So, last Sunday I moderated and presented on a panel at WAM! 2009, with (as pictured left to right) Ashwini Hardikar and Ashley Burczak of SAFER, myself, and Marcella Chester of Abyss2Hope. It was called Pulling the Plug on Rape Culture One Word at a Time: Using Accuracy to Undermine Dangerous Attitudes and Injustice. This post took me over a week to finally write, clearly, and ended up being quite long. So here goes.
We all introduced ourselves, and then I opened up the panel by briefly defining rape culture, and identifying a few ways that it manifests in society: minimizing of rape as not “real” rape (rape apologism), victim-blaming, rape jokes, and teaching boys and young men that sex is not a mutually enjoyable act but something to coercively obtain. I then explained that our panel was not going to be a primer on rape culture, and it wasn’t going to be able to cover all or even most of the ways that rape culture manifests in media. Instead, the point of the panel was to provide an overview of some of the most common ways that rape culture is reinforced through media, and some arguments and strategies that can be used to fight back.
I then launched into my presentation, which you can read through in its entirety here. To summarize very briefly, I made the argument that the language we use to talk about rape regularly construes it, both through overt and covert means, as just regular old sex. And, as I have always believed, I argued that language is very important, both shaping and reflecting our understanding of the world — and therefore having very tangible real world consequences. Like the failure to treat rape as a real crime worthy of attention, believability, prosecution, and prevention.
Ashwini was up next. Whereas I put all of my focus on news-related media and reporting on rape, Ashwini delved primarily into depictions of rape in popular entertainment, and reactions to it — and compared it to depictions and reactions to consensual sexual contact. One method used to illustrate the way that rape is actually not only accepted in popular entertainment, but in many ways more accepted than consensual sex, was to use the MPAA’s ratings system. The kiss of death rating NC-17 is hardly ever given for films on account of violence, but regularly threatened with regards to consensual sex. One example used was the case of Boys Don’t Cry, which was threatened with an NC-17 rating not for the violent gang rape scene, but for a scene that depicts the wiping of the mouth with the back of the hand after performing consensual oral sex.
She then launched into a comparative study using Bollywood, and the fact that rape and other non-consensual sexual contact is a regular part not only of the films, but of romantic plots, while a french kiss on screen, by contrast, can cause riots in the streets. In fact, one study found that 41% of sexual scenes in Bollywood films contained some level of violence. To illustrate the point, she showed a short portion of this clip from a Bollywood film (translated lyrics here), which depicts a woman describing her rape to a happy song and dance, as a means to flirt with a male character.
After a brief discussion of the video with session attendees, Ashwini concluded by talking about real-life violence in both India and the U.S. From rampant “eve-teasing” (street harassment) in India to the way that violence disproportionately affects youth in the U.S., sexual violence is incredibly normalized in both cultures, in ways that both seem very different and are dramatically similar.
Marcella went next and began discussing rape culture from a perspective that was decidedly more personal. Indeed, she in fact argued in her presentation that rape culture is rooted in the personal, and we are all a part of it. This is bad news, of course, because it means that there is a hell of a lot of work to do. And it’s excellent news, because it means that all of us has a role to play in dismantling rape culture, and can all do our part each and every day by challenging our own assumptions and those around us.
She went on to talk about her own experiences with rape at the hands of her boyfriend, and the cultural messages that both she and her rapist received that made the rape both possible, and seemingly not rape — or, at best, her own fault. The primary messages that Marcella said she received from rape culture were: no messages at all from parents regarding consent, that girls are responsible for enforcing limits, that normal boys ignore limits, and that rapists are strangers. The result of these messages in Marcella’s mind was that being raped was her fault. Her rapist/boyfriend, on the other hand, received the messages that: mixed signals can be ignored even when a “no” is present, girls are responsible for enforcing limits, normal boys ignore limits, and rapists are strangers. The result in his mind was therefore that forcing sex was not rape.
Marcella then gave a great example of how logic applied in rape culture doesn’t work in any other area of the world. Using the simple case of two stoplights, both pointed at you, one red one green, she asked: what do you do? The obvious answer is: you stop and figure out which light is correct, because it’s much better safe than sorry. But when you put that in the context of rape culture, rapists and rape apologists will claim that “mixed signals” equal the same as a “yes” and there is no responsibility for refusing to stop. She then closed with an observation stemming from this example — rape culture was designed for those who feel entitled.
Ashley went last, and spoke largely about solutions to all of the things that Ashwini, Marcella and myself talked about, arguing that it’s important for us to not feel helpless, and also that effective prevention programs don’t focus on victims but on perpetrators and bystanders.
But she started off also talking about what messages men in particular receive from society that reinforce rape culture. In order to illustrate this point, she launched into an amusing exercise — called “the box of masculinity.” The point was to have the audience shout out things that our society tells men they are “supposed” to be, both in general and in terms of sex, in particular. Those things went inside the box. She then asked what men are not supposed to be, and those things went outside the box. She then asked what words we use to describe men who fail to live up to the standards inside the box, and instead tend to follow those outside the box — the responses of course all being words used to deride someone as either being feminine/womanly or gay (and of course gay men are derided as being too feminine themselves).
The result was a chalkboard full of fucked up notions of masculinity. And the point was basically: see? Take a look at how our society expects men to behave, and how it expects them not to behave, and ask yourself how we could not live in a rape culture. Which, in my opinion, is so fucking true.
She then talked about organizing, saying that power structures only change if they’re forced to. The biggest thing I walked away with from this section was Ashley’s insistence on the fact that in order to effect real change, you need to make specific demands. Instead of saying “we want rape culture to end!” you need to say “we want our college to have a new sexual assault policy” or “we want sexual assault response training by someone with this set of qualifications,” etc. And not wanting to close on a downer, she instead closed with a promise. “The good news is that rape culture will end, and the best news is that we’re all going to be part of that” . . . and that our great, great granddaughters are going to live in a world where their bodies are respected.
At that point, I totally got teary eyed. For real. And then I had to speak again to say that we were ready for questions! Haha.
At first, we got more comments than questions. From what I remember: a statement about how the child rape trade is often referred to as “child sex” and prostitution, obscuring what it really is (so true), a plea for people to financially support SAFER (yes!), and a plea to also support INCITE! (also yes!).
Then we got a question from a guy who asked about the low rates of reporting, and in forming his question ended up asking Marcella directly, since she had talked about her own rape, whether or not she reported her rapist. She said no, and he then asked her why.
Now, let me just say that this particular fellow came up and talked to me after the session was over, and seemed very nice and well-intentioned. But this question totally rubbed me the wrong way. Maybe it was the tone it was asked in. It, at least to me, I can’t speak for Marcella, felt kind of accusatory. Like I was being told that I should have reported. And the question wasn’t even directed at me.
Marcella answered that if she had reported her rape back in the 70s when it occurred, she would have been laughed at. Sadly, this is true for far too many women still today. She also wrote out a response to this question on her blog. I will be 100% honest and say that I do not remember a lot of the answer she actually gave on the day, because when I am annoyed/upset and also trying to figure out what I’m going to say, my mind kind of shuts off to everything else. I do remember that once she had given her answer, he asked a follow-up question of whether or not increasing penalties for rape was really going to do any good, since so few women reported.
That is the point I remember jumping in, and answering his first question first, said that I was also raped by my boyfriend, in the late 90s in fact, and I didn’t report. The reason I didn’t report at the time was because it took me years to realize, thanks to the messages that Marcella talked about earlier, that what was done to me had even been rape, and just thought I was nuts for being so traumatized. I then went on to say that while many will surely disagree with this view, if I knew then what I knew now, I still would not have reported. Because I have absolutely no reason to believe that anyone would have believed me, much less that a conviction would have been obtained. Back then, I didn’t know enough about the system. Now, I know too much.
I then went on to talk about his second question, about convictions. I said that I don’t think that convictions and stricter penalties are going to be what stops rape culture. Education and prevention, in my opinion, are going to be the answer. I said, you know what? I’m really pissed off about low conviction rates. I’m really pissed off about low sentences, like the one I showed where a guy got only 5 years for raping and killing a woman. I’m pissed off about our whole judicial system and how it treats rape victims. But I also think that there is an over-emphasis on penalties after the fact. I also think that victims services too often gets passed off as “doing something” about rape culture. While victims services are great — I totally stressed this — and under-funded, and under-appreciated, and desperately needed, they’re not going to fix rape culture either. We need victims services, but we need women to not be raped in the first place just as much if not more.
We then ended up getting a question about . . . men. Male victims of domestic violence and sexual violence. Which was, well. Basically, I got to walk this fine line moderating while people in the audience are arguing: “yes, female violence against men matters. Yes, it is just as bad and has just as much of an impact on the victim regardless of gender. But yes, violence against women by men is much more common and pervasive.” All diplomatic like. While really, I’m thinking “yes, this is important, I just wrote a blog post about it and everything, and so yeah, but . . . we’re at Women, Action and the Media. And we’re talking about the men? Really? We’re talking about the men?????”
I tried turning this around by bringing up an important, far more relevant and under-represented issue: that violence that is not male on female or female on male also matters, and that genderqueer people are also raped and otherwise abused, and that rape and abuse happens among LGBT people and in LGBT relationships. But I kind of failed.
I also remember that at one point, someone asked why there were no men on the panel, and Ashley deflected the question somewhat by talking about how she’d really like to see prevention programs where men work with younger boys and mentor them with positive role models that teach consent and don’t buy into rape culture. Which, I agree, would also be really cool.
And, that’s all I remember. Which, over 2,000 words later, is more than enough, right? If you somehow do want even more, check out all of the tweets from our panel here. And because my memory if falliable, and tends to be egotistic and remember the things that I said best (hey, at least I’m honest about it), I’ve also invited Ashley, Ashwini and Marcella to come comment on this post if they so wish. If they do, great! And if not? Well, I guess you’re stuck with me.