‘rape culture’

Anti-Rape Underwear: Same Victim-Blaming, Different Package

As women, we are acutely aware of the fear of rape. With statistics suggesting that 1 in 6 to 1 in 4 American women have experienced it, there’s no reason not to be. Rape is a very real threat. So a creation like AR Wear’s “anti-rape” clothing is something that people might think offers us peace of mind: at times where the threat seems greater – which AR Wear suggests includes blind dates and “clubbing” – to know that we have a bit of added protection, in the form of underwear that “locks” at the waist and is crafted from cut-resistant material, might just make us feel safer. The problem is that all it really does is contribute to the rape culture it purports to combat.

http://vimeo.com/74514464

I mean, do we seriously live in a society so progressive that women have to physically lock up their crotches in order to avoid rape? I’m not saying that AR Wear don’t have good intentions, but the creators appear to be attempting to profit from a very real fear, and they’re doing so in a way that only reaffirms the stance society already takes on rape: namely, that women should alter the way they live in order to stop it happening to them.

Let’s be real: this underwear isn’t exactly practical. For it to be effective, it has to be difficult to remove, and that means it’ll be at least somewhat difficult for the wearer to remove as well. What about when we need to pee, or when we actually want to have sex? (Considering AR Wear is especially keen to promote it as something to be used whilst “clubbing,” I’m dubious as to how well the underwear will be removed by an intoxicated woman desperate for the toilet, or a woman keen to take it off in a moment of passion.)

Besides – ultimately, advising women that they should wear special underwear in order to prevent rape isn’t really far removed from advising women not to get wasted in order to prevent rape, and that’s victim-blaming 101. Both rely on placing the onus on women to stop rape, and both rely on misconceptions about rape – most specifically, that there is a “common” kind of rape or assault. For anti-rape underwear to work, the rape that it is designed to prevent is by nature one perpetrated by an unknown attacker. That’s why AR Wear specifies blind dates, or being out for a run; we feel anxious about these scenarios because we may end up dealing with men that we are not expecting to, who might subsequently assault us. But statistics show that 73% of rapes are committed by people known to the survivor - meaning that, in all likelihood, they trusted them. Why wear anti-rape underwear when you feel safe? (The point being that products like this really only exist to make certain that we never really do feel safe, ever, at all.)

This leaves us where we usually are in rape prevention discourse: either women make this alteration permanently, or they achieve nothing. Women are raped whilst drunk, raped whilst sober, raped behind clubs and raped at home. For the anti-rape underwear to really work, we’d need to wear them literally always. Which isn’t to say that it won’t make some women feel safer, and if it does, that’s absolutely fine. But it’s really not the answer. $50,000 is a lot of money that could actually shift the discourse surrounding rape away from blaming the victim. Instead, AR Wear market their clothing as “for when things go wrong,” as if rape is a mistake that women need to stop letting happen.

Rape is a crime that somebody else chooses to commit, and the only way we are ever going to prevent it is by getting them to stop making that choice. AR Wear doesn’t prevent rape – it prevents progress around the issue of sexual violence and victim-blaming.

The Rape Apologism Fails of Emily Yoffe

I’ve previously covered a gender-essentialist Double X Fail for the blog, and unfortunately, they’ve done it again. As now infamously reported across the feminist blogosphere, Emily Yoffe thought it was a good idea to tell college-aged women to stop drinking alcohol in order to avoid rape. In her extremely paternalistic piece, Yoffe writes such gems as:

Young women are getting a distorted message that their right to match men drink for drink is a feminist issue. The real feminist message should be that when you lose the ability to be responsible for yourself, you drastically increase the chances that you will attract the kinds of people who, shall we say, don’t have your best interest at heart. That’s not blaming the victim; that’s trying to prevent more victims.

I’m so confused: Since when is it a feminist issue to match men drink for drink? Did I just not get the memo on that? Did Yoffe just try to (wo)mansplain victim-blaming, while simultaneously victim-blaming? Does Yoffe even know what feminism is? I just…I can’t do it today.

Almost immediately, feminist journalist Ann Friedman posted a parody to her blog (later published at The Cut), that switches the pronouns on Yoffe’s piece with often hilarious and insightful results, including the following sentence I find devastatingly true:

But the obsessive focus on blaming the victim has made it somehow unacceptable to warn young men that when they get wasted, they are putting young women in potential peril.

Although Friedman’s exercise is deceptively simple, it gets at something: when we discuss rape culture, far too often the onus is on women to change their behavior. Rape doesn’t occur because of Yoffe’s ignorant assumption that there’s a lack of knowledge about potential prevention methods. On the contrary, growing up socialized as female means being constantly aware that your body is not your own, that it is vulnerable to violation by any man at any time. We are drilled by a misogynistic society to expect a potential rapist to be an unknown assailant that jumps out of the bushes and so-called prevention methods are rattled off accordingly: to carry keys to use as potential weapons, to have a buddy system if we do have to walk home alone, to carry mace or pepper spray, to not wear short skirts or shirts that are too revealing. So, yeah, Emily, me and every other person socialized as female in this culture is probably aware of what we supposedly need to do to “prevent” rape.

What I love about Friedman’s parody is that it addresses the missing piece too often ignored in conventional discussions of rape culture: male perpetrators rape women, and they often use alcohol as an aid to do that, yet no prescription is ever made on men’s behavior. Outside of feminist circles, men are never told not to rape, and when they are (as in the case of Zerlina Maxwell’s badass appearance on Fox News), they can expect vicious death threats.

By omitting the crucial fact that drunk men play a role in coercing women, Yoffe’s article assumes “boys will be boys,” with insatiable sex drives they have no ability to control. Despite what the conventional narrative would have us believe, these men know what they’re doing – rape is about control and domination, and we should acknowledge that preying on inebriated women creates a clear power imbalance.

Most conversations had about rape in our culture, Yoffe’s piece included, render invisible the obvious role that male rapists play in rape, and in so doing, assumes the innocence of the white male perpetrator. And, I, for one, am sick of this unquestioned centering of the white male experience. But if the cultural conversation about rape in our culture is going to stay at the level of changing behavior, we may as well talk about men’s behavior. (But for self-care purposes, I also endorse Mychal Denzel Smith’s response to her follow-up.)

How a Perpetrator Gets Away with Sexual Harassment at CU Boulder

Originally posted at Scientific Femanomoly. Reposted with permission.

Someone’s status of being “accomplished in his field” should never be used in an investigation.

***Trigger warning for discussion of sexual assault. This post includes information from an actual university investigation. ***

You can walk through the halls at my university and feel like you are in a place of success. The walls are plastered with research posters and stories of accomplishments. For me, it is a dream school for research. I love what I study here, and engineering is one of my passions in life. Unfortunately, choosing to study here came with some unexpected things that I did not want or ask for.

Being a female in engineering, I’ve experienced a fair number of less than favorable encounters that range from awkward peers to sexual harassment. Not all women in engineering experience sexual harassment. Some have been lucky enough to avoid it and some are oblivious, but by graduate school there are a large number of us who have our stories. Most of the time we just roll our eyes and laugh it off. This is part of being a female in a male dominated field. We put up with a lot of obnoxious things and usually don’t report them. (A 2006 study showed that an astounding 69% of women in engineering experienced sexual harassment during their careers).

Yet, when I experienced something on the severe end of sexual harassment, it became necessary to report. Since I had evidence, I thought the case would be fairly straightforward, and that a resolution would be reached. Instead, I came away feeling less safe than I did before reporting.

~~~

The Incident

A group of us gathered at a place just off of campus to celebrate finishing a huge exam. It was early in the evening and constituted more of a mellow dinner gathering among adults than a party.  During the dinner, one of my peers that I didn’t know as well started touching my leg under the table, moving his hand under my skirt and up to my crotch. I quickly removed his hand, but he persisted and did this to me two more times. After the third time, I quickly got up and left the gathering for a bit.  I was shaken but I decided to go back and confront him about what he did to me. I thought physical and verbal communication would be enough to make a clear point that I wanted no part of his sexual advances. Still, despite removing his hands from me, and verbally confronting him, he persisted in his endeavors.  He would later that evening be so bold as to grab my breast and place his hand down the back of my skirt and underwear (which constitutes sexual assault).  To top it off, when I tried to go back to my office, he started following me. My only recourse was to run onto a bus and take it half a mile away just to get away from him.

The Evidence

Worrying for my safety, I drafted an email to him after the incident that briefly stated that he inappropriately groped me, and that told him to never touch me again. He left two voice mails on my phone apologizing, though I suspect he wanted me to be quiet about what happened more than apologize to me.

The Reporting

I was really scared to walk through the halls of my department, and I confided in a few people about what happened. They encouraged me to come forward to resolve the problem, especially since my assailant could do the same thing to other women. One person reported it to my university, and soon after that, an investigator from the office of student conduct contacted me.

I agreed to meet with the student conduct investigator to discuss options. A discussion of options turned out to be the investigator jotting down notes as I gave a short synopsis of events. At the end of the meeting the investigator said she would investigate the perpetrator. My meeting had suddenly turned into an investigation. I shared a copy of the email and the voicemails with the investigator, but after that I was never contacted again until the investigation was over.

Soon after the university “investigation” started, I learned from a third party that police have methods for investigating non-rape sexual assaults. Initially, I did not think of going to the police, because criminal punishment seemed extreme when all I wanted was a continued safe academic environment for me and for other students. Generally, women don’t run to the police every time they experience sexual harassment, even in extreme cases.

With encouragement from a third party, I talked to a police detective, who thought I potentially had a case. Unfortunately, the university investigation disrupted the opportunity for a proper police investigation. By the time I had gone to the police, my university had already handed over all of my evidence to my assailant and his attorney.

In the end, the solo university investigator decided that my assailant did not violate any university policy. The investigation was not only an insult to victims of sexual assault, but an insult to women in STEM fields as well.

The Investigation

Often times I hear people ask how perpetrators of sexual violence don’t get found guilty even when there is evidence. To help aid in the understanding of this, I have decided to include some excerpts from the investigative report. It is important to remember that these items are things that the investigator felt were important to the overall investigation. Quotations denote direct quotes that the investigator included in the report.

MY ASSAILANT HAS MANY OPPORTUNITIES IN HIS FUTURE

“Respondent loves his field and is accomplished in his field.”

He “does not want to lose the 11 years of work he has put in to get where he is now”

“He thinks there are lots of opportunities in his future.”

“He is concerned about the possibility that professors won’t want to hire him based on these allegations.”

In one of the emails my assailant sent to the investigator, he mentioned the hard work he was doing. While the entire work description was not included, the investigator felt that the following information was relevant to the investigation:

“Respondent proceeds to state how hard he has worked in his field and how dedicated he is to that”

***Note to reader: I am also getting a PhD in engineering, just like my assailant. I am also accomplished in my field. This was never mentioned. The report didn’t mention how having my assailant in my department would affect my research and my leadership opportunities. My safety and learning environment did not appear to be of importance during the investigation either.

What does it say to victims in prestigious fields when perpetrators can use their success in those fields to cover up sexual harassment? What does it say to all the good successful people who would never use their careers as a way to cover up sexual harassment?

MY ASSAILANT IS MARRIED

This is apparently very important information to put in the report because we all know that married men never ever cheat. Obviously.

“He and his wife are close and often in communication when they are apart.”

“Respondent and his wife have been married for one and a half years. Their families are very far away so they are very reliant on each other.”

“I asked Respondent if he finds Complainant attractive. He said no, and that he is attracted to women who are physically similar to his wife. Respondent’s wife and Complainant are physically dissimilar.”

“he and his wife are Catholic. They text while apart.”

Furthermore, my assailant was able to use his wife as a witness even though she was not present during the assault at all. She submitted a long statement, which was included in the investigative report.

MY ASSAILANT WAS ALLOWED TO HAVE AN ATTORNEY

“He was accompanied by an attorney advisor”

*** Note to reader: I was never ever given this opportunity. I went in to discuss options with the investigator alone, and then the investigator started an investigation during our meeting. There was no follow up, or even an opportunity for me to get a lawyer or have someone present with me.

MY ASSAILANT WAS ABLE TO CHANGE HIS STORY

Despite my assailant previously apologizing in response to an email that described some of his sexual actions, my assailant changed his story and called what he did “hand play.”The investigator wrote:

“they had “hand play” which Respondent described as “not sexual in nature””

That term seems like something an attorney would come up with…

THE INVESTIGATOR WENT OFF OF IMPRESSIONS

Regarding my assailant:

“I find his reaction to the email suspect. I am also concerned about the fact that respondent did not tell his wife about the email from Complainant when he received it, since he emphasized the closeness they share. Despite this issue, Respondent gave an overall impression of credibility based in part of his verbal and nonverbal symptoms and attitudes during our interview”

~~~

I write this as an educational piece for the public. Sexual harassers and abusers often go free or just get a slap on the wrist.

While CU Boulder continually works on improving the investigative process, some problems still exist with addressing people who perpetrate sexual violence and harassment. Sarah Gilchriese is not alone. There are more victims here, and sometimes our assailants go unpunished.

It is a problem that only one single investigator listened to my story and made a decision about the outcome of the investigation. There were no precautions in place for situations where the investigator is biased towards one person based on their academic credentials, or the investigator does not take thorough notes during the interviews. It creates a frightening situation for victims who come forward about perpetrators who are successful in prestigious fields of study. Furthermore, it was also disturbing that my evidence was handed over to my assailant and his attorney without getting the police involved. In fact, university investigators do not notify the police in these investigations.

My experiences leave me conflicted. I want to know what I should tell young women who would like to study engineering at CU. Do I tell them that they might have my assailant as a TA or a mentor? Do I tell young prospective students that if they get sexually harassed or assaulted to hope that it isn’t by someone who is “accomplished” in their field?

Through the tears and pain and being terrified, I chose to stick with my PhD program because I did not want to throw away all of my work, and because I love what I am doing. It has come with sacrifices, such as not feeling safe on campus, and avoiding any events where my assailant could come into contact with me and repeat his actions. Thankfully, some members of my university have attempted to ensure my safety and to create an academically fair environment for me.

Yet, there is one thing that still very much upsets me. After an investigation like mine, perpetrators learn that they can hide behind their careers and success and no one will believe their victims even if there is evidence. That is wrong.

***

Editors Note: This story is told from the perspective of a female in engineering. However, sexual harassment and sexual violence affects women and men on college campuses and beyond. According to the CDC, about half of women and 1 in 5 men experience some form of sexual violence in their lifetime. For more resources, you can visit the RAINN website.

Yale to Students Found Guilty of Rape: “Don’t You Ever Do That Again!”

In the state of Connecticut, a person convicted of felony sexual assault can face up to five years in jail — up to one year if convicted of misdemeanor sexual assault. Unless, that is, that person happens to go to Yale.

Yale reported eight sexual assaults on campus between January 1 and June 30, 2013.  Two of those cases were dismissed, and the remaining six were adjudicated by the university. A recent report by the Huffington Post reveals that of the six  students found to have committed sexual assault at Yale in 2013, four received only written reprimands from the university. A fifth student was suspended for two semesters but allowed back on probation to finish his degree, while a sixth received probation. Not a single one of these students spent a day in jail.

Even more problematic, these students’ records will not reflect that they were found to have committed sexual assault. Instead, Yale chooses to use the term “nonconsensual sex,” which downplays the severity of the offense. By labeling sexual assault, including rape, with the more innocuous “nonconsensual sex,” Yale promotes a sense that these incidents were the result of misunderstandings, perhaps too much alcohol, rather than the acts of violation they actually are.

Yale was investigated by the US Department of Education in 2011 for the mishandling of sexual assault cases on campus. The university was found guilty of violating the Clery Act, which mandates reporting of sexual assaults, and forced to pay a $155,000 fine. In addition, the university has produced a semi-annual Report of Complaints of Sexual Misconduct since the time of that investigation. In spite of the investigation and the fine, however, Yale seems content to punish perpetrators of sexual assault with minimal penalties –  the maximum penalty anyone found to have committed sexual assault at the institution is a two-semester suspension, and even the students receiving that penalty are allowed to return to campus to finish their educations.

When one of the most respected educational institutions in America is not only found to have misreported sexual assaults on its campus, but also delivers slap-on-the-wrist punishments like a written reprimand, what are we telling young women and young men? When the institution label acts of sexual violence as merely “nonconsensual sex,” what does this tell us about prevailing attitudes towards rape and other forms of sexual assault? What type of education is Yale providing young women when it tells them that if they are raped, they will not only not receive justice, but will have to share classrooms with their assailants? And what is Yale telling young men when it demonstrates that, should they commit sexual violence, they will probably just get a “note in their file”?

This is a problem that goes far beyond Yale, as the more recent investigations into the handling of sexual assault at campuses like Occidental and UNC-Chapel Hill demonstrate. Perhaps Yale, not unlike USC, hopes that the sexual assault adjudication process will be “educative” rather than “punitive.”

Certainly, these cases are both educative and punitive for victims and survivors, in that they teach very pointed lessons about the prevalence of rape culture, victim-blaming, and institutional negligence. The question is whether what these incidents teach is what we want young women and young men to learn.

We Need to Make #TwitterNoise, Not #TwitterSilence

It’s become pretty obvious just recently that Twitter has a huge problem with misogyny. That might not be news to a lot of women who use the site; we’ve been getting this kind of abuse for our entire Internet lives. But since Caroline Criado-Perez, a British feminist who recently campaigned the Bank of England to keep the image of a woman on our banknotes, started making noise about the horrific abuse she began to receive after seeing success, it’s finally getting the coverage that it rightly deserves.

According to Criado-Perez, at one point the rate of abusive tweets she was receiving was up to “50 an hour”. The abuse also spread to other women who have spoken out in support, culminating in several female journalists receiving bomb threats. It hardly needs stating, but that is a lot of harrowing tweets for one individual to receive at a time. Even more so when every one is a rape threat, a rape joke, or a death threat.

The popular response to the situation has been to call for Twitter to install a “report abuse” button, which would allow users to instantly report offensive tweets directly to the Twitter team, who would suspend the user if they were deemed to have breached the terms of use. Certainly, this might have helped Criado-Perez when the volume of abusive tweets she was receiving was simply too large and too constant to report every one via the existing form. But is it the right solution?

Twitter allows anyone to project their opinions in 140 characters to millions across the globe. Why is it that the first thing so many men seem to want to do with access to such a platform is send women misogynistic abuse and threats of rape? This isn’t just a one off; it’s symptomatic of a toxic culture. A “report abuse” button might hide individual tweets and maybe see individual accounts closed, but it won’t stop more tweets being sent, or more accounts being set up. It definitely won’t stop those men going out and actually causing harm to the women they clearly hate so much.

Social media doesn’t exist in a vacuum. If men are abusive on the Internet, and treat rape as an acceptable act to wish on someone, then those opinions transfer directly into real life. They might well be less inclined to say to a woman’s face that they are going to rape her in the way that they do in a tweet, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t want to. They just think there are less consequences of doing so on the Internet. Which is what really needs to change.

It’s all very well having a “report abuse” button, but something needs to happen when those tweets are reported. Twitter needs to acknowledge what real abuse is, the police need to be made aware, and the police need to act. Right now, I see little reason to believe that this will happen. We’ve already seen the way Facebook’s moderation team considered the most horrific, violently misogynistic content acceptable, and we see every day the way that the police just do not take rape seriously at all. Add to this the way that a “report abuse” button could very easily be used by the abusers that it is meant to remove as another way of silencing their targets, and what exactly is going to improve here?

Clearly, a shift on a much wider scale is required. It’s less clear how best to achieve this. For some, including the journalist Caitlin Moran, the answer was to “boycott” Twitter, to show both the site and the abusers on it that they would not stand for the situation any longer. This is what became the #twittersilence. But is removing yourself from the platform that abusers are already trying to forcibly remove you from an effective form of protest? Is silencing yourself, in response to people actively trying to silence you, sending the right message?

Men are tweeting abuse at Criado-Perez, and anyone offering her support, because they are women with opinions, and that is apparently the biggest threat to a man.

Maybe we should make our opinions our biggest weapons.

USC to Rape Victim: If Your Rapist Didn’t Orgasm, It’s Not Really Rape

Yes, you read that right: according to one student who reported a sexual assault at the University of Southern California, campus police told her that they had determined that no assault had taken place because her assailant didn’t orgasm. In explaining the university police’s decision not to refer the case to the Los Angeles Police Department, an officer told her, “Because he stopped, it was not rape. . . . Even though his penis penetrated your vagina, because he stopped, it was not a crime.” A student judicial officer reportedly gave the same reason for the lack of disciplinary action against the accused assailant.

I’m not questioning that the lack of semen certainly would make the collection of forensic evidence more difficult in a sexual assault case. But law enforcement asserting that the lack of semen means that no rape occurred turns my stomach. There is already a culture of shame and silence around sexual assault, which results in (by some estimates) less than half of all assaults being reported. For a victim who was brave enough to report her assault to be silenced in this way is horrifying.

It would be nice to think this incident is the result of one clueless police officer at USC, however, according to a recent Title IX complaint filed against the institution, it is part of a larger pattern of mishandling — or refusing to handle — sexual assault cases in the community. Given that being a woman in college is, in and of itself, a risk factor for sexual assault, as well as the dismal statistics about sexual assault on even those colleges ranked among America’s best, the lack of support found by victims and survivors in our educational communities is all the more infuriating.

Along with the “no orgasm, no rape” incident, victims at USC have reported a systemic pattern of refusal to punish assailants or hold them accountable.  Some students report that even when assailants were found to have committed rapes against fellow students, they received light punishments and were allowed to graduate from the university without facing any criminal proceedings. In other cases, the university refused to pursue investigations even in the face of what would seem to be overwhelming evidence. Tucker Reed, the lead complaitant in the suit against USC, presented university police with audio recordings of her ex-boyfriend admitting that he had raped her. A USC official told Reed that the university’s goal was not to “punish” the assailant but to provide an “educative” opportunity. (She does not seem to have told Reed what exactly they wanted to “educate” her rapist about, but I’m guessing the takeaway lesson for him was “You can rape your ex-girlfriend and get away with it.”) Yet another student says campus police asserted that women should not  “go out, get drunk and expect not to get raped” when she reported being assaulted at a fraternity party.

USC Title IX coordinator Jody Shipper told the Huffington Post that the university “remains vigilant in addressing any issues promptly and fully as they arise,” and is in the process of internally reviewing policies and procedures regarding sexual assault reporting and adjudication at the institution.

Hopefully, should the Justice Department find that USC and the other educational institutions named in the Title IX complaint are in fact guilty of violating federal law in their (non)handling of sexual assault on their campuses, it will elect for a process that is more than just “educative” and in fact holds institutions and administrators accountable. Certainly, the process has already been “punitive” enough for victims and survivors.

 

What I Learned At the Women’s eNews and WAM!NYC Workshop on Best Practices for Writing on Rape and Sexual Assault

I previously mentioned  my excitement about the workshop Women’s eNews and WAM!NYC held on best practices for covering sexual assault. I spoke to my awkwardness in writing about and describing the actual acts of force that take place during a reported sexual assault; my own skittishness in describing the act of rape underlines how difficult it is to write about sexual assault, particularly to audiences who don’t understand the power differentials at play in our society. This workshop revealed to me that my own challenges writing about sexual assault are deeply linked to the sexist assumption writers and reporters make daily: to write from an “unbiased” perspective, we are expected to write from a male perspective.

photo by <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/futurowoman/">Nancy Stockdale</a> on flickr

Claudia Garcias-Rojas, a reporter and activist who is currently working with the Chicago Task Force on Violence Against Young Girls and Women, shared her findings on how journalists contribute to a culture where rape is largely misunderstood, and ways in which journalists, together with activists, can do better. In describing the misleading language journalists commonly use to describe sexual assault, I realized much of the erroneous terminology, including “engaged in” and “sex” conflates rape with sex, implying a degree of consent where none exists. Garcias-Rojas recommended describing the act in explicit detail in order to jar the reader and really show them, clearly, that force was involved, something the term “sex” obscures.

In Western culture, we experience a daily paradox in news coverage: although crime is heavily reported, readers aren’t given a means to understand the context in which that crime occurs. In her presentation “Man Kills Wife, Shoots Self,” Rita Henley-Jensen, Editor-in-Chief of Women’s eNews, noted that crime is understood as an aberration, something we aren’t supposed to make sense of. This framing is only misleading but also deceptive. Common offenses committed by journalists in this genre (as it were) include pulling quotes from clueless neighbors who insist the husband was “just a regular guy,” and either completely omitting or burying quotes that would provide context into why men murder their estranged spouses with such frequency. Journalists must prioritize quotes and evidence-based research which places violent behavior in a context under which it can be better understood. If writers show crimes always have motives, we can begin to delineate structural patterns of misogyny that endanger women’s lives.

Perhaps the most important lesson I took away from this workshop was the importance of framing pieces in ways that illustrate how our society is defined by different but interrelated sets of violence: institutional violence and interpersonal violence. As Garcia-Rojas noted, most stories are written from the perspective of the perpetrator, and presumes their innocence. As writers and activists who are sensitive to the concerns of rape survivors, we must go the extra mile to establish a victim’s innocence and use terminology that makes it evident that rape is an act of violence and force.

Examples of bad stories covering rape and sexual assault abound, but examples of good stories are few and far in between. This is an endemic problem in journalism that is highly revealing of the class and gender biases of writers. It’s up to us to start implementing some of these practices in our own writing. In the future, I will challenge myself to be less shy in my own writings on assault and hold journalists accountable in their coverage of sexual assault.

“Blurred Lines” Crosses The Line Before The Music Even Really Begins

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past few months, you’ve probably heard Robin Thicke’s new song “Blurred Lines,” a smash-hit that also features rappers T.I. and Pharrell. The song has been at the top of the charts for several weeks now, and the music video has tens of million of views on YouTube and Vevo, positioning “Blurred Lines” as a major contender for the coveted title of “song of the summer.” The song has been on my radar since it hit #1 on iTunes a few weeks ago, but, because evidently I do live at least partially under a rock, I hadn’t actually paid attention to the lyrics or watched the music video until this past weekend. To tell you the truth, my initial reaction was primarily a positive one – “Blurred Lines” is ridiculously catchy, and I find Robin Thicke to be very talented, not to mention pretty damn sexy. I was all excited to have discovered this new song (several weeks/months after the rest of the world, as is the norm for me) – that is, until I realized that the lyrics are actually really sexist and reinforce a very damaging narrative about women and their sexual behavior. Sigh.

The cover art for

The cover art for "Blurred Lines"

In the chorus of the song, Thicke sings:

I know you want it
You’re a good girl

Just these first two lines, while only nine words combined, are extremely problematic in several ways. (And the song doesn’t get better, by the way.) By saying “I know you want it,” Thicke is implying that he knows what this woman wants sexually – namely, that she wants to have sex with him. Which leads me, as the listener, to question how exactly he knows that. As far as I can tell, she hasn’t told him so, and in fact, the lyric is delivered in such a way as to confirm this observation. Instead, we are meant to believe that the woman has not, or will not, acknowledge her desire, but Thicke can still tell, somehow, that she wants to sleep with him. This is a familiar narrative, but also a dangerous one, because consent is assumed rather than explicitly given. Furthermore, it suggests that saying “no,” or even not saying “yes,” isn’t to be taken seriously – instead, it can be explained away as a woman playing hard to get. Consent should never, ever be assumed – it should be enthusiastically given by all parties involved, regardless of gender, relationship status, age, or any other factor. And when a woman, or anyone, is hesitant to say yes, the first reaction shouldn’t be that she’s playing coy – it should be that sexual advances, at least at that moment, are unwanted.

And this brings me to my other complaint regarding the lyric “I know you want it” – which, sidebar, is frighteningly overused in pop, hip hop, and R&B music. My problem with this phrase, other than its implications of dubious (or nonexistent) consent, is that it suggests that the woman in question doesn’t know what she wants sexually, or at least is unable to articulate it, and therefore needs a man to tell her. This thought process, of course, springs from the persistent myth that women are, by nature, sexually passive, that they are out of touch with their sexual desires and don’t know how to express them. I take major issue with this mentality, not only because it makes it easier for men to assume a woman’s consent, but also because it devalues women’s actual desires and their sexual agency. It reinforces the belief that women aren’t really equals in sexual encounters, with the result that both their pleasure and their willingness to participate are of lesser priority than that of their male partners. This imbalance is made even clearer by the music video for “Blurred Lines,” which features three nearly naked models dancing around Thicke, T.I., and Pharrell – all of whom are fully clothed. The power dynamic is familiarly skewed, with the men watching as the women, vulnerable and often expressionless, put on a show.

The second part of the lyric, “you’re a good girl,” also raises some troubling issues. In the context of the song, being a “good girl” clashes with “wanting it” – Thicke is saying that the woman seems like a good girl (whatever that means), but in reality she wants to “get nasty” with him. Being “good” and wanting sex, then, are at odds with each other – evidently, a woman cannot want sex or be horny while also remaining a good girl. Instead, there is something intrinsically not good, even bad, about her sexual desire. Why can’t she be a good girl who also wants to get freaky with some guy (or girl) of her choosing? Why does her sex drive make her naughty or slutty or bad, when if she was a man that same drive would be accepted (as it should be) as completely natural? Thicke positions the qualities of good and horny as incompatible, thereby perpetuating sexist stereotypes about what is considered acceptable sexual behavior for women.

Believe it or not, the main reason I wanted to write this post actually wasn’t my desperate desire to break down the misogynistic subtext of Robin Thicke’s lyrics. Instead, I wanted to share my personal experience with this song, because silly as it may sound, I’ve been feeling very conflicted over “Blurred Lines.” I really, really like the sound of the song, and I like Robin Thicke as well, which is why it’s so upsetting to me that the lyrics and music video clash so drastically with so much of what I feel passionately about (things like, say, sexual integrity and the equality of my gender). I’m finding this more and more lately – things that I once would have shrugged off in music, movies, or TV shows are beginning to trouble me. Jokes I might have laughed at, lyrics that I sang along with, couples that I rooted for – I am rethinking my feelings on a lot of that now. It’s kind of a sad situation to be in, realizing that so much of the media surrounding me compromises a lot of my beliefs about gender and sexuality. Right now, I’m trying to navigate a path through it all, to figure out how to channel my frustration and confusion into something rational and productive. Sometimes I feel, or am made to feel, like I’m overreacting – and maybe, sometimes, I am. But if something feels wrong to me, I’m going to speak up – even, or perhaps especially, if that something happens to be the most popular song in the country.

We Need To Hear Women’s Voices: Sexual Violence in a Revolution

This post originally appeared at Feminist Campus.

At least 91 women have been sexually assaulted since last week as part of Egypt’s ongoing protests. It is not the first time that women were sexually assaulted in Egypt, or even at protests in any nation – women were targeted for sexual assault during Occupy and even in Turkey last month. But when sexual assault – a truly cruel crime against humanity which has everything to do with power, prejudice, and privilege – happens in an activists space, it begs the question: where are women safe? Are they ever safe?

Tahrir Square in May 2011. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.Tahrir Square in May 2011. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

There are many steps to preventing assault, none of which are being utilized to minimize attacks on women in Egypt’s Tahrir Square. The government has not taken action – in fact, in Egypt, police often choose not to be present in Tahrir Square during large demonstrations. The mobs which descended upon the protests to rape and assault these women knew police would not be found there. But women have voices, and need to be present in a real democracy. Where should women go?

Women played a crucial role in Egypt’s revolution in 2011, but changing patriarchal norms is not only about getting women involved government or active in society – it depends how the greater society receives them and how that culture itself shifts to accept and welcome them. The revolution was a strong start, but with 376 women running for parliament last session, only eight of them won. Clearly, there’s a need for further progress to make women’s voices and experiences important to Egyptian leaders and citizens alike. As Nina Burleigh wrote for CNN:

Egypt has always been a place where life for women is nasty and brutish, if not short. Last year, a UNICEF survey showed 91% of Egyptian women between the ages of 15-49 said they had to undergo female genital mutilation. The United Nations Entity for Gender Equality in May reported that 99.3% of Egyptian women interviewed said they had been subjected to some form of sexual violence. Rape victims almost never go to the hospital and certainly not the police. There are no medical protocols for rape, and police treat female victims as prostitutes.

Whether or not that violence is political is worthy of discussion. I believe it is. At the moment, no one even debates it. It is the elephant in the room.

As the Egyptian revolution enters another chapter, and more women get stripped and sexually assaulted in the streets while being systematically excluded from the halls of power in Cairo, it is high time for American progressives and other Arab Spring commentators to stop separating anti-female violence from the politics of the Muslim Brotherhood’s revolutionaries.

After Egypt’s revolution, the world mistakenly assumed gender equality would be considered a key tenet of Egypt’s new democracy. But gender equality is part of the larger issue of human rights, and if the government of Egypt does not take issue with this crime against women it’s hard to decipher where they stand on those rights. A purposeful police absence gave the fundamentalists more chances to target women, and women cannot be expected to achieve equality without institutional support. The Egyptian government is not taking responsibility for keeping these women safe, and often the international community – which, in this case, has galvanized to create safe spaces for the women in Tahrir Square – cannot be bothered to intervene.

There is no place for women in this world: from Afghanistan to Africa and from America to Australia, all women live in fear of violent crime. Action needs to take place to keep women safe, and their progress cannot be left up to them alone. If women do not have the ability to safely participate in a democracy, or are silenced as a democracy begins to take shape, that sets a dangerous precedent in any nation’s search for equality and pathway to honoring human rights. Women matter, and women’s voices matter – in every protest and every corner of the world.

This Community Stood Behind A Survivor – At Any Cost

Until we have found ourselves in the situation of being repeatedly raped by our own father whilst the rest of our family are absent, we can never know what our reaction will be. When an 18-year-old girl in Papua New Guinea found herself in this exact situation, it was her decision to behead her rapist father with a Tramontia bush knife. In a world where rape survivors are forced to marry their attackers, or bribed to stay silent, you might think that this was a surefire way of guaranteeing condemnation from her community. Instead, she has received full support from the District Leaders.

Many, I’m sure, will be denouncing her for what is, of course, murder. I wonder how many of those have had to live with the knowledge that their father, the man who is meant to love them, violated them, and was imminently going to violate them again? Nobody should have to live with the trauma, the pain, and the fear that goes with being a rape survivor. This girl acted upon her instinct at a time when she had very little choice. She did what she felt she had to do to survive.

And her community are acknowledging that. The Dei District Leaders of the Western Highlands Province – in which this is reportedly the first instance of a father raping his own daughter – stated that she will not be shunned, because she “did what she did because of the trauma and the evil actions of her father.” They added that they will neither turn her over to the police or give her father a proper burial. Note to society: this is the kind of unwavering support rape survivors need, and the kind of condemnation that rapists deserve.

Of course, Papua New Guinea is by no means a beacon of human rights, especially for women. Witch hunts, of which women comprise six out of every seven reported victims, have been occurring in the country for many years, and in recent months have seen women publicly burned alive, beheaded and tortured. Clearly, it has a long way to go. But in this instance at least, they got it right.

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