I’ve been reading The Purity Myth by Jessica Valenti off and on the last few weeks. It’s not something I can read for extended periods of time because I get pretty upset as I go from one point to the next. I despair for the generations of kids that have been taught so many lies-condoms don’t work, abstinence is the only answer, birth control is wrong, etc. I am angry, truly angry, at the legislatures and lawmakers who have decided they know more about human anatomy, physiology, conscious, and emotional well being than dozens of well respected organizations like the American Medical Society and other similar organizations of professionals. I want to shake the doctors, nurses and pharmacists who put their own “morals” above that of doing what is right by their patients. Medical professionals have no right, no right at all, to force a woman to a particular treatment and should not deny a treatment just because it is morally ambiguous rather than medically wrong. I’m sure some could argue that birth control or the morning after pill or abortions (mostly abortions) are medically wrong, but they would be arguing against their peers and would have less to stand upon than their damn morality argument.
However, the part that makes all of this worse is how destructive the entire culture we live in is when it comes to rape and any sexual violence. As I was reading a chapter that focused on this topic, I couldn’t help but remember an exercise I did in my high school home economics class. The chapter noted how as soon as drugs or alcohol are involved people are significantly less likely to sympathize with the victim and instead condemn them. The exercise from my class was a thought game where supposedly fictional situations were presented. In all but one scenario the possible victim of sexual assault was female. More often than not the majority of the class agreed on what scenarios were or were sexual assault/rape regardless of the presence of drugs or alcohol. The one that stands out the most in my memory though is when the teacher asked if a male teenager who was intoxicated and unable to walk straight was raped by a teenage girl who convinced him to have sex with her. I was one of three students out of 30 or so that said it was rape. Even the teacher said that if the guy agreed and was capable of maintaining an erection then he probably wasn’t intoxicated enough to have been raped. I was appalled at the double standard she presented as not two questions before everyone had agreed that if we switched the roles of the male and female it was rape. It doesn’t matter the gender of the individual who is being coerced into any actions that lead up to sex, including sex, it is and will always be rape.
Mind you in some ways I was happy that most of my class was able to recognize when a woman is a victim of sexual assault/rape. However, the fact that few recognized that men can be victims too, and that I argued with a teacher about this, just solidified my opinion that most people don’t actually know what rape or sexual assault is. Maybe I’m reaching, but it would not surprise me if the majority of the people in that class would not recognize a victim of sexual assault/rape when these things actually happen in real life where the information is not as clear and obvious as it was in those classroom scenarios. When we have everything presented to us by the media it requires more than just glancing at a story to understand what happened. We have to read through the perspective of the journalist and what is sensationalizing the story and actually try to understand what happened.
The most recent example of a rape case that received national attention (as of the writing of this post) was what has come to be known as the Steubenville rape case. The national coverage did not start until late into the case but that didn’t stop the media from reporting directly from what can only be called the victim-blaming pulpit. When the guilty verdict was finally read by a juvenile court judge the coverage from CNN epitomized the rape-culture of America. They sympathized with the rapists for the majority of the 6 minutes of their initial “breaking news” broadcast. The victim was mentioned twice, both times in passing. “Lives were destroyed” was stated multiple times by several different reporters but always in regards to the rapists. Never once was anything said about the victim and what she must have been experiencing, what she must have gone through or anything at all about how her life had been destroyed. Luckily, in my opinion at least, CNN received a huge backlash for how they reported on the verdict and their focus on the rapists. The reporters involved were extremely upset that they were accused of sympathizing with the rapists despite the fact that yes, that was what they did. (For more on the entire case go ahead and start here.)
How could two female reporters who do not consider themselves part of the misogynistic culture that is part of the American way of life end up in such a position? It’s really easy when you consider that most people don’t even realize that the way that they reported was possibly wrong. It was only after it was pointed out to them that this was wrong that they even stopped to think about it. Consider this – these two boys were charged and found guilty of accidental man slaughter or whatever the legal equivalent would be. It would be easy to say yes, what they did was wrong and they deserve jail time, even if it was an accident. There would be sympathizing with them, but the victim and the victim’s family would be mentioned and have just as much coverage as the two who were found guilty of that crime. However, the coverage of rape is always different. These two boys consciously chose to act as they did and used their victim as they saw fit. There was nothing about any of their actions that was an accident. They didn’t “accidentally” remove her clothes. They didn’t “accidentally” carry her from one party to the next. They didn’t “accidentally” take pictures or videos of her. They didn’t “accidentally” insert foreign objects into her body. None of their actions were accidents, but because the charges were for “rape” they were seen with much more sympathy than they otherwise should have been. We don’t want to admit that rape happens, that we all take part in this rape culture, or that how we view rape is skewed and wrong. We especially don’t want to admit that high school, star football players are capable of rape because it completely goes against our ideas of what “all-American” boy are and what they are capable of doing. That requires admitting that they can be wrong and that they are not perfect and that they are not the ones being led down the path of the dark side by the “wrong kind of girl”.
I must count myself as part of that culture too. I am aware and conscious of the fact that I was raised in a society that dehumanizes victims and disregards acts of violence against women (or men) if sex was involved. If I do not stop and think about what I am reading or hearing it is too easy to fall into that misogynistic and paternalistic way of thinking. My parents did a pretty good job of raising me in such a way that I question a lot of things I read, see or hear. While it makes me more aware, it doesn’t necessarily help when the society they are raising me in, as enlightened as Boulder County was, is still overwhelmingly full of negative messages for women, especially women who dare to step outside what has been designated for them, and elevating men, especially those who not only fulfill their role as men but “encourage” women to fulfill theirs as well. Awareness at least makes me wary and I can take my time to really think about what is going on and what I can do to help/stop/make others aware.
I hope the kids I grew up with in high school have had some of the same insights that I have as they’ve become adults. I hope that maybe they are able to recognize rape and sexual assault and who is the victim and who is the aggressor in real life. I hope that they don’t blame the victim getting raped after drinking or using drugs or wearing the wrong clothes or being out in the wrong place at the wrong time. I hope they are working with their friends and families to help be part of the slow change in our culture. I hope… it sounds so small when working against something so large.