Transforming Rape Culture from Steubenville to Anywhere, USA

Crossposted at The Feminist Wire

I usually beam when Ohio makes news.  Usually.  In presidential election years, the inner grin shows its teeth when I hear the famous phrase, “As goes Ohio, so goes the nation.”  Over the past several months however, as a writer living in the Buckeye state, I have found this saying applicable as we continue to survey the damage in the aftermath of the Steubenville rape case.

Ohio, famous for being the mirror of the United States, reflects the healthy tension of the American populous.  We boast an almost even distribution among liberal, conservative, and swing opinion.  Our medium sized cities are connected by the rural roads lay flat for both the Amish buggy and eighteen wheel semi-trucks transporting goods in every direction.  There’s support for and against gay marriage, reproductive rights, and every social issue you can battle.  In other words: what makes us special is our perfect average-ness. We’re the middle.  Our breath is often staked as the wind in which the direction of the nation will go. We are the political battle state that rests with the burden of revealing the civic psyche of the most powerful nation in the free world.  Meaning, what happens within our state lines can be an indication of what the rest of the nation is doing.  So, what do the events of Steubenville, Ohio mean for our country? It means what happened in Steubenville not only could happen anywhere.  It already is happening everywhere.  It means rape culture is alive and well.

As the abhorrent details of how two male teenage football players were found guilty of raping and disseminating nude photos of a 16 year old girl made headlines, writers and bloggers have asserted advice and coverage based upon their own ad hoc subcultures of parenting, activism, sports, and politics.  From the cloying, maternal columns suggesting we teach our sons to “be kind” to fiery debates on how we need to “teach men not to rape” to victim blaming, to learning “enthusiastic consent” before engaging in sexual activity, to boycotting CNN for their rape apologist reporting, there is no shortage of opinion on rape culture.  But there isn’t much on how to transform it.  Perhaps what makes it so difficult to pinpoint is its powerful yet amorphous nature.

Rape culture is like smoke.  Insidious, it hangs in the air, getting into everything, staining and deteriorating whatever it touches.  It’s highly adaptive, cunning, clever in its ability to morph into whatever context it is placed.   Rape culture prices and prioritizes human dignity, as if it’s something to earn and not inherent.  Rape culture sets behavioral prescriptions and if one does not adhere it them, they are deserving of violence or, at the very least, somehow responsible for it.  Rape has no age, transcending language and time.  It has been a part of the human conversation since the beginning of recorded story-telling found in religious texts and even mythology. It’s long standing presence in our history gives indication of one glaring social failure: we have yet to envision, let alone achieve, radical equality.

The Steubenville rape case, with its vile details possesses an eerie, almost scripted horror story that begs to be used for confronting teen issues:  acquaintance rape, sexuality, gender essentialism, alcohol, bullying, jock and sport pathology, hyper-masculinity, social media, judicial justice, consent, decision making, bystander mentality, moral codes, and accountability.

But for those of us many years removed from football practice and August end-of-summer-no-parents-home parties, it is time to identify what is our responsibility in transforming rape culture so we let this story become not fodder for the next generation of perpetrators and survivors, but rather an entry point for nuanced conversation?

Rape culture is not a separate, external entity corrupting a few in Steubenville, Ohio.  It is a deeply engrained and believable operating system in our collective conscience, whispering its influence into every aspect of life, at every stage of personal formation and development.  Rape culture is not a separate culture from the one you and I are living in.  They are one and the same.

The rape culture that formed Trent Mays’ and Ma’lik Richmond’s decisions to carry a girl from party to party, raping her at their leisure and entertainment is the same force that tells us which survivors deserve our empathy and which ones we ignore.  How interesting it is to read the harsh judgment pointed at the bystanders for not intervening on what they were witnessing.  One of the witnesses testified he didn’t know it was rape because “well, it wasn’t violent.” If we used the Steubenville bystanders as a mirror to our country, how many of us would see ourselves ignoring what is happening right in front of us because we didn’t see it as “violent?”

Rape is one of many violent forms of oppression – stalking, abuse, domestic violence, trafficking – but they come from the same culture.  Rape culture thrives in any society that assigns and thwarts power according to prescribed traits, identifiers, and behaviors. It is intensified through lenses of race, class, physical and cognitive ability, and occupation among an endless list of factors.  Some call this systematic assignment of privilege patriarchy.  I prefer kyriarchy.

It even continues in the aftermath, in the determination of whose stories are deemed worthy and which ones are less significant. So before we throw stones at the ignorant teenager who claims he didn’t know what rape looks like, ask yourself if you know what it looks like.  Not just for Jane Doe, and not just in cases of heterosexual aggression, do you know what sexual violence looks like for a queer or gay survivor?  Or a trafficked person?  Or an undocumented survivor? Or a transperson?  Or a sex worker?   What about what it looks like for an incarcerated survivor?  Are you pleading innocent because you weren’t aware and couldn’t identify what it looked like?

Feminists, activists, and bloggers alike are taken with this concept of “training men not to rape.”  In some ways, this plan can work.  It tackles the Steubenville situation, but does it address rape as social construct?  It may dismantle many of the problems, but it doesn’t transform it for everyone.

If we are to transform rape culture, for everyone, the salient thread is deepening our comprehension of how we view power, how we award and punish one another based on concepts of social-norming and acceptability. How we teach power – not how we give consent – is the core essence of rape culture.  This is the task of writing a new prevention plan that leaves “no means no and yes means yes” behind.  It is the most basic and daunting call because it requires we all, not just feminists and activists, become cultural workers in our everyday lives, examining the deep roots of our own agendas, dreams, and sense of safety.  This calls for us to ask uncomfortable questions around justice (how we conflate judicial sentencing and incarceration with accountability and justice), healing (how and if communities respond in the aftermath of crisis), and violence (trauma and its lasting impact on survivors and their families).

We each must acknowledge and accept that we will not and should not come to a unified “how to” agenda to wage a global war to end rape. This is not a call to abandon all the work that has been done to address rape, particularly acquaintance rape, through the lenses of heterosexual rape and consent.  These are important strategies to implement to prevent further crimes.  Neither is this a suggestion to ignore the fact that women represent the majority of rape survivors.  This is a call for expansion, not generalization. It is our responsibility to be mindful of the profundity of our goal to “overcome” rape culture. We’re not overcoming rape culture for some survivors, we are transforming it for everybody, and that includes not just survivors, but for perpetrators and bystanders as well.

To put my money where my mouth is, I looked at my own life as a mother to a young son, as a feminist writer residing in the “heart of it all,” as a woman of color cultural critic/worker, my responsibility lays in a multifaceted sphere. Steubenville serves as a dramatic guideline for how to shift from being a culture based on power to a culture based on relationship.  In building upon the work of so many who have voiced their expertise on their own cultures and subcultures, here are a few of my own organically grown strategies for not only combating but transforming rape culture in a region whose social nervous system is held as the microcosm for the United States.

Transforming Biology as Destiny to Exciting Possibility

My 3-year-old toddler boy received endless comments for his physical attributes especially his height.  Apparently his unusually high growth rate makes turns adults oracles, predicting futures that all include physical sport participation.  “Do you want to play basketball when you grow up?  You are so tall, but you gotta be fast, too!”  While there is nothing inherently wrong with asking a child if they want to play sports, a repeated question, identical in assumption, sends a strong message of performance, expectation, and preference, and what it might take to please others.

Using one arm, I open the space for him to think freely, opposing rape culture’s tendency to shrink masculinity to focus on physical coordination as a sign of worth by adding a tagline, “We definitely practice his free throw shots, but he really loves maps and he’s also dabbling in piano.  We make rhymes, too, so maybe a future poet.  Lots of fun options to explore.”  With the other arm, I tweak the expectations of family and strangers alike, “It’s so exciting to think of all the things kids can try, isn’t it?  Who knows who he will discover himself to be.”

Transforming Teenage Angst to Mentoring Opportunity

I wouldn’t be able to identify my 14 year old niece, a sprouting African American young woman, if her phone was not attached to her right hand, oscillating between holding her phone arm’s length away to snap another picture of herself or finger scrolling her friends’ pictures of themselves on Twitter.  She shares details of 8th grade life, which include secret boyfriends and girlfriends, inside jokes, half-truths, and almost manic swings in friendship sagas.

It’s hard, but I put aside my temptation to place all my Angela Davis, Audre Lorde, and Gloria Anzaldua books in the most obvious parts of her room and ask about other parts of her life that don’t revolve around her social life.  Trying to put focus and energy on her gifts that don’t receive as much attention, I ask to see her pencil sketches, create reasons for road trips, volunteer to be her Wii partner for Just Dance, and accompany her on retreats.  With careful and appropriate disclosure, I share my own struggles as a woman of color remembering being a girl of color in the Midwest, providing a safe place to share her anger and confusion about racist and sexist encounters, and brainstorming self-care options.  Just as I wonder if anything that I’m doing makes a difference, she casually remarks, “The other day I was really thinking about what you said and I try not to do that at school.” I give her a quizzical look and wait for her to elaborate.  “You know, that thing you said about not dumbing yourself down for the sake of someone liking you.  I see that in a lot of my friends.  Yeah, I’m not going to do that.”

Transforming Buried Ignorance to Liberating Truthfulness

A few months ago, when delivering my phone to a technology service desk for a repair an employee asks me what I do for a living.  I falter, about to give a generic answer to avoid discussion about writing.  I go with honesty, “I write about feminisms, culture, and gender.  Human rights, too.  I try to anyway.”  Immediately his face lights up and he says he finds this fascinating.  We go back and forth in conversation.  Standing in the middle of a store, he shares his story about his experiences as a transsexual man.  He soon asks me questions, wanting to know my opinion about issues pertaining to the trans community. The pressure to nod and spit terms that I didn’t completely understand creeps up my face. I was embarrassed by my ignorance, but transparency wins.  “Truthfully, I don’t know enough about trans issues or lives. I know it’s not your job to teach me.  So, I need to know more before I try to answer.”

While he fidgeted with my gadget, the conversation grew from him sharing how he grew up knowing he was different from his peers, to sharing what it means to for him to be a transsexual graduate student in the engineering field.  After our legs begin to ache from standing in one place too long, he gives me his card and asks to connect over Facebook.  I leave, mystified and high off conversation.

For me, I don’t want to just end rape. I want to transform the mentalities that posit sexual violence as a sensible outcome of its logic. We must transform rape culture by wielding our own power in the spaces where we are most present: our workspaces, family, neighborhoods, businesses, relationships, religious or spiritual gathering places, and even our corners of the Internet.  Think personal and local.  Think relationship and specificity. Think human decency.  Begin there.  When we identify and name the spaces where we show up and are present, when we are charged with our own authority to claim and demand human dignity for ourselves, we begin to demand it for one another.  We must choose our battles, yes, but we must respond knowing that no situation is too big or small for that charge.  This is what it means to transform rape culture.

If we are to learn anything from Steubenville, it’s that Steubenville can easily be anywhere.  Anyone can be Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond. Anyone can be Jane Doe.  It is sobering to know that if this kind of tragedy happened on one random summer night in Ohio, similar tragedies are occurring a thousand fold across the country.  If it’s happening here then it’s happening in your hometown as well.  And who is better equipped to transform your hometown than you?

Mary Magdalen as a Sex Positive Therapist: What Catholic Women Can Learn from the Most Misunderstood Figure in the New Testament

One of the mystifying aspects of my studying the US mainstream feminist movement has been the “sex positive” feminists.  In my cursory reading of it (I nearly exclusively read authors on women of color feminism and poetry), my general understanding of it comes from the 1980s Sex Pos movement which came as a – somewhat – reactive response to the anti-pornography feminism that sprung out in the 70s, which placed pornography at the center of the women’s movement.  It claimed, among many other facets of women’s rights, that true freedom was directly related to sexual freedom and choice.

In more modern and nuanced definitions, I’ve read more blogs and articles that sex-positivity is more of an umbrella to hold theories, prompts, and loose philosophies around ideas of desire, consent, gender, and sexual choices.

Even with the updated work on sex positivity, I was always confused by the phrase “Sex Positive.”  It never really occurred to me to identify as a sex positive feminist because the title itself seemed to suggest that most people think of sex as negative.  I never thought of sex as “bad.”  Sure,   I grew up in a more conservative Catholic Filipino culture, but as a Filipino American, I came to understand sexuality through books, friends, and sneaking a peak during the “shut your eyes!” moments in the movies like Top Gun, Ghost, and Dirty Dancing. (RIP gorgeous phenom Patrick Swayze.)

Catholics and sexuality. Er, um. A-hem.  That’s not exactly our forte.  Despite the rigid lines around Catholic sexuality, I grew my own sense of what it is, was, and what I wanted it to look like for myself.  So, identifying as “SEX POSITIVE!” seemed odd, to say the least.  Like, why don’t I go around saying I’m a FILIPINO POSITIVE feminist?  Eh, that seems a bit awkward.  And redundant.

Lately, though, the more I read and listen to Catholic news surrounding sexuality, I can certainly see why the term SEX POSITIVE is necessary.  There is a tremendous amount of guilt, shame, and silence when it comes to sex, sexual development, and gender for Catholic women. (Understatement of the year…)

Just last night, I taught a class on Mary Magdalen, a controversial and rather mysterious figure in the New Testament.  It was astounding to see how people were impacted by her.  It appeared, though, that everyone’s impression of Mary depended on how she was presented either in Catholic schools or by parents.  Last night, one woman, full of emotion, professed her undying love for Mary Magdalen.  Another identified her as, “the whore* of the bible.”  People were all over the place and it’s no wonder.  But, the one thing that they all had in common was that their reactions were strong. No one had a lukewarm impression.

Even in history, her identity is somewhat obscure.  Her identity was conflated with so many other biblical women figures whose sins were deemed of the sexual nature.  She was an adulteress about to stoned.  She was the woman with the alabaster jar.  She was Mary of Bethany who renounced sin and turned her life to Christ.  She was the woman who cleaned Jesus feet with her tears and wiped them dry with her hair.  But, in two gospels, she is simply referred to as one Jesus cured of severe illness; one who Jesus drove seven demons out.  And “demons” at that time, were a way for folks to explain the presence of sin and suffering in the world.  It’s not how we think of it when we think “demon.”  (Read: head spinning from the Exorcist)

Mary Magdalene quite possibly was a regular, common person in the time of Christ who was healed of her illness and went forward in her life to eventually become the only witness to all of the most significant events in the last days of Jesus’ life.  She was there at the crucifixion (John places her at the foot of the cross).  She was there at the burial, and then she was the first witness.  Pretty important stuff.

Since her historical identity is so supremely tied to the renunciation of sexuality and fornication, it seems odd to use her to expound Catholic feminism, but I think she’s the perfect muse.

Some theologians speculate (given the fragmented stories from the Gospels of Thomas, Phillip, and Mary), Mary possessed inner vision.  She possessed sophia, the enlightened Wisdom, which the Apostles sought.  It was with this inner vision that she led the women followers of Christ, supported Jesus in his ministry, and, consequently, became the first person to see the most famous miracle in human history: the resurrection of the Human body.

Quite spectacular.

I surmise, two thousand and twelve years later, that it’s mainstream feminism’s lack of inner vision that inhibits it from truly leading a movement that sustains itself on principles of growth, altruism, and liberation.  Much sex positive feminism equates liberation with liberation of the body and while I agree to some extent that one must have the rights and freedoms of body to feel and express empowerment, it is not just the liberation of the body and sexual relationship that equates to liberation for all.  Perhaps sex positive feminists posit the body as the foundation for which all other human rights lie because without that basic acknowledgement, no other progress can be made.  I think the body is a critical point to begin, but it’s limiting to centralize the body and sex (as defined by heteronormative mainstream feminists) for a movement claiming liberation for all persons.  I do think, though, that the sex positive movement can teach a think or two to Catholic women and I think Mary Magdalen is the crux for that argument.  A nuanced version of Mary Magdalen – as a woman who may or may not have been a sexual prowess – can lead some Catholic women to a more sex positive state of being.

So many Catholics get bogged down with wondering who and what Mary was that they forget she became one of the most prominent, if not the most prominent, follower of Jesus Christ.  And her ability to be visionary, her ability to act with radical love in a time of great chaos and persecution is the most incredible feminist lesson I can take from her life.  If Mary Magdalen as the visionary leader of great Wisdom were to lead Catholic women in sex positive living, I believe she would begin with helping women trace the roots of female shame.

It was Pope St. Gregory the Great who officially announced Mary Magdalen as umbrella for sexually related female sins and labeled her as a prostitute.  She became the poster child of regained spiritual and bodily virginity.  In a time where celibacy and abstaining were pressed upon Catholics, creating a female figure who professed a sex-free life was beneficial.  Mary Magdalen was the bearer of the scarlet letter long before Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote about hypocrisy and societal humiliation.  The problem for Catholic women is that while Hester Prynne was fictitious, Mary Magdalen – and her pseudo identity as a purified Eve – was real.  Very real.  And Catholic girls were taught to hate the “whore of the bible.”  Thus, for many Catholic girls, guilt was born just as they hit puberty and boobs and hair started to grow.  The relationship between sexual acts and Mary Magdalen is still very real.  Her name has been proliferated through everything from non profits helping “save” girls from prostitution and brothel houses.

The good news is that the church officially stated that Mary Magdalen was indeed ONE person in the great year of 1969.  Yes.  You read that correctly.  That tiny detail – Mary Magdalen was only one person and probably not a prostitute – was clarified just forty three years ago.  While the Catholic Church can take a over a century to clear up a case of sexual mis-teaching, Catholics don’t have that kind of luxury to spend their lives in judgement and unnecessary guilt, trapped in false images and notions of sexuality promiscuity.

So what are we to learn from Mary Magdalen about being a sex positive Catholic feminist?

It would behoove us to start with courage.  It would behoove us to stop seeing gender as a binary dividing line of battle.  If she had the means, I would hypothesize that Mary wouldn’t have wanted to be separated into women and men traveling groups in the Jesus movement.  I think she would have liked to see community coming together, not traveling with lines of power and separatism.  I think she would want us to recognize our brothers and sisters who do not identify as brothers and sisters, those who identify as gender non conforming, or as trans, asexual, or simply unknown.  Not everything is about boxes of identity, as her own complex history shows us. I believe we could also couple our courage with honesty.  Honesty about who we are, who we want to be with, and when we’ve had enough.  I believe that Catholics have spent so much of their lives hoping they’re on the “right” side of faith, they fail to truly know what they themselves want out of life, out of relationship, out of sex, and of God.

Desire is so heavily sided to mean “sex” that we forget that simple pleasures – sensuality – is a brightly starred cousin of sexuality.  We forget that pleasure can be expressed in countless ways of touch, speaking, and exploration.  When did it become a sin to be overwhelmed with desire for another person?  What we DO with that desire is another conversation, but the allowance of desire in our lives deepens not taints our humanity.

Mostly,  though, I believe Mary Magdalen would be worried less about what the mostly white men with robes on think about contraception, and more about what we truly believe in our hearts about our bodies, our sexual expressions, our ability to accept and be desired and desirable.  I believe that Mary would have us reflect more about sexuality as spirituality, a gift that we alone can cultivate and question in the holiest ground we know: our conscience.  And when we choose to share it, we do so with those who walk respectfully, maturely, and passionately on our ground.

*I take personal issue with the word “whore” and use it only in quotes to accurately reflect the rhetoric used.  “Whore” is often used to shame women and female identified sexuality.  There is no equivalent for non-female, non-woman identified persons (e.g. “male-whore”) and “whore’ is typically used in pop culture to pejoratively refer to women who have a lot of sex. It also feeds the killer double standard facing most US female and girl/woman identified teens who are given options to either abstain (pro-abstinence) or dare to express themselves sexually and risk being labeled as such.

A1 is A-Sexist

Over at The Bilerico Project (who is up for the Best GLBT blog Weblog Awards), Bil Browning had a sweet turned bitter taste in his mouth when he spotted a vintage logo on the bottle of A1 steak sauce.

Apparently, the image is a 1950s-esqu picture of a man silencing a woman with his finger while he eats his food. The caption reads, “Yeah, it’s that important.”

Browning goes on to admit, “I may not be the most versed in feminist theory, but, Good Lord Almighty, this one is glaringly obvious.” The comments in the thread go on to discuss the imagery and its meaning.

But my delight in this post was more than just someone taking a phone picture of what he saw as sexist and writing about it. It’s small things like this – taking initiative when you see something as offensive – and DOING something about it. One post on the internet isn’t going to change the world or even shake the boots of a popular steak sauce company, but it does rattle chains. And it inspires us to do some form of daily resistance, however small, when we perceive something as sexist, or racist, or classist, or just plain wrong.

It’s the collective action of our daily resistance and the power we hold to access media that will change the landscape of mainstream marketing and its irresponsible advertisements.

Cross-posted at Bitch Magazine.

Insulting the Intellect, Agnes Scott College Opens Its Doors to Road Trip II: Beer Pong

If you view the website of Agnes Scott College, a private all women’s college in Decatur, Georgia, the visitor or prospective student will find idyllic pictures of fresh-faced young women with telescopes, smiling students engaged in music, or tony looking youngsters attending a swanky social gathering. In the rotating slideshow, there sits the most formidable question of life development: Who will you become? If your eyes drift to the right, the mission of the College hugs the top corner, “Educating women to think deeply, live honorably, and engage in the intellectual and social challenges of their times.”

By every measure of that statement senior Louisa Hill, a guest blogger at The Bilerico Project, is doing just that. For all the varied struggles against sexist oppression, I surmise she would not have anticipated finding one of those battles on her own campus when the College stuck a deal with upcoming sequel Road Trip II: Beer Pong and gave open accessibility to not just the physical campus for shooting the flick, but the matriculated students as well.

Hill’s report gives account of deeply disturbing actions that has taken place on campus with the filming of Road Trip II: Beer Pong. She outlines the racist and sexist recruitment efforts:

…Craigslist ad states “primarily seeking White” and “Attractive Female
Model Type” extras, valued at $7.17/hr (be sure to send in your
weight!). These racist and sexist standards are clearly visible on the
movie’s promotional flier, helping to perpetuate the image that only
sexy white people go to college. The flier shows a headless white
woman’s body, focusing on her large breasts, barely covered by a shirt
that says “Nice Rack.” Her pelvis is in front of a triangle of shot
glasses. The tagline? “Get your balls wet.”

The students were also subject to horrendous stereotyping as the film crew shot the “Lesbians Until Graduation” scene which only eroticizes lesbianism as nothing more than an experimental “choice” made in the absence of men and, in the movie industry, sells women and their sexual identity as a heteronormative gift for men.

…the scene involved the male protagonists
stumbling upon the room full of these “making-out lesbians” (to
presumably “convert” them?). When we expressed offense, the recruiter
said she was warned about encountering uncooperative students who were
“really into being women” (versus into being objects?).

Other incidents of objectifying the students at Agnes Scott were documented, including reckless behavior of extras working in the movie. One student reported being told that she was so attractive, she should be careful of being raped. Another student, carrying a cup of coffee, was asked by an extra to get him one as well.

In the glitter of gifted professors and sprawling green spaces, it is easy to forget that higher education is business. It is an intellectual playground for thinkers and activists, the thrilling table in the exchange of ideas and challenge. Underneath that playground, however, the business roots of higher education occasionally sprout foul-smelling weeds that spring from damaging deals. To students, those agreements feel like betrayal, and rightly so. All the elements that lift a women’s college to another realm of engagement and learning is completed neutralized by a $30,000 business contracts that allow hapless Road Trip II: Beer Pong to sick its claws into, what appears to be, a vibrant and promising student body.

While the College recently announced its smallest tuition increase in over 35 years and boasts the College’s willingness to go the extra mile during these hard economic times, I’d wager that the students and their families would not have minded a sharper tuition spike if it meant cancelling deals with films that not only stand in contradiction of the College’s mission, but attack the values and minds of the women whom they claim to be educating.

Cross-posted at Bitch Magazine