Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Take Back the Rhetoric on Rape

A few days ago, I spotlighted an awesome blog, SAFER: Students Active For Ending Rape.

I am not going to get into my own personal experiences here, but I am sure every woman has had some experience with sexual harassment, and too many have experiences with date rape and other types of sexual assault. In college I endeavored to mobilize the helplessness I felt at night walking to the parking lot or the anger I felt on behalf of the women I knew who had been assaulted by volunteering for the Center for Women on campus, which ran a rape-crisis counseling center. I marched in Take Back the Night Vigils. I helped with The Clothesline project for survivors of rape. I am really glad that this blog exists, especially as I have expressed my own nervousness about walking around campus too late at night or home from the bus stop after dark. TD says that this must be a "girl thing," to fear for one's personal safety to the point of emailing before and after appointments to meet random strangers to sell things on Craigslist, or before and after dates. It may very well be such a thing, but it is not irrational fear or paranoia. I wouldn't be afraid if I didn't believe that I had some rational reason to be afraid.

I don't believe in the rhetorical trope of "gray rape," that a woman's inebriation nullifies her claim of rape. One part of Superbad that made me really uncomfortable was the scheming plan of one of the dudes to get his date so drunk that he could take advantage of her inebriation to get laid. That is not consent. This was slightly redeemed by Michael Cera's character refusal to sleep with his desired girl when she was too intoxicated, because he liked and respected her too much. But this movie was uncomfortably close to too many guys' MO's for "getting consent."

I believe in the victim's account unless there is some dispositive reason not to believe her account.

I do not believe in this stupid article by conservative Heather Mac Donald arguing that the statistics on campus rape are overblown.

I do share in the views of Tracy Clark-Flory, who disputes the main "arguments" made by Mac Donald, and attacking the main tenet of Mac Donald's article: that girls are getting wasted and laid, not raped, and so it's their own damn fault, and that sexual restraint is the problem!:

Mac Donald explains that the statistic originated from a survey by Mary Koss, a University of Arizona professor of public health. It found that 15 percent of women had been raped, 12 percent had experienced an attempted rape; therefore 27 percent had either experienced a rape or attempted rape. Koss attempted to strip her questions of the word "rape," so as to lessen the social stigma facing her respondents; she didn't ask them whether they had been raped but whether they had experienced a range of incidents that are, by definition, rape. For instance, she asked: "Have you had sexual intercourse when you didn't want to because a man gave you alcohol or drugs?" Understandably enough, some have criticized her approach, noting that the question could be misinterpreted to mean, "Have you had sex under the influence and regretted it the next morning?"

But, these concerns have already been invalidated! In 1999, researchers set out to test whether Koss' question was actually getting at the rape question. They asked: "Have you engaged in sexual intercourse when you didn't want to but were so intoxicated under the influence of alcohol or drugs that you could not stop it orobject?" And, what do you know, this much more precise question yielded similar results; 17 percent of female students responded "yes." Not to mention, these findings have been duplicated by a number of other studies -- look here, here and here, just for starters.)

Mac Donald ignores these inconvenient facts and simply notes that subsequent studies show a "divergence between the victims' and the researchers' point of view." Consistently, researchers are far more likely than the respondents themselves to define nonconsensual sex as rape. No! You mean there's a widespread resistance among rape victims to labeling such a traumatic experience by its culturally loaded name? Next, Mac Donald will argue that a woman isn't abused, isn't a victim of domestic violence if she doesn't personally choose that label -- regardless of whether her experiences define her as such. (Apply that to any number of abuses, illnesses or crimes.)

Fully moving beyond the facts, we get to the cold, un-beating heart of Mac Donald's argument: She argues that the reality "behind the rape hype" is "that it's the booze-fueled hookup culture of one-night, or sometimes just partial-night, stands." In other words, hookup culture is responsible for the disagreement between how women label their experiences of rape and how researchers define them. When researchers see an act as rape but the woman does not, she argues that it isn't a case of social stigmas reigning supreme -- it's that ever-popular myth of "gray rape." "Most campus 'rape' cases exist in the gray area of seeming cooperation and tacit consent, which is why they are almost never prosecuted criminally." That is a lie -- as mentioned above, these studies are simply not dealing with "gray" areas.

Beyond her butchering of the statistics -- and denial of the library of supporting research -- her philosophical position is unconscionable. She actually argues that "greater sexual restraint would prevent campus 'rape.'" If only she hadn't worn that skirt, walked down that dark alley, had something to drink, smiled his way, she wouldn't have been "raped." In the very same breath, she bizarrely goes on to rail against sex-positive workshops on college campuses. (Apparently a campus workshop called "Sex Toys for Safer Sex" amounts to an endorsement of "recreational sex" -- and, one might assume, rape-in-quotation-marks -- "at every opportunity.")

It's a pity Mac Donald went through all this trouble to explain why so many women are resistant to calling a forced, nonconsensual sex act "rape," when researcher are not. She need only look at the prevalence of victim-blaming attitudes like her own.

And this, my friends, is why sociological studies that demonstrate empirically when and generate theories as to why victims report/underreport, leading to a study of victimology really matter.