This Moment is About the Victims | From the Mailbag

Someone asked me the following question, and I wanted to share it and the response I gave. I think it’s relevant to this moment in history.

“What’s your opinion on distinguishing between sexual assault and sexual harassment? Do you think there is such a distinction, and that there should be different penalties for these potentially two different things? Or do you think think it’s all rape, and should be treated the same each time? Thanks in advance for any insights.”

My response:

I’m not sure that really is up to opinion. They are in fact different things. Sexual harassment isn’t necessarily sexual assault, and sexual assault isn’t necessarily rape. In order to have a functioning justice system we necessarily assign different penalties to each. The thing that makes sexual harassment, sexual assault, and rape different than most other crimes is the fact that our society doesn’t really consider them to be as unjustifiable as they do other crimes, which is odd considering that as far as crime goes these three are in fact among the most unjustifiable.

For example, murder is most harshly treated by our justice system, however there are all sorts of justifiable reasons for murder. It’s perfectly justifiable, if perhaps not legal, to murder someone who’s trying to hurt you or someone else, if murder seems like the only way to prevent harm. If someone walks in on someone being raped, murder, if not legal, could be justifiable.

Theft can be justifiable, if not legal. If someone is poor and faced with a choice between starvation and theft, theft, if not legal, can be justifiable.

Sexual harassment, sexual assault, and rape, however, have no inherently justifiable circumstances. There’s never an instance in which one must sexually harass, sexually assault, or rape in self defense, to stave off starvation, or to make a living. And yet, it’s a the one category of crime that mostly goes unreported by its victims, and tends not to be taken seriously by our society.

It also happens to be one of the most traumatic categories of crime for its victims, particularly because it is completely unjustifiable and therefore particularly violative. The only reason anyone ever sexually harasses, sexually assaults, or rapes, is precisely because they feel that they have an entitlement to violate another person’s boundaries, body, and soul, and treat them as if they were a thing, rather than a human being.

So yes, we necessarily assign different weight to each crime in this category, and we subdivide based on the precise violations committed in each case, but that’s really beside the point in this national discussion we’re having. This country fundamentally doesn’t care about the victims of this category of crime. It doesn’t care about its prevalence or the effects on its victims, and it really doesn’t care to do anything about it.

To listen to victims of this category of crime is to hear the same story over and over again. “I didn’t speak up because I didn’t think anyone would believe me,” punctuated by responses of “I did speak up (to my boss, my family, to HR, to clergy, to community leaders, or law enforcement) and no one believed me. They blamed me. Asked me what I did to deserve it. Asked what, if anything, I had done to prevent it, as if such a thing were possible.” These experience exist by the million, and for some reason nobody seems to particularly care, despite the fact that the prevalence of this category of crime is of epidemic proportion, and its effects on its victims are often devastating.

So yes, as I said now three times, there necessarily has to be a difference in the way we treat the crimes in this category, but then there’s how we as a society, outside of the legal system, have to reckon with it, because our attitudes toward sexual harassment, sexual assault, and rape determine how they will be treated by our justice system. Our police, prosecutors, lawyers, and juries don’t exist in a vacuum. They are all products of our society and our societal attitudes toward this category of crime. If people fundamentally believe that sexual harassment is the fault of the victim, that sexual assault can be “asked for” by the way a victim dresses, that rape can be “asked for” by what the victim drank, then it in fact is impossible for a victim to get justice.

This is what this country is reckoning with in this moment. Whether we will start taking sexual harassment, sexual assault, and rape seriously, whether we will choose to believe that it happens, that it’s serious, that it’s devastating and prevalent, or whether we’ll continue to justify the inherently unjustifiable.


A Survivor Shares Her Experience of Being Raped as a Modern Orthodox Teen | #WhyIDidntReport

Author’s note: Aside from the first 4 introductory paragraphs preceding the survivor’s account, no changes have been made to the original account. 

Last week, in response to Trump’s ignorant assertion that in order for a sexual assault claim to be true it must have been reported immediately to law enforcement, we saw an outpouring of stories from survivors about #WhyIDidntReport. I shared my own detailing how I was silenced within the Charedi community.

Yesterday, I was contacted by a frum survivor on the Modern Orthodox community who wanted to share her story, but is still, years after the abuse happened, afraid of the backlash. She asked me to share her story anonymously on my Facebook wall, and I’m going to copy it below.

Before I do, a little framing for this post. Before any of you ask “well, what about negiah, what about yichud?” save yourself the typing. The fact is that regardless of whatever stated values a community claims to believe in, there’s always, in every community, every society, and every value system, a difference between the communal ideal and communal practice. This is a reality that doesn’t go away just because we claim that it clashes with our stated values.

Premarital sex happens plenty in the Orthodox community, in all Orthodox communities, and while our value system may compel us to wish that it didn’t, the fact is that it does. Our stated values don’t absolve us of our responsibility to therefore ensure that when it happens it’s consensual, and when sexual assault happens the perpetrators are held responsible. We don’t get to use our stated values to sweep sexual assault under the rug, or blame the victims. So I don’t want to hear about yichud and negiah. That’s not at all relevant to this survivor’s experience. What’s relevant is the realities of our community, and the realities of her experience.

With that in mind, here’s the survivor’s story:

“I grew up in a somewhat liberal Modern Orthodox community and attended co-ed schools and camps. Although the rabbis talked about tznius and being shomer negia, the community at large didn’t really emphasize those things so much. There was still an expectation of no premarital sex, but it was not uncommon for high schoolers to have boyfriends/girlfriends.

I had a boyfriend in 10th grade, he went to a different school but we knew each other from camp and NCSY. As per the context described above, our parents were ok with it as long as we didn’t do more than make out and rabbis and teachers frowned on it and extolled the virtues of being shomer negia. So when the boyfriend started pressuring me to go farther than kissing, I didn’t want to, I knew by all standards I shouldn’t. He kept up the pressure and manipulation and I eventually gave in on everything except actual sex. That was my red line. He knew it. And one day, he held me down and did it anyway. I was initially in too much shock to protest, and then I was afraid, because he was a lot bigger than me. There was no point in struggling against him, so it was just “lay back and think of England” as they say, until he was done.

Now here comes the crux of why I didn’t tell anyone. First of all, that was not the last time he raped me. He did it several more times in the following months until we finally broke up. I know, stupid me. Why didn’t I dump him after the first time? And why did I ever allow myself to be alone with him again, several times? I don’t really know, even now, and that’s why even now I still blame myself. It took me a long time to even think of it as rape because I let it happen repeatedly. Then there was the fact that I had consented to “fooling around” before the first time he did it. Under pressure and manipulation, but at the end of the day, I still consented. So maybe it was my fault he took things to their “logical” conclusion.

Another reason I didn’t tell anyone is that we had in the past been caught making out by teachers/counselors and been yelled at for it. So I knew those people would blame me for not being shomer negia. I knew some friends would be supportive, but others would take his side. I’d seen other girls in my class endure serious slut shaming, so I wasn’t about to open up that can of worms. I also didn’t want my parents to know, because they would be devastated and feel horribly guilty. I didn’t want to burden them with that. They still don’t know, even now.

I did tell a couple of friends about a year after it happened and they were very supportive, but agreed that I was smart to keep quiet. I told my husband back when we were dating and he has always been amazing. I’m so fortunate to have him. We also told our Rav shortly before our wedding in order to clarify a few halachik matters (silver lining: my wedding night did not make me niddah) and he was very kind as well. I am fortunate and it has, thank God, not hindered me much in life. It never does leave, and ever since that time I have struggled on and off with depression, but I was able to marry only a few years after it happened, it has not affected much in the bedroom, and I’m enjoying raising my kids and working at a job I like, and am happily frum.

The thing is, the Modern Orthodox community is small. As my rapist and I are both still in MO circles, even though we haven’t run into each other in years, we have tons of mutual acqauintances, so I do know a bit about what he’s up to these days. And that’s another reason why I have not, and will not, report. There is nothing to gain and everything to lose. He’s not in some powerful position and he’s not super well-known or majorly respected. He’s an average Joe, going to shul, going to work, raising his family. I’m sure most people who know him think he’s just a nice guy in the neighborhood. As most people think I’m this nice, bubbly young mom in the neighborhood with no idea of the darkness I’ve endured. There’s no reason to bring up what happened well over a decade ago. I know what happens to women who speak up, especially if it’s years later. No thank you, I’m not opening myself and my family up to that.

Unfortunately, these problems are not specific to any one community. The Modern Orthodox world does not really have a better handle on this than the Ultra Orthodox world, nor anywhere else. MO institutions still often have the first instinct to protect themselves when allegations first arise and while I think there’s a bit less victim shaming, there is still a lot of skepticism directed at victims because it’s hard to accept that the nice guy who sits next to you in shul, and who has done business with you, and whose kids play with yours, could be a rapist. There’s definitely a lot of reckoning left to do.”


How The AHCA’s Abortion Requirements Hurt Rape Victims

Reading through the AHCA. Say goodbye to Planned Parenhood.

For those of you who think that it’s reasonable to ask an abortion provider to only provide abortions in the case of rape, incest, or medical danger, let me throw some facts at you.

63% of rapes are never reported.

Only 12% of child sexual abuse is ever reported.

That means that an overwhelming majority of sexual assault and abuse cases are never reported.

According to the NIH, approximately 5% of rapes of women of childbearing age result in pregnancies. Approximately 50% of them abort the pregnancies.

Here’s the problem. That 5% isn’t neatly distributed over the 37% of rapes that are reported. If you’re going to pass a law that makes it illegal for medical facilities to receive federal funding in the form of Medicaid reimbursements – which is what people talk about when they discuss federal funding of Planned Parenthood – if they provide abortions, except in cases of rape or medical danger, assuming Planned Parenthood would even be prepared to comply with that, then you have to have some mechanism in place to prove that rape took place. Medical danger is easy enough to prove, but a majority of rapes go unreported.

If you think that the solution is just for victims to report if they feel so strongly about getting the resulting pregnancy aborted, consider this. According to RAINN, out of 1000 rapes, only 310 are reported, on average. Of those reported, only 57 lead to arrest. Of those, only 11 ever reach a prosecutor’s desk. Of those, only 7 will lead to conviction. Of those, only 6 rapists will be incarcerated.

Let’s consider, therefore, what, other than those appalling failings of the justice system, might incline a victim not to report. Fear of retaliation. Fear of the backlash. Belief that it was their own fault. Fear of having to relive the whole thing in court. Fear of having to face their abuser. Fear of backlash from their school, or family. Fear of losing employment, or even custody of their children. Remember, most rapes are committed, not in a dark alley, but by someone the victim knows.

In most cases, a victim chooses not to report not because they don’t think what happened to them was a crime, but because they’re scared of what happened to them. Forcing them to report, particularly in light of the reasons they choose not to, can be a form of re-victimization. Any policy requiring abortion clinics to only provide abortions in cases of rape will necessarily lead to forcing victims to report, because even if at first the law allows for self-disclosure to the clinic, eventually the same people who support this will claim that women are crying rape to the doctor to get an abortion, and will require a police report.

None of this even addresses the fact that Planned Parenthood provides so many other forms of care to sexual assault victims following the assault, including STD testing, HIV screening, emergency contraception, and pelvic exams.


Carlebach, Cosby, and Separating Art from Its Artist

UPDATE 12/8/2014 6:30 PM: Since posting this article last night, I’ve been contacted by quite a few people with firsthand accounts of Carlebach’s abuse, specifically, inappropriate phone calls, inappropriate flirtations, and most seriously, molestation of minors. 

A few weeks ago, my shul (synagogue) held its annual Carlebach Shabbos. Benzion Miller, the Aron Miller Memorial Choir, and roughly 1,500 people showed up to sing, and dance, and celebrate the life, music, and legacy of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. There’s no question that Shlomo Carlebach touched the lives of tens of thousands with his music, his passion, and his apparent utter devotion to God and the Jewish people, and returned souls to Judaism at a time when religion seemed on the decline. But there was a darker side to the legend, a side that forces the uncomfortable question: Can we separate the man from the legacy—the art from the artist?

So there I was, sitting in my pew, 1,500 people around me, all singing Carlebach. I couldn’t help myself. It’s impossible not to sing along. The melodies are beautiful in their simplicity, saturated with soul, and electrifying in crowds. It’s impossible not to be swept up in the frenzy. My fingers drumming along to the melody, my feet tapping, a smile tugging at the corners of my mouth despite my best efforts to the contrary, I sang along with everyone else. How could I deny it? In a room filled with people from the far-right to the far-left to the non-observant, all singing the same music, all united in a way they have never been before, and will likely never be again, how could I not be swept up by the crowd? Men in shtreimels (circular fur hats worn by Hasidic men) with long, untrimmed beards, dancing with their fellow Jews, some wearing knit kippot (skull caps), some with ponytails, some in suits, some in jeans and a t-shirt; has anything, in the history of the Jewish people, ever united people so different, than the music of Shlomo Carlebach?

Following the service was a Carlebach dinner held at a local catering hall, with our scholar-in-residence, Rabbi Sammy Intrator, Carlebach’s long time right hand man. He started the night off with a song, and once the crowd was warmed up, he began to talk about Reb Shlomo. He told us story after story about Reb Shlomo’s compassion, his love for his fellow Jew, how deeply his desire to foster peace and love in this world ran, and how in-tune his soul was with God and the world. In true Carlebach style, he told us some of the stories that Carlebach used to tell, singing them exactly as Carlebach used to, bringing them to life with as much of the emotion and heart as he could. Carlebach’s stories always make me cry. As hard as I try not to, they always manage to get me.

Carlebach had an amazing gift for touching the souls of people with his stories of Chassidus (a more spiritual and mystical approach to Orthodox Judaism), and how the simplest Jew could have the greatest impact; his stories keep alive the memories of fallen communities and dynasties that perished with time and in the Holocaust, and the memories of the great men and women that would otherwise be forgotten. You would have to be lacking a soul not to tear up at the story of Chatzkele Lekavod Shabbos. And as I sat there listening to Sammy Intrator reincarnate Carlebach so beautifully for his very captive audience, I felt a little dirty. My holy brothers and sisters, I remember—I REMEMBEEEEEEEEEER—the Shlomo Carlebach that I grew up hearing so much about, the great man who reunited Judaism in the Diaspora, but I also remember the Shlomo Carlebach who fondled women who came to him for guidance, who masturbated on women who worshipped him, and who covered it all up by telling them that they were holy, and special. I remember the stories I’ve heard firsthand from people who experienced the darker side of Carlebach. And as I sat there laughing and crying as Sammy Intrator spoke, I felt myself tearing apart.

A battle was raging in my head: How can you sit there and listen to this when you know what he really was, and what he did to those women? But, but, look at the holiness he brought to this world, the people he united, the masses he returned to Judaism, the power of his music, and the strength of his enduring legacy! Yeah, but his legacy was built on the backs of an endless string of victims! But, but look! Look at all these people, singing, and crying, and laughing, and loving, and opening their hearts to one another! Surely that must count for something! Maybe, but who will remember the victims, and how is it right to sit there and tacitly support a man who caused so much damage?

I don’t know.

Honestly, Carlebach is a difficult subject for me. My inner conflict was punctuated by the recent resurgence of rape allegations against Bill Cosby. I loved Cosby. I loved his show, I loved his comedy, I loved his smile, I loved what he represented. Just like I loved Carlebach. It’s always this way. It’s always the people you love the most who hurt you the worst. Of all the people who had to be sexual abusers, of course, it had to be Shlomo Carlebach, and Bill Cosby. Right in the childhood. Right in the heart. Cosby is easier for me to throw under the bus, because while I’ve enjoyed his work, it’s never touched my soul. Carlebach is special to me. Carlebach represents a Judaism I’d love to see in this world. I mean, I suppose he would, if not for the small matter that he was a sexual abuser. Why does it have to be so difficult.

Both Cosby and Carlebach got away with what they did for so long because of how loved and cherished both they and their work were. But can their work stand alone? Is it possible to separate the art from the artist? It’s an ongoing question for me. On the one hand, I see the beauty that Carlebach brought into the world, and I don’t want the world to suffer the loss of what Carlebach gave it because of his sins. Perhaps the beauty, and holiness he facilitated was there already, waiting only to be discovered and brought to light, and he was only a conduit. Perhaps we would have had it through someone else, someone less flawed. Perhaps we should therefore allow what he revealed to stand while we leave him to rot.

On the other hand, as blogger Elan Morgan pointed out on a friend’s Facebook page:

IMPORTANT: We cannot separate the men from their art when they used their status from that art both to commit and conceal their violent behaviour. To continue to share their art is to continue to share one of the weapons they used to commit their crimes.

Perhaps we do more harm than good by perpetuating the tools of these people’s abuse. Perhaps we are contributing to the pain felt by Carlebach and Cosby’s victims, who for so long were denied justice, by touting the instruments of their abuse as something worthy of praise and enjoyment. Perhaps we make those men that much more acceptable by refusing to give up what they created simply because our lives are enriched by the fruits of those poisonous trees.

Or maybe there’s a baby to be saved somewhere in the putrid bathwater. Maybe there’s a message, some truth, a little good that can be salvaged from these men’s abominable lives. Might the message not be valid regardless of its source? Can we not keep the moral values Cosby preached while damning the damaged he caused to 17 (and counting) women, or the love and acceptance exhorted by Carlebach while distancing ourselves from the man himself and his actions.

There are a million answers to these questions, and frankly I haven’t found mine yet. It’s something I struggle with every time I hear one of Carlebach’s songs, or see the popularity people like Eitan Katz, or Yehuda Green have because of their similarities in musical style to Carlebach. I still feel dirty and conflicted when I sit in shul and hear one of Carlebach’s tunes used for lecha dodi (Song to greet the Sabbath sung by Friday night prayers), finding myself at once moved and repulsed. To be honest, I still use those tunes myself when I lead the prayers, because I know the congregation likes them and will sing along. I don’t know what the balance should be, or if there even is one to be had. Maybe you people can help me out; what do you all think?


If At First You Don’t Succeed

Some people just can’t be wrong. They can’t just take the criticism, admit they were wrong, apologize, and move on. Early on in blogging I learned that being wrong is a good thing—it means you learned something new. Knowledge is power. Well, I suppose no one could accuse George Will of being power hungry.

Following a Washington Post oped piece in which he called sexual assault “victimhood a coveted status that confers privileges,” George Will appeared on C-SPAN’s Q&A to respond to the outrage expressed over his article. Anyone hoping for an apology, or at the very least a clarification, had another thing coming.

Will opens by calling the people who vocally disagreed with his piece “the rabble.” I had a response prepared for that remark, but one commenter, ModerateRepublican, in the response section of The Blaze article, took the words right out of my mouth:

 So one thing is certain: the “rabble” he talks about probably includes virtually every woman on the planet earth.

Try this: [T]ell a female that you think women want to be raped because of the status and privileged they get by being raped, and see how she responds.

Next he incorrectly quotes a New York Times article citing the “1 in 5” statistic, stating that “The [Obama] administration has said that 1 in 5 women experiences sexual assault.” Using that statistic, he then goes on to discredit it by extrapolating from the 12 percent reporting rate mentioned in the Times article that were the two statistics correct, either the number of assaults—at the one college from which he too numbers, Ohio State—should be higher, or the number of reports should be lower. Had Will checked the New York Times article off of which he built his straw-man argument, he would have noticed that on April 30th, the Times printed a correction on the article stating that the 1 in 5 statistic it had quoted had not applied to assaults on college campuses, but to experiences over the lifetimes of women in general. Will’s Washington Post article was published on June 6th.

Moving along, Will then contends that new evidence standards set by the administration for college disciplinary hearings—preponderance of evidence—is too low, and will therefore result in false accusations. He argues that the evidence standards should be, as it is in the criminal justice system, beyond a reasonable doubt. The new evidence standards in question were suggested by the Department of Education in a “Dear Colleague” letter sent on April 4th, 2011 to colleges across the country. Interestingly, these new standards George Will is complaining about, have been standard practice for more than a decade in college disciplinary hearings. A guide published in 2003 by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) states that “The vast majority of schools employ, at the very least, a ‘preponderance of evidence’ standard.”

College disciplinary hearings are not court cases; they do not bear the same penalties, do not adjudicate the same crimes, and do not have any bearing on the criminal justice system. Therefore, the criteria for adjudication are, and have always been, much lower. Either Will is advocating for “beyond a reasonable doubt” to be adopted for all disciplinary matters because he truly believes that such a high standard is required for any disciplinary matter, or because he’s jealous of the status and privilege conferred on sexual assault victims, and wishes to minimize the number of people who can officially claim that privilege.

Actually, the only thing George Will got right in the whole interview, was when he said that sexual assault cases should not be adjudicated by colleges at all, and should instead be handed over to the criminal justice system. The Rape Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN), in a February, 2014 recommendation letter to the Obama Administration’s White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault, recommended that instead of internal disciplinary hearings, colleges should “use the criminal justice system to take more rapists off the streets.”

There is no reason why crime should carry a different penalty or process simply because its perpetrator had the good fortune of committing his crime on a college campus. College campuses should not play haven or sanctuary to people who deserve to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. Internal hearings instead of proper trials only serve to encourage abuse and discourage reporting. It should be noted that the reporting rate off college campuses, as reported by RAINN, is 40 percent. Compared to that, the 12 percent reported on college campuses is a horrifying pittance.

Ever the advocate for unfortunate young men who wouldn’t know consent if it slapped them in the face, Will blames a “sea of hormones and alcohol” for what will, when coupled with these “new” disciplinary hearing guidelines and recommendations by the Obama administration, result in “charges of sexual assault, and…young men disciplined, their lives often permanently and seriously blighted by this, and…litigation of tremendous expense as young men sue the colleges for damages done to them by abandonment of the rules of due process that we have as a society[.]”

Will seems to have a hangup with the fact that women drink on college campuses, and still have the gall to expect sex not to be forced upon them while in a state in which they are unable to consent. Perhaps, instead of worrying so much about the money that college campuses may lose as a result of disciplinary actions which may or may not be based on allegations resulting from accusations some feel are ambiguous since the notion that a person too drunk to stand straight is somehow able to give consent to sex, to them, is laughable, colleges should instead focus on educating its students on what constitutes clear and affirmative consent. The fact that men on college campuses never have to worry about being raped if they consume too much alcohol at a party should attest to not only the existence of a problem, but a pervasive rape culture which permeates college campuses.

Lest you think for a second that George Will doesn’t care about sexual assault, he assures us all that he cares even more than we do. He cautions against “defining sexual assault so broadly…that it begins to trivialize the seriousness of it,” thus implying that a case where a man as sex with a woman who is too drunk to consent, is somehow too trivial to be considered rape. The FBI disagrees.

The new Summary definition of Rape is: “Penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.”

Seems to fit pretty handily into the legal definition of rape.

Finally, he concludes by bemoaning the death of civil public discourse and trying to invalidate all of the outrage at his public display of ignorance, by holding up a few examples of people who said they wanted him dead for what he had said, or that he should be raped to know what it feels like. This is a common political trick in avoiding very real issues by focusing on the crazies on the sidelines, and projecting their extremes onto any intelligent and legitimate disagreement.

Honestly, I don’t know why I expected better of George Will. There are an unfortunate number of people who believe, as he does, that rape must fit a very specific template to be considered valid, thereby subscribing to a culture which not only discourages victims from coming forward by telling them that what happened to them was their fault, but also creates a climate in which an abuser feels comfortable and secure in the knowledge that even if his crimes are reported, he will likely receive no punishment. Rape culture fosters abuse, and environments which breed abuse. Columns and interviews like George Will’s attest to a complete unwillingness to dispel the ignorance and backward opinions that women’s rights and anti-abuse activists have worked decades to eradicate. Apparently abusers are more worthy of support and erring on the side of caution than victims. And he wonders why only 12 percent come forward.


No Means No Has Got To Go

I came across the following comment on an LA Weekly article responding to George Will’s characterization of being a rape survivor as a privilege:

[I]s “survivor” really the correct term for girls who get wasted at parties and are too drunk to remember whom they had sex with?

I’m only all too familiar with the atmosphere at this campus.  The majority of the women at UCLA are Asian girls who have no interests other than having their face between a book in their dorm room.  Even though they make up the majority, I would be willing to bet they’re almost never victims of “rape”.

The “victim” will always fit this profile: girl from a small town, too young to drink but ends up at a party where she gets wasted, ends up with a guy she thought was cute and then wakes up to regret. Instead of taking responsibility for her actions, learning and moving on now she’s told that she is a “survivor” of rape.

Taking responsibility for your actions would be the first step in getting on with life, but that’s not what society wants.  It wants you to feel eternal shame, regret, misery, self loathing.  Then they can get you the number to a nice, expensive therapist who’ll prescribe some effective drugs for your depression and now you’re now perfectly inserted into the matrix.

Really, to group these women in with real victims who are kidnapped at knife point and brutally assaulted is insulting, to say the least.

I couldn’t help but respond.

First, the “stranger in the dark alley” attack, is largely a myth in the US.

Second, your comment is a perfect example of rape culture; thank you for bringing up every commonly held misconception about rape and what constitutes rape. You made it easy to address. Rape culture, simply put, is a societal attitude of entitlement toward sex. Rape culture is telling a rape victim that she brought it on herself by dressing provocatively, by drinking more than one or two beers, by being a “tease.” Rape culture is the sense of entitlement to sex behind the resentment someone in the “Friendzone” feels at not having his “kindness” and time rewarded with the sex he figured he’d get if he logged enough hours being a friend. Rape culture is every time he says “she was asking for it.”

Rape culture is an attitude that believes that sex is something every man (generally men, but not always. I use men vs women in this piece because that scenario is most prevalent, but the dynamic exists in other forms as well.) is inherently entitled to, especially if a woman, in a man’s opinion, does more to indicate that she wants sex in general than she does to protest when a man initiates. Thus the unfortunate joke: Is it shoplifting or rape if you force sex on a prostitute. Mode of dress, how attractive a girl is, how drunk she allowed herself to get at a party—which is completely irrelevant since someone who is drunk lacks the mental capacity to consent— how overtly sexual she is in general, are all excuses used by society and people who subscribe to rape culture in trying to diminish the severity and validity of rapes which don’t conform to their mental image of what a rape victim to be. The stranger in the dark alley myth does a lot to reinforce rape culture. To someone who subscribes to rape culture, only the victim of a stranger in an alley, or a similar situation, can call themselves a true rape victim. Everyone else is either exaggerating, or seeking privileged status as a survivor.

I’ve learned a few things about rape culture, through discussion, that I’ve found interesting.

The question of prudence always comes up in discussions on rape culture—which precautions is it reasonable to ask a woman to take to avoid sexual assault, while simultaneously not blaming them for their rape. An example I like using in framing this discussion is walking at night, alone, in a neighbourhood known for crime, and getting mugged. While the mugger has absolutely no right to mug, there were precautions the victim could have taken to possibly avoid being mugged. That’s not to say that the victim is at fault for the mugging, but it leaves what to be said for prudence. It’s the same rationale behind advising women not to drink heavily at parties, or not to dress too provocatively on campus, or handing out straws which can detect date-rape drugs in drinks.

I always feel a mixed reaction toward women’s safety seminars. On the one hand, as I said, there is what to be said for prudence, but putting the focus on women protecting themselves rather than on men controlling themselves, has always seemed, to me, wrong. That mugging victim wouldn’t have to worry about being mugged if the neighborhood was cleansed of its criminals. Rape victims wouldn’t have to worry about being raped if men were better equipped by society to control themselves. What makes these discussions so difficult is a pervasive lack of education focused on teaching young men how not to be rapists, rather than teaching women not to be raped.

A perfect example of this is “No Means No.” No Means No was meant to raise awareness of rape on college campuses, and set a standard by which rape could be reduced: If you hear no, stop. Don’t ask again, don’t “just finish,” don’t back off and then start again—just stop. At the time—back in the eighties—it seemed like a good idea. Recently, however, there has been a push to redefine the way we view consent. The problem with No Means No, is that it places the onus on the woman to say no, rather than on the man to receive consent. Therefore, consent is not an affirmative process, just a tacit understanding until the woman says “no.” It’s kind of ironic how a slogan meant to fight rape culture instead promoted it by—almost certainly unintentionally—implying that one is entitled to sex without receiving prior affirmative consent, as long as they believe they have consent.

The problem with that is that it often becomes a debate over what constitutes no. Often the media perpetuates the notion that when a woman says no, she’s just playing hard to get. Rape cases have been lost because, despite the fact that there was no consent, the victim did not fight back hard enough. The onus was on the woman to protest instead of on the man to receive affirmative consent before initiating. Rape culture goes so far in its sense of entitlement toward sex unless the woman protests just the right amount, that there are still those who believe that partner rape (also known as spousal rape or marital rape) is not a crime! The rationale being that marriage itself constitutes overall consent, and therefore, consent is not required to initiate sex with your partner. I have a friend who was repeatedly raped by her husband, despite her protests. He believed, as do an unfortunate many, that marriage, by dint of the institution itself entitled him to sex whenever he wanted, regardless of his wife’s opinion on the matter. Even after she left him and demanded a divorce, he had no idea that he had done something wrong. Again, he felt entitled to sex, for whatever reason, and therefore required no consent.

There are people who will read all of this, and still fail to understand the validity and prevalence of rape culture and its terrible effects. They will continue to deny the validity of rape claims by people whose rapes do not fit into their idea of what rape should be to be valid. For their benefit, I’d like to explain what rape is. Rape, and the reason why its effects are so severe, is a violation of what it is that makes a person a person. It violates the sovereignty of a person’s body and sexuality. All we really control in this world is our body and what we choose to do with it. We choose what we eat, we choose what we wear, we choose whom we have sex with. Sexuality is the most intimate and personal function of our bodies. We exercise control over our bodies and sexuality when we give consent to sex and sexual activity. Rape violates the control a person has over what is most intimate and personal to them. It violates a person’s sovereignty over his or her body. It is one of the most traumatic things one person can do to another, and it often results in Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, addiction, complete destruction of self-image and self-worth, inability to form lasting, healthy relationships, depression, even suicide.

I’ve dealt with enough rape cases to know that regardless of how valid other people think a survivor’s claim of rape is, the effects are always the same, and always devastating. The PTSD, etc, is the same whether the rape happens in a dark alley by a stranger, in a little girl’s bedroom by her father or brother, or at a party by some bro who thinks it’s cool to take advantage of the drunk chick. Again, consent cannot be given by someone who is drunk because they lack the mental ability to consent. The violation is real regardless of the circumstances, the effects are real regardless of whether or not an opinion poll says they should be. The act of forcing or coercing someone to have sex with you without first obtaining consent is rape, and it is devastating. Period. The squabbles over whether or not the victim was at fault only highlight a serious problem that we as a society must address: Changing consent from something passive to something active.

It’s time for Yes Means Yes. Consent should be affirmative and constant. It should be understood that unless she actually asks for it, she isn’t “asking for it.” That skirt she’s wearing is not an invitation for sex unless she actually invites you to have sex with her. There can be no room for ambiguity with Yes Means Yes because sex cannot be initiated unless consent is affirmative and understood. The onus is placed on the man to receive consent rather than on the woman to protest. Therefore, operating under Yes Means Yes, questions of how loudly or how violently a victim protested against her own rape, or whether or not she actually consented of she doesn’t fight back at all, will be irrelevant. Unless consent is obtained, it’s rape. Yes Means Yes should be an integral part of sex education programs in schools (many of which currently lack even basic consent as part of their curricula), promoted through popular culture and media, and enforced legally. Yes Means Yes would effectively end rape culture because consent would no longer be a matter of assumption or entitlement, implied unless a woman protests enough—it would be affirmative and clear with no room for ambiguity.