Thursday, April 18, 2013

How society talks about rape

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and some interesting things came up at the end of March that definitely fall into the category of “Let’s talk about sexual assault awareness.”

I didn’t want to take the U of R professor’s blog post seriously. I really didn’t. I get the premise, and after talking to a lot of people and doing some reflecting on it, I get the creeps about a thought experiment about rape. At first, I could accept the premises of it – why not analyze our values about rape and why it’s wrong? But we live in a rape culture, and those experiments perpetuate the idea that the violation of rape is somehow acceptable. There is no benefit to be reaped from rape— society gains nothing from that kind of sexual deviant.

There’s also no such thing as a harmless rape. It is simply not possible, even in the land of hypotheticals; at the very least reputations are at stake and with the reported suicides of two more bright young women, I think this only drives that point home.

I also would like to point out that one in four women on college campuses have been raped, so there is a strong possibility that in this professor’s classes, there’s a young woman who has been assaulted. There are better ways to discuss rape, and there are definitely better ways to frame thought experiments in class.

He does bring up consent (and the victim’s lack of it), and I think that has equally as much to do with the situation he describes. There’s been a lot of talk about teaching men not to rape, and not victim-blaming and that’s all awesome. Really. That’s a huge step forward for how we talk about rape.

Jeff Pier, the director of Rape Crisis Service at Planned Parenthood of the Rochester/Syracuse Region (PPRSR) said education about rape and healthy relationships must start young. Campaigns to “not rape” are great news, and have finally come into the conversation at a great time. He’s finding that in his work with survivors of rape and sexual assault, there is still a lot of confusion as to what actually constitutes rape and lack of consent. He says education on consent, healthy relationships and positive life choices are the key to combating rape.

I asked him what he thought about the “don’t rape" campaigns, and the thing that stood out to me the most is the emphasis he placed on the education, and not victim-shaming. The concepts of “don’t victim blame” and “don’t rape” are useless without the education of what they actually mean.

When we say “don’t victim blame,” that means:

·         Just listen. And listen without judgment.
·         Believe the person who is telling you that they have been raped.
·         Assure them that they are not alone, and that it’s not their fault.
·         Don’t blame what they were wearing.
·         Don’t blame their assault on how much they had to drink. Or where they were, or what they were doing, or anything else that one can think of that in some way would make it the victim’s fault.
·         It is NEVER the victim’s fault.

When someone comes to you and says that they have been raped, or tells you “I don’t know what happened,” say “I am so sorry that this happened to you; I’m here to listen to you.” If you are unable to do this, direct them to the person that can.

PPRSR has a phenomenal Rape Crisis Service team in Rochester. Their job is to help victims ascertain what exactly happened to them, what steps legally can be taken, what medical steps should be pursued and offer counseling to help start the healing process. It’s also available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Literally, whenever you need someone, they are there for you.

Conversely, do not ask “Well, why didn’t you tell anyone?” “Why were you there so late at night?” “What did you think was going to happen?” “Why didn’t you fight back?” Rape is hard enough to talk about without judge-y questions. It’s also natural to want to know more. Resist the urge to put your curiosity/ need to know above the emotional/mental/physical needs of the person who is coming forward and telling you about what happened to them.

Don’t rape is a little trickier. Posters like this mean well enough:

Consent is awesome, for sure. But there’s more to “not raping” than that

When we talk about “don’t rape,” this is what we are talking about:
·         Obtaining consent. Bluntly stated, this means that the person who you are attempting to have sex with has consented to having sex with you, and continues to consent throughout the entire act.
·         Passed out unconscious does not mean yes. No does not mean yes. She said yes, and then changed her mind to no does not mean yes. Telling you they don’t want to/ are uncertain/too tired/whatever is not consenting.
·         If you see someone with another person who is clearly incapacitated and unable to consent, DO be that person who steps up and intervenes to ask if he/she knows them, and actually wants to go home with them. Bystanders can be tremendously powerful in preventing rape, and in making it socially unacceptable to take advantage of those unable to consent or make their wishes known.
·         We should teach our young men and women to see women as completely autonomous creatures with desires and minds of their own. These desires and whims should be respected as the autonomous decisions they are.

That’s what makes these examples so compelling; those are real situations people find themselves in.

Perhaps one of the most powerful things we can do is create safe spaces for victims to come forward and share their experiences. Rape is something that was not talked about for a very long time, especially if the victims were children when the abuse was happening. As it stands right now, approximately one in four children under the age of 18 are sexually assaulted by someone they know. This statistic is almost certainly higher than that, considering how underreported these crimes are. The statistics for other kinds of rape similarly suffer from this kind of distortion, because it is so difficult to get justice and to face the stigma in one’s community.

It’s easy to get someone to agree that raping someone else is wrong, because duh, yeah, bodily/mental violations and things. It’s much harder to unlearn destructive behaviors that lead to rape. It’s possible. The education and outreach teams here at PPRSR do some great things within the community, but it’s possible to do more, and it might be as simple as letting the people around you know that you’re safe person to come and talk to. Healing is obviously a more involved process than that, but giving someone the space to speak up is a tremendous start. 


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