The Writing on the Wall

Bangladeshi girls hold placards as they stand to form a human chain to protest against the recent gang rape of a young woman
Bangladeshi girls hold placards as they stand to form a human chain to protest against the recent gang rape of a young woman on a moving bus in New Delhi, in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2013. An Indian magistrate ruled Monday that the media will not be allowed to attend pre-trial hearings or the trial of the five men accused of raping and killing a young student in the Indian capital, a police official said. (AP Photo/A.M. Ahad)

"Since it was passed into law in 1994, the Violence Against Women Act has provided life-saving assistance to millions of women and families across the nation... That was once again the case when the Senate took up the bill in 2012, [It] included increased protections for women on college campuses across the nation following the brutal 2010 murder of Yeardley Love at the University of Virginia. It included new law enforcement measures to safeguard women on tribal reservations, one in three of whom will be raped in their lifetimes. It included nondiscrimination language for those in the LGBT community who had been unfairly left out of previous bills. And it provided protections to immigrant women, regardless of their status, who are often scared into silence at the hands of their abusers." -- Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.)

Late last spring, I found myself staring at one of Twitter's United States trending topics: #ReplaceBandNamesWithRape. Were lots and lots of people actually participating in a meme wherein they came up with band names, removed one word and replaced it with rape I asked myself? Then I clicked on the hashtag and discovered why, yes, yes indeed they were.

1Rape was a very popular mention. As was Megarape. And The Rolling Rape. Hilarious, no? If you did not find it so you were, according to the twitterazi, "butt hurt." This was apparently meant to be no different than other Replace Band Names trends. You know, like the ones featuring waffles and bacon and boners. Now, listen, I understand that at least 50 percent of Twitter trends are started by teenagers, young people who are emotional and impressionable at best and complete goddamn idiots at worst (I recall myself and my friends at that age with a mixture of compassion and abject horror), but a rape meme? Really?

Almost 50 years earlier, someone I love attended an East Coast Ivy League University where she was date raped before the words date and rape united together to identify a crime. At that time, in the mid '60s, universities were in loco parentis, which was apparently annoying because it meant you had a curfew but in the case of being physically violated, it was a good thing. It meant you automatically had recourse and the school was obligated to take action to protect you if you pursued it. The person I love told me she thought, when this happened to her, that she was the only one to whom it ever had, and that she was somehow responsible because at the time it occurred she was no longer a virgin. As a result of the shame she probably would have never reported it. But the amount of harassment my loved one received from the friends of this rapist, who spread vicious and vulgar rumors and threatened her forced her to finally take action more to defend her maligned reputation than anything else. She went through the difficult process of a university hearing in which she had to describe what happened to her to strangers but ultimately she was vindicated and the man was subsequently expelled.

Twenty-five years later, I was a freshman at Vassar, (this being the height of political correctness' dominion over language we were actually referred to as first-years so as not to offend) and quickly discovered that female students forewarned one another about potential sexual aggressors on campus by way of a wall in the women's bathroom. The wall upon which was written an ever-evolving but notoriously reliable list of names was located in the dank basement of an otherwise majestic library with its stained glass windows and winding turrets. Our school was one of several which employed the bathroom wall tactic for preventative measures against sex crimes. There was great debate about the semiotics of this and the ethics as well -- how would it effect the life of someone unjustly accused? In theory, an angry woman could write the object of her scorn's name on this list and ruin the man's reputation permanently. It was an important question to be sure. But the problem remained that despite a supposedly very progressive culture on our campus and on Brown's which was the site of the other most oft discussed graffiti wall list, young women at these hallowed bastions of higher learning were getting raped. And... the men who were doing the raping were not being punished for it. Something about that felt... well, illegitimate, if you will.

Since late in the last millennium at least, supposedly we have all become enlightened. No means no. You can't have sex with someone who is too drunk or drugged to consent. These are facts which are supposed to now be immutable. And our boys are supposed to have been lately raised to see that women work in every field men do (albeit still mostly for less money), that they control their own bodies (well, you know, in most states most of the time, for now), that they are to be treated like your mother or your sister, with respect. We Took Back The Night, y'all. Right?

On the other side of the world, five men have now been charged with the gang rape and torture of a 23-year-old physiotherapy student which took place aboard a moving bus in New Delhi after which she was thrown bleeding onto the street. The woman died two weeks later. Widespread protests followed, along with a fierce public debate over the Indian police's failure to stem rampant violence against women of which this case is perhaps only the most recent and now well-known example.

Last week the Internet hacking collective known as Anonymous broke wide open the story of a horrifying alleged gang rape of a 16-year-old girl by members of a small industrial city's football team in Steubenville, Ohio. Steubenville, which had previously been known mainly as the hometown to ex-porn star Traci Lords and the location where Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum chose to await primary election returns, appears to have been the scene of not only a brutal crime but also an attempt at a cover-up in an effort to protect the football team which is currently the town's main source of both pride and income a la Friday Night Lights. Despite the mounting evidence compiled on Local Leaks indicating that several young men were directly involved in raping the girl the police chief has stated publicly that only the two who have already been arrested and are currently under house arrest will stand trial, and those both as juveniles. The victim appears, by all accounts, to have been both profoundly drunk and is alleged to have been purposefully drugged while she was viciously violated at a number of different locations over the course of one night in August ending with her allegedly being urinated on. Several boys photographed then Instagrammed, took video of, and live-tweeted the events as they unfolded. These actions have drawn comparisons to the true story upon which Jodie Foster's harrowing Oscar winning performance in The Accused was based, where the men who cheered and egged on her character's brutal gang rape in a bar were ultimately tried and convicted of criminal solicitation.

The young men in Steubenville identify themselves as members of the "Rape Crew." They have proudly and repeatedly used this title as a hashtag and seeming badge of honor on Twitter and on Facebook. The victim has been called maligning names by her peers and has been repeatedly told she deserved it. The boys' football coach, among others, defends them. The girl was drunk after all. The victim's mother said the following to the New York Times in the first piece that brought this case to public attention though it was largely lost in the coverage of the massacre at Sandy Hook last month.

Just Coach Reno saying he would testify for those boys, saying he was so proud of them, that speaks volumes," she said. "All those football players are put on a pedestal over there, and it's such a status symbol to play for Big Red, the culture is so different over there."

The mother added: "I do feel like they've had preferential treatment, and it's unreal, almost like we're part of a TV show. It's like a bad "CSI" episode. What those boys did was disgusting, disgusting, and for people to stand up for them, that's disgusting, too.

We need not again go over the absurdly ignorant remarks about rape that certain members of the Republican party seeking higher office made over the last year. It is very notable however, that here in the land of the free and in the home of the brave, members of the House GOP decided just last week to let the Violence Against Women Act expire for the first time since it was passed into law in 1994 purportedly because it "is too supportive of immigrants, the LGBT community, and Native Americans," groups which were for the first time included in the version of the bill the Senate passed bipartisanly.

As long as we're now, finally, talking about our hundreds of millions of guns and the massive amount of murderous violence they have increasingly meted out to our innocent citizens, may I suggest we put the culture of violence and specifically the culture of rape back on the docket for discussion as well? Rape isn't a trope. It's not a meme. It shouldn't be dismissed and no woman or girl or man or boy who is victimized by it should ever feel shamed into silence. No one ever should have but certainly not now, in 2013.

Anonymous have done an impressive job in Steubenville and I for one am grateful they exist. But I don't think any of us believe it's an ideal situation to rely upon people who wear Guy Fawkes masks and do their detective work in secret with their voices mechanically disguised in order to get legitimate justice for victims of horrible crimes. It raises too many questions similar to the graffiti tactic and even the valid information brought to light or the methods by which that information is revealed can ultimately corrupt the process of a fair trial which ultimately prevents victims from getting the justice they deserve.

If our institutions; the police departments and athletic departments and our schools, for example, held themselves accountable to the standards of excellence they preach, and if our elected officials were just a little bit braver, say a small percentage as brave as victims are required to be in reporting their attackers and in going through what's necessary to seek justice, we'd all be a little bit better off. Until then, expect to keep finding survivors and the people who love them writing warnings, in bathrooms and in basements and in cyber-ink, indelible words upon our collective walls.