Rape Culture and How it Betrays Women

How do we inhabit this kind of world where boys as young as fourteen feel they can rape a young girl and not feel anything -- guilt, repulsion, empathy?
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In 1972, Adrienne Rich, a revolutionary poet and feminist of her time, wrote a poem called "Rape," originally published in a collection of poems titled Diving into the Wreck (1971-72). "Rape" sets the scene of a young girl sitting before a cop and reporting her rape:

...the maniac's sperm still greasing your thighs,
your mind whirling like crazy. You have to confess
to him, you are guilty of the crime
of having been forced. (12-15)

Rich draws on the fact that because the girl had to share the most horrific moment of her existence, this cop now thinks he knows her -- she wanted it, she asked for it, she provoked the rapist's advances, and now wants to make it go away. There is a part in him that revels in the "hysteria" in her voice as she outlines the details of her rape -- she deserved it somehow. The last stanza of the poem focuses on the fear that the girl experiences, not because she was raped, but because she could be found guilty of someone else's crime. Because she is a woman in a patriarchal machine, the victim becomes the "confessor," and her fear of the rapist is superseded by her fear of the machine: the cops, the courts that will undoubtedly place her on trial for being victimized, and the news that will paint tawdry portraits of how she somehow dressed a certain way or acted older than her age or put herself in the wrong place.

Although this was written in 1972 in order to create awareness of rape and the unconscious attitude people had towards rape victims, this can still be applied today, which is quite appalling. In light of this, the past few weeks have brought to our attention the gang rape of an 11-year-old girl in Texas by 18 males, their ages ranging from 14-18, who recorded the assault on their cell phones and published them to the public.

What is interesting about the news coverage of this story is that the girl's experience is silenced. The New York Times reported on the community's response to the girl's dress and appearance, implying that she asked for it. The Daily Beast focused on how this crime has divided the town of Cleveland, TX and has affected the reputation of this nice and hospitable place. A Fox News piece is centered on the difficult defense of the suspects and on the fact that they all knew the girl was 11. Another article from Fox News Houston brings to light the perspective of Quanell X, the new Black Panther Leader, who stands up for the suspects, all black males.

The central points posited on the case are framed around the topics of the way the girl was dressed and why she was hanging out in that part of town, racial profiling, absentee parenting, and how this is an "alleged" rape, because she stuck around to be gang raped by all these guys.

The only one who wrote about this case with honesty and with repulsion at what is really happening here, is Akiba Solomon in Colorlines:

In this framework, girls of color are the predators, the fast-asses, the hot-asses, the hooker-hos, the groupie bitches, the trick-ass bitches, the bust-it-babies and the lil' freaks who are willing to let dudes "run a train" on them. Too often let translates into, "she was rolling with a bunch of dudes" or "she showed poor judgement" or "she appropriated male-identified sexual bravado to fit in," or "she's a child who has been sexually exploited or abused.

This double standard also renders black men and boys as victims of their own sexuality. They're big-dick goon and goblin niggas just doing what niggas do when a smiling, or at least not-protesting young girl comes around. She's 11? OK, but I didn't know she was 11, so I didn't do anything wrong, or violent, or exploitative or dangerous. My responsibility begins and ends with a request for ID.

But where is the girl? Where is her voice? Where is the empathy for a young child, a 6th grader, who had to experience physical assault countless times in a few hours, by different men, one after the other, as they took turns climbing on top of her and filling her slight body with rage, power, and the kind of knowledge no woman, let alone a small girl, should ever experience?"

In the eyes of the world, the news coverage of our country, members of her own community, and perhaps even her friends all believe that she is "guilty of the crime/of having being forced (Rich 14-15). Not much has changed since Adrienne Rich wrote "Rape." People continue to blame the victim, while finding reasons to excuse the suspects of their crime. They didn't know she was 11. She said she was 17. She was willing to go "for a ride" with two of the suspects. She was always hanging out in the Quarter, dressing like she was 20. She didn't fight. Didn't fight back. Didn't scratch, and scream, and try to flee the attack. No, she wouldn't. She is a 6th grader.

She found herself in the company of 18 males who warned her that if she didn't take her clothes off, they would have her beaten. She is a 6th grader who found herself surrounded by male libido, machismo, violence, and their belief that they had a right to take her, rape her, use her little body up, pass it around, and then toss it aside as if it didn't belong to a face, to a soul, to a human being who felt pain, fear, and panic. And above all that has been said about this case, this is what is most distressing, disheartening: that these high school boys and young men felt they had a right to do what they did, and that there would be no consequences. Their conceit, their sense of power is evident in the fact that they whipped our their cell phones and recorded themselves sexually assaulting a minor. No fear.

What does this all mean? How do we inhabit this kind of world where boys as young as fourteen feel they can rape a young girl and not feel anything -- guilt, repulsion, empathy? How do we get to the point that when we learn about the sexual assault of a minor, we consider her dress, her appearance, her behavior, and immediately question what she has done to get herself in this situation? How do we focus on race and class and how to excuse the suspects of their violence? And why do we silence and stigmatize the victim by accusing her of seduction, ignorance, passivity, and complicity? If we should stand on anyone's side, it should be the victim's -- the girl's. No one deserves to be raped, let alone gang raped. No one asks for such a thing -- such a vile, invasive, and violent attack on one's body and mind. How is all of this possible in our day and time?

In an impassioned piece called "On Rape, The Media and The New York Times," Stephanie Rogers, a writer who analyzes the roles of women in film, discusses the rape culture that we live in and how news coverage, movies, television shows, and advertising all contribute to the sexual violence against women because they bombard the public with incessant images and storylines in which girls and women are abused, beaten, raped, and/or murdered. She states:

It contributes to rape because it normalizes violence against women. Men rape to control, to overpower, to humiliate, to reinforce the patriarchal structure. And the media, which is vastly controlled by men, participates in reproducing already existing prejudices and inequalities, rather than seeking to transform them.

Under Helium's Feminism and Women's Rights, Rape culture is defined as a "culture in which rape is common, and can be condoned through cultural attitudes and behaviors, including the way its victims are portrayed in the media, and the objectification of certain people (usually women) that seems to make their bodies open to violation." The author of this piece goes on to make some very interesting points in regard to rape and culture:

"Rape is an expression of power and control. It is used as a weapon of war: in Africa, Kosovo, Iraq, and countless other places affected by war, women are routinely raped by the invading forces. Metaphorically, rape is a good scale down of the act of war, whereby we invade and control. To rape is to seize power."

This is interesting because it goes against the oft believed notion that what women wear, how much make-up they use on their faces, and how short their skirts are has something to do with inviting sexual assaults by men. Rape is not about lust or desire -- it is about control, arrogance, and conceit -- and it is all about the perpetrator, the rapist, the attacker -- the one who needs to assert his physical prowess and reign over another human being, usually a small and helpless one who looks at him with fear in her eyes and who knows better than to fight back.

The University of California-Davis has produced an insightful and convincing document called Defining Rape Culture, which posits that the burden of prevention is laid upon women. They have to be careful where they go, at what time of the evening, who to associate with, how to pick up signals of impending violence from another person, and really, how to control their movements and behaviors so that they do not put themselves in a situation that may result with an attack against them.

According to the findings of this piece, "The high incidence of rape in this country is a result of the power imbalance between men and women. Women are expected to assume a subordinate relationship to men" (2). In other words, women cannot control being victims of sexual assaults by men because the problem rests in the culture: the way women are taught to be passive and reliant on men, and the way men are taught to be aggressive and more powerful than women. To change this, we must alter the way the culture reacts to the roles of women and men; their perceptions of women and men; shake off the imbalance that exists in female and male power; and make it a political problem that affects everyone -- not just women -- not just victims. Governments, politicians, neighbors, schools, and everyone who makes up a community must become involved in order for this rape culture to be expunged from our constant reality. Here are some suggestions the UC-Davis article suggests for making this happen:

A few awareness strategies that can be employed in neighborhoods are:

  1. Organizing meetings and educational programs
  2. Block organizing (small groups to meet to discuss safety and planning to organize neighborhood)
  3. Neighborhood lobbying (i.e. letter writing)
  4. Whistle alert (Whistle sounded for help)
  5. Shelter houses (women in neighborhood make their homes available for temporary refuge)
  6. Watch programs (patrol programs, with assistance of experienced community organizers)
  7. Lobbying for preventive education to be included in the public school curriculum
  8. Take Back The Night March (symbolically supporting women's right to walk at night.

In essence, attention must be drawn to the focus of rape. Rape must be viewed as a political issue, not just another crime or mental health problem. It must be seen as an issue which affects all women. However, rape is not just a women's problem-it is a community problem.

The opinions expressed herein are those of the author, and not necessarily those of The New Agenda, where this piece first appeared.

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