I decided to run an informal social experiment last Friday. I wrote a post about locker room talk and excusing rape culture on my blog as a way to discuss the difference between sex talk and assault talk and how we as a society are contributing to the prevalence of rape culture when we don’t understand the difference. I have been very public about my rape both in public speaking, my activism, and in my memoir, Mountain to Mountain, in which I describe in graphic detail the night I was violently raped and nearly killed walking home from work in Minneapolis at age 18.
What I haven’t talked about is all the micro-agressions that I have lived with as a woman, essentially starting in high school. My accounting teacher got my number and started calling me after graduation, telling me how great my ass looked in my leggings, and how he wished I was sitting in front of him so he could “play with my titties”. I was 18, he was in his 40’s. When I was in my 20’s, I cannot count the number of times that strangers tried to slide their hands up my skirt or down my pants in crowded public spaces, or the countless times someone grabbed my ass as I leaned over the bar to shout my drink order to a bartender.
I’m a strong woman, I have worked in male dominated arenas my entire adult life; initially starting out in the outdoor industry as a guide, then a decade as a sports conditioning specialist with predominately male athletes like rugby and soccer players, and the ultimate of male dominated societies, nearly a decade of working in Afghanistan. I know the difference between sex talk and assault talk. Do you?
My point is and always has been consent is the backbone of the discussion and that if you excuse talk about harassment and assault, you are condoning it. You, my friend, are intentionally or unintentionally part of our rape culture.
Here’s the problem. Maybe you simply don’t understand what rape culture is? Let’s look at this pyramid for more clarity.
The obvious understanding of rape culture is the top of the pyramid: explicit violence in the form of rape, incest, murder, and battery. I’d like to think this is generally understood and that we consider rape and assault what it is – a crime. But the most recent of several high profile rape cases is Stanford swimmer golden boy, Brock Turner, who was caught sexually assaulting an unconscious fellow college student in the street. He was caught in the act so there is no ambiguity of the he said/she said argument often used in rape cases. Yet even though Turner admitted guilt facing up to 14 years in prison, the judge reduced his sentence so that Turner only served 3 months in prison because Judge Perskey believed a tougher penalty would have a “severe impact” on Turner. For assaulting an unconscious girl. This is sadly, not unusual. Ninety percent of the time rapists get away with rape. Too often the victims in the United States are treated no better than the victims of rape I meet in Afghanistan, and for the same reason, the men’s lives must not be destroyed by one ‘mistake’, or as Brock Turner’s dad stated in court, “20 minutes of action”. That’s 20 minutes of taking an active part in a violent felony crime. You don’t get to walk that back. Because the victim? Her life is forever changed by your actions. All of us who have survived are irrevocably changed but few of us are as eloquent and powerful as Turner’s victim whose open letter to him went viral.
It’s the bottom of this pyramid that bothers me most. This is where things get confusing it seems. Although for most women, this is our daily reality. The fact is rape culture STARTS with victimization; “boys will be boys”, rape jokes, non-consensual photography, homophobia and transphobia, victim blaming. See that last one? Victim blaming. THIS IS WHY WOMEN DON’T REPORT. Every time we do, the media tears the victims apart; Why did these women wait so long to come out? They must be lying. If he really did it they would have come forward. The public automatically assumes that if a woman accuses a man of rape there is an implicit nod of deception, because rape isn’t a ‘real’ crime. It’s too ambiguous. Want proof? The three most popular excuses for rape are:
She’s lying. Even police officers too often take it for granted that the woman is lying about being raped. Yet the irony is that 80% of women never come forward about their assault. False rape claims are proven to be between 2 and 10% the same as false claims about all other serious crimes.
She was wearing something provocative. Right, because women wearing baggy jeans and sweatshirts don’t get raped?
She was drinking too much. Being drunk isn’t a open invitation to have sex. Neither is being unconscious. Remember that pesky little word, consent? Hard to give consent if you’re unconscious.
Which leads us to Bill Cosby and the victim blame game. Bill Cosby raped over 30 women, consent was never an issue because he systematically drugged them first. It took decades before the women came forward, and when they did, as expected the first ones were vilified in the media. Liars. Golddiggers. Opportunists. Once that number climbed into double digits, everyone paused; Maybe they’re telling the truth? Now that that number is over 30 it is generally accepted that Bill Cosby is a serial rapist. It shouldn’t take 30 women to prove that. It shouldn’t take two.
Let’s get back to the bottom two rungs of the pyramid. Because the theme of my prior blog was that words matter. Donald Trump told Howard Stern when he was a guest on his radio show that it was okay for him to call his daughter Ivanka Trump a “piece of ass.” Is that a crime? No. It’s on the bottom two rungs of the pyramid, it’s ‘just words’. I cannot imagine my father calling me a hot piece of ass, much less condoning another man to do so on a popular radio program.
The tape of Trump talking about his right to kiss women without consent and that being a celebrity means he can just ‘grab them by the pussy’ outraged many, but not enough to condemn him for contributing to rape culture. Because that is what his words are. When I heard that tape, I felt every man that grabbed my ass, my pussy, my breasts in a public setting without consent, the men who think it’s okay to dry hump up against me in a crowded bar, and the man who raped me at knifepoint get a free pass. Because their actions started with the normalization of the bottom two rungs of the pyramid. That is rape culture. That is why words matter.
I know many kind, respectful, fabulous men who would never engage in that language, or that behavior. They are my family members, they are my friends, they are my colleagues. My male friends and colleagues are diverse in geographic location, nationality, color, faith, sexuality, and income. They are the ones that need to recognize if they don’t already, that the everyday assaults that the women they love, work with, and are friends with go through is systemic and all too normal.
As members of my own family and extended social media community excuse Trump’s words and behavior as unimportant to this election, I find that the main argument isn’t that it’s right, it’s just that “Hilary and Bill are worse”. Thereby ignoring the issue I’m talking about, the importance of recognizing rape culture when we hear it and when we see it. At a time where my social media feed is filling up with twitter hashtags like #WhyWomenDontReport and women coming out about their own sexual assaults through blog posts and social media in an effort to illustrate how many women go through this. 1 in 3. Somehow that doesn’t sink in that this means out of your own friends and family, that the 1 in 3 rate applies. Look around your office or coffeeshop right now, count how many women there are and divide by 3.
I was curious how people who had no connection to me would respond to my blog post, so I reposted it to my public page and then I paid Facebook to sponsor the post. Anyone can do this if they choose to. I was simply curious how that works and would that expose the conversation to people outside of my circle that care about the issue like I do? I clicked on the blue bottom “BOOST POST” underneath my post, and paid $25 for three days of promotion. Boom! I sponsored my post as a Facebook ad and waited to see where the post went.
Here’s what I posted.
The responses that came in were incredible. People commented directly on the Facebook post, some sent me their thoughts in direct messages, and others hit on my actual blog comment section. I expected to reach people that like me, wanted to discuss the distinction between locker room talk and rape culture. Instead I got hate, insults, threats, and off topic political rants. I believe that people forget that when they are commenting, or trolling in this case, that they are commenting in the public sphere to real people. Perhaps they think that their mudslinging isn’t visible. So let’s look at what a few of them had to say and let’s not let them hide behind their words. Here are a few of the folks that commented not the worst of the bunch, but certainly the most vocal with multiple posts and responses. The full assortment is in the comments underneath my Facebook post. Feel free to find them on Facebook, their name and profile photo are attached to every comment they made, and feel free to message them your thoughts as they so freely gave me theirs.
Then of course, it got political because I was talking about Trump, so therefore we must make this political and point fingers rather than simply acknowledging that what Trump has said, or done, is rape culture. I believe my original post if you read it was thoughtful, respectful, and so were my comments to the few posts I engaged back with. Yet out of the gates, it’s immediate insults, hateful commentary, the worst of which I have not included. Needless to say it involves several iterations of filling my stupid mouth with numerous dicks to shut me up.
“Women are not angels” Thank you Patricia Rothenbucher for that insight. I am getting my ‘women in line’ so that we can start ‘behaving in a ladylike manner.” Case in point, an upcoming series of protests we’re organizing with the theme of Pussy Grabs Back. New York City on October 29th for those of you that want to join. I hope that’s ladylike enough for you.
You’re right, I’m am very sheltered, having lived and worked nearly half of my life abroad, working nearly 10 years of it in a war zone. I have spoken at the Italian Parliament, in three TED talks, at the Harvard Club, on panels at universities and summits, and numerous other places about my work and gender violence. I have worked with US and European survivors and with Afghan women who are in jail for the crime of ‘adultery’ as an excuse for rape. But that shouldn’t matter. Even if I was sheltered, that doesn’t make my call for better awareness and accountability of rape culture any less true. You don’t get to write off a woman or man who lives in their hometown and has perhaps never traveled outside of their home state as irrelevant to this discussion.
You see, making this into a political argument or pointing fingers at the other candidates, rap music, and Islam (all of which my ‘thoughtful’ commentators did, you can see the post and all the commentary on my public Facebook page, minus a few of the violent threatening comments that I deleted) and calling the women that are accusing Trump of assault and harassment liars because they didn’t come forward before, simply proves my point. Rape culture is so prevalent we are desensitized to it. When you ignore it, brush it off, or excuse it, you are complicit. You are condoning behavior when you excuse the words about the behavior.
So everyone, repeat after me: