12 June 2011

On Sexual Violence

Sometimes I forget how old I am.  When I grew up, we as a society agreed that sexual violence was a bad thing.  We promoted self-defense classes for women and girls.  As forensic science evolved and was no longer restricted to the most prolific cases, we became far more confident we had the right perpetrator.  Whether the sex was consensual cannot be told from DNA, but at least we know definitively that this semen matches that guy.  Many railed against this change in culture, fearing that it meant a fickle woman could have a lover prosecuted if he failed to bring her breakfast in bed the morning after or if she woke up with P.M.S. and just went crazy for no good reason.  Men were now vulnerable and couldn't trust their sexual partners.  At least, that's what the detractors argued.
How can a show about sexual violence be one of the most-watched of its era,
but we still have such a poor understanding of the subject?
The anti-anti-rape crowd was emboldened by Joel Rene Valdez.  Valdez was just another despicable rapist made unique by his victim.  She had the presence of mind to plead with him to at least wear a condom during the assault.  Valdez's legal defense argued that any woman who would "ask" him to use a condom is clearly a willing participant and that it wasn't possibly rape.  Early on, it worked.  The initial grand jury refused to indict him on charges of rape, believing that his victim was a willing participant on the basis of her begging him to use the condoms she had in her apartment.  A subsequent grand jury did vote to indict and ultimately, Valdez's defense failed and he was convicted but the case resonated powerfully across the country.  It convinced many that the only way to avoid being branded a rapist was to avoid women entirely.

It's important to remember that AIDS was only just becoming understood by mainstream America at the time of Valdez's attack.  This was a relatively new element to sexual contact, and there was nothing else like it.  No other sexually transmitted disease or infection comes close to the devastating impact of AIDS.  How this unfortunate woman had the ability to even think about such things, I cannot say.  But I can say that her mental focus is not something to be held against her; it's something to admire.

Throughout the Reagan 80s, it was characterized as a "gay disease," and to appease the homophobic "moral majority," the federal government formally ignored it.  How hands-off was Reagan?  In his massive, 748 page autobiography An American Life (reviewed here), AIDS is not mentioned one time.  The most devastating event in public health since penicillin was introduced happened on his watch, and he couldn't even be bothered to acknowledge it.  [For a thorough look at how the Reagan administration responded to AIDS, I urge you to read this article on Daily Kos.]
"How that information is used must be up to schools and parents, not government. But let's be honest with ourselves, AIDS information can not be what some call 'value neutral.' After all, when it comes to preventing AIDS, don't medicine and morality teach the same lessons." - Ronald Reagan, 2 April 1987
The narrative of rape in America is still defined by men.  It's sad when it happens, but you know, maybe she was asking for it.  I mean, once he gets going he can't be expected to just stop, can he?  How is it his fault if she changes her mind at the last minute?  Sure, most women are raped by men they know; maybe it's because most falsely accused men are attacked in court by flaky women.  I'm disgusted even typing all that, much less by the fact that there are people who really do believe these things and marginalize rape victims.  Why is it that any woman wearing a short skirt is "asking for it," but no man who insists on being alone with a woman has ever been said to have invited her to claim rape?  Why the double-standard about when simply being somewhere is evidence of complicity for a woman, but not evidence of aggression for a man?
Real men respect women.
Here's what pushes me over the edge about that philosophy.  It effectively argues, as one blogger put it, "that boys will be boys."  As I replied to her post:
Speaking as a guy, I am personally offended by the "boys will be boys" doctrine. It sends the dual messages 1) we're all latent rapists waiting for the right combination of means and opportunity and 2) that we consider all women "fair game" as potential rape victims.
Well, let me tell you something.
I am not a latent rapist and no woman or girl I know is "fair game."
Furthermore, we need to change the perception of rape.  It is rarely motivated by sexuality.  Rather, it is an act of violence perpetrated by someone who wishes to dominate another.  It is not about desire.  It is about control.  Until we understand this, we will continue to believe that attractive rape victims asked for it, and that unattractive rape victims were attacked out of desperation.  How a woman looks has nothing to do with whether she is entitled to not be raped, or whether she is entitled to justice.

CBS's Lara Logan did not "ask for it" in Egypt.
It was bad enough when the anti-contraceptive crowd spoke out against condoms because, you know, no non-Catholic should have access to a device to prevent unwanted pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases and infections because it would bother them.  And while I am personally against abortion as a form of after-the-fact birth control plan (for now, at least, you can still easily find condoms, people!), I never thought I'd live to see a day when a presidential candidate would openly campaign on a platform of seeking criminal charges for abortions even in the case of rape and incest.  Yet that is precisely how Rick Santorum intends to woo voters, which means that Santorum believes there are lots of voters out there who are just itching to have someone in office to stick it to those atrocious rape victims who are destroying the moral fabric of America.  Here's him speaking about what he calls the "phony" loophole:

I personally don't believe "It bothers me because that's what my church taught me" is sufficient justification for imposing legislation or withholding access to medical services to other Americans.  I'm under no obligation to believe as you believe, and I cannot fathom how I would be required to live in accordance with your beliefs.  How am I still free if your beliefs are writing the laws under which I live?  Even if your arguments against abortion aren't founded in religion, it still amounts to you wanting to legislate against someone else because it makes you squeamish.
Popes: Wrong on heliocentric universe,
wrong on contraception.
No woman should have to leave her home and wonder whether she'll make it to wherever she's going without being raped.  No rape victim should have to be told she "asked for it," and that "boys will be boys."  No impregnated rape victim should be forced to carry to term the consequence of her assault.  Any opposition to this is tantamount to protecting and promoting a culture of rape.

Often I write these diatribes knowing that at best I might be found by some readers and occasionally I get feedback (which every writer desires, even if they can't admit it to themselves).  This time, though, I can provide you with at least one action you personally can take right now.  Click here to sign an online petition to urge Congress to pass H.R. 1523, the SAFER Act.  Details of the bill are described on the petition page.