I taught a college course on memoir writing for fifteen years, and I always felt surprised, but honored, by the truths of their lives that undergraduates were willing to share with me. I never got over the horror of essays like this:
“The summer I was raped, I was nineteen and working as a “ticket girl”—I sold day passes and camping reservations—at Fillmore Glen State Park and he (my rapist) worked as a lifeguard. I remember him inviting me to the waterfalls one evening because they were “so much more beautiful after a fresh rain.” I found his personality repulsive, but I was flattered to get attention from a handsome older, college guy. We were laughing and cracking jokes about our alcoholic boss—we knew this because his face was always red and he stunk of cheap beer—when he grabbed me. I tried to squirm out of his grip, but he was ex-military and I was no match for his strength. I remember freezing, my heart stopping and not being able to breathe. I remember time seeming to stand still but also moving so rapidly. I remember him ripping off the hair tie that was knotted on the bottom of my polo shirt—due to budget cuts, my uniform shirt was a pass-me-down from a much larger man—so he could grope my breasts. I remember the satisfied grunt he let out when he came inside me. I remember him cleaning himself up in the stream as I laid motionless against the rocks. He helped me up with a smile, and whispered in my ear, “This is our little secret.” I was shaking so violently that I could barely pull up my shorts, but I nodded in agreement.” (excerpted with permission of Sara Sampson)
I wish that I could say that this essay, about rape, was the only one of these that I had read in my years of teaching. But I’d be lying. And the last thing that a woman who has been raped needs to hear is another lie.
In case you’re wondering? After going directly to a hospital to undergo a rape kit, and giving a long statement to the New York state police regarding what had happened, no immediate charges were brought. The police told Sara that because she could not remember whether she had said the word “no,” there was not enough evidence to prosecute Andy Couch for rape. She recounts that in the State Trooper barracks, she experienced one of the worst moments: “They had collected all of my clothing at the hospital for evidence, and while he was “questioning” me–more like interrogating–he asked me where my panties had gone because there weren’t any in the bag. I told him I wasn’t wearing any, and the look he gave me said it all: you are a slut. It sent literal chills down my spine.”
Sara says that the man who raped her, Andy Couch, “stalked me for a while,” trying to get her to drop the investigation. When she asked the troopers for help, they told her that there was nothing they could do. One year after the rape, Andy Crouch pled guilty to coercion, for which he received a $500 fine. Sara suffered from trauma for years afterward. Sara hopes to earn a living as a writer, and being able to write her own story is one way she continues to process the horror of the rape, long after being told that her pain and humiliation had been worth less than the cost of a new smartphone.
Welcome to rape culture in America.
A rape culture is a complex of beliefs that encourages male sexual aggression and supports violence against women. It is a society where violence is seen as sexy and sexuality as violent. In a rape culture, women perceive a continuum of threatened violence that ranges from sexual remarks to sexual touching to rape itself. A rape culture condones physical and emotional terrorism against women as the norm. (from Transforming a Rape Culture)
According to the rightwing noise machine, “political correctness,” (a term that is never defined, but seems to imply anything that disrupts a narrative of the natural superiority of white males) is responsible for claims of rape. Brock Turner, the Stanford rapist, had been prosecuted, according to his friend, Leslie Rasmussen, because of political correctness. Rasmussen has objected to being called a rape apologist, although she has excused Turner’s rape because he’s the victim here.
In Brock’s defense, she wrote. “But where do we draw the line and stop worrying about being politically correct every second of the day and see that rape on campuses isn’t always because people are rapists.”
Try parsing that sentence, and substitute the word “murder” or “burglary” or, to paraphrase a famous joke, “goat-fucking.” “…stop worrying about being politically correct every second of the day and see that goat-fucking on campuses isn’t always because people are goat-fuckers.”
Or “…stop worrying about being politically correct every second of the day and see that murders on campuses isn’t always because people are murderers.”
Brock Turner was accused of dragging an unconscious woman behind a dumpster and having sex with her without her consent. He also inserted foreign objects into her vagina. How is it politically correct to see this as rape? And how is Brock Turner the victim in all of this?
It turns out, he’s one of many rapists who get treated as the victims. Many, many men have been “victimized” by being accused of rape after they raped women. Luckily, for many of them–especially those who are college students, or who may be white, or a famous athlete, or rich–law enforcement and the judicial system has many ways that these “victims” can get out of jail free. The system has been set up so that rape, despite the numbers, despite the horror and fear and pain that it causes, is still the crime where the victim of rape can expect to have to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that she did not want to be violated.
The fact that the Stanford rapist’s father doesn’t think his son’s life should be ruined for “20 minutes of action,” and that Judge Persky ruled that more than six months in a county jail would have a “severe impact” on the rapist, Brock, has sparked internet rage. But how many are aware that in cases such as this, being wary of the impact of the sentence upon the rapist drives many judges to rule in similar ways?
Jon Krakauer wrote Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town as an investigation of what happened in Missoula, Montana between 2010 and 2012. Missoula, a college town, had recorded 80 alleged rapes in three years, including nine separate sexual assaults of University of Montana students (with multiple assailants–some of the cases were gang rapes) in a 16-month period. None of the campus assaults were prosecuted in criminal courts. But, as Krakauer notes in his introduction, “…the number of sexual assaults in Missoula might sound alarming, but if the FBI figures are accurate, it’s actually commonplace. Rape, it turns out, occurs with appalling frequency throughout the United States.”
It is also crucial to note, before continuing, that if there is inaccuracy in the FBI figures, it is due to the fact that rape is underreported. Numbers range but the guess is that anywhere from 75 percent to 90 percent rapes are never reported. Only 12 percent of college-age women who are raped report that it happened. The numbers are slightly higher–16 percent–for the general population of women. The Department of Justice reports that 1 in 5 women will be raped in her lifetime. But, given that the numbers of reported rapes are low, many believe the number could be higher. A study that showed that 1 in 3 college-age men said that they would rape if they could get away with it, has caused more outrage in the rightwing press, with attacks launched against the researcher who did the research rather than outrage that so many women are being raped. In fact, the Washington Examiner claims that women over-report rape.
This is yet another example of how rape culture works. Rather than talking about the problem–that women are being raped at horrifying rates–the rightwing press would rather deny the problem exists–unless part of the problem is the “victimization” of the men accused of rape.
Imagine, though, that you are in a classroom right now, or a shared house, or an office. Look around. How many women are in that room? Now, choose the one who will be raped. Or more. If you are a man, have you ever thought about this–that if you know more than five women, chances are, one of them will be or has been raped? For women, or at least for this woman, who has lots of female friends, if I start counting the number of women who I know who were raped as adults or sexually abused (raped) as children, I run out of fingers on my hands too quickly. And somehow, I cannot bring myself to write down their names.
The fact that women know they live in rape culture may come as a surprise to some men. An example that demonstrates just how vast the experiences of men and women are has been brought home to me in a number of ways. One of them is being present at, or having it related to me by colleagues, what happens during those “welcome to college” orientation meetings that take place in August and September across the country. One of the orientation sessions is about how to keep yourself safe now that you’re not living with Mom and Dad anymore. At some point, the young men will be asked, “How have you learned to keep yourself safe when you are not at home?” Time and time again, the witnessed reactions have been shrugs, puzzled looks, even asking clarification of the question. The most effective way to teach boys about how to be safe is to then pose the question to the women in the room. Every hand will shoot up. “Never walk after dark;” “never walk home alone from the library,” “make sure you have a girlfriend with you when you are at a party;” “carry your keys between your fingers so you can use them as a weapon when you are walking to your car;” “check the backseat of your car through the window before getting in.” The suggestions often come too fast for them all to be written down on the white board in the room. But the women know. From the time girls are small, they are told over and over again that they have to keep themselves safe from men who want to hurt them. How many young men get a lecture from their parents about how not to make girls feel unsafe? What constitutes consent? How to look out for your women friends?
I know that friends of mine who are black have to tell their children how to react if they are confronted by police. Many of my black friends report that it is crucial that their young people not do anything that could be interpreted by a police officer to be aggressive. It involves teaching your kid to say things like, “Officer, I would like to reach into my back pocket to get my wallet to show you ID. Is that okay?” It’s frightening, but the statistics of young black people being killed by police or strangers confronting them for being somewhere “they’re not supposed to be” are large enough that trying to avoid getting killed is part of a kid’s education.
The same is true for girls. We are told “don’t wear that outfit,” “don’t drink too much,” “don’t go running after dark,” “don’t go to the library on campus alone,” “don’t leave your door unlocked when you go down to move the laundry from washer to dryer.” And yet. Women are raped every day by men they trusted. Seventy-five percent of rapes are committed by someone known to the victim. In case after case, Krakauer reports that the women who were raped in Missoula were raped by guy friends they had known since kindergarten, or the boyfriend of a friend, or by a guy they were out on a date with. In the case of my student, she was raped by a co-worker. My friend, Lisa Solod, was raped on a date with a man whom a friend of hers had set up a blind date with.
To read Missoula is to read the story of Brock Turner over and over again. After she was brutally raped by Beau Donaldson (a boy she had known since kindergarten, had gone all the way through school with, and whom she considered to be as close as a brother) Allison agonized about pressing charges. She didn’t want to “ruin Beau’s life.” Despite the enormous betrayal of being raped by a football player who outweighed her by 100 pounds, Allison was afraid that even if she did press charges, no one would believe her. She did, however, press charges. And Beau Donaldson was convicted, and sentenced to thirty years in prison, twenty of them suspended. He would be eligible for parole after serving 30 months. Donaldson filed an appeal on the basis that the punishment was too harsh. In court, while admitting that Donaldson had hurt Allison, his lawyer argued that being arrested had been punishment enough for the crime. “The shame, the humiliation, the destruction of a reputation” constituted “massive punishment.” The lawyer suggested that his convicted client that being taken to an “incarceration facility that is many ways is much tougher than a prison, because you’re there for six months to a year.”
The judge, and the appeals court denied the appeal. But the fallout from the trial continued to have an impact on Allison’s life, and it had an impact on the other young women who had been raped in Missoula. In many cases that followed, the idea that Donaldson had been too harshly punished became a fear for those trying the cases or who had been asked to serve on juries; therefore, the charges against the other rapists had to be treated carefully for fear of too harshly punishing other rapists. This overcaution about hurting rapists was played out again and again. These trials took place in the wake of the sentence given to Donaldson, which, as was known, could be terminated after just 30 months. Thirty years (360 months, 240 of which would never be served), could be reduced to less an one-tenth of the original sentence. This was considered “too harsh” for the crime of betraying and physically hurting a life-long friend.
In the case of Jordan Johnson, who was one of Donaldson’s teammates, he was acquitted despite jurors feeling that his victim had been raped.
“Despite the acquittal, one of the jurors told me after the trial that she believed “Doe could have been raped” by Johnson. Much of the evidence against him was convincing, she said, and Doe’s testimony struck her as “completely credible.” But according to Montana law, in order to establish that a rape has occurred, prosecutors must not only prove that the victim didn’t consent to sex, they must also prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant knew the victim didn’t consent. During their deliberation, all twelve jurors agreed that the defense counsel had raised reasonable doubts about whether Johnson understood that Doe hadn’t given consent.”
Jordan made headlines earlier this year when the University of Montana was ordered to pay Johnson $245,000 in damages for having expelled him when it found that he had violated the college’s code of conduct for the rape.
But, despite the prevalence of rape, there’s a disconnect between the idea that if women are getting raped, it must be men who are doing it. The men who rape are often characterized as “good kids who made a mistake,” or else as victims of vindictive women. On the night that Donaldson was arrested, social media featured these comments, which are typical.
“I know nothing about the facts, but I know Donaldson and I have doubts that rape occurred…”
Other comments were similar to this one, which are similar to the comments you can see in defense of Brock Turner in comments on rightwing sites.
“First off, chicks exaggerate on rape. Second off, she could sucked his dick and still got rape just because she said she didn’t want it later on. Third off, no justice system actually works. Only the people involved actually know what happened. And a lot of people lie.” (sic)
These themes–that women lie about rape, exaggerate about rape, or that women engage in sex and then cry rape after waking up with regrets–are common. Yes. Women lie about rape. Eyewitnesses also lie about who they saw robbing a store. Or who they saw shooting somone. Men lie about having committed rape. So why is it that one of the most common refutations of the rape charge is that “women lie?”
This automatic rush to decide that the charges are the results of lies is one of the insidious effects of rape culture. In a culture where a song about rape, Blurred Lines
can be a dance hit, or rape can be included as a common plot element in movies and television–not in order to publicize the horror of rape but in order to insert sex and nudity into them–or where jokes about rape are common, rape becomes normalized. In songs, pushing past a woman’s boundaries or refusing to hear her “no,” is turned into something sexy, and something a confident man is sure that he can get past. Because “no” does not mean “no.” And if the woman freezes in fear, which is a common reaction when anyone is threatened, that failure to say no now becomes proof that she really wanted it. In the chant that was repeated on the campus in my town, “No means yes. Yes means anal.” That chant drew a lot of laughs.
The Washington Post declared in a headline after Brock Turner’s rape conviction: “All-American swimmer found guilty of sexual assaulting unconscious woman on Stanford campus.” The Los Angeles Times refers to Brock Turner, the rapist, as “Stanford swimmer.” When Daniel Holtzsclaw, an Oklahoma cop who was convicted of multiple counts of rape, he was profiled in SB Nation as a former football player whose sadness about not being able to play anymore resulted in his committing rape. These stories are legion. In each of them, the writer goes to great lengths to emphasize the good character, or the exceptional athletic talent of the rapists. These apologies emphasize what a tragedy it is for the rapist now that he has “fallen from grace.” Again and again, when the media covers a rape case, it is most likely to be because of the rapist and his specialness that the stories focus upon. The internet is full of stories of athletes who were convicted of rape, and reviewing the sentences they received for sexual assault is dismaying. In some cases, it was only after being released from a short sentence for one rape, and then being convicted of a second rape that followed liberation, that these men finally receive sentences commensurate with their crimes.
And it’s not just the rightwing that discounts rape accusations against men. Julian Assange, the Wikileaks hero has been accused by two women of rape in Sweden. In the first case, the woman says that despite her telling him “no” repeatedly, Assange continued to rip her clothes off. When she realized that he was going to rape her, she appealed to him to use a condom out of fear that he would infect her or impregnate her. Assange refused and had sex with her against her consent. In the second case, a woman who had been hosting Assange on his visit to Sweden, and who was interested in having sex with Assange, asked him to use a condom. He refused, at which point she withdrew her consent. She woke up when she found his unsheathed penis inside her, and he ejaculated inside her. Many have come forward to say the charges are not true, with some arguing that if you say yes to a man, if he has sex with you in your sleep, that is not rape. The press has characterized the charges as “arguments over condom use” without noting that Assange had sex with these women against their consent: that’s rape.
Woody Allen has been accused of rape. Roman Polanski has been convicted of rape. Kobe Bryant paid out a large settlement in order to not face rape charges. Mike Tyson was convicted of rape and served three years in prison. All of these men continue to work, to have fans, and to not be labeled as “rapists.” What is a rapist if he is not someone who commits rape? And since when does “only one” incident mean that it wasn’t serious? Are murderers entitled to commit one murder without punishment? Do we not refer to them as murderers for having killed just one person?
The poison of rape culture shows up in consensual sex betweeen young men and women. Anna Coppola, another student, recounted her own (as well as a friend’s) experiences when the men they were having sex with forced them into painful positions the men had learned from watching pornography. Since sex education has been restricted in schools, and because few parents are willing to sit down and explain to their kids ways to enhance the pleasure of sex, pornography–which relies on images of women “loving” it when men ejaculate on their face, or skip foreplay in order to impale erect penises into vaginae that are not lubricated–among other things–these women are being taken to bed by young men who think that since the porn actress loved what is being done to her, there must be something wrong with a woman who does not get off in the same way.
Missoula, Krakauer relates the experience of one victim who woke up to find herself being violently stabbed with three fingers by her rapist, who kept telling her to “squirt.” He told police that he had seen it in porn, and assumed that his victim was enjoying it. When the victim looked at her room in daylight a few hours after the rape, she discovered that because of the violent penetration of her vagina and anus, “there was blood on the pillow I was laying on…there was blood on the wall above my head … on that [other] wall, to my right….blood all over my sheets…” Going to the campus clinic documented “severe vaginal and rectal pain, vaginal bleeding, and abrasions to her inner thighs and vaginal vault.” Her rapist, Calvin Smith, was not prosecuted because earlier in the evening, the victim had told him that she wanted to have sex with him. When they got to her dorm room, she changed her mind. He promised her that nothing would happen, and asked if he could pass out on her bed because he was too drunk to walk back to his own room. The victim, who was also intoxicated, went to sleep with Calvin in her room. She woke up half an hour later because of the horrible pain she was experiencing as Calvin began his efforts to make her “squirt” by digitally raping her with three fingers before forcing her to fellate him (choking her to make her comply) and then raping her anus with his fingers.
The police refused to bring charges on the basis that when she had said “yes,” earlier in the evening, she had consented to being raped in her sleep. The college ruled that Smith had violated the school’s conduct code, and he was expelled. Calvin and his parents appealed the decision to expel him on the basis that Smith was the victim of political correctness.
Examples of how to recognize rape culture and the ways parents make it difficult for women to recognize rape are important to read, not only to recognize what rape culture is, but also how we can work together to stop rape from being treated as a negligible crime.
All the outrage that has erupted in the face of Brock Turner’s slap on the wrist, for all the tears of compassion that have been shed by reading the words in the victim impact statement will be forgotten, as soon as some news story about a dead gorilla, or a celebrity’s book of selfies, or a stupid tweet takes over social media. But rape culture will remain as long as all of us–the good men and women of this country–continue to buy into the idea that rapes cannot be committed by good people. Regardless of how he presents himself to the world, a man who rapes a woman is not a good person. He is a rapist. We need to insist that the label sticks.
This video explains consent, a good first step in educating everyone about the difference between sex and rape: