On the way to work Monday I rode through campus, as student volunteers placed thousands of little flags around the Quad. The flags read; “Sexual Assault Awareness Month” and “1 in 4″.
Sexual Assault Awareness Month at Illinois State University. Extrapolating from the figure that 1 in 4 women is sexually assaulted in their lifetimes, each flag represents 1 woman at the University.
The message asserts that 1 in 4 women face sexual assault in their lifetimes. Is that estimate right? Maybe. I don’t know how the study was conducted or what definitions were used, but I do know many rapes (and presumably even more attempted rapes) go unreported. Rape is the only crime I can think of for which victims risk being held responsible.
Rape as a men’s issue
Rape is usually presented as a “women’s issue”, but the following comments are directed at men. After all most rapes are committed by men, and almost all of us enable a patriarchal culture that objectifies women. If that second statement makes you uncomfortable or angry, read on.
When most people think of rape, they think of violent, coercive rape where a total stranger threatens a woman’s life. But most rapes are committed by someone known to the victim, and are framed in some other activity like the workplace, military life, or on college campuses a date or a party. The word; “rapist” conjures up a certain image but the typical man who commits rape is more ordinary.
Of course the message is: “Don’t be that guy”. But unfortunately we are to some extent prisoners of our point of view. Our culture supports being that guy, without even thinking about it. To avoid being that guy requires stepping outside the culture, or even opposing it.
Popular music and culture depict women as sexual objects. I often see T-shirts with slogans like; “The (3 Greek letters) Man: Women want him, other men want to be him.” I once saw a bunch of drunk students holding up a sign on Willow street during move-in day; “Parents, drop your daughters off here”. One class feels they can belittle another class in public, and too often we let that message go unanswered.
Back in about 1993 I heard a radio talk show on WLS Chicago, with a man and woman as hosts. The man was talking about gays in the military and he said; “What if you’re in a foxhole and the other guy won’t take ‘no’ for an answer? And some of those guys aren’t little sissy-pansies!” And the woman host responded; “Congratulations! Now you know how women feel all the time.”
We don’t feel sociocultural privilege any more than a fish feels water but it affects our behavior and our thinking.
In his book The Gift of Fear, security expert Gavin DeBecker said; “Men are afraid women will laugh at them. Women are afraid men are going to kill them.” It’s basic arithmetic: our culture objectifies, depersonalizes and commoditizes women, and most men are physically stronger.
Enabling rape begins with that objectification. Does a slap on the ass matter at all? Aren’t women just taking it all too seriously? Or maybe casual harassment communicates something deeper, like; “Bodily autonomy is a privilege, girlie, not a right. And we decide how much privilege you get. So be a good sport about it, or things might get worse.”
Rape culture, like racism, has its apologists and the excuse is always the same: “Hey, we were just joking! Why so serious?”
Here’s why jokes matter: both racism and rape culture depend on privilege.
Privilege is visible in the old; “Hey all I did was X, I didn’t Y!” defense. “All I did was send out an email of the president Photoshopped to look like a monkey; it’s not like I presided at a Klan meeting.” Or “All I did was slap a coed on the ass; it’s not like I tied her up and…”
Actions like that create space for a certain world view. They create layers of cultural insulation for racism or sexism to thrive. They send a message; “I don’t take race issues seriously. I don’t take women’s personhood seriously.” They make class privilege acceptable.
You can’t discuss campus rape without someone bringing up alcohol. Yes, intoxication makes a woman more vulnerable and yes, it does degrade the quality of evidence she can give. If anything, that increases the culpability of a man who takes advantage of her vulnerability. When someone is vulnerable one should exercise additional care for their safety, no? You wouldn’t let a visibly drunk person sign a contract; why accept drunken “consent”? At the same time the perpetrator will find sympathetic company in pretending that his own intoxication is somehow exculpatory. She is blamed for being drunk and he is excused for being drunk. That, fellows, is a planet-sized double standard.
I don’t know how much impact Sexual Assault Prevention Week will have at the university. A lot, I hope. There are certain things you’d hope would not even need to be said explicitly, like “texting and driving is criminally stupid”. Another example would be: “Don’t give rape culture a free pass.”