Rape: Real Violence on Real Bodies

This post is a tough one.  It is tough because most of us don’t want rape to be a tool of oppression.  It is tough because we don’t like to think about the violation of our own or others’ bodies.  It is tough because rape has become so common that someone even coined the terrible adjective ‘rapey.’  It is tough because we as people and as a culture (media, athletics, schoolyards, campuses, workplaces) have participated in behaviors that devalue women and men and normalize rape.  It is tough because of Brock Turner from Stanford and Alec Cook from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the many predators they represent.

It is tough because rape takes away control and replaces it with trauma.  It is tough because some people report it, aren’t believed, and are retraumatized.  That’s when maybe carrying a mattress around makes a lot of sense.

It is tough because we often don’t even use the terms available to us to describe what has happened.  Remember the The New York Times headline back in October that announced, “Montana Judge Criticized for 60-Day Sentence for Man Who Has Sex With His Preteen Daughter”?  The Public Editor of the Times, Liz Spayd, at least ran an opinion piece criticizing the headline (10-22-16).  If you think about it, we not only have to fight for felons to get the sentences they deserve, but we even have to fight for felonies to be called exactly what they are.  If we use lighter terms, judges and juries are likely to give lighter sentences.  Language matters, and, of course, so does the law.

In last week’s post I underscored that sexual harassment, discrimination, and retaliation exist on a continuum with sexual assault and rape.  I emphasized that we won’t come close to eradicating sexual assault and rape if we don’t also figure out how to solve the problems of harassment, discrimination and retaliation.  In addition, I highlighted several of colleges’ and universities’ major problems in establishing reliable protocols (including reporting systems) that are fair to the person reporting a violation of harassment, discrimination, or retaliation and/or sexual assault and violence.  Greater awareness of these major shortcomings will allow us to create a multi-pronged approach to understanding and decreasing the incidence of all of the actions along the sexual harassment-sexual assault continuum.  If we fail to create safe and reliable reporting systems, we fail.  After all, we usually need one brave individual to report and be heard for other individuals to feel they too can come forward.  This is acutely proven in the Alec Cook case.

A friend of mine has a daughter who is a senior in high school.  My friend has questioned, as many of us have, why, given the statistics on sexual assault (*see this AAUW report; RAINN; NSVRC; EROC; U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics), we send our daughters to United States colleges and universities.  My friend is astute, saying that we wouldn’t send our children into other settings with similarly grave statistics.  We either think it won’t happen to our children or that it’s just a risk worth taking.  We know of fraternity banners and targeted fraternity invitations to first-year women.  These broadly distributed missives, which inform women new to the college environment that they will be rated and maybe raped, make sure that women know who is boss, who has the first and final word.

(Here is a wordle created from sample fraternity invitations e-mailed to first-year women.)


Colleges and universities are notoriously ineffective at dealing with the rape culture they have fomented (it seems that institutions create a problem that they then spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to attempt to remedy; and who knows how much they spend in lawsuits to address these self-same problems).  Many university employees work hard on education on these issues (data, brochures, bystander education, etc.), but the education doesn’t seem to carry over to real change in the actions of violent offenders and, more pervasively, the permissive acceptance of these felonies.  Spokespeople for institutions like to express “shock” at these events, but, as I have written on many occasions, shock is not a valid response.  These felonies happen all the time.  We know they do.  The statistics support this, and our rape culture reinforces this.  I’ve also said that the term “zero-tolerance policy,” often invoked by university officials after they have just tolerated another illegality, is misleading, hypocritical, and entirely unhelpful.

One final phenomenon I’ll discuss that links rape culture to rape itself is hazing.  Hazing happens most often in strongly “fraternal” contexts—athletics teams, fraternities, military branches.  Hazing goes from lighter imposed actions, such as reciting Shakespeare from a school balcony, to physically dangerous actions, such as forced ingestion of copious amounts of alcohol, to felonies, such as assault and battery and sexual assault.  I suspect that many men who engage in hazing rituals see them as something they just have to endure to get to the other side, to become accepted as a brother, and then to inflict these rituals on others.  But if they don’t understand hazing as potential or real assault and possibly sexual assault, then they are continuing a cycle of violence in their own organization and transporting these felonious misassumptions to life beyond the fraternal context.  In other words, if hazing sometimes includes sexual assault, and men don’t understand it to be sexual assault or refuse to absorb that it is sexual assault, then they are probably imposing these beliefs and behaviors on “non-fraternal” women as well.

Let’s call rape what it is: rape.  Rape happens all the time.  Rape is a felony.

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