Cop Rapes Woman at Gunpoint, 11-Year-Old Rape Victim Smeared, Accuser Sued for $2 Million: Is US Society Failing Victims?
If events of the last few months have sent any sort of message to women in America it’s this: if you’re raped or sexually assaulted, justice won’t be on your side.
What happens when the people who are supposed to protect you are the rapists themselves—such as in NY, when cops on separate occasions have been accused of committing rape? What happens when the press and public spend as much time parsing a victim’s history and “character“ than the person accused of brutally assaulting her (like the New York Post calling Dominique Strauss-Khan’s accuser a “hooker”)? What conclusion can we draw when a rape victim’s attempt to confront a powerful entity is publicly acknowledged as futile?
Women can’t win. The structures, institutions and organizations supposed to help rape victims are often simply tools of a social attitude that blames them for the crimes committed against them.
This week brought the collapse of the Dominique Strauss-Khan case amid a nasty, frequently racist and sexist media frenzy. Then, on the very same day, came the absurd announcement from KBR that it was seeking repayment of legal fees from Jamie Lee Jones, who had lost her rape case in front of a jury. Jones had accused her colleagues of raping her and the company of trying to cover it up (while the verdict reflected problems with her case, it went to a jury and was given a serious day in court).
In May, two New York cops, who were caught on video repeatedly returning to the home of an intoxicated woman to rape her, were acquitted. Jurors said it was mostly because the victim was drunk. (The two men, who have both been fired from the NYPD, were convicted of “official misconduct” and received sentences of one year and two months, respectively.)
And then just this week, an off-duty police officer was arrested for allegedly raping a woman at gunpoint in broad daylight, abusing his authority in the grossest way.
Meanwhile, these cases take place outside the mainstream media spotlight. AlterNet noted the recent story out of Springfield, MO, about the young girl whose school utterly failed her after she reported her rape to authorities, instead humiliating her and sending her back to be victimized again, violently, by the boy she initially accused (he later confessed to the second crime). The school continued to deny wrongdoing and doled out punishment instead of remediation for the traumatized young woman.
That’s just this summer. Earlier in 2011 the women who accused Julian Assange of rape were tarred as CIA plants by even such progressive luminaries as Michael Moore and Naomi Wolf. Lara Logan, after being brutally raped in Egypt, had to face a firestorm of questions about whether women reporters belong in dangerous situations. An 11-year-old girl in Texas, who was caught on video being gang-raped by 14 men and boys in an abandoned house, had to face media scrutiny when a New York Times reporter reported accusations by townspeople about the clothes she wore and her mannerisms. And the Republicans kicked off the year by repeatedly trying to sneak a new definition of rape onto the books.
Yes, it’s been a miserable year so far, and reading the comments sections on Internet stories about any of these incidents is likely to make anyone sympathetic to victims feel sick to his or her stomach.
This rather sweeping conclusion isn’t meant to pick apart the legal details of any specific case—there’s plenty of both astute and idiotic commentary taking place in the media—but rather to talk about the climate these cases create for victims, and the way these incidents, and how authorities handle them, both perpetuate and reflect rape culture.
But first, what exactly is a rape culture, anyway? Personally, I always think of rape culture as all the assumptions that come from society’s assuming sex is a transaction involving men taking what women have to offer—but not offer too enthusiastically, lest they be deemed promiscuous—thereby creating a Catch-22 (and ignoring violence that falls outside the gender stereotype boundaries).
Toward the beginning of a long and comprehensive post on rape culture, Shakesville’s Melissa McEwan says this, which sums up the anti-rape message of the burgeoning anti-rape “Slutwalk” movement, itself a reaction to a policeman urging women not to dress like sluts to avoid rape:
Rape culture is refusing to acknowledge that the only thing that the victim of every rapist shares in common is bad fucking luck. Rape culture is refusing to acknowledge that the only thing a person can do to avoid being raped is never be in the same room as a rapist. Rape culture is avoiding talking about what an absurdly unreasonable expectation that is, since rapists don’t announce themselves or wear signs or glow purple.
This massive spate of 2011 rape cases and controversies in their wide scope and variety, and the inevitably depressing results, are a perfect illustration of the cultural problem writ large.
Let’s start with two examples from the winter and spring which are in fact on the opposite ends of what the media sees as a “rape spectrum.”
First, you have Julian Assange, a powerful man accused of “acquaintance rape,” based on two women’s accounts. One involved a forcible sexual encounter that began as a consensual one, and another involved penetrating a woman while she was asleep. Both women were sophisticated professionals who knew Assange, and both were alone with him when the alleged assaults took place.
Both women were blamed, smeared and their identities revealed online, accused of being part of a supposed worldwide conspiracy to bring Assange down (just as the press has insinuated that DSK’s accuser, Nafissatou Diallo, was an unlikely pawn of a conspiracy to silence Strauss-Khan).
Second, we have the Texas gang-rape case, in which a large group of boys and men were caught on video brutally and repeatedly gang-raping a young girl. In this case, there was physical corroborating evidence, the victim was too young to legally consent, and the accused were relatively powerless men in a poor community.
The cases couldn’t have been more different, and yet in this case also, the young woman was smeared when prominent newspaper stories fixated on her appearance, her dress, and her behavior rather than the demeanor and histories of the men involved.
So the lesson is clear: if you report an unexciting rape that happened in your home while you were alone with the perpetrator, you get blamed. If you are recorded on video being repeatedly raped by a massive number of people, you also get blamed. If you’re a grown woman: blamed. If you’re a child: blamed. If it’s your word: blamed. If there’s physical evidence: blamed.
And that mentality extends to the jury: read this heartbreaking piece by one of the jurors in the “rape-cop” case who was sympathetic to the victim but wouldn’t convict because of her intoxicated state. “There were holes in her story, again because of blacking out and-or passing out,” the juror said.
Is it any wonder, then, that it’s next to impossible to get clear and decisive justice for these crimes in a system that is tainted by social attitudes toward rape? In cases like this one, Jamie Leigh Jones and Diallo, it may be that well-intentioned people have been simply unable to use the law to the advantage of redressing victims’ wrongs.
And is it any wonder that some real victims, when questioned about an assault, might embellish or shade their accounts (both Leigh Jones and Nafissatou Diallo have been accused of doing this) in the fruitless effort to be a “better” victim, to not be blamed for something that was done to them?
That’s the other essence of rape culture, which was distilled so memorably by Amanda Hess; it confuses women, too:
Rape culture does not just encourage men to proceed after she says “no.” Rape culture does not simply teach men that a lack of physical resistance is an invitation. Rape culture does not only tell men to assert ownership over whichever female body they desire. Rape culture also tells women not to claim ownership over their own bodies. Rape culture also informs women that they should not desire sex. Rape culture also tells women that saying yes makes them bad women.
Both rape and rape accusations are products of the roles assigned by rape culture. In the traditional seduction scenario, a woman is expected to not desire to have sex, and to only submit after the man has successfully coerced her into submission. When the preferred model for consensual sex looks a hell of a lot like rape, an array of fucked-up scenarios are inevitable: the woman never wanted to fuck the guy, refuses to submit, and is raped; the woman submits to the man’s coercion in order to avoid other negative consequences (like being raped); the woman had desired the sex all along, but must defend her femininity by saying that she had been coerced into sex. Thankfully, a good deal of modern men and women reject these antiquated ideas, but they’re far from being banished from the sexual landscape.
The landscape may seem somewhat bleak at the moment, but there’s hope in the grassroots movements for media justice and for countering the rape-culture narrative that have sprung up this year.
Online activism like a petition demanding the Post retract its nasty characterization of Diallo and a similar campaign directed at the Times’ rape coverage are beginning to hold the media accountable for the lens they hold to victims.
And Slutwalk, whose message is encapsulated by the idea that nothing causes rape except a rapist and a lack of consent, is creating a powerful and conversation-starting counter-narrative to these high-profile defeats.
Where justice and authority let victims down, solidarity, activism, and a massive effort to create awareness will have to fill the breach.
Sarah Seltzer is an associate editor at AlterNet, a staff writer at RH Reality Check and a freelance writer based in New York City. Her work has been published in Jezebel.com and on the websites of the Nation, the Christian Science Monitor and the Wall Street Journal. Find her at sarahmseltzer.com.
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