This post is going to be a mess, mostly because my thoughts relating to the events in Steubenville, Ohio, and Torrington, CT, are so wildly all over the place that I can’t really get them to coalesce at the moment. But if I don’t say them I’ll explode, so…here we go.
When I was 15 years old, I attended my first-and only-high school dance. Well, outside of junior and senior prom, which were excuses to spend a ton of money on getting fake hair weaved into my real hair and gel manicures, as well as opportunities to cry in the Jessica McClintock dressing room because the size 14 dress would barely fit over my hips. I digress.
I remember what I wore down to the shoes. A sundress with flowers, a grey cardigan, and Keds. I don’t go to dances to hook up. I learned that lesson in sixth grade, when I saw my crush dancing with another girl and spent the rest of the night crying on my couch thinking I was going to be alone forever.
That dance was the first and only time I have ever been touched by a guy in an aggressive, anonymous way. While moving my way through the crowds to find my friends at the other end of the dance hall, I got my ass grabbed. Not like one hand on my butt. I’m talking both hands, actively clamped onto my rear end for about 3 seconds, and then they released. I have no idea who did it, and I really don’t care to know. But it haunted me. I felt violated on a level I had never experienced before. That 3 seconds of involuntary possession caused me in an indirect way to retreat back into a shell of virgin fear for a number of years.
It may seem laughably small, the fact that the only form of sexual invasion I’ve ever experienced was a pair of hands gripping my butt. But I do remember feeling like someone just saw my body as something they could physically experience without permission, as if society or our view of women had given this dude permission to grab. I still don’t know who did it. Hell, maybe it was one of my friends being funny and I can’t remember. But it altered my perception of what the dance was supposed to mean.
The reason I reference this moment is because I’m fully aware of my position as a privileged white cis-gendered heterosexual girl who can pass for ‘normal’ in a heteronormative society (yes I use big English major words. Google them, you peons). A lot of times, I feel like I’m on the outside looking in when things like Steubenville or Torrington occur. I cannot conceptualize how it must feel to be in that situation. But I do feel the effects of growing up in a culture that insidiously promotes feminine subjugation, to the point that some of the students in Steubenville’s case weren’t even versed in what ‘rape’ meant.
Girls are usually told they’re being hysterical when they get emotional. I am not a girl being hysterical. I am calm, present, grounded, and really, really pissed off.
Mostly because the situation in Steubenville seemed to circle around this poor girl, who was unconscious, getting blamed for her sexual violation. That doesn’t happen with guys; guys don’t get blamed when they’re assaulted. When the Jerry Sandusky case broke, no one blamed the victims. Nor should they be blamed. A victim of assault or rape is never to be blamed. Yet, here we are.
I also think it’s bugnuts that the entirety of the media outlets is sympathizing with the rapists and their jail fate. You know what’s worse than the fate of those boys? The fact that they raped an unconscious girl at a party and then bragged about it in a viral video for shits and giggles and left her to figure out what happened to her from Tweets about the party. THAT’S what’s the real tragedy. We don’t teach young kids to respect each other.
At the same time, I kind of can understand it. Teenagers have a vague conception of what rape is because guess where they’re getting their concept of sex from? More often than not it’s online porn, in which a passive female is thrown around like a rag doll and experiencing zero sexual pleasure while a guy gets his kicks. There is no reciprocation of sexual acts, only a concentrated desire to please with no concern for their own body. Not that there isn’t porn out there designed to counteract this issue with tasteful and respectful representations of mutual gratification, which is nice. Hell, the fact that I can even say that means we have come a long, LONG way from where we used to be. It’s also indicative of how far we’ve come in the feminist movement that this kind of rhetoric is even allowed in the public conversation. I’m thrilled it’s getting more notice.
At the same time, we are a country that is petrified of teaching kids about sex. Kids aren’t stupid, and they’re sneaky as hell. The more you tell a child they aren’t allowed to do something, the more they want to do it. My nephew isn’t allowed to run around the elliptical when I’m on it, but that just makes him more curious to find out what would happen if he got too close. Maybe tell kids that sex is a thing, and if they do it, to use protection and don’t just throw it around at everyone they see, and maybe there will be some more constructive conversation about sexual health? But I digress.
So let me just outline this as clearly as I can, if there are any teenage boys reading this who are confused on what ‘rape’ defines itself as:
If you engage in sexual activity with anyone without their consent, that is rape.
If you penetrate another person with anything, even if it’s unrelated to sexual organs, that is rape. (Sometimes people do this in order to leave no trace of their DNA behind.)
If you engage in sexual activity with someone who is unconscious or asleep, therefore unable to give their consent, that is rape. (Although that’s not sex in my opinion, that’s just trying to dominate someone who can’t defend themselves. Which makes you look like a Grade-A dick.)
If you engage in sexual activity with someone who ends up saying ‘yes’ because she’s afraid to say ‘no’, that is still a form of rape. And the defense of ‘she eventually said yes’ doesn’t hold up. Hell, I’m 135 pounds and I’m pretty muscular and in damn good shape, but I probably could not get away from a 220 pound male if he decided he wanted to rape me. So a lot of victims end up stopping the fight because they know in their soul they can’t stop the rapist, or they’re terrified they’ll be hurt in another way. This usually occurs in a gang rape situation in which the woman is hopelessly outnumbered. Writing about this is really, really rage-inducing, by the way.
Also, females aren’t the only victims of sexual assault. You dig? There tends to be a lot more shame around male victims of rape. Why? Because it makes them ‘less of a man’ to admit they were brutalized by another man? Um, it makes the RAPIST look like less of a man.
Whatever happened to getting to know someone or winning someone over with your wit or humor or intelligence? A real man doesn’t have to force me or get me drunk to get my pants off. I’m pretty easy to please. Rape shouldn’t be an option. At all.
That being said, my advice isn’t “don’t rape”. That should be a given.
My advice also isn’t “don’t get raped”, although I have taken steps in my life to avoid situations in which an assault could occur. It’s a sad fact that girls tend to have to worry about the possibility of being sexually assaulted at most points of the day (especially at night if we’re walking around campus and we need to get from point A to point B alone. Scary.)
My advice is: Maybe just don’t be an asshole. Every day, when you wake up, resolve to just not be an asshole. You’d be amazed at how great life ends up looking.
Maybe try to be a good person. Maybe respect people and their body boundaries. Maybe choose to be a decent, upstanding individual and take care of a girl if she’s in a bad spot at a party, rather than use that as an opportunity to treat her like a piece of meat.
I’m not the most experienced duck in the pond, but I’m one of the lucky ones. I happen to have a partner who treats my body with respect and dignity. I wish this were everyone’s experience.
But if you’re looking for someone who has a personal investment in rape culture cases, you should read my best friend’s op-ed piece on Hypervocal: I Am Jane Doe. Chelsea and I have been best friends since we were 8 years old. For a few years we lost touch but we reconnected through Facebook (thank God for that damn thing), so I was not actually in contact with her when she was dealing with her rape, but she has come forward with her story and it is compelling, heartbreaking, but ultimately sort of triumphant, as this is the first time she’s talked about her rape this publicly. It broke my heart, but I couldn’t be prouder of her or the reaction she’s gotten from her piece. She deserves every bit of the praise she’s getting.
Hopefully this situation, as Chelsea said so poignantly in her piece, will lead to constructive conversation about rape culture and apologists and perhaps we can work to reverse the public discourse. But it won’t happen unless we speak up.
Here’s to you, Chels. And to all of the Jane Does.
I may not be in your number, but I will do whatever I can to make sure you are heard.
You will be heard.