I’ve lied in the past. I once told my mom I was sleeping at a girl friend’s house, when really I went to a party at a boy’s house. I also threw a party at my parents’ house but told them I didn’t – a pretty bad lie, I’ll admit, since all of their liquor was gone. I even lied about coming home after my curfew had passed. It’s true that I pretty much immediately got caught in all of these lies – I’m an awful liar, to tell you the truth – but I know that doesn’t change the fact that I have not always stuck to the hard facts.
I’ve had dealings with some pretty shady characters. I knew at least one drug dealer in college. I’ve probably hung out with some since I graduated. In high school I spent time with some people who liked to funnel beers, which clearly shows a lack of judgment and character on their part. I’m pretty sure someone on my block smokes marijuana from time to time. I myself have even had dealings with the law! I got two speeding tickets within the space of one month once.
I’ve had sex with multiple men. I know, I should have thought about the potential for this case and held myself back. I’m not terribly religious, either, as I was raised by two hippies. So I make a pretty poor picture of a pious, chaste victim. Sorry about that.
In conclusion, I express my heartfelt apologies for my past wrongdoings and the damage they do to my case.
The New York Times had a recent front-page story on Peace Corps women who are speaking out about sexual assault while in the program. Lara Logan, the 60 Minutes reporter, also recently discussed her sexual assault while covering Egypt’s revolution on air. Some might read these stories and decide that women can’t work in the Peace Corps or cover war zones as journalists because they risk sexual assault. But the real takeaway is that women can hold any of these jobs, as long as they are given proper training beforehand and the right infrastructure is in place to handle the crimes. None of that can happen with our current “code of silence” surrounding sexual assault. It is vital that we encourage women to both report these crimes and to feel comfortable talking about them.
That’s in fact what’s motivating the women speaking out about the Peace Corps. The Times article reports that from 2000 to 2009, more than 1,000 volunteers reported sexual assaults, including 221 rapes or attempted rapes. Those numbers are likely far lower than the actual count, as reported numbers are always low and there is even more incentive to keep quiet in this program. After all, women in the article report that their treatment in the US after reporting their assaults was sometimes worse than the attack itself, as they were blamed for the crimes and given inadequate care. They were also poorly trained for these circumstances beforehand. Many complain that they weren’t advised on how to prosecute their attackers, leading nearly 40% of those raped and 50% of those sexually assaulted in the program to say in a survey that they didn’t report the attacks.
But by coming forward and speaking out, they’re already making progress. One of the women, Casey Frazee, spent the last 18 months tracking down assault survivors and collecting more than two dozen affidavits. Her work was also featured in a segment on ABC’s “20/20.” After these women came forward, the director of the Peace Corps, Aaron S. Williams, has said he is committed to creating a more “victim-centered approach,” including modernizing its procedures with “compassionate care,” hiring a “victim’s advocate,” signing an agreement with a rape crisis group to examine the organization, and removing a training video that emphasized the role of alcohol in assaults. The women are now pushing for Congressional legislation to require that the Peace Corps develop response teams to collect evidence and provide care for victims, among other things. Jess Smochek, another survivor working on this cause, has said her goal is to alert future volunteers and to let those who already experienced crimes know that “they are not alone.”
That’s also what motivated Lara Logan to talk openly about her attack. In her 60 Minutes expose, after going through all the painful details of her assault, she said, “One thing that I am extremely proud of that I didn’t intend is when my female colleagues stood up and said that I’d broken the silence on what all of us have experienced but never talk about.” Women journalists who cover dangerous situations often feel the need to bury their stories of assault for fear of being treated differently than their male colleagues and kept from assignments in these areas. As Logan put it in her interview, “[W]omen never complain about incidents of sexual violence because you don’t want someone to say, ‘Well women shouldn’t be out there.’” In her 2007 piece in the Columbia Journalism Review on this problem, Judith Matloff reports that a meager survey, one of the only ones, of war correspondents by the International News Safety Institute found that of the 29 who took part, more than half reported sexual harassment on the job and two had experienced sexual abuse. “The shame runs so deep–and the fear of being pulled off an assignment, especially in a time of shrinking budgets, is so strong– that no one wants intimate violations to resound in a newsroom,” she says. She even reports that of her own narrow escape from such a crime, “We got away untouched, so why bring up the matter? I didn’t want my boss to think that my gender was a liability.”
What this means is that the issue ends up buried. The Committee to Protect Journalists reports, “We have little on our site [about this issue] because sexual assault is not commonly reported to us–the data, therefore, is not available.” And when the issue is buried, it goes unaddressed and women are left more vulnerable to these attacks. Logan herself reported, “I had no idea how endemic that it is so rife, so widespread, that so many Egyptian men admit to sexual harassing women and think it’s completely acceptable.” As Matloff puts it, “The general reluctance to call attention to the problem creates a vicious cycle, whereby editors, who are still typically men, are unaware of the dangers because women don’t bring them up. Survivors of attacks often suffer in lonely silence, robbed of the usual camaraderie that occurs when people are shot or kidnapped.” And the proper training and infrastructure simply isn’t created to help women prepare for and then deal with these problems. “When one considers the level of detail over protections against other eventualities–get vaccinations; pack dummy wallets, etc.–the oversight is staggering,” Matloff says. “[V]ictims of assault say that some training might have helped them make more informed decisions, or at least live with the outcome more easily.”
Women aren’t the only ones who are attacked in these situations, but the fact that some are is no reason to hold them back from this line of work. They can be unique assets abroad, gaining access to women in countries that divide the genders and the trust of assault victims. But even beyond that, using sexual assault as a reason to keep women from fulfilling important jobs that they are passionate about doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. What is needed is more conversation about the realities they face and what can be done to help them. That starts by encouraging women to come forward about their assaults.
Conservatives and anti-choice activists have been trying — and lately, succeeding — to whittle down abortion rights in this country for some time. But a recent effort is also underway to whittle down our definition of rape so that fewer and fewer victims are included.
The original language in HR3, an anti-choice Republican bill proposed in Congress, redefined rape for the purposes of determining which victims can have an abortion covered by Medicaid. Conservative lawmakers narrowed the standing broad definition to only “forcible rape,” begging the question as to how many bruises you have to incur in order to qualify as a rape victim. It created such an uproar that Republicans promised to get rid of it from the bill. But as Nick Baumann of Mother Jones reports, they’re not done trying.
As HR3 comes up for a vote today, the committee report for the bill says that it will “not allow the Federal Government to subsidize abortions in cases of statutory rape.” Congressional committees write these documents in order to outline their intent for the legislation in case there is ever a court fight. If such a fight comes up around this bill, the effect will be that victims of statutory rape will be denied Medicaid funds for an abortion.
Telling victims of sexual assault that their experiences don’t “count” is the lowest of the low. It also only serves to create an environment of more acceptance around these crimes. A 30 year old coercing a 13 year old into sex? Sorry, federal law doesn’t count that as rape. And if the government doesn’t think it’s rape, why should a perpetrator? Why would a victim realize that she should report a crime that is now not considered a crime? According to these lawmakers, she should be forced to bear any child that results if she can’t afford an abortion with her own money.
The reasons offered for this restriction echo fear of rampant teenage sexuality. Douglas Johnson, legislative director for the National Right to Life Committee, said the original redefinition was in response to a “brazen effort” by abortion rights groups to “federally fund the abortion of tens of thousands of healthy babies of healthy moms, based solely on the age of their mothers.” Richard Doerflinger of the US Council of Catholic Bishops said it was “an effort on the part of the sponsors to prevent the opening of a very broad loophole for federally funded abortions for any teenager.” But teens only account for fewer than two out of 10 of all abortions, and of those most are 18-19; women in their twenties are the largest group, at 58%. There’s a difference between all teenagers and those who are victims of statutory rape. But in the minds of Republicans, no difference exists. All sexually active teenage girls deserve to be punished by bringing to term an unwanted baby, rape or no. The language is an overreaction to the imaginary problem of young girls wantonly sleeping around and then trying to abort their babies under false rape accusations.
Republicans at the same time try to claim they aren’t changing anything. But the bill’s language is absurd, as the Hyde Amendment has stood as law since 1976 and forbids federal funds from paying for abortions — except in the cases of rape and incest. In the words of a Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services spokeswoman, “Hyde does not make a distinction between statutory rape and any other kind of rape and states are not free to make such distinctions.” This is merely an attempt to narrow a law that already shuts too many poor women out of access to abortion care.
Not to mention that a group claiming to be working against the stealth efforts of abortion rights groups is using some pretty stealth efforts of its own. If they’re really not changing anything, why jump through such complicated legislative hoops to pull it off? The answer is in how much they want to control young girls’ sexuality.
Just a week ago I was walking home from a yoga class, sweaty and wearing a sweatshirt over my yoga pants. I thought nothing of the middle-aged man walking toward me until he looked me up and down and simply said “Nice.” I looked around. It was unmistakably directed at me. And I didn’t know what to do or say. As he walked past me I gave him a quizzical and then angry look. But should I yell? Curse him out? And call more attention to myself? As soon as I decided to turn the corner and just walk home, the shame and embarrassment flooded me. Should I be walking around in tight yoga pants? Did I open myself up to that? How can some man on the street feel such ownership over my body as to issue a passing grade on it?
I’ve been working against a culture of harassment against women that blames them for the harassment for years and years. But it was easy to zoom right past all of these things I knew logically and feel that shame blossom deep inside my psyche. The first thought right after “How dare he” was “Maybe I shouldn’t wear these clothes.” And it made me realize that while I may know where my line is when I’m alone with a man, I may not know what it is when I’m walking down the street.
Rape culture doesn’t end when you leave your bedroom and head outside – that’s where it may in fact start. Street harassment is one of those things that women are expected to simply cope with. We all have stories. This was one of my more subtle ones. Worse ones involve the men I caught masturbating while staring at my body on two separate occasions, the man who grabbed my ass hard as he walked behind me in a crowded department store, the litany of comments that followed me as I walked alone to the subway on Friday nights. Over at the ACLU’s blog, Robyn Shepard shares her own story of being smacked on the ass in public – and doing something about it. She writes that she ran after the perpetrator, confronted him, and called the cops on him. They didn’t end up finding him for the arrest, but it’s heartening to hear that law enforcement took her seriously. While we clearly haven’t gotten past blaming rape victims for their assaults, we have barely begun to address the victim blaming in street harassment. To the point that I do it to myself.
In her blog post, Shepard makes a crucial point: “Sexual assault doesn’t always necessarily mean something as horrible as rape.” In fact, it can be the smaller, subtler acts that are the most culturally pernicious. Over at Hollaback, they state: “Street harassment is one of the most pervasive forms of gender-based violence and one of the least legislated against… [I[t is rarely reported, and it’s culturally accepted as ‘the price you pay’ for being a woman or for being gay… Sexual harassment is a gateway crime that creates a cultural environment that makes gender-based violence OK.” And they’re doing something about it. By using crowd-sourced data and creating a space to share stories, they’re working to make this problem visible enough to mobilize against.
One is a stepping-stone to another. When men feel they can yell whatever they want about a woman’s body and get away with it, that they can touch her body in public and get away with it, why wouldn’t they think they can go further? Any form of gender- or sexual orientation-based harassment or assault is unacceptable, be it on the sidewalk or between the sheets.
Good news! Our government was able to get itself together just in time to avoid closing its doors. Literally at the 11th hour, minutes away from the first government shutdown in 15 years, what could have possibly been the sticking point keeping lawmakers from reaching a deal? Was it funding our 2.5 wars? Investments in education or infrastructure? What to do about our unemployment crisis?
Nope. It was whether or not to allow a rider (a.k.a. an attachment to the bill) that got rid of Title X funding for Planned Parenthood. But in a fight over the budget and trying to save the government from spending too much money, getting rid of this funding will do exactly the opposite. Planned Parenthood’s services help prevent unwanted pregnancies that are a cost to taxpayers, not to mention providing preventative care to millions of women and men, helping them root out cancer early and stay healthy. And Planned Parenthood is able to offer these services in a cost effective way; if the government has to provide them on its own, rather than contract with Planned Parenthood, it will simply have to spend more money.
And while the GOP and the media talked about this as a fight over abortion, it wasn’t about that at all. After all, the Hyde Amendment prohibits Planned Parenthood from using any federal money it receives to pay for its abortion services. Not to mention that such services makes up for a mere 3% of what it does. What’s the rest of it, you ask? Four million STD tests, one million pap smears, 830,000 breast exams, and providing 83% of all clients with things that prevent unwanted pregnancy in the first place. The rider also stripped funding from UNFPA, which isn’t allowed to use federal funds for abortion either. Rather, its mission is to avert maternal and infant mortality in developing countries.
So this wasn’t about money and it wasn’t about abortion. Why exactly has the GOP targeted Planned Parenthood so heavily? Author Ellen Chesler points out that part of it is political: get rid of Planned Parenthood and you eliminate an organization that effectively mobilizes women who vote against Republicans. Amanda Marcotte explains that it’s also about Republicans deciding that poor women who have sex don’t deserve government money.
It’s also about controlling women’s sexuality. Any woman can get it on without severe consequences because she’s empowered with contraception and sex education and, good heavens, the choice to terminate and unwanted pregnancy. By denying women the tools to have safe sex when and with whom they choose, the GOP is looking to put up limits. The idea that a woman could have sex for pleasure, do it out of wedlock, and not suffer the wrath of God in the form of an STD or an unwanted pregnancy clearly irks them.
The GOP’s bait and switch on abortion was also evident in HR3, the “No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act,” which was from the start redundant, as the Hyde Amendment already takes care of this. But beyond that, Republicans managed to include a provision that changed the definition of rape to only that which is “forcible.” This has nothing to do with abortion, but everything to do with attacking women and their sexuality. It put the blame on the woman who “asks for it” or is “too drunk” or “too flirtatious” rather than on the rapist where it belongs. It’s one more way of punishing women who don’t wear iron clad chastity belts. They may claim that this is about saving the lives of fetuses, but when it’s clearly not about abortion and rather about sex and rape, it’s hard to take them at their word.
And even though the facts are clear these fights aren’t really about abortion, the GOP drums up the perception that they are. Anti-abortion fever is also about controlling women who have sex. As Ann Pellegrini puts it: “Abortion conjures raced and classed images of an out of control female sexuality. An unwanted or unplanned pregnancy, which can happen for so many reasons—including failed contraception or a failure to educate young people about contraception at all (hello, abstinence-only sex education)—is instead recast as a woman’s failure in self-discipline and sexual morality.”
When girls and women are denied the tools to make healthy choices about sex, no one wins. But the point for Republicans is to attempt to put walls around women and their sexuality, denying them the ability make their own choices and casting them as immoral.
There’s long been a back and forth over whether or not violent video games lead kids to violence. But what else might children be picking up from video games? If they play Duke Nukem, they might internalize the idea that women are objects and can be smacked around if they don’t behave.
It’s been leaked that the upcoming Duke Nukem Forever game (which, admittedly, has been “upcoming” since 1997) has a multiplayer mode, and one of the activities in this mode is a game called “Capture the Babe.” As the name might suggest, it’s capture the flag where the “flag” is a woman. But it’s not enough that women be picked up and thrown around literally like a toy. If she “freaks out” (and what woman wouldn’t when a random man decides to sling you over his shoulder), the game’s solution is to have the player give her a smack.
I used to be a huge Duke Nukem fan when it first came out as a computer game where a Hulk Hogan-esque character had to shoot up all the invading aliens. Sure, it was a bit silly, but the point of the game was to defeat the invading Dr. Proton and no babes were involved. How far we’ve come from such simple times. It appears that consequent versions have gotten more and more over the top – one of the sequels for Playstation is called Duke Nukem: Land of the Babes. It’s veered away from a simple man vs. bad guys game to one that relies on sexist tropes. In fact, the goal of this game is to save women from being raped by invading aliens. It isn’t enough to pit Duke against aliens; rape as a weapon of war is co-opted as a motivator to go get the bad guy. The Mary Sue claims that the game sees itself as “over the top in every way” and “something that considers itself satire,” and this may be true (I haven’t tried it out since the days of dial up modems). But satire can still go too far.
What “Capture the Babe” and the rest of the game shows is just how pervasive the acceptance of forcing things violently upon women is in our culture. Duke Nukem is just one shoot-em-up game, but if something like this can pop up without much fanfare, it’s clear how insidious it is. The reviewer of the game that reveals this new function, Eurogamer, isn’t even phased by it. Boys playing it aren’t going to go out and start hoisting random women and smacking them into line. But if they see these things taking place and aren’t asked to interrogate whether or not it’s okay, it becomes normalized. Women are but pawns used for the entertainment of men. Their agency over their bodies is suppressed for the sake of a game.
Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker may have used a state budget shortfall as an excuse to strip public employees of their collective bargaining rights, but 44 states and DC are also facing a budget crisis. While they try to pinch every penny, prison reform is showing up on the table among Republicans and Democrats alike. Right alongside the issue should be the problem of prison rape, an epidemic in our system. With so much taxpayer money spent, addressing our astronomical rates of sexual abuse and the paltry options available for victims should be part of what we pay for. Until it is, sexual assault will continue to be seen as something that “just happens” to some people.
The United States prison population stands at over 2 million people, with the highest incarceration rate in the world – 743 per 100,000 of the national population. The costs of this system are dramatic. In 2006, governments at the federal, state and local level spent an estimated $68 billion on corrections. What happens to many of the people living behind bars is perhaps even more dramatic. In the New York Review of Books, David Kaiser and Lovisa Stannow expose the current state of abuse in the incarceration system (it’s definitely worth reading the whole article). Recent numbers published by the Justice Department found that more than 216,600 people were abused in 2008 – that’s almost 25 people an hour. These numbers are still likely lower than the real rates, the authors point out, because it’s hard to eliminate barriers to reporting – the shame some victims feel or the fear of relation from their attackers. Meanwhile, the numbers only count people who were abused, not the instances of abuse, which is far higher. The article notes, “Between half and two thirds of those who claim sexual abuse in adult facilities say it happened more than once; previous BJS [Bureau of Justice Statistics] studies suggest that victims endure an average of three to five attacks each per year.”
And while Law & Order: SVU may make it sound like most of this abuse is at the hands of fellow inmates (and disgustingly as if jailed people “deserve” such treatment), the reality is that most victims are abused by staff. As the authors point out, these are “agents of our government, paid with our taxes, whose job it is to keep inmates safe.” There is something extremely wrong with a system that uses so many tax dollars to pay such a great number of people who sexually assault those under their supervision.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Preventing abuse is a moral issue, but it also makes monetary sense. The Justice Department has come up with a very conservative value for preventing it, assigning only $375 to preventing an adult from experiencing “abusive sexual contact” and $500 for a juvenile. But in fact, Kaiser and Stannow point out that this is only one-fifth of the generally accepted benefit of preventing rape by force. It also leaves out the costs of spending on public assistance, like welfare, disability benefits, housing vouchers, and food stamps, to sexual assault victims who are unable to reenter society and maintain employment because of their long-term trauma – something the department acknowledges happens without quantifying what this means. It also neglects to factor in the savings incurred from reducing the recidivism rate, which it in fact notes “could potentially save society and government tens of millions of dollars per year by avoiding the economic and human costs of crime, the cost of investigating a prosecuting crimes, and the considerable cost of incarceration itself.” Reducing the rate of abuse in prison is likely to reduce the recidivism rate at the same time.
While a draft of standards to reduce abuse to be reviewed and implemented by Attorney General Eric Holder aims to reduce it by 3%, Kaiser and Stannow point out that this is a meager goal and one that could easily be ratcheted up. They suggest targeting the average rate of abuse in the top half of facilities that have already begun attempts at addressing rape – this would “give us an estimate of possible gains that was both realistic and conservative, based on what has already been accomplished across the country,” and far more could be done with explicitly stated standards. Meanwhile, achieving better rates doesn’t have to break the bank. They note:
The department could do much more than it is now proposing while remaining fiscally responsible. Many of its proposals can be improved at minimal cost. Other necessary measures will carry a significant price, but we do not believe they will be nearly as expensive as the department has estimated.
As we look to address our overcrowded prison system, it’s clear that much can be done to improve costs, sentencing, and other practices. With this must come a consideration of how we can keep a population literally trapped in its situation from being tormented by exposure to abuse. Letting our government – and the general population – turn a blind eye to the crisis of sexual assault on prisoners only serves to normalize rape in our society and enhance the idea that anyone could “deserve it.” Prisoners don’t deserve to be raped and anything that can be done to stop it from happening must be put into action. And it doesn’t just make moral sense; it also makes fiscal sense. The time for action is now.
Combating rape culture usually involves going after big, widespread problems. But some of the most pernicious battles currently being waged focus on just one word at a time.
Perhaps the recent word most loudly decried was “forcible”. That one was inserted into HR3, the Republican House bill full of all sorts of anti-choice, anti-women policies, including the expansion of “conscience clauses” to cover ER doctors who refuse to perform them even in life threatening cases, imposing a new tax on people who buy health insurance plans that cover abortion, and denying women in the military the right to pay privately for abortions in military hospitals abroad. But what caught many people’s attention was the attempt to redefine rape. Under the bill, abortions would only be funded by Medicaid in instances of “forcible” rape, a qualifier never used before. This led to the (unanswerable) question: what exactly is non-forcible rape? Kristen Schaal on The Daily Show explained that it is “what is merely rape-ish.” The use of this word could have meant that women seeking abortions after being raped would have had to show their bruises to prove that enough force was used to qualify (because the process of reporting a rape and pressing charges isn’t traumatizing enough). The GOP has now promised to drop that language after a veritable firestorm erupted, including another valiant Twitter campaign by Sady Doyle, #DearJohn. (Although the language may actually still be in the bill.)
A lesser-noticed bill in Georgia also focuses on one word: “accuser.” Republican Representative Bobby Franklin has introduced a bill into the state legislature to call women who report their rapes “accusers” instead of “victims.” Franklin claims that it’s unfair to call someone a victim until there’s a conviction – even though, as Carolyn Fiddler of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee points out, “Burglary victims are still victims. Assault victims are still victims. Fraud victims are still victims.” All before the crime is proven by a jury of the victim’s peers. This takes our attention away from the fact that the woman in question is a victim of a horrendous crime and diverts it to the possibility that she is merely accusing an innocent man. Using such language diminishes the seriousness of a rape accusation and the vulnerable position of someone who has experienced sexual assault.
And then there’s the word “rape” itself, which Stephanie Gilmore noticed was glaringly absent from Super Bowl coverage of accused rapist and Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. It was said that he “had sex with” his victim, that the incident in question was just a “drunken night,” it was just a “poor and classless decision.” As Gilmore puts it, “When we avoid the words ‘rape,’ ‘statutory rape,’ and ‘sexual assault,’ we dehumanize and silence victims.” Rape charges get demoted to “sexual misconduct” or simply being “involved” with an unwilling woman and are considered something other than rape. “Having sex with” implies consent that is absent when the act is forced. You can see the effects of this kind of thinking in the Canadian case where a judge withheld jail time from a rapist because the victim was drunk and wearing a tube top with no bra. The case wasn’t about rape, in his words; it was about “misunderstood signals and inconsiderate behaviour.” By refusing to call the act rape he completely changed the sentencing – and avoided laying blame where it was due, at the feet of a man who forced sex on his unwilling victim.
Refusing to use the word rape can have serious effects for victims as well. As Chloe Heintz recounts in a video explaining how Planned Parenthood saved her life, it wasn’t until someone described what happened when her boyfriend forced sex on her as rape that she understood it as such. Only then did she really come to grips with what it meant and process how it related to her identity. Gilmore connects our horrendously low reporting rates to the lack of conversation around what rape is – if you don’t know what constitutes it, you may not know you should report it. Would Chloe perhaps have pressed charges against her boyfriend if she had recognized his crime as rape at the time? It’s more likely. And as Jaclyn Friedman points out, it creates an environment in which even Whoopie Goldberg feels there is a difference between “rape-rape” and real rape.
Each misused word only serves to diminish the seriousness of rape and sex crimes, making victims more vulnerable and empowering attackers. And they all seek to roll back the clock to a time when it wasn’t taken seriously. “Forcible rape” hearkens back to when women had to somehow prove that they resisted an assault for the crime to qualify as such. “Accuser” puts women and the crimes that happen to them in a category apart from others. And calling rape a euphemism that obscures the facts smacks of calling domestic violence “putting a woman in her place.” The battle to protect the rights of rape victims, to prevent rape from happening, and to get our society to face rape culture head on is a challenging one, but it starts with language. Friedman calls for someone to sit down with editorial boards “to challenge their resistance to saying that what is alleged is rape.” Someone clearly also needs to sit down with legislators and judges. The words that frame this debate and become encoded in law sets the stage for the rest of the fight.
Super Bowl ads, while known for the dollars expended and eyes tuned in, are not known for their intellectual heft. But they’ve become increasingly misogynistic in recent years – not to mention racist, homophobic, and exhibiting other types of downright nastiness. A number of them have been so bad they didn’t make it to prime time. Some advertisers feel that the best laughs come from portraying women in stereotypical and demeaning roles. What better way to make us pay attention than to put women’s dignity in the punchline?
Last year’s were particularly bad, so blogger Amanda Hess looked into what might be driving this trend. She found that CBS’s Standards and Practices office was the one greenlighting and derailing ads with strange criteria. The ads are all of course going to try to out-shock each other to grab the attention span of millions of Americans – so it was the department’s duty to decide what went too far. She notes that “ad-makers are forced to play within a very small range of acceptably ‘outrageous’ topics,” and it’s the more subtle discrimination of jock humor that got through, while outright sex was banned. Which meant that some questionable material made it through the leaky sieve.
But the good news is that last year’s offense-o-fest didn’t pan out quite like those ad makers had hoped: the worst offenders also fared the worst when it came to ratings and negative reactions. The most misogynistic ads barely registered as the best-reviewed and most buzzed about, reported Jezebel’s Irin Carmon. No one was loling over them on social media – in fact, they got the most negative responses.
Did the ad industry learn its lesson this year? The sexism was perhaps toned down and less widespread, but some companies couldn’t help themselves. Here are this year’s top ten offenders:
#1: Pepsi Max
Message: Women are jealous and controlling!
Pepsi’s marketing team clearly had a pre-Super Bowl meeting and decided “You know what sells? Stereotypical women!” After taking everything away from him that he wants, this man’s partner chucks a can at his head for looking at another woman. But it all works out when she nails the jogger and they run off hand in hand, all forgotten in the violent act. No problem!
Message: Women want marriage and babies. Men want sex and soda. (We’re not sure in what order).
While this woman at least gets to have a more nuanced inner monologue than the man (and somehow infiltrate his mind, because woman are just that controlling), all she can think about is their future together on what is presumably a first date. And when his obsessing over sex is interrupted by a soda and he’s told he can’t have one of those things, we’re left wondering: which is he more upset about losing? We may never know! His monosyllabic brain can’t explain.
#2: Go Daddy
Message: Smart women are only good for their bodies. Except if they’re old. Ew.
Go Daddy already made a mark for itself last year in winning the sexismfest, so it wasn’t shocking to see them at it again. While they only want her for hot bod, spokeswoman Danica Patrick has placed higher than any woman in an Indy 500. As if it weren’t enough to display women with real talents as only worthwhile for their body parts, all the hooting and hollering comes to an abrupt stop when the sexy new spokesperson is revealed to be Joan Rivers. Because god help us if we have to look at women over the age of 14!
Message: Even if you don’t want to strip down to shill a product, you have to if “contractually obligated.”
Gross. But maybe those two women are wearing knee length skirts and turtle necks with their stilettos? You can’t know unless you go to their site. Which may or may not contain pornography, judging from this ad.
Message: Men crying and wearing dresses is crazy and hilarious!
While I’m very happy LivingSocial seems to have helped this man embrace himself as a transsexual, the ad’s humor rests on the assumption that its audience will find a high-heeled man doing yoga hysterical. Not to mention that a man who cries clearly has been altered in some way. Women do the craziest things, don’t they?
#4: Mini Cooper
Message: Yay anal sex?
Mini Cooper has created a new game show: Cram it in the Boot! In case the innuendo passed you by, some sexy women in short sparkly dresses are around to make cramming motions and show you their butts. Not to mention some of the phallic objects he shoves in the trunk. Guess any kind of sex sells.
Message: Men don’t have emotions, they just love boobs.
While this pathetic young man, who is so far from being in touch with his feelings he can only access his penis, is perhaps the butt of this joke, it relies on a view of women as just their breasts. Faith Hill, acting alongside him, doesn’t encourage him to come up with anything better – because we all know he’s not capable of higher thoughts.
Message: Knocking a woman on the ground: very funny.
After body checking Betty White last year, Snickers continued its violent streak by slamming Roseanne Barr with a log. The other actor in the ad, Richard Lewis, remains unharmed. Violence against woman – hilarious, right?
#7: Stella Artois
Message: Women weep for men they don’t know, but those men only have eyes for beer.
No one comes out looking good in this ad. Following Pepsi Max’s lead in substituting drinks for women, Adrian Brody would much rather a foamy beer than deal with any of those weepy chicks. A girl’s not worth more than a six dollar drink anyway, amiright?
Message: Nothing goes better in an ad than a hot chick.
A mockery of inane male brainstorming? Or a reflection of what it’s really like when ad execs get in a room to make a car commercial? Either way, they’ve answered the age-old question: redheads are hottest. Especially when they’re teachers. Very enlightened.
#9: Lipton Brisk
Message: Ugly women: out. Hot women: in.
“First we need some hot chicks,” Eminem starts out. For their brilliant ideas on how to make a great music video, right? Too bad the girls his claymation alter ego picks don’t get any lines.
#10: Best Buy
Message: Attacking a man’s masculinity is the best way to take him down.
Best Buy almost got through this ad without registering on the misog-o-meter, until someone in Ozzy’s cohort gets back at Justin Beiber by remarking that he looks like a girl. The world’s worst insult, to be compared to a lady! Burn.
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.