"Asking for it" is a timeless and timelessly gendered expression that rolls easily off the tongue. It's a go-to default for many parents, grandparents, teachers, coaches and even teens and their friends. It refers, almost exclusively, to girls or women when people are policing their clothes and behavior. When's the last time you heard someone refer to a boy as "Asking for it?" How many times have you heard this expression, thought it or said it?
But, it's not only about discriminating against girls, it's also about conferring advantages, such as the presumption of innocence and a lack of agency, on boys. The expression is the verbalization of a mental trick, a rape system justification that allows people to pretend that a girl or woman must have subtly signaled interest in sex and, ultimately, consent. Because the expression is so gendered, it also perpetuates dangerous stereotypes about boys and men, among them being that they can't be victims of sexual assault and that, if they are perpetrators, can't be held accountable for not being able to control themselves.
Teenage girls are exquisitely aware of societal double standards, especially those regarding appearance, sexuality, gender and sexual violence. For many girls, dress codes at school are the daily reminder of how gender governs societal expectations, perceptions and demands. Clothes -- who gets to chose them, what they look like, rules about them -- are a banal flashpoint, illuminating exactly how subject girls are to societal restraints on their expression, agency and sexuality. The skipping stone of so much dress policing, ironically so focused on the idea that girls are sexualizing themselves, looks more or less like this:
Girls : clothes : skin : ASKINGFORIT : slut : sex : rape : her fault
This is true regardless of a age or context.
For a young celebrity last week, Ariel Winter, the 17-year old Modern Family actress, this became very ugly and apparent. Winter shared what she thought was an innocent photograph of herself, with her two young nieces, in Instagram. She was wearing a bikini because they were... swimming. Almost immediately, disparaging comments flooded her feed: Winter, people complained, was "only 17," she should "put some clothes on," she's... "asking for it."
Winter, no stranger to body policing and online harassment, responded with a follow up photo of "Judgement," by Rosea Lake. "It sickens me," she wrote, "to think at 17 years old, a photo of myself with my nieces is suggesting that I'm 'asking for it. This is for the girls who are constantly bullied whether it be online or at school."
Winter's experience, like those of thousands of girls every day, illustrate some basic Rape Culture 101 ideas. That's why Asking For It: The Alarming Rise in Rape Culture and What We Can Do About It is the ideal name for Kate Harding's new book about rape culture.
She does the important and difficult work of defining and describing rape culture for people who would rather believe it isn't real. Harding wryly, carefully, and often remarkably cheerfully given the subject at hand, exposes, documents and analyzes the ways that rape culture seductively and entertainingly reproduces itself. Most importantly, she makes the critical connections between gender-based violence and racism, our flawed legal systems, and religiously-grounded, mainstream assumptions about gender, sex and power.
SC: Your book is called "Asking for It," after one of the most dangerous rape myths. Can you explain the difference between sexuality and sexualization, particularly as it pertains to this idea?
KH: Sexuality is about an individual's genuine desire, whereas sexualization is the imposition of a particular kind of sexuality on a whole group of people. So, young women who like to wear tank tops and short shorts, for instance, are all painted with one brush, that says they are inviting sex--"asking for it"--with anyone who comes along and sees them. In reality, of course, a young woman wearing a tank top and short shorts might be looking for someone to have sex with, or she might just be trying to survive being outside on a hot day. And either way, she still gets to choose who, if anyone, she wants to have sex with--there's no such thing as a blanket invitation to anyone who happens by.
SC: In the book, you touch on the full range of common myths about rape. However, you dedicate a chapter to one of the most persistent, that women regularly and frequently make false accusations. Can you talk the distorted comparisons between risk of being raped and risk of being falsely accused?
KH: I think false accusations are really the fear that drives so many rape myths and that keeps us from taking the problem as seriously as we should. The fear of being falsely accused is what stops men from sympathizing with victims. There is this kneejerk response of "what if she's just lying?" I wanted to tackle that head on because it's the thing that everyone wants to talk about when you mention rape. I wanted to particularly look at the way that the entire system can create really bad results based on a false accusation. It's not just that a woman lies and a man goes to prison. You have cases like the Central Park Five where it had nothing to do with a woman lying and the men went to prison. The system that puts the wrong man in prison for rape will also put a victim in prisons. If you look at a case like Duke Lacrosse, which started because Crystal M told lies, it only got as big as it did because the prosecutor was overzealous and ignored evidence that was exculpatory. We need to be discussing this whole with far more depth than "she lied, his life is ruined." One issue, clearly, is false objectivity that says we have to give equal weight to accused and accusers, as though a person reporting a rape automatically has a reason to lie, the way a person accused of rape does.
SC: The news is filled with a constant stream of cases that illustrate why your book is so pertinent. In the past few months, for example, a fraternity at Old Dominion University hung a banner reading, "Rowdy and fun hope your baby girl is ready for a good time..."; "Freshman daughter drop off," and "Go ahead and drop off mom too..." out of their front windows. Another recent one was the highly publicized trial of a former student at an elite prep school, St. Paul's Academy, for the assault of a 15-year old school mate. People are growing more aware and want to know what they can do. What do you say to them?
KH: When people ask me what we can do about it, one of the first things I say is early consent education, providing it over time and having a nuanced and broader reaching conversation that includes dating violence and boundaries, etc. It shouldn't be framed as "Here's how to avoid getting raped or raping," but, "Here's how to have a healthy sexual interaction. With those banners, people were asking, "What's wrong with that?" and I saw some at a sorority that said, basically, "We are available for sex." But, people aren't making fair comparisons. The women are saying, yes, we are available for sex, but the men are saying, literally, "Other men, drop your property off here." We still talk about it terms of the woman having no agency and guys taking what they want.
SC: Can you talk about that history of rape as a form of property theft?
KH: That is the history: rape was conceived of as a property crime. It was a matter of violating another man's property. That still lingers in our concept of it, even though earlier feminists were successful in having those laws change, so that, for instance, it is illegal to rape your spouse. Now we understand that spousal rape is a crime. That wasn't always true. (The last law making marital rape illegal in the US was passed in 1993.) That in fact intimate partners are the people we are most at risk from. We understand, at least some of us understand, that the crime is about violating someone else's autonomy and it is about power, control and dominance. We still have this idea, a hangover from the property crime days, that basically it rape is a worse crime if you are a young white virgin, because you started off as the most marketable and the rape then cuts into your marketability. Whereas, really, it doesn't matter how many times or under what circumstances you have sex, consent has to be there.
SC: What do you think is a good example of enthusiastic consent in media?
KH: I talk about one example, from The Mindy Project, where, setting aside the logistics of how this would happen in real life, Mindy and her boyfriend are having sex and he tries to enter her anally and she stops him with a "What the hell, no!" And then everything stops and, it's a sitcom, so there is a whole follow up about how he responds, but, in terms of enthusiastic consent, they are both enjoying themselves, but when she isn't, the sex stops. I'd like to see one example where they don't necessarily end, but have a small discussion, or something where sex continues, but maybe in another direction. That's the whole thing about enthusiastic consent is two people caring about each others pleasure in an ongoing way and in comfort and safety, not just pleasure.
SC: That idea that a person can say "no," at any point seems to be challenging.
KH: We still see sex as the main goal for guys, and frame it in a way that they think they have to overcome some resistance in the woman and then goal achieved. You shouldn't assume resistance that resistance has to be overcome, because, in fact, many people are going to be willing to have sex and consent should be ongoing. There's this idea that if a woman suddenly stops, and it's always a woman in these conceptions, although this applies in any pairing and all pairings, or more than pairings. There is this message sent to girls and women that if you say no, after saying yes to a certain amount of things, that you are depriving him of something he deserves. Would anyone say that if you've gotten to a certain point that by doing so you've consented to anal sex because that is what he wants. That is true for gay men that are raped, but not for heterosexuals. Or say what he wants is to tie you up and whip you, there are people who do that consensually, but making out with someone doesn't mean that you've consented to that.
SC: What did you think of this week's exchanges over Winter's photograph?
KH: Although I'm terribly sorry she's subject to this kind of harassment, it does my heart good to see a 17-year-old who has apparently internalized the most important message: Living your life and wearing clothes while female does not mean you are "asking for it." When every young person, everywhere, understands that, we'll be on our way to a culture that supports victims more than rapists.