Recently the term "rape culture" has made its rounds in popular culture, with many reporters and bloggers complaining about the victim-blaming, perpetrator-excusing behavior of major news networks. But rape culture is more pervasive than most of us want to admit. (Note: I'm about to go on a rant. Feel free to skip to the paragraph that starts "last night").
Because reporters aren't the only ones who tend to side with the perpetrators. After all, as many trauma theorists have pointed out, victims ask a whole lot more than perpetrators do. Victims ask us to listen to their accounts, to believe what they're saying is true, to stop it from happening, to protect them, and even to take responsibility for any part we played in their abuse, as complicit bystanders. At least, that's what victims would be asking if rape culture didn't shame them into silence.
What do perpetrators ask us to do? Nothing. That's right, nothing. They don't have to ask us for anything, because they already have power over their victims. And as long as we do nothing, they can keep victimizing people, and we can continue living our lives as viewed through rose-tinted glasses. We can continue believing that the only real perpetrators out there are people who look spooky and scary and whom we would never befriend. And when a victim or survivor tells us that they were abused by someone we know and like, we can assume they were lying, but then go turn on the news and pat ourselves on the back for getting angry at the true rapists out there, who fit our narrow definition.
I'm used to rape culture. I see it all the time in friends, family, and associates. I see it when people assume men can't be raped, or when a group of male scholars performs exhaustive research to determine what factors make women most likely to become victims of sexual assault and presents it as a checklist on how women can avoid being raped. And then the presenter is surprised by my frustration.
But I'm not used to seeing it among other feminists. Maybe I haven't been paying close enough attention before now.
My preamble has gone on a bit long, I know, so I'll get to the story that has me so upset.
Last night, a member of a feminist group I belong to on facebook posted an article about a 17-year-old woman who came forward and testified that a former teacher and coach had been sexually assaulting her for the past couple years. The perpetrator is now 33, but the woman was just 14 when the then-30-year-old man first began courting her, so to say.
When she was 15 he kissed her, and by the victim's own account, she felt helpless after that day and felt incapable of saying no when he pressured her to have sex with him, as he suggested he would withdraw his love otherwise, and as he told her that she would be worthless and have no future if she ended things. Apparently learning that an LDS woman would now be eligible to serve a mission at the age of 19 (formerly 21) gave the victim a reason to hope and the courage to seek aid.
Fortunately, those she turned to actually believed her, and a judge agreed to bring the case to trial.
And yet, horrifying to me, at least half of the responses from members of this feminist group where the link was shared responded by questioning the victim's accountability in the situation and questioning whether she was a victim at all. Because it is a closed group, it would be unethical for me to share names or exact words, but here's a summary of the arguments that were made:
- Some 17-year-old women want to have sex, so she probably did; the only difference is she had sex with an adult, not a teenager.
- The fact that she ended things now shows she always had the power to end it, so she can't be a victim.
- She may have committed sexual sins that she'll need to repent of, so she's probably accountable for at least some of what happened.
- It sounds like she consented at the time, but now she's regretting it.
When I responded that these statements were forms of victim-blaming and that I expected better on a feminist group, one person responded that she was merely being technical, while I was responding emotionally.
So, let me explain, in technical detail, why this is sexual assault.
1. A minor cannot legally consent to sex with a 33-year-old man. Sexual assault is not merely the presence of a "no," but the absence of consent.
2. Statutory rape is rape-rape, no matter what Whoopi thinks to the contrary.
3. This relationship went on for three years. That means a then-30-year-old man initiated a personal, emotionally intimate relationship with a 14-year-old girl. And took advantage of it a year later, when he first kissed her and began making sexual advances on a 15-year-old.
4. Courting a person in preparation for sexually assaulting them is known as grooming a victim. It is also a crime, and it makes it that much harder for a victim to leave or resist.
5. The now-17-year-old survivor of this abuse identifies it as sexual assault and describes how her perpetrator groomed, assaulted, manipulated, and threatened her. She identifies it as abuse. She says she did not consent. Based on her testimony and whatever evidence her lawyer presented, a judge saw at least enough evidence to take the case to trial.
And so, all my feminist friends out there, we need to be on our guard against rape culture from within. That's how prevalent rape culture really is.