The Cornerstone of Sentience – How Not to Enable Rape Culture

To end our trilogy on rape culture – our original op-ed, Shan De Leers’ vivid recollections – we asked a male ally to give his own point of view on rape culture, peer pressure, and patriarchy. We felt our coverage of what has been dubbed a rape pandemic would not be complete unless a man got to speak up. Rare are the men who will stand up against the unspeakable actions of their friends, their schoolmates, their relatives, but Zack Fowler is one of them. At eighteen, this soon-to-be college freshman from Atlanta, GA shares his stance on patriarchy, rape culture, and his innate respect for women.

It is incredibly difficult, as a man, to find something substantial to say about rape culture. This is a problem (indeed, an epidemic) of which I will never be a victim. I’ve been objectified and I’ve been bullied and I’ve gone through hell, but I will never know what it feels like to be inundated with reminders that society feels propriety over my body. Additionally, Sarah Kay and Shan de Leers are both brilliant and accomplished women whose respective pieces on this blog covered a great deal of ideological ground with eloquence and compassion, while I’m a stinky undergrad. With that in mind, I think of this article as less of a follow up to those pieces, and more as an afterword concerning my experience with the issue as a man living in the infamous bible-belt.

“Rape culture is the systematic reinforcement of the sense of propriety that we men are taught to have over women”

I remember when I was fourteen, a women I knew and loved very dearly was severely beaten by her boyfriend. When the police arrived, they said they couldn’t file charges against him because they didn’t actually witness the beating. This woman, this strong, beautiful woman lay crumpled and crying on the floor with bruises developing around her neck, bruises that would be black by the time I saw her, could not file charges. Because of the nature of domestic abuse, she spent over a year with this man before finally having the strength to leave him. Besides abuse counseling, there were no resources available to her.
I understand that rape culture is associated (as it should be) with sexual assault, but this epidemic is beyond sexuality. Rape culture is the systematic reinforcement of the sense of propriety that we men are taught to have over women. Despite laws to the contrary, there is still an element of our upbringing that leads us to believe that we can claim a woman, drag her back to the cave, and have our way with her. It’s our business if we beat her, it’s our business if we rape her; she has only the value we assign to her. She is territory; her voice is superfluous and her desires are unnecessary. She IS defined by her hemline, she WAS asking for it, she is a receptacle for your fluids and she should be grateful.
We have to be better than this.
We HAVE to be better than this. For us to have any value as human beings, as sentient life-forms, we have to be better than this. You, you reading this, YOU have to be better than this, because the end of rape culture lies not only in solidarity amongst victims (like the various Slutwalk organizations), but in sympathy among those unaffected. Only the silent majority can cement any change the oppressed minority proposes. Just as Dr. King addressed the white moderates in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, we have to address the unaffected (and unintentional) enablers of rape culture to see any change. To act against the many behaviors that make up this problem, you have to approach this in three tiers: do no commit these behaviors, do not enable these behaviors, and do all you can to fight back.
Most of the men I’ve seen engaging in this deplorable behavior have done so in ignorance, so let’s get this out of the way: if you commit any act that treats another person as property rather than individual, you are rape culture. If you yell profanity at a girl on the street, even and especially if her clothes are revealing, you are rape culture. If you lie to a girl to make her fuck you, you are rape culture. If you beat your partner for literally any reason besides self-defense, you are rape culture. If you have sex with an unconscious girl, regardless of what chemicals she put in her system, you are rape culture (and, while we’re at it, you are a rapist). The first tier of resistance is to abstain from these and similar acts. Most men are innocent of most of them, but some of the less violent acts are common social behaviors accepted even by women.

“We as men cannot tie our self-worth to the whims of the ethically bankrupt alpha-male”

My experience with rape culture has led me to place most of the blame on enablers, rather than the perpetrators of these acts. So often in a room full of men, one will say that the appropriate way to go about something is by devaluing the woman involved, and the others are too afraid to speak up. This is where the perpetual motion machine that is rape culture is most pitiful, I think, because easing the pain of a single victim is worth every homophobic slur ever conceived. If I could take away the pain of a single rape victim, I would plaster FAGGOT across my chest for the world to see. This has to be the behavioral paradigm before there can be progress. We as men cannot tie our self-worth to the whims of the ethically bankrupt alpha-male, because if we do, we enable that person to augment the pain and terror of innocents, and we help put every woman at risk. To me, this is undoubtedly the most important step in eliminating the status quo, and there is absolutely no reason that every respectable man should not take this to heart.

My view on charity and activism is that with all the myriad and complex hurts that corrupt the world, it’s better to have a few issues that serve as an area of focus so that contribution becomes a feasible goal of the common person; this is why I prioritize the first two tiers above the third. Nevertheless, fighting back to greater or lesser extent should be a realistic goal for everyone. If you have the time and resources, attend or donate to the nearest Slutwalk (*) or similar demonstration. Write your Senator of Congressperson (or other legislator for readers outside the US) in regard to upcoming legislation. However, perhaps the most important thing you can do is to empower victims of assault and harassment. Statistically speaking, you probably know one. Let them know that they should always feel safe around you, let them know that what happened to them is not their fault, let them know that they are not alone.

“I also understand that the cornerstone of sentience is the capacity to resist nature in favor of civilization”
I understand lust. I understand that gnawing, overwhelming urge that tells you that the body you see should be yours. I also understand that the cornerstone of sentience is the capacity to resist nature in favor of civilization. I understand that compassion trumps desire every time, and that’s all you need. If you’re a victim reading this, I want you to know that you are still beautiful, that you CAN go on and you CAN overcome. If you’re in any way a perpetrator or enabler of rape culture reading this, I want you to know that it is your personal responsibility to be better. There is no excuse. Most importantly, though, if you are reading this from the sidelines, I really and truly need you to know that you are the ultimate deciding force in this cultural war. Get up and find something you can do to ensure that when it’s all said and done, rape culture is a thing of the past.

(*) we linked to the Toronto SlutWalk, home of the initial demonstration; most SlutWalks are now taking places in major capital cities around the world. London, Paris, New York, Chicago all have SlutWalks held every year.

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“I wish I had faith that we would see a substantial change in my lifetime”

Following our recent op-ed on the issue of rape culture, we have received many responses, on this blog, on Facebook, on Twitter and other social media platform urging us to spread the word: according to this excellent article in The Nation by Jessica Valenti, there is a rape pandemic in the United States, and it is time to stop addressing the rape issue as if it was a developing countries’ problem, or a bleep in the crime reporting radar. As far as we know, The Guardian is only mainstream media outlet to have ever used the term “rape culture” in an article recently, despite the intense coverage on the South Delhi gang rape or the horrific details of the Steubenville, OH gang rape of a teenage girl by the local football team – the latter only made possible by the power of hacktivist group Anonymous. From the deafening silence of police departments nationwide to the media’s tendency to blame the victim, we have decided to shift the focus and address the question from a young, female, american, empowered point of view. Nashville, TN resident and burlesque dancer Shanden Key contributes to the OISC on the issue of rape culture.

Not a day goes by that I am not confronted with something that defends or apologizes for rape. Be it in the feed of my various social media sites, reading or watching the news, or simply being out in the world with other people. It seems everywhere I turn, there is blame being hurled when it comes to rape. Sadly, infuriatingly, ludicrously, however, the blame is almost always placed on the victim.

The trend of rape rhetoric towards blaming the victim is not new, we have all seen or heard it. Yet I am filled with rage. Not so much because of the the WAY rape is talked about, but for the commonality with how it happens. The worst thing about it is the frequency, the ease, the regular everyday-ness with which people question what a victim of rape has done to encourage, entice, or ENTITLE their rape occurring. Because after all  even if you said no, explicitly, while fighting back (which is only the circumstance surrounding a portion of rapes) there was still SOMETHING that you must have done that granted another person dominion over your body. Nullified your choice. Took your power over your being away from you.

“The notion that my hemline would override my saying no or my physically sparring with my attacker leaves me in a state of panic.”

I am sickened by the fact that my primary thought when I read an article on rape today, is how must women who do NOT fight back, who are NOT vocal in their non-consent feel? If the women who do those things are questioned so preposterously,  how must a silent victim feel? The notion that my hemline would override my saying no or my physically sparring with my attacker leaves me in a state of panic. An all encompassing heart stopping, gut wrenching, crippling fear. A fear that penetrates to the bone, to my core. A fear that I am somehow able to overcome with, in my opinion, an ease that is too easy for any woman, let alone a survivor. But I am not the rule. There are many victims who have lost their entire lives because of their assault, & I use those two terms specifically. People who can no longer leave their homes, do their jobs, or even participate in regular social interactions because of a sexual assault, those who have yet to overcome the terrible crime that was perpetrated against them, the VICTIMS of rape.

I am not capable of a line of reasoning that allows me to comprehend how questioning a victims actions leading up to a violent crime of this sort are even rational.

We do not question why a person would own an expensive television, or keep valuable jewelry in their home, or why they would choose to own a nice vehicle when one of those things is violated or stolen. Which makes it all the more ridiculous to question the theft of an individuals ownership of themselves, their power, their comfort, their body. Our bodies are the one thing we all posses that is entirely ours. No one can question your right to your SELF. But that is exactly what rape is. It is a dismissal of your power & humanity. And that is what happens to so many people all over again when they report their sexual assault. They are re-traumatized by the authorities and doctors that they go to for help, the friends and loved ones they seek comfort and solace in, and when you take into account that two thirds of all rapes are committed  NOT by strangers, but by someone the victim KNOWS, all that is made even more terrifying.

“Even more depressing is the fact that I can understand the hesitation to report a sexual assault.”

According to RAINN (the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) 54% of rapes simply go unreported. I can not even begin to explain to you how heartbreaking that is to know. But even more depressing is the fact that I can understand the hesitation to report a sexual assault. And all of that understanding is rooted in the ways rape is addressed in our daily lives. If I could have knowledge of the number of times someone has said one of the following about rape: “They were asking for it.”, “What was she wearing?” “Why would anyone ever allow themselves to be put into that position?” or the worst of all, “Well, that’s not REALLY rape.” I think I would be forced to let go of every bit of information and knowledge that I hold within me. I do not think that I would be able to contain figures that extensive and still be able to perform even mundane everyday tasks. Because for some reason, those are the reactions that so many people in our society have. THAT is why so many victims stay silent.

Being asked to write this op-ed was instigated by my posting of a response to a comment about rape rhetoric of this nature. Someone somewhere on tumblr commented on a photo of a participant of a SlutWalk who was topless save pasties with “but then again, its kind like putting a meat suit on and telling a shark not to eat you”. The response to that comment, the reason I reblogged the exchange, was this:

“We (men) are not fucking 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 fuck them.
You are not entitled to someone else’s body just because it’s exposed.
What is so fucking difficult about this concept?”

And that is my question. What IS so difficult about that? Why does our culture allow such commentary and action without repercussion? Why is it that we are in a place as a society that a person’s hemline alone grants another person the belief of entitlement to their body?

“I know how I would be presented to the public were I sexually assaulted. I would be painted with the brush and scope of the media’s choosing”

I am a woman. I am in a committed monogamous heterosexual relationship. I am a cat owner. I am an eldest child. A friend. An aunt. An army brat. A 9-5er. A Nashvillain. A soon-to-be motorcycle rider. A fashion addict. An avid reader. A photography enthusiast. A homebody. I am so very many things, but I know, were I to be sexually assaulted, something I would report and legally pursue, something I would take action against, I know that my main identifier in the media would be none of those things. I would be “a stripper.” You see, I am a burlesque dancer. I regularly take to the stage to peel away other’s labels and notions of what I should be, my insecurities, and most obviously my clothes. I am a stripper. A part of the sex industry. I am not ashamed of this. I am proud of and love myself. I have learned so much about myself and the world and where I fit into it since I began this private to very public journey over two years ago. I love the things and people that this facet of my life have brought me. Yet I know how I would be presented to the public were I sexually assaulted. I would be painted with the brush and scope of the media’s choosing, until I fought back. And then things would likely get worse. I am lucky to know that my immediate circle would be there for me were something so tragic and terrible to happen, but I also know what I would have to deal with publicly. I know that I am strong enough to face that. To not back down until the end. But again, I am not the majority. Over half of all rapes are not reported, and many that are never make it to trial, much less result in jail time for the rapist.

Because we live in a world where the victim is put on trial in rape cases. More so than any other crime. Which is so shocking because my mind cannot fathom something more criminal than a rape. A rapist is a murderer who’s victim lives, sometimes in the loosest sense of that word. Yes. A murderer. Not an attempted murderer, a murderer. And we should treat this crime as such. The severity with which we deal with rape and sexual assault must be made to match the severity of the actual crime. Victim blaming must be brought to an end. We have to put a stop to the way our culture validates and supports the notion that any person is entitled to forcibly violate another because they have some skewed justification for it in their mind. No one person is entitled to another. Ownership of another person is illegal, those feelings of entitlement are unacceptable.

I wish I could say I see a light at the end of the tunnel. I wish I had faith that we would see a substantial change in my lifetime. I wish, I wish, I wish. But I do not have that much faith. I am too weary and hardened to think that such a monumental change is possible in the next 50 years. I would love to be proven wrong. That would fill me with more joy than I could ever attempt to put into words. So what do we do? How do we make a change? We continue to engage and educate. We hold more SlutWalks. We maintain an open dialogue of support for those victimized. We keep living. We do not allow the hate and violence to win. We make our lawmakers, our politicians, our police, our communities CHANGE. We refuse to allow the status quo to remain where it is. We show our outrage at the notion of “legitimate rape” and victim blaming. We do this until things are different. We force a a change in the way rape is dealt with and talked about.

We keep fighting back.

Shanden Key has been many things in her young life; kindergarten teacher, secretary, student, the Nashvillain is powerful, fearless, and takes women’s issues to heart. Recently deemed “best newcomer” in Music City Burlesque, Shanden’s alter ego, Shan de Leers, is gracing the stages of Tennessee with strength and talent. 

Rape culture: the dark side of western amnesia

The end of 2012 has been marked by the collective outrage in reaction to the gang rape of a 23 years old medical student in South Delhi, India. The horrible details of this tragically common story have made the rounds on international news outlets, and have prompted massive protests erupting all over India requesting immediate action from the government, in the form of increased legal protection for women in India. This is a horrifying, harrowing story, and everyone is watching India closely as the worldwide consciousness is pressed for action.

a courageous man in Delhi, India

The sad and pathetic consequence of the coverage of this story in the Western world is this article in the New York Times, an op-ed focusing on the dramatic situation of women in India, and the issue of sexual harassment and sexual assault in developing countries. I took issue with the op-ed as it describes a rape pandemic in developing countries as being the sad, woeful predicament that it is, without mentioning the fact that in western countries, and in the United States in particular, we are not spared: according to the RAINN network, a woman is sexually assaulted every two minutes. Think about it: during the time it took you to read that paragraph, a woman was assaulted. And then another one. And it’s time to stop thinking of it as a situation no one can help but observe and at which we can only shake our heads.

Thankfully, another columnist, Sonia Faleiro, expressed her own views on the issue by highlighting the reality of being a woman in cities nowadays. The core of the problem is thus: we teach women to protect themselves, to be alert, to create and entertain a support network, to develop methods of survival – all in the name of being able to leave the house without a man by their side,  enjoying an evening out, riding public transportation, walking home, menial and mundane tasks that are rendered often dangerous and nerve-wracking. We don’t seem to be bothered that much anymore. It’s part of our education. It’s part of the way we were raised and what we have been told in college, it’s part of transitioning into adulthood, and it’s as much part of our everyday routine as pouring yourself some cereal or turning the shower on. It’s become subconsciously necessary, and every single woman does it keeping in mind what we have all read in the paper or heard from our friends.

As New Year’s Eve festivities are on our mind, I shared my views with some friends over the evening. As I was preparing to leave a party, everyone was gathering around me planning an itinerary in the city I was visiting (Paris, France) and urging me to be safe. Granted, they were right, as I dodged a few men being a little too close for comfort and was steadily harassed for the twenty two minutes ride home by a bunch of drunk twenty-somethings. This is nothing new. I used to live in Paris and this is the daily fare of every woman. My friend Nicolas told me: “Truth be told, I have never met a woman here who has never been assaulted or harassed. It has literally happened to everyone I know.” Everyone indeed. I recall the first week of college there, when, during Orientation, a specific class was being held to inform the young women attending the school that they had to be mindful of their safety, that they should not drink too much on a night out, always walk around in groups, should call a taxi instead of taking public transportation, and make sure someone knew where they were at all times. It was the regular safety routine for living in Paris. It was what we all did. Some of us made it out. Some of us didn’t.

 

in Delhi, India

 

A friend of mine shared this story. Recently, his friend Maureen was assaulted when going home, by a man who was waiting for her near the door of her building and started rubbing against her while masturbating. Maureen, who had been taught self-defense, grabbed his arm, choked him, and threw him to the ground. The man, in violent pain and in shock by the surprise attack, ran away. Truth is, it’s all good that a woman learns self-defense and is capable to turn things upside down like Maureen did. I am happy this happened and I am relieved she is safe. But this is not the way things should have gone down. Feminism should not only come from women – what we need is feminist men, men who are capable of standing up to their peers and, instead of nodding along with the harassment their fellow males are inflicting upon women, raise their voice and shame the harasser into shutting up. I am not necessarily talking about the usual boyfriend or husband standing up for their girlfriend or wife, although it’s also nice to hear, but this is not about an instinctive feeling of protection. It’s about a stranger passing by in the street and refusing to see another man cat-call a woman, following her, touching her, infringing her privacy in any way. It’s about any man, in the street, on the subway, at a party, in a meeting, at school, at work, publicly and loudly acknowledging that such a behaviour is not only inappropriate, it is out of line. It’s about not wanting to be placed in the same basket as men who do not know how to behave with women, and who compensate their inefficiency with lewdness and, yes, criminal behaviour.

Whether we are placing ourselves in the context of South Delhi, India or Steubenville, Ohio, the same element persists – that of collective diminution of the damage that the woman is suffering. The concept of SlutWalk has been established in response to police attitude towards rape claims: that the woman was “asking for it”, be it in her attitude or in the way she was dressed; that the question of consent – which is a crystal clear, black or white situation – is actually a blurry one; that the woman may do it out of spite to humiliate the man, not because she has suffered unspeakable pain. There is a tendency to not see rape for what it was; to consider sexual assault like a misdemeanor that hardly has any consequences. This is how we end up with legislation surrounding abortion that does not protect victims of rape or incest, or lawmakers trying to establish various degrees of rape, including “rape rape”, block the Violence Against Women Act, or, on a bigger, global scale, the time it took to finally see mass rape during guerilla or war as what it is, a war crime.

It was indeed satisfying to see the Ohio branch of Occupy Wall Street organise protests in Steubenville in order to call for  more awareness on the issue of rape. It is great that a collective that originated as a reaction to economic downfall saw it fit to protect women the way they protected socially deprived families. It is all part of the same core phenomenon, after all, that we fail to see the human in one another, that we are becoming so estranged and so distant from our peers that it becomes perfectly normal to arm ourselves to the teeth to supposedly be protected from our neighbor, to selfishly refuse to pay taxes that would be redistributed towards global education, to support a party that considers welfare as an “entitlement”, in short, to be selfish, self-centered and self-absorbed, to the point that the systematic destruction of women are mundane and accepted as one of life’s hardships we must deal with, and not like the outstanding crime against a human being. Canada set a strong example this year with the “Don’t be that guy” ad campaign that seems to have cut down sexual assaults in Vancouver, BC by 10%. It will take a strong nation, a wilful nation, one that steadily relies on the power of its own people as an agent for change to stand up to rape and punish it the way it should be punished, with tougher laws, faster judicial processes, longer sentences, but before anything else, more comprehensive police protection and education to prevent rape. It is a fact that each woman is someone’s daughter, could be someone’s sister, might be someone’s mother; but it’s not just about considering women in relation to someone else – understand, a man – it’s about considering women as full-fledged, perfectly entitled human beings, that deserve respect and protection, like anyone else.