Archive for category Sexual Assault
TweetThere is it. The word, the “A” word: advocate.
In my early days of being an advocate and educator for survivors of rape and sexual violence, I thought it primarily described my role as being a voice in times of silence. Silence during invasive rape examination kits, I would be an advocate with my eyes and head, never breaking the gaze of a survivor who needed me to hold her stare while doctors did what they had to do for an investigation. In the dim lit corners of trials and courtrooms, I walked beside survivors and often their crumbling family members who could not keep their emotions contained. Advocacy, I learned, was not about supplying my voice in the place of silence. It was much more body focused. Knowing where to stand, and what presence to carry into each situation. Mostly, though, it meant developing a profound understanding of the voices of others. Knowing when and how to help them shape it, use it, attend to it. There are so many ways to advocate for survivors. Speaking for them, however, is usually not what’s needed though.
I wonder if these same qualities I learned in the field of sexual violence could be applicable to the spiritual world. Who doesn’t need to learn when to listen, how to listen, undoing years of learning that responding is equivalent to saying something of worth? Advocacy is the highest call to presence for another human being. Who else have I been an advocate for? Who else in my life needs me in similar ways, just not in those conditions? If I look into my life, I’m sure I will find others who also feel abandoned by everyone – including God – and violated, betrayed, broken, and bewildered. Perhaps I can begin to stop focusing on the whorl of my life, and fixate on being that for others. I have been an advocate for survivors of sexual violence nearly all of my adult life and it has sensitized me beyond comprehension to the world of survivors. But what survivors of violence need overlaps with what we all need: radical compassion, a loyal friend, honesty, and fellowship of anger at the injustice of the world.
Today is Memorial Day weekend, and I remember all the women who have been lost in the war of violence. I uplift all the women who were killed, raped, tortured, held captive, enslaved, beaten, manipulated, used, and dismissed purely because of someone’s misogyny and unconscious spirit.
For what I believe about women in the world, I am prepared to be “kicked out of the synagogue” and, in terms of advocacy for women, killed.
They will expel you from the synagogues;
in fact, the hour is coming when everyone who kills you
will think he is offering worship to God.
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?
There’s not a whole lot to say when cases like grab the nation’s attention. A drunken woman. Two men. A jury that said is was certainly possible that a rape had occurred, but there just wasn’t enough evidence to prove it.
Whether in the courtrooms of Manhattan, or in the shadows of Grays Harbor, Washington, or in the college towns of Miami University or Boston College — all places I have lived and worked — the same story is told. Of the women who are raped, a fraction goes to trial, and a fraction of those actually come out on the side of the survivor. Often so many result in acquittal – why?
I asked this of a prosecutor several years ago who told me that juries often represent the heart of America, they represent the conscious and mind of the middle of America. The middle of America, he said, don’t understand rape, trauma, consent, and the physiology of memory. So as long as the average American believes that no rape occurred unless there’s DNA and the story has every hole covered, and the woman is a sober virgin, who’s likely white; and the perpetrator is non white, and it happened at night, with violence that left bruises and blood. And the survivor had a rape kit done immediately which was properly processed. And she has adequate legal representation.
Acquitting rapists is not just an American trend, it’s a global trend.
There’s no real way to talk or link up to every. single. case that went in favor of the defense – cases where survivors needed emergency medical attention because they were bleeding so profusely from their attack, cases where survivors had eye witnesses – for reasons that remain mysterious.
I just think back to the words of that prosecutor who compared juries to the common citizen.
If you are middle America – what does it take to convince you a rape has occurred?
Think about it. And then talk to someone who feels comfortable in sharing their story of assault. See how your perceptions measure to their reality.
Think about it.
TweetI gave myself permission, while at the Civil Liberties and Public Policy conference in Massachusetts, to not write if I couldn’t make it happen. I wrote so much offline, I just didn’t post it. Some of it was too personal for online and some of it just belongs in my journal.
I presented on two different panels during the weekend. One was to talk about independent media and the other was my work with working with survivors of sexual violence and how to create safe spaces for them to heal. Clearly, I had my hands full.
That night, after my presentations were finished, I was exhausted. I couldn’t really express all that I had taken into my body. Whenever I give talks or facilitate groups around the issue of sexual violence, the look on everyone’s faces is the same: wide, open eyes, like a wide unblinking lens on a camera, ready to catch any detail that passes their gaze. Expressions are open, serious, and expectant. No one talks. Whereever there is the shadow of sexual violence, there is always silence somewhere.
Unfortunately, I have given too many presentations and talks about this because I always know what happens when I am finished. The rhetoric of trauma, inevitably, brings up the often buried history of someone’s trauma. Over the years, countless women come up to me after a presentation and whisper thank you, their eyes full of memory and tears, and they leave. Contrary to my presentations, I never know what to say in those moments. Those moments when someone else’s pain is so visceral is the closest one can come to seeing the face of vulnerability. It’s a painful gift to share, but it’s still a gift to me. To be in the presence of survivors, always, humbles and overwhelms me.
That night I woke up at 3am and stood in the bathroom for a while. My stomach wasn’t upset, my throat wasn’t parched, my mind was not racing, but something was stirring deep in my soul. I couldn’t ignore it. But I tried.
I threw the blankets over my head, determined to outwit my soul by reminding my head that I still had a full day of conference and traveling left and if I was smart, I’d close my eyes and go dream. But my body had other ideas. The stirring continued. Questions surfaced. Theological questions, spiritual questions, activist questions, human question.
How do we teach one another how to love? I mean, at the most basic level, how do you teach love? Is it even teachable? Is it something passed down from our caretakers and if we had enough of it, we spread it and if we didn’t have enough of it, we spend the rest of our lives trying to fill that hole in ourselves that never tasted fulfillment? Is love something I can teach someone else?
How do you teach love to people who commit power-based violence? How does one come into this world and some odd number years later find themselves inflicting spiritual murder on another person and violating another person’s most basic right: the right to share or not share their body with another human being. Where does this distortion of power come from?
After these thoughts spilled out of my brain and onto my pillow, I realized that sleep was never going to come. I kept thinking of Andrea Dworkin and so I wrote instead. Afterward, after 3 hours of writing, my body released whatever it was holding and I fell asleep.
Andrea Dworkin was this really loud, controversial feminist from a few decades ago who wrote groundbreaking and eyebrowing raising work around sex and sexuality. I disagree with most of her rhetoric and don’t really think I would ever call her my hero, but she wrote amazingly important work. One of her speeches, delivered before 500 men in the 80s, called “I Want a 24 Hour Truce.” In this speech, she begs, pleads, demands, implores men to do something in their lives to stop other men from raping women. (And I know that sexual violence crosses the binary line of men raping women, but this is the focus I’m referring to right now…) It’s a powerful, haunting speech:
…men come to me or to other feminists and say: “What you’re saying about men isn’t true. It isn’t true of me. I don’t feel that way. I’m opposed to all of this.”
And I say: don’t tell me. Tell the pornographers. Tell the pimps. Tell the warmakers. Tell the rape apologists and the rape celebrationists and the pro-rape ideologues. Tell the novelists who think that rape is wonderful. Tell Larry Flynt. Tell Hugh Hefner. There’s no point in telling me. I’m only a woman. There’s nothing I can do about it. These men presume to speak for you. They are in the public arena saying that they represent you. If they don’t, then you had better let them know…
…As a feminist, I carry the rape of all the women I’ve talked to over the last ten years personally with me. As a woman, I carry my own rape with me. Do you remember pictures that you’ve seen of European cities during the plague, when there were wheelbarrows that would go along and people would just pick up corpses and throw them in? Well, that is what it is like knowing about rape. Piles and piles and piles of bodies that have whole lives and human names and human faces.
And I want one day of respite, one day off, one day in which no new bodies are piled up, one day in which no new agony is added to the old, and I am asking you to give it to me … I want a twenty-four-hour truce during which there is no rape.
And on that day, that day of truce, that day when not one woman is raped, we will begin the real practice of equality, because we can’t begin it before that day. Before that day it means nothing because it is nothing: it is not real; it is not true. But on that day it becomes real. And then, instead of rape we will for the first time in our lives–both men and women–begin to experience freedom.
If you have a conception of freedom that includes the existence of rape, you are wrong. You cannot change what you say you want to change. For myself, I want to experience just one day of real freedom before I die. I leave you here to do that for me and for the women whom you say you love.
Andrea Dworkin gave that speech in 1983 to 500 men and only 1 in that crowd of 500 men threatened her physically. Andrea Dworkin also died on April 5, 2005. She wanted to live to see the day when not one woman was raped. She died never seeing that day.
It came to me this weekend that the power I hold as an educator, as a mother, as a friend is all the power I need in this world to try and make a difference in the lives of those I can build relationship with. I believe I will make a difference and will continue to try, but, after all the stories I’ve heard and all the tears I’ve witnessed fall off the cheeks of women, I know that, like Andrea who died without seeing that day of no rape, I will never see that day either.
TweetThe recent allegations against former VP, Oscar-winning, Nobel Prize joint holder Al Gore of sexual assault is enough to make anyone – Dem, Indie, or Republican squirm with uneasiness. I mean, it’s not everyday you hear that the former right hand man to the leader of the free world and near leader of the free world in the closest Presidential race in the history of our nation ask a masseuse to release the energy in his second chakra.
The collision of digital media and pop culture has enabled us to receive information about this case – and news in general – faster than at other point in human history. Anywhere, anytime in the world, if a story breaks, if you have access to the internet, you will have reasonable means to find out what happened.
Find out what happened, that is, from the viewpoint of the media. And the staff. And their collective point system to determine if a story is “true” or not. Granted, if I were a paid journalist for a reputable paper, I’d use my own point system of fact-checking. If you gotta report on whether XYZ is a legitimate story, you have to have all the dots connect. That’s understandable.
What’s not understandable and downright wrong is to apply the journalists’ point system of “truth” likelihood to cases of sexual violence, a field where the dots do anything but connect. It is the very nature of violence that the dots are SUPPOSED to not make sense. We’re talking trauma and memory here, not context and accuracy.
The inconvenient truth about sexual assault is that there truly is no way to determine what truly happened, except for the two people who were involved. It’s more often than not, though, that the survivor of sexual assault is a woman, the assailant is a man, and there was indeed a sexual violation. INCONVENIENT TRUTH #1: Rape actually happens. All the time. At an alarming rate that you don’t want to acknowledge or believe. And it is rare that the rapes are ever proven.
Unfortunately, society at large tends to use celebrity and public cases ala Kobe Bryant and Ben Rothlisberge for their field experience and education. People hear about a public allegation of sexual violence and the majority of media consumers jump on the PROVE IT! PROVE IT! PROVE IT! taunting bandwagon, rather than displaying any semblance of sensitive, mature decorum, or, heaven forbid, prudence. It’s disheartening, to say the least. INCONVENIENT TRUTH #2: The public’s response, sensitivity, and knowledge base about sexual violence against women is inexcusably deficient. Is it really any wonder so few women ever come forward? Or why we have such a hard time comprehending any sort of justice outside the legal court system? The public’s venomous need for graphic details and using “guilty” or “not guilty” as the barometer for truth only further darkens the already dark path for survivors of violence.
In a conservative estimate, the FBI reports that only 37% of actual rapes are reported. After working in sexual assault for many years in advocacy and counseling, I believe it’s probably more around the 3.7% not 37%. Many years ago, a colleague who worked as a researcher in criminal justice for the government once told me that the report she submitted for the Department of Justice, which included the data of the number of sexual assaults that occurred that year, was later published with altered data numbers. The actual number of rapes was published LOWER than what her findings suggested. Why, I asked. Because, she told me plainly, no one wants to hear about how many women are raped in this country. And no one wants to tell the truth. INCONVENIENT TRUTH #3 Even the most credible resources for sexual violence estimates are just that: estimates. Ask any person who has worked in the field for more than 1 year who has direct service experience. S/he will tell you what I will tell you: The statistics are wrong. It’s more. Much more.
Anytime I wrote or give a talk about sexual assault, inevitably, someone brings up two magic words that somehow make people, usually disbelievers, feel better about the world: FALSE REPORTS. Yes, false reports exist. Yes, false reports exist. Yes, false reports exist.
There. I wrote it. Three times just to make sure you know they they do exist.
They happen. Of course they happen. Just like how everyday people lie on the trial stand. Just like employees fudge the truth about billing hours. Just like how some people “forget” a number or two when filing their taxes. People give false reports. YES. And, in that vein, I pray that people understand that (INCONVENIENT TRUTH #4) for every false report there are about 1000 truth bearing women who will NEVER say a word because they understand that when it comes to rape, the benefit of the doubt is given to the assailant, not the survivor.
It’s also imperative that people understand the difference between a false report and a withdrawn statement.
Many, many women I worked with who suffered from post traumatic stress disorder, who were beaten black and blue, whose bodies were broken and spirits were crushed withdrew their statements and vanished into thin air. (WHY? Go back and read IC #4.) That’s a withdrawn statement. An actual false report is when the alleged victim admits to lying about giving a false statement. There’s no retracting of anything, just an admittance of lying. However, I must also interject, that there are women who also admit to false reporting out of fear of going forward. Not everything is black and white.
The overwhelming majority of women I work with never report and the ones that do face incredible odds of ever witnessing legal justice. My job, for many years, was to assist women in finding justice in other ways. Justice can be measured in how many hours of sleep you got, how many days were free of alcohol or drugs to numb the pain, entering a new, healthy relationship, communicating freely…Justice, for many survivors, is about reclaiming what was stolen. Rebuilding one’s life in the safety and love of their families and communities is often all one can do. INCONVENIENT TRUTH #5 Survivors often heal on their own, absent of any retribution or affirmation.
Finding out whether cases like Gore, Bryan, or Rothlisberger are true is not my interest. The last thing on my agenda is to convince anyone if someone is a perpetrator or not. What I am most interested in is pressing critical and comprehensive understanding of sexual violence against women; and how powerful and damaging this issue truly is. And if people understood how prevalent this is in their local communities, not as many folks would be interested in the celebrity cases. I guarantee it.
Sexual assault is a the issue with no silver lining. There is no upside or sentence that begins with, “Well, at least…” No. There is no middle ground, safe haven, or pill to make this pain go away. For the survivor, it is a vicious, damning cycle of violence, judgment, disbelief, and a tedious road of recovery. There is no silver lining, but there is hope. There is hope that everyday people, like you and me, can see through the BS of media’s portrayal of sexual assault and, if nothing else, better understand the issue at hand for ourselves. The more people who understand the true facts of violence against women, the more hope we have of preventing it in our own communities and families. And if it does happen, which it likely has and will, we are able to respond with gentleness, understanding, and empathy.
TweetTurning to global news…
Some of you may remember that horrendous story of the Austrian father who imprisoned his daughter in a windowless cell in his basement and repeatedly raped her for 24 years and fathered seven children with her.
There are some details of this story that are just too inhuman to comprehend. I find myself going back and reading over the words, seeing if the magnitude of this woman’s brokenness can every truly be recognized.
I came to an answer of No.
A psychiatrist who reviewed the psychological state of this man said, “Fritzl is guilty for what he did,” and adds that Fritzl himself said he was “born to rape.”
Fritzl was diagnosed with a severe personality disorder and has a “deep need to control people,” and while my background is in mental health and wholeheartedly agree that those who struggle with clinical personality disorders are the most difficult and often despairing clients to work with, the statement “born to rape,” raises a million white flags for me. It should raise a million white flags for anyone who works in psychology or mental health because these kinds of statements throw blankets and generalizations around mental illness and rape culture.
There are so many levels of sexual assault and I’m not exploring all the different kinds and angles of rape that exist. They’re all rape. This woman’s situation has a rare, animalistic cruelty to it and it’s clear on so many levels that mental instability played a part of this man’s behavior. It is my belief that rape is the utter denial of another person’s humanity. It fails to recognize the full capacity of another human being. How else can you explain violating a person’s body, their sexuality, their choice, sacred expression? How else can someone rape if it does not include blinding themselves to the fullness, wholeness of the person they are raping? Rape is the utter denial of a woman’s livelihood, as a complete and total living person. To do that, to commit rape, one must have some level of mental distortion.
Mental illness clearly plays role in this specific case, but our rape culture’s role is never a headliner. The reflective questions that blast canons at ourselves – those actively who create and participate in this culture – are rarely focal points. Rape culture loves to scare us with extra dark nightmares and put fancy clinical sounding labels to explain violent behaviors. It’s the same falsity that convinces us that we’re safe enough when crazies like Fritzl are in jail and not bother to consistently teach our sons and daughters about the real and usual face of rape.
It is our culture, our rape culture, deems Fritzl a nutcase but college age and educated men who repeatedly rape women on weekends are an entirely different thing. It is our western rape culture that flaps the trafficking young girls and women as a phenomenon happening “elsewhere,” and the stench of violence smells most rancid in cases like Fritzl. It is our rape culture that likes to draw deep lines in the sand that says men who rape their daughters for decades are sick. Men who rape strangers are deranged. Men who rape their friends and girlfriends are disturbed. But the actual dissection of these things of what makes rape acceptable – our rape culture – is never on trial.
When you study mental health, one quickly learns that mental wellness is a continuum. Everyone, to some extent, can be plotted on the graph with anxiety, paranoia, phobias, chronic thoughts, memories, bad habits, reoccurring dreams, depression, psychosomatic pains, bereavement, flat affect…etc. Clearly some suffering is much more severe (e.g. depression versus clinical depression) than others, but don’t be fooled. Or scared. We’re all mentally well and unwell in some capacity at some times in our lives. The danger of discussing rape and mental illness is that mental illness quickly becomes the focus (and the crutch) for those wanting to understand “how something like this is possible.”
But only extreme cases like Fritzl, with a clear personality disorder diagnosis, are “born to rape.” These other men who perform acts of brutality are …. what? Not born to rape? Even with the most severe of mental disorders, no person knows how to rape another human. People may be born with a predisposition toward any number of things, but not all people decide and choose to rape. So, how does rape culture affect men differently? Is it really because of mental illness? Is it that men learn to rape and are more prone to these acts if they’re mentally sick? Is it all dependent upon external environmental factors? It paints a picture that the grain of crazy was inside this man and, due to family dynamics and brain anatomy, carried out the worst evils inside him.
The methods of how rape is carried out may not be identical, but the need is similar: desire for control and power. How that control is taken – by cell, alcohol, drugs, threat, or abuse – varies, but rape culture sends a clear message to those mentally well and unwell that control can be taken. Power can be taken. With the right resources, idea, and environment, women can be raped. This is the message. This is what is accepted. We, as a society, raise all kinds of dirty hell and voices when we’re confronted with the aftermath of these messages, but when it’s time to take the stand, we throw mental illness up there for interrogation, blame, and relief, instead of rape culture which plays the largest role in all the violence against women in Austria, the Philippines, Liberia, or anywhere else in the world. Our culture, our global message of our we view and treat women never is deconstructed in the same way we do mental illness.
Why do we do that? Why don’t we put ourselves on the stand? Is it because we aren’t strong enough to admit that we allow and possibly even participate in that destructive rape culture?
We don’t really want to trace how we learn internalize these messages and as we grow into business partners, community leaders, college students, priests, or educators – we grow with the messages inside us.
If we begin accepting this kind of language, “born to rape,” as a skirting method to use mental illness and explain the grotesque crimes of our world, we will fail to analyze the true causes of a rape culture – the ways we are raised to understand gender, power, sexuality, relationships, and communication. Rape culture is the culture that features a specific case like this but never bothers to tackle rape as a daily weapon and how imprisonment, trafficking, and enslaving of women around the world is actually not that uncommon.
This woman’s story is unacceptable. The brutality and enormity of her nightmare reaches unfathomable depths. But how we frame and explain her perpetrator, a man “born to rape,” tells much more of how we frame rape in our own minds.
To truly combat a rape culture, we must go further than to explain the “proclivity” to rape. I believe the decision to rape is pieced together by various traumas, lessons, allowances, and testing pressure points to see what is acceptable and what can go unpunished (e.g that terrible statistic that indicated 25-30% of US and Canadian college men would rape if they knew they could get away with it.)
It’s not a formula. There are no easy answers. Dismantling a rape culture will not be one model. How we confront group homes, addiction, neglect, gangs, community outreach, family structures, and silence will look different in every part of the world, but I can start in my own home, with my own small piece of what I see as wrong. I am weary of language that paints men – mentally ill men – as unstoppable beasts. Some most certainly have mental problems that pose danger to others, but those seeds, the things that made men more apt to rape had to be nurtured and grown somewhere. My hunch is it’s not all mental illness. Our worst criminals reflect not just the darkness of the human’s mind, but act as a mirror of our social culture .
Like so many others, I’ve been overwhelmed with December.
It’s not just the holidays, but the buzz and speed of the year ending, the economic crisis, family gatherings, and holiday obligations all combine to make December one big TO DO list.
I thought about what I wanted to write about this week and began reading some of my favorite feminist bloggers for inspiration. As I clicked on my usual suspects, a surprise settled over me, “Is there a reason why so many blogs are posting about rape?” My brain, in lightning speed, reviewed the month themes and reasoned that September promotes Women’s Health Awarness, October is Domestic Violence Awareness month, March is Women’s Herstory month, and April is Sexual Abuse Awareness month.
The only December theme I could think of was World Aids Day, which was December 1.
I couldn’t think of any direct tie to sexual assualt.
Was there a reason I was finding so many posts about rape?
As a sexual assault advocate and educator, a field I’ve explored for several years, I quickly felt shame as realized I had forgotten a very simple lesson about sexual violence: there is no specified time for sexual assault awareness, every day is a day of rape for women in the world. Why should there be an allotted month to focus solely on this issue when it happens every few seconds of every day, holiday or not, December or July, sexual assault occurs. Why should I not be fiercely glad that on any given day, a no-name day like today, I can find this issue being discussed with resolve, strength, and bravery. There is no time for rape. It happens in the brightness of days and darkness of night. I’ve heard the stories from my friends and listened to strangers in emergency rooms before undergoing a rape kit. Everyday, too, is a time to heal and a time to speak for someone, somewhere in the world. In the age of accessible media making for everyday women – the face of sexual violence – we are capable of understanding more than ever the complicated and painful road of admittance, healing, and sharing one’s experience for the world to hear.
I quickly reminded myself that I should not be so worried if I had “missed something” when I read so many posts about violence against women in one day. I am thankful that so many brave women are utiliizing media to get their stories out, creating voice when there was once silence, and committing to put an end to rape.
TweetI’ve been “home” for a little over three weeks since my two month studying and research trip to the Philippines where I attempted to come to understand global and transnational feminism and its ties to violence against womyn. In my spare time, I was even more busy meeting family members I had never known and learning about my parents’ homeland.
Posted by Lisa in Sexual Assault, The Philippines Filipino Culture Philippine History on March 12, 2008
TweetThe Vagina Monologues, written by Eve Ensler, is a popular conversation topic in February.It is a production that has sparked a larger movement: Vday. Every year, February 14 is V-Day, a day marked to end violence against women, and thousands of productions take place across the world. All proceeds benefit local sexual assault services and community organizations.