Breaking Free From Our Rape Culture

>>rapepngwebIt’s not common for sexual assault to be a hot topic in the news. But recent events have thrown a spotlight not just on the act, but on America’s rape culture.

The first happened right here in North Carolina. Three current UNC-Chapel Hill students, one former student, and a former assistant dean of students >>filed a complaint with the US Department of Education over how the university handles sexual assault allegations. The students said their rights were violated and they faced hostility from school officials and the university’s Honor Court. Former assistant dean Melinda Manning said >>the university’s attorneys told her to underreport cases of assault and the university’s administrators stymied her efforts to reform how UNC deals with sexual assault.

The US Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights is now >>investigating the complaint, and UNC says it has made changes to its procedures for dealing with sexual assault. The UNC complaint inspired women at Occidental College in Los Angeles >>to file a similar civil rights case against their school.

Then, just last week, there was the verdict in the Steubenville, Ohio rape case. Two teenage boys undressed and sexually assaulted a 16-year-old girl, took photos and video of the attack, and circulated them among their friends – who laughed about it. When information about the assault went public, the Steubenville community – men and women, boys and girls – rallied around the rapists. The blogger who drew attention to the many damning Tweets and Facebook messages, Alexandria Goddard, has been >>extensively harassed, and the victim has >>received death threats.

Even some of the media covering the case came down on the side of the rapists. CNN has received >>extensive backlash for portraying the boys as the victims, unfairly robbed of a successful future because of one silly mistake. A >>petition demanding that CNN apologize now has more than 280,000 signatures.

A case similar to Steubenville is unfolding in Torrington, CT. Three football players are charged with sexually assaulting two 13-year-old girls, who came under attack from the players’ friends on social media. The local newspaper, the >>Register Citizen,  took the unprecedented action of >>publishing the tweets attacking the girls, including the authors’ Twitter handles and images. This was unusual because media outlets usually protect the identities of minors. But as editor Matt DeRienzo >>explained in his blog:

We gave the city, the state and the country a taste of how horrifying and uncomfortable it has been for two 13-year-old girls over the past month who can’t escape the bullying and the nasty comments whether they’re at school or online. Vaguely summarizing this kind of bullying, identities protected, would have allowed the school district to continue to ignore the problem and the community to assume that it was “someone else’s kid.” But the fact is that “good kids,” from “good homes,” honor roll students, athletes, male, female, participated in this stuff, and showed a fundamental and staggeringly dangerous misunderstanding about rape, consent and how to treat other people.

Why do so many young people think sexual assault is okay? Kids involved in the Steubenville case said they didn’t know doing something sexual to someone while she is unconscious counted as rape. Everyone knows it’s wrong for a man to beat up and force himself on a woman who is yelling “no” and fighting back, but it turns out many people don’t know that violating the body of a person who can’t say “no” is a crime.

We can point the finger in a lot of directions – society, traditional gender roles, the media, the culture of football and athlete worship. But as women, we need to ask ourselves: how do we contribute to America’s rape culture?

Why, in the Steubenville and Torrington cases, are so many girls and women willing to defend the rapists and vilify the victims? Why, as outlined in the UNC complaint, are women in administrative positions and female students on the Honor Court participating in victim blaming?

>>Dr. Patricia Levy wrote a piece for the Huffington Post  that looks at these questions. She cites socialization and competition for the attention of men as factors. But, she says she believes the biggest contributor is fear:

I believe the primary reason that girls are willing to victimize rape victims, and thus standup for (convicted) rapists and legitimate unimaginable sexual degradation, is because they are simply too afraid to accept the truth, that they could have just as easily been the victim and they would have been powerless to prevent it. It is very painful to live in a society in which you know there are some boys and men who view you as nothing but body parts to be penetrated at their will. It is truly painful to think that boys and men among you, including your friends, would do to you what they did to the Steubenville victim. No one wants to think about those in their own community treating them as if they were a toy, devoid of humanity. By blaming the rape victim, girls/women separate themselves from her. They are better able to buy the lie — to pretend that it would never be them, when in fact it would just as likely have been them. Girls and women participate in rape culture because the truth of living within a misogynist culture is too ugly.

Dr. Levy’s article is a great starting point for conversations with your friends—male and female—and your children—male and female.

Fear can be disabling. It can make you freeze when you should act or silent when you should speak up. But we need to break free from fear and speak up.  Steubenville, Torrington and UNC demand it.

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