Stop Soft-Pedaling Rape and Rapists

(From elconfidencial.es)

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.