Stop Soft-Pedaling Rape and Rapists


Many of you have read about the resolution of a criminal case in Spain last week.  The case, described thoroughly in this The Guardian article from last Thursday and this December, 2017, article from El País, involves an 18-year-old woman who was at the Pamplona Running of the Bulls (“los sanfermines”) on July 7, 2016, and was approached by five men in the early hours of the morning.  They offered to walk her to her car, but instead took her to a lobby of a nearby building, where they raped her and filmed the gang rape on their cell phones.  One man stole the woman’s cell phone before leaving the scene of the attack.  The five men, self-named “La Manada,” or, “The Wolf Pack,” planned and filmed the attack.

Last week, the five attackers were not convicted of rape, but of “sexual abuse,” a decision that brought a lesser punishment of nine years in prison (five years to probation) and a 10,000-euro fine.  One of the magistrates, Ricardo González, deemed that the event was consensual from start to finish.  His questions and comments sexualize, rather than criminalize, the case, thus demonstrating his inability to make fair judgment and the ease with which more than insensitive legal actors can influence outcomes and retraumatize individuals attacked in violent cases.  In addition to harming the survivor, the blame-the-victim line of questioning does further harm to any person who has experienced such violence.  The distinction made by the Spanish law and the court, in this case, is that sexual abuse does not involve violence or intimidation.  Upon hearing the decision, thousands in Spanish cities big and small took to the streets, in a wave of protest, to decry the utterly unjust verdict and the revictimization of the young woman who survived the brutal attack. (*See the BBC’s report of the protests here.)

Were any of you stuck in the last paragraph at the mention of “sexual abuse does not involve violence or intimidation?”  First of all, I would think that both sexual abuse and sexual violence involve violence and intimidation and that the impulse to distinguish one from the other here is an impulse to say that boys will be boys and, well, rape just happens.  Second, when a single person, armed with only a cell phone, is surrounded, stripped of her clothing, and raped by five grown men in a building lobby, we can clearly say that person is being both intimidated and violated.  It is sheer insanity to say otherwise. Saying otherwise reveals the depth of our (us, our cultures, our laws, the people we know) willingness to allow violent, insecure men to take and keep control of others.

At the very least, this case is forcing Spanish legislators to reckon with these laws and is demonstrating how thousands of Spaniards are willing to protest this toxic masculinity embedded in the law.  Protests of “No is No,” “We are All the Wolfpack,” “I Do Believe You, Sister,” and “Justice Now” contribute to a public display that might help to move the legislative needle in the centuries-overdue right direction.  The President of the High Tribunal for Justice in Navarra, Joaquín Galve, has criticized protesters for being out of control, and yet has no comments about the out-of-control verdict handed down last week.  This is yet another case of embracing a centuries-old status quo and blaming the wrong group of people—those who are appropriately protesting profoundly unjust laws. (*See this Gender Shrapnel Blog post on the status quo, this one on civility codes, this one on rape as violence against a real person with a real body, and this one on gender-based violence in Spain and elsewhere.)

As were many people, I was particularly touched to see a group of Carmelite nuns from the north of Spain write and post a communiqué on Facebook to protest the decision and express support for the young woman in the case.  According to this piece (the translation is pretty close to what I read in the original Facebook post in Spanish), the nuns write: “We live in closure, we wear a habit almost up to our ankles, we do not go out at night (more than to the Emergency Department), we do not go to parties, we do not drink alcohol and we have taken a vow of chastity.  And because it is a FREE option, we will defend with all means within our reach (this is one) the right of all women to FREELY do otherwise without being judged, raped, intimidated, killed or humiliated for it.”

I will leave it to Spanish critics to determine the significance, if any, of the occasion of the sanfermines, a runaway seven-day fiesta that caters largely to foreign tourists wanting to drink until dawn and then run the streets with the bulls.  Perhaps this celebrated tradition has a deep-rooted masculinity at its core that has dictated to young men that bulls and women are to be taunted, maimed, and killed.

No expert in Spanish law, I still believe that legislators, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and judges have a long way to go in terms of understanding how legal precedents based in the Napoleonic Code (think of Emilia Pardo Bazán’s tremendous short story, “El indulto” [“The Stay of Execution”], which criticizes both perpetrators and legal codes designed to allow them to keep committing crimes) dictate patriarchal power that continues to be extremely difficult to undo in the courts.  In addition, lack of representation of women in powerful legal and judicial positions (*see this 2017 article with statistics) limits the likelihood that new perspectives will be introduced and taken seriously, thus confounding the initial problem of legal history and stagnation in legal reform.  On-the-spot protests like we see happening throughout Spain, along with sustained protest movements like “Ni Una Menos” in Latin America, must continue to gather steam, push legislators and judges, and change the deep acceptance of gender-based violence still so prevalent in this 21st century.

Rape is rape, not “sexual abuse.” Rapists are rapists, not “sexual abusers.”  Let’s call it what it is, ensure there are real consequences for the crime, and effect lasting cultural change.

A Year of Blogging Weekly

I started posting in the Gender Shrapnel Blog just about one year ago, promising that I would post weekly on issues having to do with gender and its intersections, including race, class, national origin, and parental status.  The one-year anniversary of the Gender Shrapnel Blog is two weeks from now, but this is the 52nd post.  I mark the anniversary by reflecting on the year’s events and the genre of the blog, in addition to assessing what I have learned and have yet to learn from this writing experience.

My book, Gender Shrapnel in the Academic Workplace, came out a year ago.  The book’s hybrid combination of narrative, theory, and practice seemed to dictate an afterlife in which I would continue to apply concepts from the book to gender and intersectional problems around us.  After I had written several blog posts, a friend remarked that he enjoyed reading the blog and wondered how I would keep finding topics to write about.  In 52 weeks, coming up with topics has never presented a challenge; only finding the time to research and write the posts has.  As I wrote the first post, the conventions of the Democratic National Committee and the Republican National Committee had already taken place.  Like so many other people in the United States (and the world), I was confronted with the GOP candidate’s forma y fondo, that is, his style of delivery and the content of his delivery.  This meant that my honest attempt to read about and document the assertions I make/made here seemed to contrast with the candidate’s penchant for lying, cheating, and twisting, as well as his drive to oppress African-Americans, Latinxs, Muslims, individuals living in poverty, and women, among other groups.  Gender and race shrapnel swirled around us, as the candidate bragged about groping women, encouraged violence against African-American citizens at his rallies, and prepared policy text to ban individuals from majority Muslim countries from entry into the United States.  At the same time, deep misogyny in our political realm was revealed time and again through attacks on candidate Hillary Clinton.  Plenty to write about, indeed.

When the current “president” was elected on November 8, 2016, old and new friends of mine and I did what many people were doing all across the country—we mourned and then banded together both to combat the new agenda and to make any progress we could in the local, regional, and national political arenas.  You will note this turn in the blog posts.  For me, the activism—not grand, but certainly steady—I had already practiced for decades in the realms of gender and race equity and educational access was accentuated, or maybe distilled, into a singular desire to use this blog, in its own small way, to signal wrongs and advocate for change.  Just a few weeks after I started the blog, one of my Republican-leaning friends asked if another friend and I were being paid to post our political opinions.  This innocent question both amused and frustrated the hell out of me.  I was amused because I know many activists (me included) volunteering plenty of hours a week who are not picking up any paychecks but who joke about it after a long night of meetings.  I was frustrated because I realized how many people believe that it’s impossible to be so committed to social justice that you would actually offer your words and labor for free.

Our personal lives also keep moving, though, and the blog posts reflect some of the events in my own life, including attempting to understand my own biases, listening to younger generations of activists, introspection about how I was raised, and the loss of a parent.  Simply put, there were some weeks overtaken by worry, grief, and sadness, and the blog posts indulged these feelings and experiences.  I think I had to get over the sense that writing about these issues was exhibitionistic and realize that hitting closer to home tends to appeal to readers, to allow them to consider their own reactions to universal phenomena.  Real writing, whatever that is, seemed to live in that space.  But I also wanted to continue to protect the privacy, as best I could, of those in my personal life.  I am still finding this a difficult balance to strike.

Several of my siblings are long-time Republicans and voted for our current “president.”  Several disdain politics and government and rarely vote.  One (besides me) has voted the Democratic ticket for many years now.  Most of my family members are either not on Facebook, which is the only place I’ve broadly posted the blog, or they almost never use Facebook.  I don’t believe they are regular readers of the Gender Shrapnel Blog.  When my contradictorily kind and Fox News-watching father read a few of my posts, he said, “Kid, you’re brutal.”  I believe he meant that mine is not to criticize the current people in power, that I was supposed to just put up and shut up.  I wrote “The Stifling Status Quo” post after that conversation, realizing once again how many people have trouble conceiving the status quo as more brutal than the attempts to undo it.  At the same time, I know I would have written a much more blistering and personal response to my father’s statement if I didn’t love him as I do and care about my portrayal of him.

I have attended several (not enough) writers’ workshops, read a lot about writing poetry and memoir, and taught a multi-genre workshop for creative writing in Spanish.  One consistent theme from all of these experiences is that writers need steady time in the chair to think, brainstorm, read, research, write (crap and not-crap), and edit.  My year of blogging weekly has reinforced for me the wonderful discipline necessary for this craft.  I spend a lot of time reading newspapers, magazines, and journals in order to enter into dialogue with the gender shrapnel topics raised by the pros.  Each blog post takes me at least five hours, and so I have to prioritize the blog and commit time to it every week.  Among many other professional and personal responsibilities, this commitment looms large every Tuesday, as I figure out how to stare down a Monday publication deadline.  I am the only one imposing the deadline, and so being steely about it can be hard to justify to those around me.  Writing on a deadline equals stress and pleasure, pleasure and stress.

My file of clippings, both paper and virtual, overflows.  There’s always an opinion I want to respond to.  In one of the blog posts, I write that my daughter chided me one day by saying, “Moo-oom.  Opinions!”  Indeed, the more I read and write, the more opinions I have.  This requires that I balance the sense that I’m right against the curiosity to listen and learn more.  This will be an ongoing challenge, I’m sure.

My blog posts have usually consisted of 1000 to 1500 words, depending on the topic, the research required, and the busy-ness of the particular week.  This article length has settled into my writer’s biology and rhythms.  The quick outlines I do for each week’s post naturally lend themselves to pieces of this length.  Mark Twain’s saying that “if he had had more time, he would have written a shorter letter” manifests in the Gender Shrapnel Blog.  When I reread certain already published posts, I mentally move paragraphs and cut wordy sentences.  I haven’t quite experienced the cringing of rereading a diary years after writing it, but I keep that image close at hand as I hit “Publish” on the WordPress site.  My writer’s voice has played hide-and-seek, emerging more in some posts than in others.  I have become more aware of my Spanish-language-influenced penchant for long sentences and paragraphs and of how my physical surroundings at times influence how I write (not always what I write about).  Those who have generously read poems and prose pieces of mine have encouraged the reduction or elimination of adverbs, which I still use stubbornly, copiously, and probably poorly.

This year of posting has taught me a few things about audience.  As I have posted only on the blog itself and announced the posts only through Facebook, I have limited my readership.  I am naïve in the ways of promoting the work beyond this medium; or maybe I feel shy about doing so.  I haven’t announced new posts through Twitter or directly asked friends to boost readership.  Sometimes I wonder why I haven’t gone all out (whatever that means), but I just haven’t yet.  I’ve learned about blog post titles, too. “Sexual Assault Prevention Training in the News” attracts fewer readers than does, say, “Lock Her Up.”  Images, even clip-art images, spice up the posts in ways I never would have predicted, and finding compelling images has meant spending more surfing time away from the research, but I learned it was worth it.  Not many people have commented directly on the Gender Shrapnel Blog site, and so management of on-site comments has been minimal.  More people have shared their reactions through Facebook.  Learning from people’s positive, negative, fiery, neutral, and intimate reactions has been such an interesting and significant part of blog production.  Hearty thanks to the many people who have read the posts, thought about them, shared, and/or made comments.  I really appreciate your engagement with the blog and the ideas it presents.  I haven’t decided yet whether “a” year of blogging weekly will turn into more, but please stay tuned!

The Stifling Status Quo

Name some things you take for granted.  For example, if you’re speeding down the highway and are stopped by a police officer, are you sure you’ll just be asked about your speeding?  Are you certain you won’t experience violence at the traffic stop?  Are you sure you won’t be killed?  Do you feel like you can automatically trust the officer to assess the situation and have everyone’s best interests at heart?  Another example: Can you walk down the street without someone yelling something about your body?  Can you walk down the street and not have to wonder if you or your children are safe?  Can you walk down the street and hold hands with whomever you like? A more minor example: If you’re in a meeting at work and you make an informed recommendation, are you sure you’ll get credit for it?  Will you be considered astute or arrogant to have made the suggestion?  Will anyone else make the suggestion after you and then get credit for it?  Another one:  If you bring up race or gender shrapnel, will you be perceived as overly dramatic or overly sensitive?  Do you even need to bring up race or gender shrapnel just to make it to the next day or moment?

If you don’t have to be wary of any of the situations listed above, from the most threatening to the least, you are pretty damned lucky.  You don’t ever have to think twice.  You walk through life feeling comfortable all the time.  Your presence is considered “normal.” You live what you think is everyone’s status quo because you have experienced this comfortable-all-the-time feeling every day of your life.  This is profound privilege, a word whose semantic weight matters now more than ever.  The privilege might come from your being white or being perceived as white.  It might come from your being a man or being perceived to be a man.  It might come from the perception that you are heterosexual.  It might come from perceived wealth or from physical stature.

You have the privilege of being annoyed by other people who call your attention to privilege.  You think other people are doing this all the time, but, really, other people are doing this about 1/16 of the time they could be doing it, up from 1/2000 from decades ago.  You think other people need to just get over themselves, that things can’t be that bad, that it’s impolite or uncivil to throw things like race, gender, and sexual orientation in your face.

The government and media messages after 9/11 made it difficult (unpatriotic) to criticize war and impossible to criticize soldiers (“I’m against the war, not the soldiers.”). The lives of black women and men are endangered in our public spheres, but somehow any critique of the situation or visible protest is turned into an anti-police or anti-blue lives message.  Those who are oppressed continue to be the ones who must seek remedies, rather than having all of us recognize and rectify wrongs.  The embrace of the status quo and the fear of loss of privilege convert legitimate, significant protests into marginalized complaints of marginalized peoples.  They reinforce our systems of oppression and ignore data, critical thinking, and a clear and consistent need for change.

Everything I’ve said here is obvious to many people I know.  Critical race theorists and gender studies experts have done excellent work on perceptions of the status quo and maintenance of privilege.  Critical Race Theory for years has made clear that the law, based on precedents handed down from case to case over centuries, bears its own biases and delivers its own blunt reinforcement of the status quo.  When my husband and I bought a house in a predominantly white and socioeconomically disadvantaged neighborhood, on settlement day we were struck by two old-time elements of status quo.  The first was receiving the deed to our new house.  The deed stated, in no uncertain terms, that the house could not be sold to anyone not of the Caucasian race.  We were undone by this and could not sign the deed to the house.  We then had to consult with a lawyer, who said it would take tens of thousands of dollars to dig back through all the deeds and change the record.  We finally settled on drafting a new document that would always accompany the deed to undo the status quo that others had just left there.  This cost us extra money and time—just to undo a racist status quo of decades (maybe centuries, for the neighborhood in general).  The second was needing to pick up the mortgage check from my employer (from whom we had the good fortune of receiving a mortgage benefit).  The check was made out to my husband, who was not and is not an employee of the institution.  For all the paperwork and tax documentation to work out correctly, the check needed to be made out to an actual employee of the institution, who happened to be a woman married to a man.  We were delayed again in changing the institution’s understanding of status quo (the money goes to the man, even if his name is different from the actual employee who is to receive the benefit).

This is why I roll my eyes when I’m told that not everything is about race or gender (right—it isn’t if you have the luxury of not having to think about it), when I’m told that this pope is wonderful, even though he won’t even begin to address the question of women in church leadership, when Wimbledon finally pays women and men equally, but still gives men carte blanche to Centre Court, and when we’re told that only Fox News can take down the “president” (7-5-17 The New York Times op-ed).

The status quo is a lumbering tank, a heavy wagon, a toppled scale of justice.

For some of you, it is just the air you breathe and the water you swim in.

P.S. My daughter points out that, if “High School Musical” can question the status quo, then we all can!