TRIGGER WARNING: This blog post and the article linked in it will contain graphic details of the Steubenville rape case and may be triggering to victims of sexual assault.
EDIT TO ADD: I am so grateful that this post has started up discussion in the comments section, and people are sharing their stories and talking about all of this. However, I have to include an additional trigger warning for some of the comments, and also bow out of the conversation. It isn't that I don't care about your experiences or don't want to keep the conversation going. I do. But in light of some of the victim blaming and misogynist comments this post has received, I have to step away for my own mental health.
When asked to explain why he didn't stop the gang rape of an unconscious sixteen-year-old girl, Evan Westlake said: "Well, it wasn't violent. I didn't know exactly what rape was. I always pictured it as forcing yourself on someone."
A detailed story of how the two rapists, Trent Mays and Ma'lik Richmond, weren't forcing themselves on the girl they raped can be found here. The story is very graphic, so again, trigger warning.
I have no doubt in my mind that these young men did not know they were raping that girl. Note: I'm not excusing them from raping her. I'm sure, I'm 100% sure, that they knew they were doing something very, very wrong. Maybe in their heads they thought, "We're taking advantage of this drunk girl," or "She's not saying yes, but she's not saying no, either." But I have no doubt that they didn't realize what they were engaged in was rape.
Because we don't teach young men what rape is; we want to protect their right to rape.
In our culture we teach girls all about rape. We teach them about how to dress, how to carry self defense items, how to scream "fire!" instead of "rape!" because no one will respond otherwise and what the shit does that say about us?! We live in a culture where, until as recently as the 1990's, it was considered impossible for a husband to rape his wife, because as his wife, he owned her, and could do with her whatever he liked. After all, she'd consented at least once, right? Consider the fact that the ridiculously small number of rape cases that actually go to trial end up focusing not on whether or not the rapist raped the victim, but whether or not the victim has masturbated in the past, what sexual partners she's had, and if she orgasmed during the attack. And god help you if you're a lesbian or a trans woman, because that opens up all new avenues of humiliation for you in reporting and seeking justice for your rape. The prosecution can paint you as a deviant and a sex fiend to scare the jury into deciding that you were probably asking for it or, worse, deserved to be rape because you didn't conform to societal expectations. In rape cases, our justice system puts the victim, not the perpetrator, on trial.
Our media, and our rape apologists, try to narrow rape down to such specific details that there is probably no single case of actual rape that can fit the definitions they've come up with. Is it rape if she's too hammered to say no? No! Because she didn't say no! Is it rape if a woman's husband rapes her? No, because she married him! That's consent! Is it rape if she was on a date with him first? No, because she was alone with him, she should have expected to let him have sex with her!
Smarter people define rape as any act of nonconsensual sex or sexual touching. But there we hit another snag.
We don't teach people what "consent" means. We say, "No means no!" but think about that a second. It means that just not saying "no" is equivalent to a yes. So, by defining "consensual sex" as "sex where a woman has not said 'no,'" we're saying, "All women are open for business, every moment of every day, and you are allowed to stick your fingers in them, grope them on the dance floor, yell sexual comments at them, etc. unless she clearly and forcefully states otherwise after you have already begun doing this." Unless you're walking down the street shouting "No!" at every man you meet, you're consenting. That's what "No means no!" has hammered into our collective consciousness.
Let's say I'm a guy at a party, and I start having sex with a passed out girl. She doesn't wake up to say no, so I'm not raping her, by our cultural gold standard definition. If she wakes up and says no, I'll stop, and that will make me not a rapist. Does stopping somehow remove the three or so minutes I was penetrating her when she hadn't said "yes?" We seem to accept that yes, this makes the rapist not a rapist, just because he stopped when told "no." Somehow, I find this definition of "consent" dubious.
And we don't tell anyone what rape really is. When I was a teenager, I got told all the time not to go into the bad part of town, or I would get raped. I shouldn't walk alone at night by my favorite coffee shop, because there are lots of college guys over there and I would get raped. I actually started to try and list all the scenarios that have been described to me over the years, and I realized how long a list that would be. Too long for this blog post. Suffice it to say, every one of these scenarios involved a stranger coming up to me on the street and dragging me into an alley or a parked car.
I was also told not to get too drunk, or a man could "take advantage" of me. I shouldn't dress a certain way, because a man "might not be able to help himself." I shouldn't "tease" boys by making out with them if I wasn't prepared to go all the way, because I might find myself in a position where I "had to." Seriously, this is this shit women of my generation were told about rape. And I wish women of the next generation were being told differently, but it's just the same old shit in pseudo-empowered packaging. We're still telling young people "no means no," without ever discussing whether "yes" should be a part of the equation.
Veering into personal storyland a moment, let me tell you about the time I was almost raped. I was at a friend's sister's wedding out of town, and we were staying at a hotel for the whole weekend. At this wedding was a family friend, a man I'll call George. That is not his name, it's just what I'll call him. George was in his early thirties, I was fifteen. I thought it was so fucking cool that George would get drinks from the bar for me, and with his encouragement I got hammered super fast. Then George was like, "I have weed back in my room, do you want to go smoke?" I was fifteen. Of course I wanted to be high and drunk, and yeah, I kind of got the feeling that we were going to fool around. Leaving aside the fact that I was a minor and he should not have been down for that, I was kind of down for it, and I thought, well, why the hell not? I'll go back to this guy's hotel room.
Long story short, I ended up blacking out. Now, what a lot of people might not realize is, you can black out several times in what feels like rapid succession. Your vision goes all hazy, you start to feel like you're falling asleep, and suddenly it's a few minutes later or whatever and you're like, "WTF, did I get abducted by aliens? Because I just lost time." The first time I lost consciousness, George and I were sitting on different beds. When I regained consciousness, he was sitting by me, with his hand on my skirt. He was asking me questions, but I couldn't really answer. I didn't feel good. I think I might have thrown up. But I knew I was in big trouble, with no way of defending myself. I kept slipping out. At one point, when I came back from blackoutsville, he had his hand up my skirt. I tried to push him off me, but I didn't have the coordination required.
The next time I faded off and woke up, I knew things were serious, because he was unbuckling his belt. If I nodded off again, he was going to rape me. But what I wasn't thinking at that moment was, "I'm going to get raped." It was, "If I pass out, he's going to have sex with me." I am incredibly thankful that I was able to pull myself out of my intoxication enough to say, "I'm going to throw up," because that's what got him off of me. I got up, stumbled to the door, and left the room entirely. He tried to follow me a bit to get me to come back, saying I should come back in and sit down until I felt better, but when a hotel employee came off the elevator, he turned right around and left me in the hallway, too fucked up to knew where I was going.
When I told my friend's mom what had happened, she advised me to just stay away from George from now on, and to not get drunk. After all, I wasn't supposed to have been drinking, anyway. I was only fifteen. And I knew better than to go back to some guy's hotel room. But the one thing she didn't do was assign blame to George. In fact, she suggested I not "make a big deal," because it might affect George negatively. And I agreed, because in hindsight I realized I had never actually said "no." I thought I had consented.
For years I walked around thinking that what had happened to me was no big deal, I was just a slut and I messed up and got in a scary situation. Now that I'm older, I realize what bullshit that was that I blamed myself, that my friend and her mom blamed me. And I realize, after hearing that both the rapists, the bystanders, and the victim in Steubenville "didn't know exactly" what rape was, that they probably didn't know. Because no matter how many strides we might make with rape education or awareness, we still pull the same bullshit victim blaming every single time an incident like this happens. We rally around the rapist, we worry about how his actions are going to affect him negatively, and we worry about that first, before we bother to think, "Hey... what about the victim?" Since we've already made him the victim, and there can't be two, we decide that he's the victim of this horrible thing that was done to him by the slutty, nasty girl who got drunk when she shouldn't have, wore clothes that turned him on, and gosh, he just couldn't help himself.
It's not men, by the way, who I consider the worst perpetrators of this behavior. I hear it so often from women, it's not funny, and when women say it, it's almost worse. We're giving men permission to blame us for rape now? Last night on twitter I saw an erotic romance author say over and over that she wasn't victim blaming, but maybe wearing skimpy clothes is the problem. And she argued over and over, with multiple people, that she wasn't blaming the victim, but preaching personal responsibility. Personal responsibility? Over another person's actions? Explain to me how that works, world, because I don't get it. And I definitely had hoped that someone working in an industry that's supposed to be sex-positive would fucking know better than to spout off bullshit like that.
Another problem is the way we talk about rape. For years, we've been saying that rape isn't about sex, it's about violence and power. When those two guys raped the girl in Steubenville, most likely they didn't do it out of a conscious desire to inflict their will on her, or overpower her. That's not to say that they weren't fitting the "it's about power" definition. Let's get real, they were small town football players, they definitely reaped the benefits of male privilege in their community. But what little they've learned about rape has probably been the same thing women learn about rape: that's it's about power, that a man will be violent while raping you, and that if she doesn't actually say "no," then she's consenting.
Some rape is openly intended as an act of violence and power and hatred. There are hundreds of scenarios in which the perpetrator knows, completely, that what he's doing is a willful subjugation of the woman in an attempt to permanently disempower her, hundreds of scenarios that your average person on the street would call "rape." But if a woman isn't beaten within an inch of her life, when the rapist isn't hurling vicious slurs at her, everyone seems to get all confused about what rape really is.
In a reddit thread a few months ago, men shared stories of times they had raped women. Some of them had argued that because they weren't violent, and because they didn't think of it as a means to overpower the woman, it didn't count as rape. "I was just really horny and didn't feel like stopping," was one of the most cited excuses as to why it wasn't rape. Because they didn't hit the women or knock them out, because they didn't roofie them or slap them or intend to do anything other than get their rocks off, they weren't raping. Because rape isn't about sex, it's about power, right?
The Steubenville boys probably didn't think, "We're doing this to permanently disempower her." They probably thought, "We're horny, and she's not saying no." Is there a power component there? Oh, absolutely. That they believed they were entitled to a woman's body without her express permission is a symptom of the male privilege that is keeping women subjugated. But until we can get our culture as a whole to recognize that male privilege exists, then maybe we should be shifting the focus on how we approach rape education and the issue of consent.
From here on out, why not accept that teaching "no means no" and "rape is about power, not sex" are not working? Why not change up our attitudes a bit, and suggest to our young men and women that the absence of refusal isn't the same thing as consent, and that even if you're not violent or you don't intend to get off on the power component of the rape you're committing, it's still rape. That wearing someone down ("ninety-nine 'no's and one 'yes' is still yes!") is still rape. That even if you can't be prosecuted, you're still a rapist, and that's something that is horrible to be.
I'm at a real point of despair here, when I'm seeing women and men defend the male right to rape, and denying that male privilege leads to entitlement over women's bodies, while not realizing what they're doing. If we need to change the way we talk about rape, then let's do that. Let's tell our young women "it's rape if you didn't say yes," instead of, "it's not rape if you don't say no." Let's tell our young men the same thing, and tell them that yes, some rapes are driven by a desire for sexual pleasure. That if they put their penis in an unconscious person's orifices, it's rape whether they wanted to humiliate the person, dominate them, or just get off. It's rape, no matter what their motivation.
I know a lot of feminist disagree with me (and I'm open to disagreement, because disagreement breeds discussion and I've learned a lot from reader comments on this blog), because approaching rape as a sexual crime instead of a crime of power and domination is ultimately denying the male privilege component. But we're living in a culture where men will passionately argue that they're the victims of feminism out of control, rather than blowback from patriarchal oppression. By allowing ourselves to define rape as only a violent crime, only motivated by a sick desire to inflict the rapist's will over their victim, we're giving millions of rapists permission to continue raping, and we're breeding more rapists. Until we can force every man to understand that women are not responsible for the actions of their rapist, we might just have to change how we're teaching them not to rape.