A week or so ago, a friend directed me to this link. It discusses the notion of rape culture and, in particular, how bystanders may often be complicit in rape, even if it is never something they’d do themselves. The blog begins by linking to a video, which I’m going to summarize because most folks will find it very offensive (and as the link notes, it may be a trigger to victims of sexual assault (If you want to watch it, here is a link; the relevant portion is from 37:36-47:22)).
In the video, a young man tries to make a comedic monologue out of a sexual assault that he committed. His friend was hit on by a woman and gave him her number and address. He went over, even though she was expecting someone else. She immediately told him to leave, but when he asked her to get him a phone number, she left the door slightly open. He took this as an invitation and walked in. She again asked him to leave. He started kissing her. She said no. He did it anyway. The trend continued until they had intercourse and he left. Based on his demeanor in the video and the subsequent information mentioned on various blogs, it appears that he didn’t believe that he had done anything wrong. Probably, he is a nice enough fellow under most circumstances. But he’s a self-admitted rapist (or, at least, sexual assaulter). How do nice people do horrendous things?
I listened to a radio broadcast once regarding the Rwandan Genocide. In it, the reporter spoke with Hutu men imprisoned for attacking Tutsi people. Initially, the prisoners denied involvement. Over time, they admitted their relatives and friends may have been involved. Finally, they talked about the crimes that they committed. One of the threads through their testimonies was the realization that there would be no immediate consequences for their acts. No-one would stop them from killing their neighbors, nor would they be punished afterwards (so they believed). Why not kill your neighbor? You could get their store, their stuff, their home? It was your patriotic and familial duty. Of course, many Hutus resisted this reasoning. But many didn’t. People who’d been friends before were now murderers. Seemingly, all that was required was permission.
One of the things that is striking about the video is that the young man is forever looking for permission. The woman made herself available sexually to someone else. The woman doesn’t close the door entirely. The woman tells him to go, but doesn’t fight off his advances (he insists that she was stronger than him). After the encounter, he is informed that she found him not good in bed. See! Permission everywhere. Unless the woman didn’t want to have sex with him. Unless the woman didn’t close the door because she didn’t think she’d be followed into her room. Unless the woman didn’t fight because she figured she’d just get the rape over with, thinking he might get violent otherwise. An awful lot of permission seeking is permission finding, whatever the intent of one’s putative partner.
One of the ways that we approach the problem of rape in America (and in the church) is to attempt to keep the potential victim from giving inadvertent permission. So we warn our young women to wear skirts below their knees and to avoid “becoming pornography,” capable of exciting the blood flow of local ne’er-do-wells. Unfortunately, there are three fundamental problems with this approach.
First, by establishing one set of guidelines to give women the right to avoid inadvertent permission, you also give permission to men to do whatever they want to women who deviate from the guidelines. For instance, Islam is proud of the fact that women who wear headscarves or more to cover up their bodies are generally not sexually harassed in public places. Unfortunately, it is often the case that women who don’t cover are. Because, the thought goes, if they minded it, they would cover up.
Second, all of these guidelines are ignored by actual rapists. Your relative who rapes you, your date-rapist, your creep in an alley, none of those guys care about what you wear. They may mention it as a means to have more control over you, but it is irrelevant. There is nothing to indicate rape is more likely to happen to someone dressed “slutty,” which is the message of the recent spate of “SlutWalks”. Even if covered head-to-toe in burlap, looking something like Grimace, most rapists will convince themselves their victims were teasing them or asking for it.
Third and worst, it tends to render victims complicit in their own rape. Should a woman be asked to consider how she brought a rape upon herself? Does dissecting her behavior, dress, or location provide real insight into the causes of her assault? Note how the young man in the video spends a lot of time considering how the woman he assaulted should have reacted for him to consider himself in the wrong. As far as he is concerned, she got what she wanted. Except that she explicitly said she didn’t want it, over and over again.
In all this, I’m suggesting that the current American (and by extension Mormon) approach to rape prevention is inadequate. Of course, it makes sense to teach women to defend themselves and to avoid unnecessary risk, but they should not be considered responsible for their own rapes. Once a woman says no, that means no, even if she leaves the door open.