Last night I attended NOW-NYC’s event, “She Asked For It: How Rape Myths Hurt Us All.” It was an interactive panel featuring author Helen Benedict, forensic nurse Karen Carroll (who also testified in the NYPD rape cop case), The Line Campaign’s Nancy Schwartzman, editor John Stoltenberg and NOW-NYC president Jane Manning. The panelists touched on everything from how the media perpetuates rape myths, to “rapist ethics,” to military rapes — and much, MUCH more. It would be nearly impossible to try and synthesize everything discussed, so I will cover the highlights.
First up, the media. Recently, the media has had a lot to cover in the way of high-profile rape cases (ahem, DSK and NYPD). And generally speaking, it has done a very poor job of remaining objective. From calling the rape of an underage sex trafficking victim a “sex romp” to calling DSK’s victim a hooker, the media is failing us left and right. But why is this? Is it because the publishing industry is male dominated? Perhaps. But more pointedly, victim-blaming is rooted in the dichotomy between what Helen Benedict calls the Virgin and the Vamp. If you aren’t completely virtuous and “pure” (in other words, the “perfect” rape victim), you are susceptible to being judged by eight key characteristics, which when played out in the media and courtrooms, sway public opinion. These include:
- Knowing the perpetrator
- No weapons involved in the rape
- Victim is the same race as the rapist
- Victim is the same or lower class as the perpetrator
- Victim is of the same ethnic group as the perpetrator
- Victim is young
- Victim is attractive
- Victim is perceived as deviating from traditional gender roles (i.e., Was she partying instead of staying home? Drunk? Is she slutty?)
With regards to this last point, Nancy Shwartzman introduced a thought that is very much at the heart of rape myths — and on the tongues of rape apologists: if a woman is a “slut,” she is considered “un-rapeable.” I’ve heard this argument mostly in the context of rapes of prostituted women, but that certainly is not the only context.
Closely related to this point is the role of alcohol in a rape. Was she drunk? If so, she was probably just horny and wanted it (so goes the popular myth). This becomes especially problematic, as one audience member mentioned, on college campuses. With so much of collegiate life grounded in partying and drinking, sex and alcohol often go hand in hand. But as Nancy said, alcohol and consent don’t mix. So guys, if that hottie is stumbling, vomiting, or slurring her words, don’t interpret that as an invitation to easy sex. Sex should ALWAYS be about mutual desire, and NEVER about taking advantage of a vulnerable partner and later blaming it on the drunk girl.
This reminds me of what every girl is raised to hear: don’t go out late, don’t dress a certain way, don’t drink… don’t, don’t don’t. While one should never throw caution to the wind, rape prevention should not be shouldered solely by women. What we SHOULD be doing is telling men NOT TO RAPE.
Which brings me to John Stoltenberg’s discussion of “rapist ethics,” in which accountability for sexual violence is shunted. His solution is a method of prevention that centers on men: letting boys and men know it is expected of them to make moral choices and affirming positive behaviors. These behaviors (obviously) include NOT raping, but also include bystander intervention in rapes. In fact, John used this last point on intervention to craft a messaging campaign for the Department of Defense in response to the high incidence of military rapes (80-90% of which go unreported). Be sure to check out MyDuty.Mil for the full campaign.
The media, universities and the military aren’t the only institutions rife with rape myths. Health care institutions are also guilty of perpetrating them. As Karen Carroll explained (and audience members affirmed), all too often health care providers (HCPs), such as ER personnel, fail to remain objective when assessing and treating rape victims — they too have preconceived notions of what a victim “looks” like. But because HCPs are usually among the first points of contact for victims, it is absolutely vital they are compassionate and objective. Otherwise, they run the risk of discouraging victims from pursuing medical treatment and/or justice.
And last, but certainly not least, is the criminal justice system. Jane Manning, a former sex crimes prosecutor, gave an excellent overview of how this system is influenced by local politics: namely the elections of District Attorneys, under whose direction rape cases are selected for prosecution. Unfortunately, DA offices are also swayed by the above-mentioned eight characteristics and are known to pursue only the “real” rape cases (i.e., stranger rapes, rapes involving weapons, those with sober victims). That could explain why in NYC, for example, the DSK case fell apart and Marvell Scott copped a plea deal. The bottom line: we must make rape an election issue. DA offices need to hear from local women that we demand more attention be paid to rape cases. Under pressure, DAs will take cases more seriously and allocate resources appropriately (i.e., the best trial lawyers).
It’s sad that only in rape cases do victims have to prove their innocence. But not all is lost; as feminists, as activists, we must remember to use our voices. Be loud, make noise, and above all, agitate! We must advocate for victims and challenge the institutions that perpetuate rape culture.