The courthouse at Maryville, Missouri. (Flickr user : lhilyer_libr)
Last year it was Steubenville, where two football players raped a girl while party-going bystanders looked on. Now it’s Maryville, a Missouri town where two girls—just 13 and 14 years old—were raped by older classmates who captured the attack on video. We know how this is going to play out: there will be outrage, there will be victim-blaming, there will be media attention and maybe even a court case. And then there will be another rape. There will always be another rape.
Because despite best intentions, too many people are making America a very comfortable place for rapists. The incredible work being done by feminists—work that’s made progress changing policy and shifting the culture—is consistently stymied by an ignorant, even if well-meaning, majority. If we want justice for sexual assault victims, Americans needs to get on board with feminists or move out of our way.
Though the statistics make it hard to be too optimistic—someone is assaulted every two minutes in the United States and one in ten young Americans has committed sexual violence—there is progress being made. The national conversation around rape is changing, in large part thanks to feminists online. They shone a light so bright on sexual assault that the mainstream media had to pay attention, and created a shared vocabulary ensuring that terms like ‘rape culture,’ ‘victim-blaming,’ and ‘slut-shaming’ have national resonance. This is no small thing; it is, undoubtedly, a culture shift. Ten years ago, for example, CNN bemoaning the Steubenville rapists’ lost “promising futures” would have gone largely unnoticed—last year there was a firestorm.
While feminist language and thinking on rape is becoming more mainstream, it’s not happening fast enough. And because rape culture is so strong, any time an institution, politician or media outlet veers into victim-blaming territory, it has the potential to set back the cause significantly.
Yesterday, it was Slate’s Emily Yoffe, who argues that if girls want to avoid rape they shouldn’t drink so much. (Yoffe seems to think this is a novel and brave position, despite it’s being the central message young American women receive around sexual assault.) I agree there should be a conversation about the relationship between rape and drinking: We need to discuss the way that rapists use alcohol as a weapon to attack, and then discredit, their victims. But focusing on rapists is not nearly as popular as scolding young women.
Refusing to emphasize rapists’ role in rape is telling. Yoffe writes of a girl who “ends up being raped”—as if she tripped and fell into it. (Even more illuminating is the lesson she wants to pass on to her son is not to be the boy “who finds himself accused of raping a drunken classmate.”) It reminds me of a headline from years ago that read, “More Rapes Linked to Young Women on Drinking Binges.” Why not, “Rapists Attack Drunk Women”? This centering of women’s behavior is what allows rape culture to flourish.