Rape Apologism and Denialism

Link to Feministing: "Steubenville teens are found guilty but rape culture remains alive and well"
Link to Feministing: “Steubenville teens are found guilty but rape culture remains alive and well”

It’s a concept the world continues to struggle with: does a woman have an innate right to protect or preserve her own body from violence? In other words, can a woman claim ownership of her body in such a way that demands respect and honor be given to her, as a human being with worth and dignity, by men?

“I don’t want men to be telling me what to wear and how to act, not to drink. And I don’t, honestly, want you to tell me that I needed a gun in order to prevent my rape. In my case, don’t tell me if I’d only had a gun, I wouldn’t have been raped. Don’t put it on me to prevent the rape.” -Zerlina Maxwell

“Left to my own devices, I never would have been raped. The rapist was really the key component to the whole thing. I was sober; hardly scantily clad (another phrase appearing once in the article), I was wearing sweatpants and an oversized t-shirt; I was at home; my sexual history was, literally, nonexistent—I was a virgin; I struggled; I said no. There have been times since when I have been walking home, alone, after a few drinks, wearing something that might have shown a bit of leg or cleavage, and I wasn’t raped. The difference was not in what I was doing. The difference was the presence of a rapist.” –Melissa McEwan

The less-than subtle nuances of rape culture came out in full force over the past several days in the U.S. As the rape trail in Steubenville, OH took its course, a culture of rape apologism and denialism reared its ugly head and sought to destroy the credibility of a 16 year old rape victim, as well as discredit rape survivors and advocates nationwide. The hideous lie which pervades so much of society’s thinking, that is “it’s up to you not to be raped”, has led people to attack the victim and rally their support around her convicted rapists. People across the country -and undoubtedly in other parts of the world- have expressed absolute horror and sorrow over the guilty verdict, sympathizing with the two young men who committed the atrocious crime as though they were being undeservedly punished. Meanwhile, a young high school girl who has already undergone the trauma of rape and a terrible eight months since that attack, has been treated as though the crime were her own. The lesson we were all supposed to learn “don’t rape” (and “don’t post nude photos of your victim and/or videos of the sexual abuse you’ve committed on YouTube unless you want it used as evidence during your rape trial”) turned into “don’t drink too much at parties”. In the media, the overwhelming majority of focus has been upon how the trail will adversely affect the two “football stars”, and Steubenville’s beloved football program, rather than the life-long healing process which this young woman has ahead of her.

Link to Gawker: “CNN Reports On The ‘Promising Future’ of the Steubenville Rapists, Who Are ‘Very Good Students’”

There has been some serious frustration, and perhaps even shock, on both sides. The crowd of rape apologists have been disturbed that anyone would disagree that a girl who had been drinking should be held responsible for an act of sexual violence committed against her. Meanwhile, rape survivors and advocates have been tearing our hair out for the past week over the comments we’ve heard and read, unable to fully fathom why it is so difficult for people to call rape what it is: a criminal act of violence.

The tension and raw emotion were not confined to the court room. Although, if anyone had a right to a tense, emotional week, it has been “Jane Doe” and her family. The courage she showed in facing her rapists, in taking the stand and sharing her story for countless strangers to hear, is something most of us can only begin to imagine. Hopefully she had a sense of the support and love people around the country were sending her way. But she certainly knew that a large number of people were blaming her for the entire thing. She had to know that sharing her story would give the pro-rape and/or rape apologist community more ammunition to fire toward her. She had already sat through the testimonies of people she had counted as friends, testifying in defense of her rapists. That victim blaming will likely follow her for a long time yet. No one, especially someone so young, should have to face so much hatred and judgment for a crime committed against her.

Link to "Sin and Suffering are Intermingled"
Link to “Sin and Suffering are Intermingled”

Rape apologism and denialism may be new terms for some but the Steubenville circus has been a prime example of each.

A rape apologist is someone who would make the argument that the victim played a part in the attack. It’s a fancier term for victim blaming. It follows the rape myth of “if you had not been drinking, wearing that low-cut shirt, flirting earlier that evening, your rapist would have been able to control his urge to rape”.

“The simple answer is that a rape apology is any argument that boils down to the myth that rapists can be provoked into raping by what the victim does or does not do. Such apologies feed off the old myth that rapists have no control over the sexual temptation they experience in response to the victim, therefore the victim could have avoided awakening the irresistible rape temptation by behaving differently. It’s classic victim-blaming. Most people who make such arguments are not consciously intending to defend rapists. They are simply repeating arguments they have heard before and haven’t fully examined.” –Feminism 101 Blog FAQ

How has this been happening in Steubenville (and how does it happen in countless other rape trials worldwide)? “If she had not been drinking, she would not have been raped”, “that girl was stupid”, and various other degrading comments have been made, which shows that many people believe that Jane Doe -and probably any rape victim who wasn’t first brutally attacked by a stranger- was asking to be raped, that she deserved to be raped. No one can do anything, say anything, wear anything which causes them to deserve to be raped. Period. Alcohol did not commit the crime. Two teenage boys committed the crime.

Link to The Guardian: "Steubenville and the misplaced sympathy for Jane Doe's rapists"
Link to The Guardian: “Steubenville and the Misplaced Sympathy for Jane Doe’s Rapists”

Rape apologism also creates reasons to support the guilty party. It’s a way for people to make excuses for the rapist and, therefore, excuse the behavior.

How has this been happening in Steubenville? From the start, the focus has been upon how two star athletes have been subjected to this terrible trial, how their talents and ambitions have been destroyed by this conviction. Arguments of “she wasn’t so drunk” were made by the defense to suggest that, at some level of intoxication a person is able to say, “no”. Whether they do or not is irrelevant. Clearly, the argument has gone, Jane Doe could have refused the boys’ actions if she had really wanted to. They were only having fun. It was all meant to be a joke. Boys will be boys. There was (the defense argued) no verbalized “no”, therefore it was consensual.

It is an extremely sad story, not because two rapists deserve pity, but because two teenage boys sacrificed their potential and their talents for one night of debauchery and abuse. However, they are responsible for those actions. They chose to violate an unconscious girl (and brag about it on social media) and those acts of criminal stupidity have justly cost them. Jane Doe, on the other hand, did not choose for her life to be ruined. Being raped was beyond her control (with or without alcohol) and she does not bear the responsibility of the sexual acts of violence against her. Of the two, her story ought to excite sympathy. She has to live with the pain brought on by another person’s actions.

Link to The Raw Story: "The Top 5 Rape Apologist Reactions to the Steubenville Rape Verdict"
Link to The Raw Story: “The Top 5 Rape Apologist Reactions to the Steubenville Rape Verdict”

Rape denialism is just as poisonous to the culture.

“Rape denialism, noun, the ideology of denying or minimizing the prevalence of rape. Contrast with rape apologism, the ideology of denying the seriousness of rape. The rape denialist acknowledges the category “rape” and overtly endorses the view that it is wrong and grievously so. The rape denialist then attempts to construct arguments by which few or no rapes can be defined or verified. Because rape denialists acknowledge the seriousness of rape, they frequently make extravagant assertions about how rapists should be dealt with; often through torture. The severity of proposed consequences, however, can be pressed into service in (1) defining rape as so aberrant that only the non-functional mentally ill would commit the act; and (2) that it is quite rare. The rape denialist often seeks to exclude acquaintance rape of any kind, any rape not causing visible physical injuries, and any rape where the rapist or any other party could pay a money judgment in any civil action, usually on the premise (among others) that fabricated allegations are common. For this proposition, only anecdotal evidence is generally offered, often in the form of an aside about the Duke rape case. Before Duke, the anecdote of choice was Tawana Brawley. Rape denial and rape apology are conceptually separate, but are often simply rhetorical strategies employed by the same men. Properly understod, then, rape denialism is a special class of rape apology.” –Feministing 

How has this been demonstrated through the Steubenville trial? Aside from the various Twitter posts which suggested things like “kill rapists” or proposed chemical castration, denialism began the evening of the attack, when witnesses failed to react properly, and has continued throughout the trial: “rape is only rape if it is violent” or “acquaintance rape is not a real thing”. Denialism is a misunderstanding (potentially purposeful) of how rape is defined. Because, denialists would argue, rape is so rare and only happens within the context of extreme violence, rapists should certainly be dealt with severely. Otherwise, it’s likely that the victim is lying because, clearly, it was not real rape. With the example of Steubenville, people have struggled to see that what happened to Jane Doe constitutes rape. Some have even tried to argue that our definition for rape has become a little too strict (“since when is digital penetration a crime?”) – not realizing that any form of penetration or forced oral sexual contact has been considered rape for years.

Link to the “What is Sexual Assault” series by Justin and Lindsey Holcomb

Tragically, Steubenville is just one of countless examples of rape culture reacting to a rape accusation and conviction. We could fill in that blank with any small town or big city: _______________ is just one of countless examples. On the same day as the Steubenville verdict, while speaking about the VAWA, Rep. Duncan said:

“…like most men, I’m more opposed to violence against women than even violence against men, because most men can handle it a little better than a lot of women can.”

His comment is a product of believing a rape myth – men who suffer abuse are not as affected by the trauma as women are. This is a form of denialism. Duncan was denying that sexual abuse against men is as serious as violence against women. If a man is raped, it’s not the same thing as when a woman gets raped.

In one sense, no, it’s not the same thing because men will have their own unique trauma to work through in a world which views them as “too tough” to be abused. But that does not make their abuse experience inferior to a woman’s experience. Rape is rape regardless of the gender of its victim.

Second to that, Duncan is playing into the idea that women are psychologically and emotionally weaker than men. Violence will destroy us where it may only leave a few bruises on a man’s psyche. The insult goes both ways here and neither gender ends up benefiting from a comment like that. I’m more opposed to violence against…human beings.

All that to say, Steubenville just happened to make national headlines. That is not to in any way minimize what happened (and continues to happen) to Jane Doe; to say she is one of countless young rape survivors is not suggesting that her pain is not unique or that her personal experience is somehow commonplace. But, sadly, it often requires a controversial media circus for the general public to sit up and pay attention to cases of rape.

Link to NewStatesman: "Steubenville: this is rape culture's Abu Ghraib moment"
Link to NewStatesman: “Steubenville: this is Rape Culture’s Abu Ghraib Moment”

Where can we go from here? Where most Americans had been oblivious to its constant presence in everyday life, rape culture has now had its day in the proverbial spotlight. It has been confirmed once again that high school football is a greater moral compass than ever. Undoubtedly, as further legal steps are taken to potentially convict adults who were complicit in covering up for the rapists’ actions, Steubenville will remain on national radar for a little while longer.

When the final news article is written, however, will it take another high profile rape trial to unearth the rage of Americans against rape apologism and denialism? People have had a chance to see the cultural acceptance of rape for what it truly is and, while some have been appalled, many have been only too sympathetic toward the criminals. The distress cry has been “these poor boys have to register as sex offenders” not “this poor young woman has been through so much trauma”. Has the battle against the cultural tolerance for rape and its promotion of rape myths been lost in the aftermath of this trial?

No. Steubenville is just another example of why we fight to end violence against women, dispel rape myths, and seek justice for victims. The events of the past week have given Americans, and hopefully people around the globe, one more reason to stand up for the rights of survivors of rape and abuse. Steubenville has painted a clear picture of exactly what the culture needs to learn most about sexual violence.

Link to Politics USA: "Steubenville Rape Crew Are Outraged that their Character is Being Questioned"
Link to Politics USA: “Steubenville Rape Crew Are Outraged that their Character is Being Questioned”

In closing, what is wrong with suggesting that women be prepared to prevent being raped?

Feminism 101’s short answer: Because it puts the onus on women not to get themselves raped, rather than on men not to do the raping; in short, it blames the victim.

“The question is, why do the warnings not help? Is the warning not strong enough? I don’t think so. I don’t know any women who don’t consider rape a realistic threat to them, and I don’t know any women who never alter their behavior because of a fear of rape. Well, the obvious answer: Rape keeps happening because rapists keep doing what they’re doing. Because it works. So how can what they’re doing work if we have all these strong warnings about? The warnings women get are misleading. They leave out the acts of the rapist himself. They focus on the situation. They also may focus on the ‘kind of man’ the potential rapist is. If he’s a friend of a friend, or your uncle, he’s ‘safe.’ It’s the stranger who’s the threat.

And we know that’s not true.” –JoAnne Schmitz

Ultimately, this is not a “woman’s issue” or “man’s issue”. Reverse the situation: a group of rowdy young women drug and rape an unconscious, drunk young man and plaster their fun all over social media. The outcry from our rape culture would look decidedly different (it’s difficult to say what the exact reactions would be) but the crime would be no different from Steubenville. Rape is rape, regardless of the victim’s identity or the rapist’s reputation.

No one, not Jane Doe or John Doe, is responsible for preventing their own rape. It’s not up to the rape whistles, pepper spray, or weaponry of the world to silence global sexual violence. Rapists are responsible for preventing -and bearing the consequences for- rape.

Does a woman have an innate right to protect or preserve her own body from violence? Can a woman claim ownership of her body in such a way that demands respect and honor be given to her, as a human being with worth and dignity, by men?

Yes. All choices have consequences. Part of what makes sexual assault so devastating is that one person’s choice to rape has life-long consequences for their victim.

Link to Yes Means Yes blog post: “Meet the Predators”

*You can join a petition to ask CNN to bear responsibility for their utter lack of tact in how they chose to represent the Steubenville case here. It is one small step toward silencing rape apologism and denialism in the media.


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