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Posted on Apr 3, 2016 in Blog, Essays | 8 comments

Sexual Assault Awareness Month: Why I teach about sexual assault and rape culture

Sexual Assault Awareness Month: Why I teach about sexual assault and rape culture

 

textbook and quoteMy criminal law professor sat at the front of the room, legal tome open in front of him, and announced: “Chapter thirteen. Rape.” He paused. “Not that important, we’re going to skip it.”

That was that. On we went to chapter fourteen, theft crimes. Those six or so seconds represented the entirety of my legal education on the complexities of the crime of rape.

Not that important. I’d been receiving some version of that message my whole life, and my legal education was no different.

It took me a long time to call my rape by its name. I still struggle with it. Typing the words is hard enough, speaking them almost impossible. My heart accelerates, my stomach sours, and my intestines grumble. My whole body goes into flight or fight mode at the thought of calling what happened to me rape. The human mind is a funny thing. It likes the familiar. It develops habits and holds onto them forever. When new information challenges what we think we know, our first instinct is almost always the same – run. I know I was raped. I know it happened to me. But the way it happened – the when, the why, the who – all put my rape firmly in the not so important category.

In his book on juror psychology, where he attempts to explain how even female jurors tend to side against rape victims, Andrew Taslitz states “stories create our world of meaning; they are the lens through which we view all of life’s events.” He explains that in every aspect of our lives we are inundated with very specific stock stories about rape. These stock stories are heteronormative, gendered, and racially coded. In the stock stories we see on TV and in books women are victims (white women, never Black women). Strangers rape, and the strangers in our stories are often scary Black men, despite statistics showing rape, in most cases, is an intraracial crime. Shauna Prewitt succinctly describes the way our society defines prototypical rape: a black stranger attacking a white woman in public using overwhelming force.

We tell stock stories about women who deserve it. The women who wear the wrong thing, who drink too much and pass out, who lead men on, who should have known. Women who are simply women and therefore can always be wrong. What do they expect?

I was both a woman who wasn’t raped and a woman who deserved it.

I was sixteen. It was the late nineties. There was no Twitter or Tumblr connecting me to a world of feminist writing and conversation, and people didn’t use terms like rape culture and enthusiastic consent in regular conversation. I couldn’t even text my friends. Landlines and pagers. Pens and notebooks. That was all we had, so I never came across words I desperately needed. I didn’t know that, according to RAINN, when a woman is raped it’s usually by someone she knows, or that you’re more likely to be raped in your own home than anywhere else, or the home of a friend, relative, or neighbor. I didn’t know that most rape isn’t accompanied by a violent assault, and that the majority of women report no other serious physical injuries from their rapes. I thought rape was like the stories.

Here are the things I did know back then:

I knew when I was fourteen I fell in love with a boy who reminded me of Kurt Cobain. A beautifully broken boy, with long bleached hair and piercing blue eyes. He was an artist, sensitive and talented. People around school said his name with a mix of admiration, fear, and dislike. He was trouble. I wanted to get into trouble with him. I was certain – bone deep certain – that what I felt for him was real, adult love.

I knew he made my toes curl, and our whirlwind rush into a physical relationship was initiated as much by me as him. I did not know the warning signs of potential abusive partners: controlling (don’t wear your hair up, wear it down), jealous (I saw the way he looked at you, don’t give me that just friends bullshit), and isolating (I don’t like her, you shouldn’t hang out with her anymore).

He didn’t hit me until a year into our relationship. I was fifteen. I didn’t know who to go to or who to tell because I felt alone. Abusive relationships were things that happened to adult women, not people like me. I didn’t know, according to the Domestic Violence Resource Center, nearly 10% of teenagers report being hit or physically hurt by their boyfriends or girlfriends. I didn’t know that one in five people who experience rape or stalking at the hands of an intimate partner first experience some form of intimate partner violence between the ages of eleven and seventeen. One in five. There were so many of us, and I had no idea. Stock stories might tell us men shouldn’t hit women, but they are largely silent on the fact that boys hit girls. I wouldn’t tell anyone about the violence until well after the relationship ended a year later.

When I was sixteen, I went to end things with him. I tell myself I should remember everything about that day, but the truth is some parts are sliced into my memory and some parts are dulled. His parents weren’t home and we went to his bedroom to talk. I know the comforter on his bed was an ugly, muted pattern. I know his fingers dug into my neck; my lungs feel tight every time I remember. I know I cried a little while he held me down and had sex with me.

Had sex with me. I still say it like that in my memory. I never lead with rape; that’s always the correction. The edit. The grown woman I am now chimes in and corrects the scared girl I was then – he held you down and raped you.

She doesn’t believe her. I don’t believe me.

I didn’t tell anyone what happened in his room that day. I didn’t occur to me there was anything to tell (maybe this is why so many people don’t – RAINN cites the number at 68%). According to the stories, boyfriends couldn’t rape you. What happened was my fault. What did I expect? I went over there when his parents weren’t home. We’d had sex so many times in that very room in those very circumstances. I didn’t really fight back. I barely said anything at all.

It’s not just stock stories that tell us boyfriends can’t rape girlfriends. Throughout the vast majority of our country’s history our legal system –the foundation of our social order – defined rape as a man having “carnal knowledge” of a woman “forcibly and against her will.” Men who raped their wives were an exception – it was not rape even if it was forcible. And while the legal justification rested on property concepts of the time (husbands owned their wives) it also embraced the common attitude that once you have sex with a man you can never take it back.

But stock stories do tell us that men shouldn’t hit women. So eventually, after our final breakup, I told a friend he used to hit me. I left out any mention of what happened in his bedroom the afternoon I went to end things. That was the first time I realized survivors make some people really uncomfortable. Being in the middle and taking sides were side effects of domestic violence I hadn’t anticipated. The stories hadn’t told me I’d be alone, that my abuse would cost me friendships.

And, like many victims of domestic violence and rape, ending the relationship did not mean I never had to see him again. The hallways of our high school turned into a surreal dreamscape. I floated through them. I passed him daily and pretended everything was normal. Sometimes I saw him with other girls, smiling, flirting. I hated myself because I knew I should warn the other girls away, and while a small part of me wanted to, a bigger part of me felt sickeningly jealous. He was so nice to them. Why couldn’t he be that nice to me?

And how could I tell someone what happened in his bedroom when I didn’t want him arrested? We were both kids. I just wanted him to stop hurting me. I wanted him to get better. Stock stories about rape told me I should want him prosecuted to the furthest extent of the law. I didn’t know that the goals of victims and the goals of the criminal justice system often stand completely at odds with one another – the former wanting rehabilitation and the latter focused on punitive measures.

Maybe I would have felt less shame if I knew there was little point in telling, anyways. By most counts over 95% of rapists will never spend a day in jail. It would be over a decade before I read the data and realized that while we talk a good game about rape as a serious crime, not all rapes are considered equally serious. I didn’t know then that a victim’s relationship to a rapist impacts how police, prosecutors, judges and juries view her rape. If I had called the police, and they believed me and arrested him, and if the prosecutor believed me and wanted to press charges, the legal issue would have come down to consent. Rape trials where the man accused and the victim have a prior sexual history almost always come down to the issue of consent. Since I had willingly slept with him before, few juries would have believed I did not that day.

I knew none of these things, so instead of carrying anger at a broken system I carried around shame and guilt.

Our stock stories also tell us who needs to be saved (women, usually white) and who can save us. The legal system saves women. Dedicated cops and prosecutors as portrayed on Law and Order and the likes save women. New, perfect boyfriends and their perfect love save women. We rarely see women saving themselves (unless they embody some form of masculinity approved problem solving, such as Jennifer Lopez in the film Enough) and we even less frequently see women saving each other.

Women – girls at the time – were the first thing that saved me.

It was the beginning of a new school year, which for me meant returning to a Monday through Friday gig where I repeatedly ran into the boy who abused me. I felt completely numb. Over summer break I withdrew and mutual friends drifted away. My closest friend wrote me a letter about how she was a better friend with someone else now. I’d blown up my whole life over events I couldn’t even completely remember.

I walked into my next class – art. I looked around. I had no friends. That’s a shitty feeling at sixteen or sixty. Towards the back, on the right side of the room, three girls sat at a square wood table next to big, wide windows: a blonde, a red head, and a brunette. They all played field hockey. They were pretty and popular and had their shit together. The opposite of me. But we’d gone to school together for years, and they’d always seemed nice, so I took a deep breath and asked if I could take the empty seat at the table.

They said yes. They saved me. It’s been almost twenty years. We’ve been in all of each other’s weddings. Our kids play together. We’ve survived moves and deaths and disagreements. They are my family. They gave me a kind of love I believe women only find in friendships with other women. Perhaps most importantly, forming a deep bond with a group of women laid the foundation upon which I began to build my feminist ideology and understanding of rape culture. As bell hooks explained in the classic Feminism is for Everybody: “Before women’s studies classes, before feminist literature, individual women learned about feminism in groups.”

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Stocks stories told me boyfriends and professionals would save me. A few years later, when I told a college boyfriend about the abuse and even what happened the afternoon I tried to end it, he was horrified. He looked at me with glassy eyes and said, “So he raped you?”

I didn’t know what to say because no one, not even me, had ever called it that. I’d run from it, my friends hugged me and loved me and helped me be myself, and here was a boyfriend who wanted to name it and fix me it.

His parents had money and they helped me see a counselor. I don’t remember a single thing the therapist asked me or said. I know it changed nothing. He’d read all the psychology texts but he probably believed the same stock stories as everyone else and I don’t think he knew how to help me.

He worked with trauma victims. Maybe he didn’t know what to do for cases like mine, the ones that aren’t that bad.

Teaching is the second thing that saved me.

Today I’m 33 years old. I stand in front of a classroom full of much younger faces. Each semester starts the same: I welcome them to my class, Rape Culture and the Legal System. I tell them the story of my criminal law professor. I tell them that not only is rape important enough to warrant a chapter in a textbook, it deserves a whole class.

I teach them about the history of rape as a crime. I teach them about stock stories. I introduce them to Kimberlé Crenshaw’s theory of intersectionality so they understand not all survivors’ experiences are the same. Class by class we deconstruct the stock stories and myths that tell so many of us it wasn’t that bad, it wasn’t rape-rape, or legitimate rape, or criminal rape.

We try to understand how the stock stories of not that important and not so bad came to be the dominant narrative about rape whenever it divests from the prototypical stranger rape. We read an article by alyn pearson, wherein the author, inspired by a course called “The Biology of Infectious Disease” looks at rape as a disease, an endemic. An endemic is different from an epidemic – it is “part of the natural flora of a place.” It is so common place we simply cease to notice it.

I try to show them all the ways true stories are erased and replaced with the stock ones. We learn about the civil rights movement and Bettie Jean Owens, and that rape was used as a tool of terror right along side lynching. I ask how many of them know Rosa Parks was a prominent anti-rape activist well before she strategically chose to stay in her seat. Semester after semester virtually no one raises their hands. Why is it that such a significant contribution has been so often erased? Why do our history books tell us, through omission, a Black woman’s anti-rape activism is not that important when compared to an economic bus boycott?

In my classroom the stock stories we have been told to believe about rape are taken a part piece by piece so we can begin to understand the nature of their faulty construction. We take sexist slurs like “slut” and racialized gender stereotypes like ”jezebel” and replace them with facts, numbers, critical thinking, and intersectional feminist praxis.

We read people telling their own stories. We read authors who are not heterosexual, cisgender, and white. By bringing stories usually silenced to the center, we keep our discussions from centering on the needs of relatively privileged survivors like myself.

I teach students who are also survivors. They are varying races, religions, ethnicities, gender identities, and sexual orientations. They bring their traumas with them, just as I bring mine. As we study the law – the maddening, imperfect, broken legal system – I try to always keep one fundamental truth in the forefront of my teaching.

I hold onto this truth tightly, because I know my students need it. I need it. The truth is: what happened to you was bad. It was horrible. And naming it, saying it, is important.

Fuck what the stories told us – we will write our own, and we will save ourselves.

 

2nd featured photograph copyright 2015 Ashley Murphy Photography 

 

 

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8 Comments

  1. Lucie, thank you. I have read your blog for a while, and don’t tend to comment, but as you make your voice heard I wanted to add another. I do hope the other Reiders come by – I had, before you mentioned this post at the Reef, and was reading already.

    An important story … all of them are.

    • Diane,

      I am still not used to people reading my blog! Thank you for reading and for your words of support. This was a really hard (and scary) essay to write, and it means a lot that it is resonating with people.

      • This was an important post to comment on, but I wanted to be careful. Another of the stories we tell is to respond to honesty like this with life-affirming commentary of the “you are so brave” variety, and turning this travesty into a congratulatory party – or, the unfortunate alternative, to attack and deny.

        Every woman has some level of experience with violation; I have been one of the very lucky ones, and have defined what “lucky” really means in rape culture on my own blog in the past. There is a deep, deep current of brutality in our understanding of humanity, and of sex, that is simultaneously impossible to own as a victim and to acknowledge as a perpetrator. Just as your rapist perhaps still does not know what he is or has done, I think most of those who violate don’t or can’t understand their actions, much less the consequences they inflict.

        So many thoughts and so many more stories. I’m going to keep watching this post.

        E.M., you are good to leash your demon. It’s more than was done for those who have been violated.

        • Diane,

          Thank you for all your thoughtful comments. You hit on something really important – I think there are a lot of young people who do not fully understand what rape is. I cover this a lot with my class when we discuss Steubenville.

  2. Lucie, this was very well done. I am actually angry at your professor who dismissed rape as “unimportant”. I am glad you wrote this because this happens to so many women, especially young women, and they need a voice. Because it seems to me that they rarely get justice. I never did. Instead I got a festering scar of rage, one of those untamed demons I keep on a leash. Thank you for sharing.

    • EM:
      Years later, I still can’t believe our professor said that and that I didn’t call him out (one thing I really regret). I actually found myself wondering if he REALLY said that when I started writing this essay, and actually reached out to classmates to confirm it was as bad as I remembered (oh, it was).
      I am sorry for what happened to you. I am sorry for your rage. I am sorry you (we, so many of us) never got any real form of justice.
      Thank you for reading and sharing.

  3. Hi Lucie,

    I was dropping by to tell you something I’d read about, and then I read this post you wrote about sexual assault. First let me tell you about what I’d read about…I know of a writer in Kentucky who plans to write about something you mentioned on Janet’s blog a while back – about the women who rode a horse into the hills of Kentucky (I think one might have been your grandmother?) and opened…a library? Her name is Kim Michele Richardson. She wrote Liar’s Bench, and has a couple other books coming out. But on her web site, she mentions writing about this story, and I thought you might want to know about it, since it’s sounds like it’s intimately connected to you.

    Secondly, THANK YOU for writing such an eloquent piece on such an ugly topic. This post is particularly special/meaningful to me, and many will know why eventually. This sounds rather vague, but you’ll get it, others will get it, in time.

    • Donnaeve (how I will forever think of your name),

      First, that is so interesting about the forthcoming book from the KY writer. My great grandma did indeed start the first small library in her county, out of her living room. I am not sure the horse part. It amuses me to think of an old KY full of multiple gutsy women starting libraries.

      Second, thank you for your kind words about this post. I’m sorry it’s meaningful to you and so many other women I know. I wish it wasn’t.

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