How a victim-blaming system excuses rape

January 7, 2013

Jen Roesch explains how the sickening revelations about a gang rape in an Ohio town have highlighted facts about sexual assault today--and its roots in our society.

A HORRIFYING 12-minute video of young men in Steubenville, Ohio, joking about the brutal, extended gang rape of a 16-year-old girl last August is now international news after it was posted on the Internet January 2 by the hacker group Anonymous--along with a stream of Twitter and Facebook posts, and photos of the unconscious victim being dragged by her wrists and ankles.

The very clear picture that emerges is of a young woman drugged and then taken unconscious from one party to another while being repeatedly raped and violated by members of the school's self-styled "rape crew"--while other members took pictures, tweeted about what was happening and made vicious jokes mocking the victim.

The Steubenville case is now about more than this horrific crime, however. The Anonymous postings, in particular, have shown the complicity of town and school officials in trying to bury the details and blunt the effects of this crime--and the readiness of some in the community to blame the victim of a gang rape, and in the most sickening terms.

Marching at a Slutwalk demonstration in New York City
Marching at a Slutwalk demonstration in New York City (Charlotte Cooper)

In this respect, a rape in one Ohio town is revealing how U.S. society and its most revered institutions--law enforcement from the local to the federal level, and schools from the high school level to the most elite of college campuses--routinely minimize rape and sexual violence, and subject any woman willing to speak up about them to abuse and humiliation.

The rot goes far beyond Steubenville. The first national coverage of the case was an extended New York Times feature that ended up illustrating all the problems with the ways that rape and sexual assault are discussed in our society. The article read like a cross between a nonfiction retelling of the high school football TV drama Friday Night Lights and an anguished commentary on the uses and misuses of social media.

Readers could easily have been left with the sense that what happened in Steubenville was a tragedy for everyone involved, that the young men who committed the rape were also victims because they might lose promising futures, that it matters whether the town's beloved football team had its reputation tarnished--and even that it's difficult to determine what happened that August night because of conflicting stories and outlooks.

While the Times article extensively profiled the two young men charged with rape, the experiences and feelings of the victim are almost entirely missing. We only learned in the last few paragraphs that she is traumatized, unable to sleep, socially isolated and afraid to go to school.

In this context, the Anonymous leaks are welcome in having shone the spotlight on the misogynistic cruelty of the "rape crew" and the multiple ways in which the victim was dehumanized and brutalized. The facts about what happened are stomach-turning--and, as a record of the evening posted at the Local Leaks website shows, not at all difficult to piece together.

What's clear is that school and town officials have been engaged in a systematic cover-up ever since August--which in turns shows the extent to which these young men could reliably expect to act with impunity.

The revelations about Steubenville are so horrifying that there is a danger the events will be seen as exceptional. Already, the young men involved are being described as sick sociopaths.

While it's hard to watch the video footage and disagree, this misses the critical point that sexual assault is pervasive in our society--and that the ruling institutions of this society are responsible.

An extensive report by the Centers for Disease Control in 2010 found that one in five women reports having been the victim of rape or attempted rape in their lifetime. Any serious of discussion of rape and sexual assault today has to address why they take place so widely--and the multiple ways in which sexual assault survivors are re-victimized.

IT IS depressingly easy to point to examples of the most reactionary politicians and public officials minimizing or even denying the reality of rape.

Todd Akin, the Republicans' candidate for the U.S. Senate from Missouri, caused an outrage last year when he said that a woman could not become pregnant from "legitimate rape" – thus implying that some rapes that weren't legitimate or real. In Indiana, another GOP Senate candidate, Richard Mourdock, described children resulting from rape as a "gift from God." Then there's Roger Rivard, a Wisconsin Republican who claimed last year that some women "just rape easy."

But this all seems mild compared to the California judge who was finally admonished recently for his 2008 claim that "real" rape survivors are the ones whose vaginas are "shredded by rape." In justifying his reduction of the sentence of a man convicted of raping his girlfriend, he said:

[I]f someone doesn't want to have sexual intercourse, the body shuts down. The body will not permit that to happen unless a lot of damage is inflicted, and we heard nothing about that in this case. That tells me that the victim in this case, although she wasn't necessarily willing, she didn't put up a fight. And to treat this case like the rape cases that we all hear about is an insult to victims of rape. I think it's an insult. I think it trivializes a rape.

It's easy to write this off as the reactionary ranting of Republican Neanderthals. Yet there are real consequences--for example, the recent expiration of the federal Violence Against Women Act after the Republican House refused to vote on it.

More importantly, however, we have to recognize that there has been a much wider backsliding on the issue of rape and sexual violence.

Before the women's movement of the 1960s and '70s, the dominant idea of rape was that it was something that happened in dark alleys and bad neighborhoods, committed by strangers. The women's movement punctured this mythology, revealing the truth--that most rapes happen between people who know each other and that sexual assault is much more common than people think. This represented a huge advance.

But the backlash against the gains of the women's movement has had significant consequences. First, it has eroded steps towards actual equality between women and men and contributed to a culture steeped in sexism--one in which it is acceptable to think of women as objects for men's pleasure. Second, it has changed the way in which rape and sexual assault are talked about.

Today, the myth of stranger rape has been replaced by the myth of what is referred to as "gray rape"--the idea that it is hard to identify what constitutes consent or non-consent, and that many situations described as rape are murky or confusing.

In the early 1990s, author Katie Roiphe wrote a book called The Morning After: Fear, Sex and Feminism, which essentially claimed that date rape didn't exist. Instead, according to Roiphe, date rape was a matter of women waking up and changing their minds. "There is a gray area in which one person's rape may be another's bad night," she wrote. Her argument was that women weren't willing to take responsibility for their own sexual activity and instead reverted to accusations of rape.

Roiphe's argument was shocking at the time, but now some of the reactionary assumptions she peddled have seeped into the mainstream discussion.

The women's magazine Cosmopolitan, usually filled with articles about how women can best satisfy men, was the first to push the concept of "gray rape." In a cover article, journalist Laura Sessions Stepp laid out the basic argument: "Many experts feel that gray rape is in fact often a consequence of today's hookup culture: lots of partying and flirting, plenty of alcohol and, ironically, the idea that women can be just as bold and adventurous about sex as men are. How can something so potentially empowering become so damaging?"

In other words, the narrative goes like this: women have become more sexually active, alcohol use has increased, and there is an increasing "hookup culture"--therefore, confusion has developed over what constitutes consent. So sometimes men "cross the line," but no one's quite clear about whether it was rape or not.

There is a right-wing version of this narrative and a liberal one, cloaked in concern for women.

The right-wing argument essentially tells women that if you're going to play with the big boys, then you're going to get hurt. Stepp's Cosmopolitan article quotes a woman saying, "If you make the choice to leave the bar with the guy, then you are also creating the opportunity for something to go wrong. I think that is the point that needs to be driven home to everyone who participates in the hookup culture. Yes, you can practice safe sex. Yes, you can have casual sex without strings. But this behavior carries a risk."

AS HORRIFIC as this argument might appear to most people, the assumption that women are responsible for engaging in risky behavior that can lead to them being victims of rape or sexual assault underlies much of the mainstream handling of the question.

For example, at first-year orientations at colleges across the country, women are taught about how to avoid putting themselves in a dangerous situation, the risks of alcohol and how to look out for friends. Orientation workshops telling men that rape and sexual assault will not be tolerated on campus and how to ask for consent are practically nonexistent.

The result is that victim-blaming has become so pervasive, it is hard to even identify--it has become like the air we breathe.

Sometimes, it's overt--like when the Steubenville football coach dismissed the rape charges against his players as an excuse made by a girl to her parents to justify a night out partying. But much of the time, victim-blaming stems from an assumption that rape is the result of a breakdown in communication--some kind of misunderstanding or a drunken encounter gone wrong.

So, for example, when Amherst College student Angie Epifano went to her sexual assault counselor to report being raped by an acquaintance, she said she was told, "It might have just been a bad hookup."

Author Wendy Kaminer, writing about the Amherst case for the Atlantic, went further and questioned whether Epifano's emotional trauma might have pre-dated the rape. She then went on to question whether all rapes are really equal.

Meanwhile, a website called The Good Men Project published an article titled "Nice Guys Commit Rape, Too," in which writer Alyssa Royse offers an anguished account of how her "nice guy" friend "accidentally" committed rape.

Royse describes how "I had watched the woman in question flirt aggressively with my friend for weeks. I had watched her sit on his lap, dance with him, twirl his hair in her fingers. I had seen her at parties discussing the various kinds of sex work she had done, and the pleasure with which she explored her own very fluid sexuality, all while looking my friend straight in the eye."

Royse does say she agrees that her "nice guy" friend raped the woman when he had sex with her while she was unconscious. But the entire thrust of the article is that women create "confusion" for men with their sexual ways of dressing, flirting and mixed signals. Nowhere is there any sympathy for, or examination of, the feelings and intentions of the victim or the likely devastating sense of betrayal and violation she felt when this "nice guy" raped her.

It seems like whenever rape and sexual assault are talked about today, the focus is on alcohol, "hookup culture" and miscommunication. What isn't talked about is sexism and women's rights.

THE ASSUMPTION that rape is murky and hard to identify underlies the normal response--in which the rights and feelings of men accused of rape are elevated above the rights and needs of rape survivors.

The way in which college campuses handle sexual assault cases provides a vivid example of this. A man who is found to be responsible for a sexual assault is expelled in less than 15 percent of cases. Much more common sanctions include having to participate in alcohol awareness training; writing a letter of apology to the victim; having to take a women's studies course; and other minimal punishments. Administrators are much more likely to approach these cases as "teachable moments"--in the process, they minimize the experience of rape and sexual assault for survivors.

The result is that rape becomes normalized--almost as if it's the consequence of being a young woman, particularly a sexually active woman, in society today.

At least part of the assumption is that those who commit rape are bright young men whose lives shouldn't be ruined by one "mistake." But missing from the discussion is the impact that rape and sexual assault have on the victims themselves.

Many victims of rape leave school for fear of having to attend classes or live in dorms with their assailant. And women who report being sexually assaulted often find themselves victimized all over again by a criminal injustice system where they are treated as if they are responsible.

Even for those who don't report sexual assaults (and the vast majority of women do not), there are consequences. Almost one-third of women who have been sexually assaulted will suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder or a major depressive episode during their lifetime. More widespread are the more common effects on self-esteem, the ability to trust, sexual functioning, sleep disorders and more. A majority live in fear of friends or relatives finding out what happened to them.

A real response to the epidemic of rape and sexual violence in society would put those experiences, endured by the victims, back at the center of the discussion. Such a response must reject any idea that there are gradations of assault, and that some can be more "legitimately" described as rape. And it must reject victim-blaming and the idea that it is a woman's responsibility to prevent a rape or sexual assault.

Only then can we begin a real discussion about why some men rape and how the broader culture is responsible for making that acceptable.

THE EXPERIENCE of sexual assault is so common and we are so surrounded by sexist imagery that it would be easy to conclude that most men are potential rapists. This is why, to some extent at least, the idea has taken hold that rape is just part of the male-female sexual experience today. This broader reality is also why some people describe our society as a "rape culture."

Certainly relationships in this society exist in a world saturated by sexism and marked by profound alienation. But the fact is that only a minority of men commits rape.

Two important studies--one conducted by David Lisak and Paul Miller and another from the Naval Health Research Center--have shed light on who commits rape and their attitudes. These studies asked men to say whether they had committed a series of acts that met the legal definition of rape, but without labeling them as such. There were several important findings.

The first was that a minority of men--between 6 and 13 percent--committed rape or attempted rape. Perhaps more strikingly, within this group, a subset of almost two-thirds had committed more than two rapes--the average was about six per rapist. These multiple rapists, then, are responsible for a high number of the rapes that take place.

What does this mean?

First and foremost, the idea that rape is common and happens as a result of miscommunication or confusion is false. The men in the studies who committed multiple rapes understood clearly that they didn't have the consent of the women they forced themselves on. But most also didn't label what they did as rape, and they justified their actions using a whole range of sexist assumptions.

Second, the idea that men who rape are simply confused and that sexual assault cases should be used as "teachable moments" allows this subset of serial rapists to rape again and again.

The young men in Steubenville who appear so horrifying in the video footage and other accounts of the gang rape last August are actually not so different from the men who commit multiple rapes. Brutal gang rapes may be a minority of sexual assaults, but the Steubenville case has similar features.

Like the vast majority of rapists, the "rape crew" in Steubenville used alcohol as a means. They planned their actions. They were conscious of what they were doing. And they have almost certainly raped other young women before. This is the reality that terms like "gray rape" or even "date rape" obscure.

But it would be equally wrong to conclude that the assailants in the Steubenville case are depraved individuals operating in isolation from broader society. At every level, the sexism that is part of the fabric of the system is implicated.

In a very specific way, the members of the "rape crew," because they are also star football players, were protected by their coach, school administrators and local government officials in a town that depends on sports revenue. Similarly, when a "bright young student" on campus is accused of sexual assault, campus administrators are more likely to protect than to punish.

But more generally, the men who rape do so in a society that reinforces, in various ways, their beliefs that their actions are acceptable and their victims "deserved it." Top politicians and judges mock rape victims. Women's bodies are used to sell everything from soap to cars. Both men and women are taught that women should be sexually available and that the value of a woman is measured by her sexual attractiveness.

Violent and misogynistic "humor" has become so commonplace that it is accepted even by those who claim to not be sexist. Witness the uproar last year when comedian Daniel Tosh made his usual jokes about rape during a show in Los Angeles--and then talked about how it would be funny if a woman in the audience who confronted him was herself gang-raped. Tosh is still hosting a successful show on Comedy Central.

So when people ask how the young men in Steubenville could live-tweet a rape and make violent jokes about the victim, this is the answer. They have been taught in various ways by our society that this is acceptable.

This reality of sexual violence and degradation stands in stark contrast to the idea that sexist and misogynistic jokes are "all in good fun," because we now live in a post-sexist society where women and men related to each other on a level playing field. In fact, women still endure fundamental inequality in today's world. This is true in every arena of society, but it expresses itself in devastating personal ways in the sphere of sexual relations.

The myth of "gray rape" rests on the premise that the possibility of being sexually assaulted is a consequence of women's sexual liberation, and women need to therefore take responsibility for their sexual activity.

But the reality is that women today are caught in a web of contradictions that make genuine sexual liberation impossible. We are sent conflicting messages that we should be sexually available, but simultaneously told that we are to blame if we are harassed or assaulted. We are increasingly deprived of the most basic control over our own bodies, as birth control and abortion are made less accessible. And while the rise of abstinence-only education and lack of open discussion of real sexuality create profound alienation for all young people today, women are particularly affected.

The events in Steubenville have exposed that reality in a way that has horrified people across the country. The demonstrations there are a welcome first step. And there is evidence that a new generation of young women is no longer willing to be silent. When students at Amherst organized last fall to expose the prevalence of rape on their campus, along with the administration's complicity, they inspired women across the country, and similar stories began to emerge.

It is long past time for a new women's movement in this country. We can begin by reviving the idea, once widespread, that women are in no way to blame for sexual assault, and that sex without consent is rape--period. But we also must challenge the rampant sexism that permeates our entire society, and the profound inequalities such sexism serves to justify.

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