† Criminal InJustice is a weekly series devoted to taking action against inequities in the U.S. criminal justice system. Nancy A. Heitzeg, Professor of Sociology and Race/Ethnicity, is the Editor of CI. Kay Whitlock, co-author of Queer (In)Justice, is contributing editor of CI. Criminal Injustice is published every Wednesday at 6 pm.
Victim Blaming, Backlash, and Distractions
by nancy a heitzeg
October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, first observed in 1987. The month will remind us of many horrific statistics ( high-lighted throughout), call us to Stop the Violence!, offer a few words of advice, and create some short-lived solidarity.
Frankly, I am tired of “months” that come and go decade after decade, with little sustained attention to real change. I am tired of “solutions” that focus on the criminalization of individual perpetrators and merely cosmetic law enforcement efforts that ultimately make matters worse. I am tired of the denial of the toxic structural and cultural forces that shape and sustain violence, including that perpetrated by the state. I am tired of the sensationalistic media focus on select cases, almost always with some eventual blaming and shaming of the victims themselves, as if they were responsible for their own assault and abuse.
What is required is this: an acknowledgement that we swim in a violent structural and cultural milieu which harms us all — women, men children. What is required is this: Transforming A Rape Culture .
As Lisa Factora-Borchers notes:
Rape culture is like smoke. Insidious, it hangs in the air, getting into everything, staining and deteriorating whatever it touches. It’s highly adaptive, cunning; clever in its ability to morph into whatever context it is placed. Rape culture prices and prioritizes human dignity, as if it’s something to earn and not inherent. Rape culture sets behavioral prescriptions and if one does not adhere to them, they deserve violence or, at the very least, are somehow responsible for it…
Rape culture .. is a deeply engrained and believable operating system in our collective conscience, whispering its influence into every aspect of life, at every stage of personal formation and development. Rape culture is not a separate culture from the one you and I are living in. They are one and the same.
And rape culture is more than just sexual violence against women; it is part and parcel of a system of oppression that metes out violence, both interpersonal and structural, across multiple lines of race class and gender difference. It is, at root, about power and raw domination.
It is amazing that [Russell] Simmons could not have predicted the outrage upon seeing such a video–which infers that, in order to build an Underground Railroad network to free the slaves, Tubman basically used blackmail against her white slaveowner by conniving with a fellow male slave to create a “sex tape” of their sexual encounter that she could later use as “leverage.” Then again, this is what porn culture will do to one’s perspective–something Simmons has perpetuated in his decades-long involvement with sexist rap music and culture.
Just reading the video’s premise was enough to make my blood boil, but sometimes, especially when you do media analysis as part of your scholarship, you just have to be a witness. So I viewed the video, and I don’t believe I am exaggerating when I say that, on this centennial anniversary, Harriet Tubman got raped.
Most of Tubman’s biographers have argued that there is no documentation that Tubman experienced sexual abuse while enslaved. She was definitely physically abused–routinely beaten, and at one point as an adolescent suffered a head injury caused by an overseer who threw a two-pound weight against her head, breaking her skull and nearly killing her. The injury impacted her throughout her 91 years of life, as she was often given to sleeping spells (which Tubman claimed brought on various dreams and prophetic visions).
Slavery was “hell,” Tubman described in her narrative, dictated to Sarah Bradford since she could neither read nor write. She experienced a great deal of trauma while enslaved, but if there were any experiences with rape–which marked the experiences of far too many enslaved women–Tubman remained silent on the issue. It’s still also possible that, as hellish as her experience might have been, she was spared from a deeper hell that sexual violence brings to the picture. Which is why Simmons’ “sex tape” adds insult to injury.
It’s a hell of a sobering reality to realize that, 100 years after Tubman’s passing, our porn culture–intertwined inextricably with rape culture–would produce such a demeaning narrative about one of our great American heroes. It happened not because there is any basis in history for such an imagined scenario (Tubman simply would not engage in sexual leverage–it’s not part of the essence of who she was) but because our culture continues to trivialize rape (which is what we must categorize any unequal encounter between a slaveowner and slave, regardless of “consent”) and debase women’s experiences.
From Democracy Now:
We turn to Steubenville, Ohio, where members of a high school football team allegedly raped an underage girl and possibly urinated on her unconscious body over the course of an evening of partying in late August. The young men chronicled their actions on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter. But after many in the town of Steubenville, including the high school football coach, rallied to the players’ defense, the hacker group “Anonymous” vowed to release the accused players’ personal information unless an apology was made. Anonymous has since released a video showing a male Steubenville high schooler joking about the alleged victim. We’re joined by three guests: Monika Johnson Hostler, president of the National Alliance to End Sexual Violence; Kristen Gwynne, an associate editor at AlterNet; and “X”, a member of the hacktivist group Anonymous using a pseudonym.
As this weekend marks the end of Christmastide, I sincerely hope everyone had a good holiday with family and friends. This holiday season seemed more poignant insofar as we’ve been reminded of the fragile nature of life and society.
These reminders came in the form of recent horrific tragedies that threaten the foundations of civilized societies — the mass killing in Newton and the gang-rape of a young female medical student in Delhi. The inhumanity of violence and then the efforts to silence anyone who would speak out against the roots of these horrific acts are nothing new.
As always, we must continue to rise up against this vile globalized institutionalized misogyny — through ensuring the safety for young girls and women, through education, economic development, access to health services, and civic participation. It is a fight that we all have a responsibility to take on — in our homes, in our classrooms, in our jobs, in our governments, and all spheres of private and public life.
A couple of worthwhile reads if you haven’t already caught them:
Delhi gang-rape: look westward in disgust (The Guardian):
There’s something uncomfortably neocolonial about the way the Delhi gang-rape and subsequent death of the woman now known as Damini is being handled in the UK and US media. While India’s civil and political spheres are alight with protest and demands for changes to the country’s culture of sexual violence, commentators here are using the event to simultaneously demonise Indian society, lionise our own, and minimise the enormity of western rape culture.
A particularly blatant example of this is Libby Purves’s piece for the Times. She says the Delhi bus rape should “shatter our Bollywood fantasies”. For Purves, westerners enjoy a romanticised view of India, all heady spirituality and Marigold Hotels; and especially romantic in their views, for reasons Purves neglects to address, are the British. Thus, upright Europeans have sentimentally ignored the “murderous, hyena-like male contempt” that Purves says is an Indian cultural norm. Neatly excised from her account however is the relationship between poverty, lack of education and repressive attitudes towards women, and, by extension, the role of Europe in creating and sustaining poverty in its former colonies. Attitudes towards women in the east were once used by colonialists to, first, prop up the logic of cultural superiority that justified unequal power relations (the “white man’s burden”) and second, silence feminists working back in the west by telling them that, comparatively, they had nothing to complain about.
When it finishes calling Indian men hyenas, Purves’s article states that westerners “have the luxury of fretting about frillier feminist issues such as magazine images, rude remarks and men not doing housework”. Does anyone else see an unattractive historical pattern here?
Her article is not, by any means, the only one to report on this issue as if rape is something that only happens “over there” – something we civilised folk in the west have somehow put behind us. Elsewhere, the message is subtler, but a misplaced sense of cultural superiority shines through. For example, this BBC article states, as if shocking, the statistic that a woman is raped in Delhi every 14 hours. That equates to 625 a year. Yet in England and Wales, which has a population about 3.5 times that of Delhi, we find a figure for recorded rapes of women that is proportionately four times larger: 9,509. Similarly, the Wall Street Journal decries the fact that in India just over a quarter of alleged rapists are convicted; in the US only 24% of alleged rapes even result in an arrest, never mind a conviction. This is the strange kind of reportage you tend to get on the issue.
The coverage of Damini’s death strikes a particularly ironic note following recent media controversy over a rape, in Steubenville, Ohio, of a 16-year-old girl – allegedly by members of the high-school football team. The case is that the young woman was dragged, drunk and unresponsive, from party to party, where she was sexually abused. The brutal death of Damini has spurred Indian civil society to its feet, causing protest and unrest, bringing women and men into the streets, vocal in their demands for change. Sonia Gandhi has met the woman’s parents. The army and the states of Punjab and Haryana have cancelled new year’s celebrations. What happened in the US? In Steubenville, football-crazy townsfolk blamed the victim and it took a blogger – Alexandria Goddard, who is now being sued – and a follow-up article from the New York Times four months after the incident to get nationwide attention for the story.
Protesters of the Steubenville Rape Case Inspire Real Change (Politicus USA):
When as Anonymous was leading a second protest in Steubenville yesterday, the sheriff announced that no other people would be charged in the alleged gang raping and kidnapping of 16-year-old Jane Doe by football players referred to as members of the “rape crew”.
This case appears to be steeped in cover-ups and conspiracies, from the County Prosecuting Attorney reportedly being the mother of one of the “rape crew”, at whose house an assault may have taken place, to the victim’s ex-boyfriend allegedly setting her up to be drugged and gang raped as revenge for breaking up with him. It’s disgusting and shameful and horrifying, but it’s also sadly not that unusual.
What is unusual is that this time a group of mostly men, in a subset of Anonymous called Knight Sec, is leading a public charge against the rape culture and demanding justice.
Anonymous’ protests aren’t just impacting this case; in fact, because of the attention the Steubenville case has gotten, San Luis Obispo rape crisis agency in California has launched a “Start by Believing” campaign in order to promote the reporting of rape. Sexual Assault and Rape Prevention (SARP) Associate Executive Director Jesse Torrey explained, “If somebody discloses they’ve been sexually assaulted, you need to start by believing them. And if they are responded to with support, with validation, with ‘how can I help?’, with ‘this wasn’t your fault’…that’s the road to healing.”