to sexual harassment and sexual assault.

Our training facilitator, LJ, is a wonderful, bubbly, friendly woman — the kind of woman you’d expect see working in early childhood education rather than sexual assault prevention and counseling.  She doesn’t have the aura of someone who’s seen the things I know she has.  Part of me is angry that she can smile and make jokes while she knows the binder in front of her is full of horrors and violence, but most of me is glad that she can fight the good fight every day and not let it break her.  After every section, she would apologize to us for being depressing, laugh a little, and try to brighten the mood.  The effort was admirable, but we signed up to be sexual assault advocates — we knew this wasn’t going to be comedy hour.

Toward the end of the evening, LJ got up and wrote on the white board “hot dogs for breakfast.”  She asked us, without explanation, “would you eat hot dogs for breakfast? Why not?”  Ultimately, we decided that, within our culture, we’ve been ingrained with a certain ideas of what is and is not appropriate breakfast food.  If you invited friends over for breakfast and offered them a plate of hot dogs, they wouldn’t hesitate to ask you what in the hell was wrong with you.  The immediate, almost instinctive, reaction of disgust and confusion should be the way we react to sexual harassment and rape culture.  But it isn’t.

LJ also shared with us a short parable meant to differentiate between prevention and crisis intervention work:  Imagine you are walking and you come across a river.  The river is full of injured people floating downstream.  You begin pulling as many people as you can from the river, but it seems futile — they just keep coming.  Upstream, you can see that the bridge is out and an endless number of people are falling into the water.  We as hotline volunteers have tasked ourselves with the impossible task of trying to pull the injured from the river.

I hope there’s someone upstream working on that bridge.

Testing Rape Kits: An Uphill Battle

About 80% of rape kits are never tested in Illinois.

Earlier this month, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn signed the nation’s first law requiring law enforcement officials to send rape kits to crime labs for DNA testing within 10 days of collection.  The physical evidence collected in a rape kit will often make or break a case, and once the evidence is collected in the emergency room following an attack, the investigation process is out of the victim’s hands.  In Illinois and other states around the country, advocates have been struggling to underscore and reform nonresponsive police attitudes toward rape investigations for years.  The Sexual Assault Evidence Submission Act, initiated by Attorney General Lisa Madigan, is a triumph and a beacon for survivors and advocates across the U.S.

But this small victory came just days before the Human Rights Watch (HRW) released the results of an investigation finding that the problem may be much worse than many of us imagined.  According to HRW, out of 16,738 reported rapes since 1995, only 31% resulted in evidence collection in the form of a rape kit.  Out of the rape kits collected, about 80% were never testedEighty percent.  Almost 25% of all rape kits in Illinois were destroyed without being tested.  All of this adds up to 11 percent, which is the proportion of reported rapes that result in arrest in Illinois – that’s half the national average.

So what’s behind all this?  HRW reported testimony showing that police don’t bother to process rape kits because, well, they just don’t think it’s that important.

Sarah Tofte, the HRW researcher responsible for the report, writes that the most common reason law enforcement agencies gave for failing to submit a rape kit for lab testing was “the belief that testing was not necessary in an ‘acquaintance rape.’”  So most rapes – actually, at least 70% according to RAINN.  Tofte adds, “Law enforcement held this view despite the possibility that the collected evidence could connect a suspect to multiple rape kits and establish a serial rapist, discredit the suspect’s version of events and affirm the victim’s version of events, or exonerate innocent suspects. As one police official told Human Rights Watch, ‘We don’t need the DNA test when we know who the suspect is already without it. It would be a waste of everyone’s time and money.’”

Um.  Except when the suspect doesn’t really feel like being charged with rape today.  Or in cases where it’s her word against his.  The first time I read that quote, I just about lost my mind.  Police don’t make exceptions like that for any other federal crime, but somehow a rape investigation gets the honor of being “a waste of everyone’s time and money.”  Seriously, guys, I pay taxes for this nonsense.

For better or worse, police get to decide whether a crime has actually been committed at the time it’s reported.  Police discretion becomes a problem, however, when it conflates with personal bias regarding rape victims and ultimately interferes with a cop’s ability to perform a full and appropriate investigation.  A victim’s basic right to collect and test evidence in the interest of pressing charges against her or his attacker should never begin or end with police discretion.  It’s called due diligence: if the police collect evidence related to a crime, they have to submit it for testing whether they feel like it or not.  Our society has roles for a reason, and a cop is neither a judge nor a jury.

Don’t get me wrong, I work with cops as an advocate, I know cops and, on a personal level, I even sort of like cops.  The real issue behind rape kit backlogging is the widespread and enduring belief that rape is not a crime worthy of adequate attention by law enforcement.  Too many people believe that rape is not a crime.  That is the central problem with the criminal “justice” system’s response to sexual assault.  That’s why we have a shortage of trained nurses performing rape kits correctly, an abundance of ignorant doctors actively discouraging traumatized patients from pursuing criminal charges, police departments that literally leave rape kits behind to rot, and lower conviction rates for rape than any other felony across all 50 states.  And that is why survivors often call the criminal “justice” process one of revictimization.

Tofte concludes that “the value a state places on its rape kits is one measure of how seriously it takes the crime of rape and the victims who report sexual violence.”  The new Illinois law is a small victory in an uphill battle, but our society has a long way to go in demonstrating to victims that their experiences matter and showing criminals that rape will never be tolerated.

The HRW report, “’I Used to Think the Law Would Protect Me’: Illinois’s Failure to Test Rape Kits,” is free and available online.  If you’d like to learn more about different rape laws across the world, check out this segment by Worldview, Chicago Public Radio’s global affairs program.

All Posts from August, 2010