While we’ve come a long way (baby), all it takes are a few offhand remarks about rape to make it clear how far women still have to go. It can seem obvious to us activists that blaming victims for rape is wrong, that it can take many different forms, that a culture that goes easy on perpetrators makes it more likely for rape to take place. But these are foreign ideas for many people, even staunch progressives. Ignorance, indifference and outright malice about sex crimes still pervade our culture.
So when Michael Moore appeared on Keith Olbermann’s show and called the rape charges against Julian Assage “hooey,” women were outraged. This led to a veritable revolution, orchestrated by blogger Sady Doyle. Doyle used Twitter as a weapon in her fight to make these men open their eyes a fraction about rape. It took an enormous toll on her and dedicated activists, but in the end it got results – Olbermann apologized and Moore, in a televised interview by Rachel Maddow, was able to discuss the rape charges with the nuance he should have used in the first place.
Why was this campaign so effective? Millicent of Millicent and Carla Fran looked at the medium used, Twitter, and concluded that it “has a number of features that level a playing field that tends to push women into the outfield.” The advantages: no audio component, so women’s voices are harder to dismiss and men’s carry less assumed authority; an absence of physical visibility that makes it harder for opponents to attack women’s images over their substance; both the trolls and activists are seen side-by-side, exposing trolls’ abuse of specific women as well as the hollowness of their arguments; and a fluidity that lets many people into the conversation (although also means that certain arguments have to be repeated over and over). It’s a medium that amplifies all voices equally, lending itself well to a David vs. Goliath-esque movement.
Beyond the benefits of Twitter itself, there’s another reason that this worked. Rape culture is a huge problem. It’s insidious, it’s complicated, it’s widespread. Some examples are obvious but they’re often subtle. That’s why it’s called “culture.” Doyle saw one particular instance and decided it was time to make an example, to take a stand, to teach people – particularly our allies on the left – about the harm they cause when they don’t put victims first. Instead of getting bogged down in all the ways that sexism and rape apologism manifest, Doyle and her supporters honed in on a high profile case and directed all of their energy toward it. And it worked. Moore’s ideas about rape clearly evolved. I’m sure many more minds were reached. And I’d bet Keith Olbermann (wherever his next gig may be) will now think carefully when discussing these issues.
And this format is easily repeated. Merritt Martin of Hay Ladies decided to use this tactic against a comedian on MTV, Daniel Tosh of Tosh.o. Tosh devoted a whole episode to rape humor in which victims were the brunt of the jokes. According to Martin’s tally, he was able to cram 30 offensive jokes into a half-hour segment. So up started the hashtag #toshpointno and Tweets directed at his account. The message? Joking about victims diminishes their experiences and adds to a culture that doesn’t always treat rape seriously. Tosh’s jokes were “aggressive, unnecessary and belittling humor that essentially robs the victims (in general as well as those specified) of the fact that they. were. victimized,” wrote Martin. And it’s not that there can never be jokes about rape – just watch Wanda Sykes’ bit about detachable pussies. It’s hilarious! But it doesn’t direct humor AT victims.
Doyle also has a new campaign, this time to reach across the aisle and slap some sense into our new Republican Speaker of the House. He just introduced a new bill, HR3, that is not only dangerous in its desire to restrict access to abortion, but goes even further – it redefines rape exceptions to only include instances of “forcible rape.” Not only does this exclude many kinds of rape – “in which the woman was drugged or given excessive amounts of alcohol, rapes of women with limited mental capacity, and many date rapes,” according to a Mother Jones article – but the term “forcible rape” hasn’t even been defined by the federal criminal code. In a word: this bill is dangerous. It threatens to make life even more difficult for rape victims. So Doyle is at it again. As she says, “It’s time to make the Internet a big, scary problem for some sexists, once again.” She created a new hashtag for the movement, #DearJohn, and is directing Tweets to Boehner’s account and all Congressmen who support the bill. “They told us we didn’t count. Imagine their surprise when we all speak up, all at once, to tell them that we do.” Hell yes. The attention on this new definition is already causing some to squirm: the Democrat who co-sponsored HR3 is trying to distance himself from it.
There are plenty of other places we can go. Meredith at The Daily Femme is fed up with prison rape jokes on SVU. Lynn Harris at Salon points out the stigma that still hangs around women with STDs. I’d bet my next five paychecks that this is not the last offensive bill the GOP will dream up. Next time you see something outrageous, consider this: maybe it’s time to wake up some minds. Maybe it’s time to shout down rape apologists. Maybe it deserves its own hashtag.
Not all of these campaigns will necessarily have the same effect as #Mooreandme. We may not be able to get each offender to go on TV and change their story. Daniel Tosh may still choose to make disgusting rape jokes. I doubt a teary-eyed Boehner will apologize for anything. But this is a new model for successful activism against very specific cases of rape apology and rape culture. Instead of a big messy problem that’s hard to wrap our heads around, we can attack something specific and concrete and chip away at the larger problem. We can inform some people and alert others that they’re anti-woman policies are not going unnoticed. We can let them know that this matters. In any way that it manifests.