[NOTE: the following was written in March 2013]
So, the Steubenville rape case.
The actions of the perpetrators were horrific and deserve condemnation.
The victim is in no way to blame.
Pretty much every major news network reporting on this story has thoroughly and utterly fucked it up by sympathizing with the attackers at the expense of the victim (and apparently, in one case, leaking the victim’s name; Fox News, you are a either a gaggle of imbeciles or ethically bankrupt, possibly both).
We clear on that? Okay, good.
But you’re hearing about that from a lot of people, and many of them are articulating those points better than I can, so I’ll discuss a few things about this case that have occurred to me that I haven’t seen discussed as much.
First of all, this sort of situation — an audience, blatant humiliation of the victim, an acknowledgment by the perpetrators that what’s happening is, in fact, rape — is the exception, rather than the rule. By all indications (in the U.S., at least), most cases of rape are date-rape of the “she didn’t say no” variety. And before you jump on me; no, of course that doesn’t make it remotely acceptable. That is not my point. My point is that if we start looking at Steubenville as the archetypical situation that we need to fix, we are Doing It Wrong, because while the two situations almost certainly share several causes, they are distinct in several important ways.
Like what? Well, to answer that, let me tell you a very brief and non-specific story. When I was roughly 15, one of my acquaintances, let’s call her X, was raped by two of my other acquaintances, let’s call them Y and Z (for obvious reasons, everyone involved is staying anonymous). All of us were around the same age. Without going into detail, the things that were done by Y and Z to X were not consensual. However, unlike the Steubenville case, they were things one could believe a woman might consent to (i.e., they were not inherently degrading or painful, but were made so by the lack of consent). X said nothing and did nothing during this; she was, understandably, too afraid to move or speak. Y and Z said that they believed it was consensual, and I believe them.
Here’s why I believe them; X has described to me what exactly happened. I have since asked myself how I would have behaved in that situation, especially had I been Z, the younger of the two (Y initiated the encounter). While I don’t think I would have participated — I don’t think — it certainly would not have been because of any moral objection, unlike the Steubenville case. The word “rape” would not have crossed my mind.
“Silence isn’t consent!” You’re right, it absolutely isn’t. Good thing I know that now. You know who was telling me that when I was 15? No one. You know who was telling me the exact opposite of that when I was 15? Everyone. The first time I heard the “no, seriously, you need to get explicit verbal consent — you can’t infer consent from a lack of resistance” talk was when I was nearly 18, during college orientation. This is largely, I suspect, due to my high school’s sex ed policy of abstinence-only idiocy; when your entire message to people regarding sex is “don’t do it”, they don’t learn how to do it correctly — for instance, they don’t learn to get explicit verbal consent (and they sure-as-hell aren’t going to learn it from popular depictions of sex).
As an important tangent, I really want someone to do a study on the frequency of rape (particularly among teenagers) in abstinence-only areas vs. areas with decent sex-ed programs. I strongly suspect that we’d see a much higher incidence of rape in the areas with abstincence-only sex ed, and that is definitely something we should know. It seems no one has done such a study yet, though. If they have, I haven’t found it.
No, I wouldn’t have walked away because of a moral objection. I’d have walked away because of cowardice — or at least, I’d have called it cowardice at the time. Really, it was an (understandable) discomfort with sexual activity I had at that point. Some people are not ready to have sex at age 15. Some of those people, despite most of what society tells us, are male. Shocking, I know. But that’s not how I’d have thought of it. There’s not much doubt to me about what my internal monologue would have been:
“You’re scared? Scared!? What the fuck is wrong with you!? You should be loving this! This is sex! This is the thing you’re supposed to live for! How in the hell are you not desperate for this!? If you’re uncomfortable with this, hell, if you’re not absolutely loving this, then there’s something fucking wrong with you, like — shock, terror, horror, worst thing in the world that could ever happen to you — YOU MIGHT BE GAY!!! So if you don’t want to be a limp-wristed faggot and a complete failure as a man, go in there and get some.”
I’m pretty sure I’d have backed out, or walked away — and then spent the next several days thinking about how I was a complete coward and wimp, and what a pathetic excuse for a man I was. Because I did not rape someone. That’s, of course, the better of the two possible outcomes, the one I really, really, really hope (and think) would have happened. The worse outcome, of course, is I’d have listened to my internal monologue when it told me not to be a failure as a man, and forced myself to participate, even though I didn’t want to.
And then I’d have raped someone. Because I didn’t want to be a failure as a man.
I’m going to repeat that; I’d have raped someone, because I didn’t want to be a failure as a man.
Yes, I wouldn’t have realized it was rape at the time, but that hardly makes it better, does it?
This is a very. Very. Very. Serious. Problem. The fact that even one person’s brain was working in such a thoroughly, utterly, inexcusably fucked-up manner means that a lot of people Done Fucked Up, big-time. And I may have some mental-health issues, but I’m fairly certain I’m not a psychopath, and my impression is that my upbringing was fairly typical as middle-class U.S. citizens go. So if, as I suspect, my situation is the rule, rather than the exception, then “unacceptable” does not even approach it. We as a society are clearly teaching our (young) men some thoroughly back-assward ideas about sexuality, and we need to fix this. No wonder we have a goddamn rape epidemic on our hands.
In my experience, when most people say this, they mean that we need to deflate and debunk some ideas of male entitlement and power. That’s true, and a lot of people who know more than I do have written a lot about it (although sometimes with a distinct lack of clarity — we academics kind of suck at writing, honestly). However, I suspect that we’re only addressing half the problem if that’s all we do. We also need to re-think some of the characteristics we assume about or project onto males. Like, just as a for-instance, “men always want sex every minute of every day,” and “men are so thoroughly ruled by their penises that they are thoroughly incapable of rational thought or self-control when sexually aroused to any degree.” I think it’s pretty clear that these are all remarkably bad things to teach people, particularly if your concern is rape-prevention. And if you’re going to tell me that these messages aren’t delivered to males (and females, for that matter) consistently from basically the day they’re born, I’m going to ask you what planet you’ve been living on. This is the same reason that, even with most of the official barriers down, we still have such a gender gap in the STEM fields, and many women forgo even trying it because they’re “not good at math.” Tell people they’re incapable, stupid, brutal, or just plain bad for long enough, and eventually something very dangerous will happen; they will start to believe you.
My point is this; yes, we need to start educating our young men about sexuality more thoroughly, and teach them what does and does not constitute consent or acceptable sexual behavior. And yes, we do need to tell many of our young men “you are not entitled to everything you think you are.” And yes, we need to teach them that they have a serious responsibility as regards sexuality.
But we also need to tell them; “I know what TV, movies, advertising, and even sometimes the education system tell you about yourself, but that is a festering pile of bullshit. You are not a brute. You are not stupid. You are not lazy. You are not ruled by your libido. Sex is not the be-all, end-all of your existence. If you sometimes feel uncomfortable about sex, if you sometimes don’t want sex, if you actively refuse sex, this does not mean there is something psychologically wrong with you, or that you are less of a man. Despite what a lot of people think, it would not, in fact, be remotely funny if you got raped. You do not somehow magically lose all respect for someone by virtue of being attracted to them. You do not degrade, repress, or lower half the population by your very nature. Even though you are a beneficiary of an unjust system, you are an unwilling one, you are not to blame for its existence, you have the ability (and the obligation) to help fix it, and you deserve to be treated in that endeavor as a collaborator, not an obstacle. You do not lose your ability to think the minute you get a boner. You cannot be suckered into doing stupid bullshit by appealing to your sex drive. You are a rational, intelligent, civil human being who is perfectly capable of self-control, perfectly capable of healthy sexuality, and completely worthy of respect.
Now fuckin’ act like it.”