Quantcast

What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape  | The Nation

  •  
Jessica Valenti

Jessica Valenti

Feminism, sexuality & social justice. With a sense of humor.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape 


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.

When we make victims’ choices the focus of rape prevention, we make the world a safer place for rapists. It gives attackers what Thomas Macaulay Millar calls—in his excellent piece ‘Meet the Predators’—social licence to operate. You know why rapists attack rape women? Because they know the victim’s community and law enforcement will be less likely to believe them. When you tell a rape joke? A rapist thinks that you’re on their side! In ways big and small, we are making this easy on them.

I’ve written before that I think a huge part of rape culture is that we don’t have a widely accepted cultural definition of rape to guide these conversations. I still think this is true. Relatedly, there is no national standard for teaching young people—girls and boys—about sexual assault and rape culture. I theorized on Twitter last night that American girls learned more about rape culture on Tumblr than they ever did in school—the responses I got were amazing. (And distressing.)

“I’m 24 and went through the public education system. We never learned about rape, let alone rape culture. Instead we learned to dress modestly and that it’s the girl’s place to say no.”

“Rape wasn’t even mentioned in “sex ed” in high school. I found out through tumblr and other sites that it’s ok if I say “no” and that “no” should always be listened to.”

“I had extensive sex ed (which was heteronormative and cisnormative) between 5th and 9th grades. I never heard the term “rape culture” or any talk of consent at all really until I started reading (books and online.)”

We are counting on Tumblr and teenage girls to do the work that schools and mainstream culture should be doing. And as incredible as teenage feminists and online activists are, they cannot do it alone. How is it possible, that with a well-known epidemic of rape in this country, that we don’t demand rape culture be taught in every school? (Abstinence only education would need to be abolished, too.)

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

Perhaps to some teaching “rape is wrong” seems silly—don’t we all know this already? The truth is we don’t—as a country, we don’t really even understand what rape is. In Steubenville, a student who had learned that drunk driving was wrong—he took car keys away from an inebriated friend—looked on while an unconscious girl was penetrated because “it wasn’t violent…I thought [rape] was forcing yourself on someone.”

For every story of sexual assault that sparks a national outcry, there are thousands more that go unnoticed. Not because we don’t care, but because rape and victim-blaming is business as usual. Feminists are offering interventions to this sad reality, but if anything is going to change, we all need to listen up. And if you find yourself making arguments that feminists find abhorrent, consider that you just very well may be helping a rapist.

Aura Bogado celebrated Indigenous Peoples’ Day, not Columbus Day, this Monday.

Before commenting, please read our Community Guidelines.