Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Dismantling Rape Culture in America

The following blog post is taken from a sermon I did two years ago. Now, in the wake of the most recent rape and minimal sentence, it speaks loudly.

A link to a podcast of the sermon is here: There are minor differences between the live performance and the written version below.

In January of last year, a picture of a female rape protester was suddenly everywhere on the internet. The picture showed a young woman wearing no shirt, and a low cut skirt, with the words “Still not asking for it,” written across her torso. Her fist was raised above her head. A male viewer commented, ‘but then again, its kind like putting a meat suit on and telling a shark not to eat you’.

The male website owner from one site responded with a brilliant and pointed reply:
We men are not sharks!
We are not rabid animals living off of pure instinct.
We are capable of rational thinking and understanding.
Just because someone is cooking food doesn’t mean you’re entitled to eat it.
Just because a banker is counting money doesn’t mean you’re being given free money.
Just because a person is naked doesn’t mean you’re entitled to have sex with them.
You are not entitled to someone else’s body just because it’s exposed.
What is so difficult about this concept?’

Indeed- what is so very difficult about this concept?

What is difficult is that we live in a rape culture.

“Culture” is a nice sounding word. It can have connotations of patronage of the arts, or a feel of worldly sophistication such as I myself am wont to display. If we have “culture” or are “cultured” we have theoretically risen above the most basic levels of civilization.

Culture, however, is more than that. The Merriam Webster Dictionary says that culture is also these two things:
“a. behavior that depends upon the capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations
b: the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group; also: the characteristic features of everyday existence (as diversions or a way of life} shared by people in a place or time <popular culture> <southern culture>

Our behaviors for sharing knowledge with succeeding generations, and our customary beliefs, social forms and traits. The features of our everyday existence.

Culture is the fire in which we burn. It is the air we breathe. It is all around us to the point that we often don’t even see it.

So why are we suddenly hearing that we are a “Rape Culture”? The phrase seems to be popping up everywhere lately. Is this a new thing? Has something changed? Are we really- and if so, how do we begin to change it?

Rape culture is a concept used to describe a culture in which rape and sexual violence are common and in which prevalent attitudes, norms, practices, and media normalize, excuse, tolerate, or even condone rape. Before 1974 we didn’t talk a lot about rape in America.

In 1974, the term rape culture was used in Rape: The First Sourcebook for Women. It was one of the first books to include first-person accounts of rape, which were one reason for rape entering the public view. In the book, the New York Radical Feminists stated that "our ultimate goal is to eliminate rape and that goal cannot be achieved without a revolutionary transformation of our society."

Things have changed since 1974, and not always in ways that we could control or easily understand.
We’ve traditionally talked about rape as an act of power, oppression, domination, and control, rather than sex, and this is still true. But why now, why in today’s culture, is it seeming to hit the news every few weeks?

We seem to be barraged with stories of teachers sleeping with middle and high school students. 50 Shades of Grey, a book about a sexually power dysfunctional relationship, made the New York Times Best-Seller list and is considered romantic.

In August of 2012, a drunk and unconscious 16 year-old West Virginia girl was raped at a party by two teenaged boys, both football players on the Steubenville, Ohio high school team. The boys not only did not try to hide what they were doing, but they took pictures, and texted them to friends. Their arrests shocked them, and their friends, and their convictions rocked the country and tore their town into fighting factions. CNN coverage mentioned how these boy’s lives were ruined…

Laurie Anderson, author of the book “Speak” which tells the story of a fictional teenaged rape victim, is afraid that young boys don’t understand what rape actually is. On her website there is a discussion board, where real teachers talk about students’ reactions to the book. One middle school teacher from California posted at length about her shock and dismay as she realized that the children she taught, gifted 8th graders, couldn’t understand why Steubenville was rape- they got the idea that it was rape if the victim said no, but no one had said no there. The victim was unconscious.

When she explained to them that rape wasn’t just being forced to have sexual contact after saying no, rape was sexual contact that happened when the victim didn’t say “yes, what a great idea!” the young people in her class were horrified. Two of the boys even approached her after the class, to ask about specific events they themselves had participated in.

By creating a fiction of stranger danger, the rapist as a faceless shadow taking out his anger on a random victim, the US has otherized and monsterized all rapists in a way that simply isn’t true. 1 in 4 women and 1 in 6 men will experience sexual assault, and most of their attackers will be someone they know. And in some cases, the rapist will not even realize that what he (and I am using male pronouns only because statistically the vast majority of perpetrators are male) did was rape.
Rape Culture.

Professor Steven Landsburg is an economics instructor at the University of Rochester. He was recently elected professor of the year there by students. His March 20th 2013 public blog wondered:
“Let's suppose that you, or I, or someone we love, or someone we care about from afar, is raped while unconscious in a way that causes no direct physical harm—no injury, no pregnancy, no disease transmission. Despite the lack of physical damage, we are shocked, appalled and horrified at the thought of being treated in this way, and suffer deep trauma as a result. Ought the law discourage such acts of rape? Should they be illegal?”

A few paragraphs later he says:
“As long as I'm safely unconscious and therefore shielded from the costs of an assault, why shouldn't the rest of the world (or more specifically my attackers) be allowed to reap the benefits?”

Two students who read the blog complained. Not 30, or 60, or all of them. Two.

Rape Culture.

How can the worth and dignity of each individual be upheld, if they are a commodity which exists so that others can reap the benefits? Where is the compassion, the peace, the respect for connection?

Our media commercial culture doesn’t help much. We have swung from the sexist and often misogynistic commercials of the 50’s which showed things like a woman being spanked by her husband for giving him stale coffee, and another wife in awe of a ketchup bottle which even a woman can open, to modern day portrayals of men as endearingly stupid, lazy, animalistic, or aggressive. You may have seen the yogurt commercial in which a bumbling husband overhears his wife talking about her diet, including “apple turn-over, Boston Cream Pie, chocolate strawberry..” We watch as he creeps behind her back, rooting in the fridge for all the good things she has presumably kept him from gorging on, blindly ignoring the Yoplait yogurt containers which she is actually referring to. Pizza and cleaning supply commercials where husbands and their friends nearly destroy a room, and are surprised when the wife or girlfriend is upset. Tostitos spots where businessmen stuff snacks in their faces while the female member of the team works, then hi-five one another as she finishes the project, yelling “Go team.”

Lynx and Axe Body Wash products and sprays for men are apparently geared toward a group of people almost unable to function independently, and recent fast food commercials have included men ramming one another at the drive through window, unable to wait, men unable to share, and men taking one another, and their girlfriend’s food or drinks because they cannot control themselves.
No one bases their life off of commercials, but they reflect what amuses us, charms us, calls to us. They are insidious. They are a mirror. And the reflection is ugly.

The web itself furthers the problem. Social networks make many lives open books. Young people are growing up in a world of continuous connection, continuous check-in, and continuous bombardment with information from around the world. And quite a bit of that information furthers the devaluation of others, or casting others as a benefit to be reaped as we search for fun and entertainment.
Just while researching and writing this sermon I found literally thousands of websites dedicated to or filled with “pranks,” typically done by younger men and women and filmed for immediate net posting. Pranks like feeding someone a ghost chili on their pizza, and watching, laughing as they screamed in pain. I saw versions of this not once or twice, but hundreds of times. Pranks like flipping someone’s bed up to wake them- launching them face first into a wall. Pranks like covering a passed-out young man’s face with black permanent marker drawings of genitals and obscenities, at a party celebrating his wedding the next day, or his starting a new professional job in the morning. These pranks are not done to enemies, but to supposed friends.

Friends who the college professor I mentioned might say are there for us to reap the benefit.
Rape Culture- a culture where others, men and women, are there to provide us with something. They somehow owe us amusement, sex, validation, entertainment. Among those under 30 women seem to suffer most from the sexual expectations, while young men are beaten, battered, and demeaned by vicious assaults masquerading as fun.

As Unitarian Universalists, how are we called to stop this? How do we dismantle a culture where others exist for enjoyment, regardless of the damage?

We begin at the grassroots level, doing what we do best.

We talk and we teach. We live our values in the real world, and we call for transformation.
Talk to your children, your grandchildren, your friends. When you talk about things like Steubenville, make sure that there is understanding of what rape is; that it is sexual contact without a firm yes, not contact that continues after a no.

Ask if they agree with this.

Talk about using others for personal gratification or entertainment. Explain why any act, any act at all, that uses another person’s body in ways they do not enjoy, for someone else’s entertainment, is wrong. Ask your children and grandchildren about bullying and pranking, find out what they think is funny, and what they find dismaying.

Find out why they feel that way.

When products or services are sold to you using objectionable commercials that violate your beliefs, you don’t have to boycott the product. But take 5 minutes and send an email to the company. Let them know you are buying in spite of the commercial, not because of it.

And talk to others about why you feel the way you do.

We cannot dismantle our rape culture by continuing to do what we are doing- by teaching women how not to be raped. This supposes that rapists are those strangers lurking in dark alleys and something worse- that women alone are responsible for preventing rape. That somehow something women do or don’t do causes them to be raped.

During the Occupy Wall Street protests, several sexual assaults of protesters occurred. In response, Occupy Wall Street created a 16-square-foot “safe house,” designed to shelter up to 30 women.  This was a good thing, but it didn’t seek out the root of the problem.

According to feminist activist, Deanna Zandt, “getting the men not to rape [the women]” is a better starting point.  I agree absolutely. Columnist, Katha Pollitt, put all of this in perspective when she recently asked, “Can you imagine hetero MEN having to set up a safe space to protect them from women and LGBT?” No.  Most of us can’t.  Too many of us have been wired to see men as predators and women as princesses needing protection, the latter of which doesn’t always have a happy-ending.  Something’s got to give.

Women need safe spaces because we live in a rape culture that makes sexual occupancy permissible anywhere.  Destruction of the latter needs to happen yesterday—as a requirement of human dignity.  Economic and gender justice go hand in hand.  While Occupying Wall Street and other locales, Occupy Rape Culture simultaneously. Doing otherwise is like throwing women to the lions, and trying to teach them not to be eaten.

A Michigan mother and blogger named Magda Pecsenye demonstrated how to talk to very young men about the issue in a letter she wrote to her sons, age 8 and 11, and posted on her blog here. In it she stresses the importance of getting consent, happy consent, to have sex, and being kind and respectful to a partner, and then she says this:
This letter is almost over but this next part is super-important: Not everyone you know has been taught all the stuff we’ve talked about. You are going to know people, and maybe even be friends with people, who think it’s ok to hurt other people in a lot of ways. One of those ways is sex. I know you’re going to hear other boys say things about girls, or sometimes about other boys, that means they don’t care about those girls’ feelings or bodies. When you do, I need you to step in. All you have to do is say something like, “Dude, that’s not cool” or something that lets the person saying something nasty know that it’s not ok. Remember that everyone wants to fit in. If you can take control of the mood in the room by letting them know nasty talk isn’t ok, they’ll stop so they don’t look like an idiot.
Remember how we talk all the time about how we’re the people who help, who fix things when there’s a problem or someone’s in trouble? You may get the chance to do that someday. Because those boys who say nasty things about girls may actually do something to those girls. If you are ever anywhere where boys start hurting a girl, or touching her in any way that she doesn’t want, you need to step in. If she’s asleep or drunk or passed out or drugged and can’t say “no,” you need to step in. Remember, it’s not good unless both people can say they want it. If a girl isn’t saying anything, that doesn’t mean she wants it. If she isn’t saying specifically that she wants it, then it’s wrong.

She continues to tell them how to safely step in, and that even if they hate the girl, even if she has been mean to them, to still stand up for her, that they can hate her again tomorrow.

We can destroy this rape culture.

We can talk with our children and grandchildren. We can talk with our friends and co-workers. We can create a culture where treating people as things to be used isn’t acceptable, whether we are talking about rape, or vicious pranks. We can make it clear that men are not bumbling mindless animals, too aggressive or brainless to be taught how to control themselves.

Simply live your values. And share them as you journey. Refuse to join a culture where doing otherwise is accepted. When enough of us stand together in fighting for dignity and worth, compassion, and understanding, we become the majority.

We change the world.


Copyright 2013 Reverend Amy Petrie Shaw. May be reprinted with attribution.

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