Thursday, June 9, 2016

Brock Turner, Rape Culture, and Us

(with apologies for another angry post without mention of food. and with a warning for anyone triggered by sexual assault, in case it wasn't already obvious.)

I have been following the coverage of Brock Turner with my stomach tied in knots.

It makes me sick that he thought he could do this (or worse, that he didn't think it important enough to think at all); it makes me sick that the judge let him get away with it by handing down such a light sentence; it makes me sick that anyone would come to his defense after the fact, citing "political correctness" or "promiscuity" or alcohol as the culprit.

But perhaps it makes more visible than ever both the privilege of white male athletes (each of those words an additive in privilege), and the rape culture that is so pervasive we don't even see it any more.

I work at a university that, like most universities, requires all of its incoming freshmen and graduate students to complete an online mandatory sexual assault prevention program.  During orientation, students participate in an hour and a half long performance and discussion focused on sexual assault, rape, and bystander intervention. That program is followed by small group discussions, and additional information later on in the week.

During which many of them, I know, are thinking: "this would never happen to me."

And yet, it does.

A recent survey on our campus (with a high response rate) revealed that in the past year, 20 percent of all students (with a higher proportion of women then men, and higher proportion of undergraduates than graduates) have experienced sexual assault (which includes everything from harassment to stalking to nonconsensual sexual contact). And that during the past year, four percent of all students (men, women and gender nonbinary) experienced nonconsensual sexual penetration: rape.  Breaking that down by self-identified gender, eight percent of undergraduate women report that they were raped.  Mostly by people they knew.

One rape is one rape too many.  But 1 out of every 12 women?

We know that orientation isn't enough. So we try to start conversations that continue to loop students back in, remind them about how to have healthy relationships.  But they have had so much programming by age 17; it's an uphill climb.

They learn that if someone doesn't want to be with you, you buy them another drink.  They learn that no really means "not yet."  They learn that red means stop, green means go, and yellow means floor it so you can get through before it turns red.

Eighty four percent of college men who were found guilty of sexual assault did not believe their behavior was illegal.  Why?  Because women are described as objects so often that it becomes easy to see them as objects.  Because masculinity is described in terms of sexual conquest, and men--especially adolescent men, and they're trying to figure out who they're going to be--fall prey to those definitions. All of this makes rape culture normative, invisible, particularly, I'd argue, when it lives inside of white privilege, which is also invisible.  (*I am very aware that sexual assault is not limited to male perpetrators and female victims/survivors; I've worked with gay students who have been assaulted by other gay students, men assaulted by women, trans people assaulted by cisgender students. That said: rape culture feels rooted, to me, in power dynamics that are attached to gender.)

Why is it that so many people are more concerned about what will happen when a trans person steps into the bathroom than they are about what will happen when a white cisgender male is trying to prove his masculinity to himself in a culture where he'll never measure up?

I was heartened to read Vice President Biden's moving open letter today.  It was an important statement to make. But I also know that this river is deep. And that even Joe Biden doesn't go back to the place where rape culture begins.  Because you have to go back pretty far in the development of our children to learn when we first start to talk about consent, and bodies, and limits, and respect.

In case you hadn't heard, it turns out that Brock Turner will only be serving three months of his six month sentence.   Even college campus processes have more successful sanctioning than the prosecution record of rape cases. I don't have to ask you how you think this might have unfolded for a Black male, because we know.

Is it any surprise that survivors of rape don't want to report the crime to the police, knowing that this will be the outcome?

Is it any surprise that I didn't say anything to anyone about my own experience for more than ten years?

I know that many of you were silent, too.

What are we--you--me--doing to change this, not just at college orientation, but long before we ever have to have those conversations with our youth, before they ever find themselves bystanders?
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  1. I have started having this conversation with my oldest. What I tell her is that if she doesn't like how someone is speaking to her or treating her that she needs to say something right away. That No means No. That she needs to set clear boundaries. That she can't be coy or playful if she really means no. I am teaching her that she needs to speak up for herself and demand respect. And to not put herself in those situations to begin with.
    I also am teaching my kids to always talk to me about anything, that I always need to know. And if they see something, say something.
    Beyond that...I don't know what else I can do.

  2. I've been thinking a lot about this case, considering the recent moves at my current institution to address sexual assault.

    And I agree with you the whole way.

    Orientations and trainings aren't enough. And as a society, we've been putting too much focus on one problem (I'm all for gender neutral bathrooms) while ignoring a much larger one that is generational.

    There are many who view others as objects. Fair vs dark skin, male vs female, rich vs poor, athlete vs nerd, gay vs straight and now cis vs trans. The labels strip away the human being and make it okay to hate.

    So what can be done? Well, a few things. First is to model what we want. To become aware of our own unconscious bias and truly recognize our role in the problem (which requires humility). Second is to speak out. To make it known that you won't tolerate any of it. And the third is to aggressively teach the next generation why this is wrong. Which means addressing myths and misconceptions. The misconceptions being the hardest part, as these take so long to break down.

    And finally, to teach our children that the world is not safe. That even though no one should suffer an act of violence, they need to protect themselves from those who will take advantage and hurt them. This means addressing irresponsible drinking. It means forming safe networks. It means learning how to defend yourself.

    I'm angry too. And disgusted with all of Brock's family. Shame on them. Shame on all who are like them.

  3. very well said. you did an excellent job (as usual) with a loaded & sensitive topic. I am grateful for the articles gaining attention re: teaching your kids (male & female) about consent from an early age. That is the only hope we have to stop this culture from perpetuating.

  4. I've been following the discussion in social media about the Turner rape case. I agree with you the origins of sexual assault go back, way back. It's good people are talking. On the other hand none of the chatter or even the condemnation feels quite satisfying to me. I don't believe that a person just decides one day that rape is OK. That person started to go wrong long, long before. In small steps. Some wrong ideas here, some wrong decisions there, and this is where we end up. As parents and really in any role that brings us into contact with human beings, tough questions need to be asked about where those wrong decisions start and what is the response. I admit to not being able to really get my head around "rape culture." Even "consent" feels like a flimsy construct to me. If someone "consents" to a cruel and manipulative act, does that make the act OK? Do you need 100% consent for it to be OK, 80%, 60%? We know intuitively when someone does something heinous and totally wrong, which Turner did. But apparently for a lot of people in the moment, it's not that easy to know when something is heinous and wrong. Why is that?? I personally have very strict beliefs about sexual restraint and morality. But even these do not truly feel sufficient to me. How about putting the sanctity of human beings (including yourself) before personal pleasure? When I try to be as honest and logical as I can with my flawed human mind, that's where I end up. Absolutely nothing else will do. Anything less, this story is going to repeat over and over and over. No judge or punishment or education program or angry mob is going to change a damn thing, unless both men and woman put respect first and pleasure second.

  5. Great post, Justine. Though I wish it hadn't been necessary.

    "... women are described as objects so often that it becomes easy to see them as objects." When I was a Political Science student in the 80s, we were fighting against this. Finally, it was okay to talk about. Then in the 90s and 2000s, it was as if it was forgotten. Changes had been made, equality had been achieved, some people said. Yet that basic fact, that women are described as objects and seen as objects, really hasn't changed at all. It's just as blatant, only done differently. Women display themselves as objects, and think it is "empowering themselves." 30 years, and little, if anything at all, has been achieved.

    One thing is for certain. My great-nephew (cough) is coming to stay in a few weeks. I will be talking to him about consent! He's 13. Hormones will be raging. It may already be too late. That is tragic.

  6. I think about my own days at university, 35 years ago, and how many times something like this so easily could have happened to me. There was a golf course near our campus and a lot of students used to use it as shortcut walking to & from campus (& to a nearby bar), and one year, several girls were assaulted there over several weeks, walking by themselves. I don't remember if they ever did catch the guy, but I do remember that they had some women from the local rape crisis centre come to talk to the girls in our dorms. They talked a lot about how men didn't have the right to our bodies, etc. -- which was all fine & good, but I wanted some practical advice on how we could stop this from happening and make the campus (& us) safer. I don't remember if a similar session was held for the guys -- I very much suspect not. And I think that's part of the problem -- then and now.


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