It is absolutely shocking to me that the girl who was raped in Steubenville, Ohio is now being subjected to threats and harassment for coming forward, as is the blogger who helped shine a national spotlight on this appalling case. It is a sad comment on how far we still have to go regarding the treatment of women in our culture. It is also a sad comment on how freely rape permeates so much of the society around us.
Some are blaming team sports, media, religion, or whatever they see as the root cause of rape. Yet in fact, rape is pervasive. It happens in every community. It happens to men as well as women. It is mostly perpetrated by men, but women too sometimes engage in rape. It happens among secular people as well as religious. It happens in egalitarian groups. It happens in sex-positive environments as well as sexually suppressed ones. No matter where you turn, rape happens.
Rape is often, but not always, perpetrated for the feeling of power over another. But sometimes rape happens due to a sense of entitlement, and it can even happen as an act of sex—an overly desperate person sees an opportunity with someone in a compromised position, drunk or unconscious, and takes advantage. Rape has many forms, sometimes including only verbal coercion, sometimes merely taking advantage of a person whose wits are not about them, sometimes using massive physical force. It is not as one dimensional as some would have it be, and that just makes the problem more vexing.
If the problem is so widespread, we can conclude there is no one solution to it, and that is true. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have a place to start. We do. We start with men, because most rapists are men. We start with the rape of women, because they are the large majority of victims. We start with rape as an act not of sex but of violent control, because that is its most common form.
At least, I start there, because as a man, that seems to me the best place for me to work.
And I’ll share a story with you now. I was 17 years old, and had not had sex with a girl. And I was very much troubled by this fact. Not only did I have the raging hormones of a 17 year old, but I felt very inadequate for not having had this experience. I was surrounded by friends who constantly bragged of their sexual conquests. Whether they told the truth or not is debatable, of course, but I believed them. I felt there must be something terribly unattractive about myself, both physically and in my personality, to have not ever held a woman naked in my arms as we “did it.”
So, when a young woman around my age began flirting with me, I was thrilled. The woman and I spent an evening together, but neither of us had a private place to go. She said she was on a vacation from her job as a counselor upstate, and I should come back with her. They needed more counselors and we could certainly have the chance to have sex up there.
Well, I was more than eager to take her up on her offer. But once I got there, she was avoiding me. Once in a while I’d see her and she’d renew her promise. But it hadn’t happened. Finally, on the last night of camp, I almost pleaded with her to find some alone time with me. She agreed. We found a room we could lock and no one would notice, and we started making out, clothes gradually coming off. She had removed her bra, and both of us had only underwear on. My excitement was indescribable. So much so, in fact, that I wasn’t noticing that she was going through the motions without a lot of enthusiasm.
Well, just as I moved to remove her panties, she went totally limp and said, “I don’t think I want to.” After a brief exchange wherein I was rather petulant and definitely expressing feelings of hurt, disappointment and frustration, I got up, got dressed and left, slamming the door behind me.
The point of this story is probably obvious to you by now. I was a 17 year old kid with hormones bursting. I hadn’t learned all that much about feminism, and my real awakening to the plight of women all over the world was still some years away. I was, in short, a pretty normal 17 year old young man. But it never occurred to me not to take no for an answer.
I don’t think this was particularly praiseworthy on my part. It seems to me the only decent response. And I was hardly saintly about it. It’s almost 30 years ago, but I think I dropped an F-bomb on her as I left. And in my mind, I felt deceived. I thought she had planned this from the beginning to mess with me. Maybe she did, or maybe she had simply changed her mind. It doesn’t matter. No is no.
So, when I hear the phony excuses of how “she was asking for it by the way she behaved” or the way she dressed or how she walked or talked, I have no patience for it. Let’s put it clearly, guys. If a woman walks up to you, grabs you by the crotch, pulls you into a private room, strips naked and lies with her legs spread SHE STILL HAS THE RIGHT TO SAY NO AT ANY TIME!
This isn’t rocket science. If a woman teases you, and gets you all worked up only to leave you high and dry, it’s true, that’s not a very nice thing to do. But it is not a license to rape. And since these scenarios are exceedingly rare and quite extreme, it pretty well covers the other 99.999% of excuses made for why the rape was really the victim’s fault.
If a woman, or a man for that matter, is too disoriented to properly consent you may not have sex with her or him. There isn’t a lot of grey area there. Any of us who has ever had a little too much to drink (or imbibed overly much in whatever substance), or seen anyone else in that state, knows what it looks like. If she, or he, is lying there looking unhappy at what you’re doing, STOP DOING IT!
If she, or he, has to be pressured into it, it’s not ok. If sex is really what you’re after, there are people out there who will consent to having sex with you; you just have to make the effort to meet them, and win them over. If you can’t do that, you have some work to do on yourself. You can also find plenty of people who are into consensual power exchange, if that is what thrills you. Nothing wrong with that, or anything else as long as it is between two people who can consent to the act (age appropriateness being part of that as well).
OK, you say, that’s all fine and we understand it. But people get off on the power trip of rape, and, anyway, we have a culture that encourages rape. The objectification and dehumanization of women has many different forms in virtually all cultures the world over. What do we do about that?
In the 1970s, the focus was on teaching women how to avoid rape or to defend themselves. Nothing is wrong with that, to be sure, but it doesn’t get at the root causes. Those causes are what concern me, especially as the father of a young son whom I want to grow up with a positive attitude about sex but about whom I worry that he will get the wrong messages about women.
There aren’t any easy answers, but Steubenville gives us some clues. We should all be just as outraged at the townsfolk who are defending the rapists, who are threatening the victim and those who helped publicize this atrocity. The law says that consent must be given, and that merely not saying “no” is not consent (which should be obvious, especially if the victim is passed out). Despite that fact, the rapists’ lawyers tried to use the fact that the girl didn’t say no as a defense. And the victim’s friends turned on her and testified that she drank a lot and had been known to lie.
Well, in this case, that wasn’t going to fly, thanks to the idiocy of those around the rapists who blathered their bile over the internet, laughing at what was being done to this poor girl. But we all know that such tactics do work sometimes.
We need to teach our children, boys and girls, that a liar or a drunk may not be raped. We have to teach them that the behavior of a victim doesn’t matter, that it is NEVER OK to violate the body of another person.
A woman can have sex with 50 people in one night if she so desires. That doesn’t entitle anyone to be the 51st without her consent. And when a victim, male or female, comes forward, we need to stop vilifying them. Yes, there are occasions where false accusations are made, sometimes even after consensual sex. That’s why we investigate, and why we should never treat an accusation as a conviction.
But with no other crime do so many people question the veracity of the alleged victim. And that is where we need to start drawing the line. We need to send a message loud and clear that someone who is crying rape should be presumed to be telling the truth, just as we presume someone is telling the truth when they say they were robbed. When someone is saying they were sexually assaulted, there should be penalties for those who retaliate or humiliate that person for bringing the accusation. You can believe her or not, but you cannot vilify her on the presumption she, or he, is lying. That should not only be taught at every level, it should be the law.
In Steubenville, some people threatened the rape victim, and they were, in fact, arrested. But we need to go farther, and make it illegal to imply that because the victim dresses provocatively, or perhaps likes to party, or has a “bad reputation” that she, or he, must be lying. Because in most cases, the victims are not lying and every such accusation is a new assault on top of the first one. And that is how it should be treated—as an assault.
I, as someone who believes that sex and sexuality should be open and celebrated in all its diversity, am quite comfortable talking to my son about sex, about respecting all people equally, and about particularly not seeing women as sexual objects. Other people are not so sanguine about talking with or exposing their children to sex. That’s ok, but we need to agree that, even if we disapprove of sexually provocative behavior or dress, it is not an invitation to rape. I think that is a message most of us can get behind.
And, in general, this needs to stop being a “women’s issue.” In fact, it is very much a men’s issue. Most (and I stress, not all) rapists are men. WE need to take control of this issue, and WE, as men, need to communicate to our brethren that this behavior is unacceptable. Not because we are “protecting women” or some such nonsense, but simply because IT IS WRONG!
I have no illusions that rape will disappear. It will probably be a problem as long as humans are human. But we can do a lot more to make it unacceptable socially than we have. Woman have been working at it. So have a good number of men, but not enough. So, come on guys. Let’s start holding up our end. Let’s see more men be the ones blowing the whistle, being there to support victims and, most of all, stepping in to make sure that victims aren’t vilified and emotionally assaulted all over again. This should be an easy place for men and women to work together. Lots of men are already doing it.
And it’s a way to make sure that our sons don’t end up throwing their lives and futures away because somehow they got the message that it’s ok to violate a helpless girl. That’s what happened to the Steubenville kids. There are no winners there, everybody loses.