Content Warning: Topics of Sexual Assault and Rape Culture
Author’s Note: The writer of this article wrote “Don’t Accept Anything Less Than Enthusiastic and Informed Consent” for Bluestockings Magazine in May 2014.
Six months ago, another anonymous contributor asked, “In six months, will we still be talking about this?”
And for six months, I have been thinking about it. Over the summer, the discussion lulled, put on hold as universities took a break while I continued to wonder if we would ever be talking about it again.
I shouldn’t – and won’t – speak on behalf of all survivors of sexual assault, but for me, and for many other survivors that I know and love, last spring was liberating. We could share our stories, we could share our sorrows, and most of all, we could share our hope. Often times, being a survivor can feel isolating. Last spring, I learned that it didn’t have to be.
In the past six months, here is what happened to me. I didn’t speak to my rapist, currently a student at Brown University. I lied to my friends when they asked me about him. I politely told off a catcaller on the NYC subway, and sat quietly in my seat the full-length of the Williamsburg Bridge as he called me an “ugly whore” and a “fucking tranny.” I changed careers and cities. I watched nail polish be hailed as a tool that will end date rape. I watched Emma Sulkowicz carry a mattress around Columbia in protest. I watched others join her.
I’ve measured the last six months in strange ways. Every day is a milestone. Five months of not-stress-vomiting. One month of not-trembling-uncontrollably – and before that, it was two months. Six months ago, it was every day.
I’ve counted the last six months in op-eds and “Justice for Lena and Survivors Everywhere” Facebook posts and rape accusations and political speeches. Recently, there have been two large appeals to men to take a stand: once by Emma Watson, telling men that gender inequality was their issue; another by President Obama’s “It’s On Us” campaign to encourage bystander intervention, specifically amongst college age men.
“He For She” launched its campaign with a speech from the UN Goodwill Ambassador for Women, Emma Watson. Vanity Fair hailed the speech as “game-changing”, it was endorsed by countless celebrities online and in interviews. However, while Watson called men to action, saying that gender equality was also their fight and offering them “a formal invitation”, it was unclear what exactly the campaign was advocating for men to actually do. On the campaign’s website, men can pledge “Gender inequality is not only a women’s issue, it is a human rights issue that requires my participation. I commit to take action against all forms of violence and discrimination faced by women and girls.” By pressing the “I agree” button, it can then be shared on Facebook, Twitter, or email (Not OkCupid, surprisingly).
It is difficult to imagine an individual who would be in favor of violence and discrimination of women and girls – at least when phrased in such vague terms. The campaign’s appeal is largely based on its noncontroversial, apolitical message – even the word feminism, while mentioned in Emma Watson’s speech, is not mentioned on the website that asks for support for “gender equality”. No one – or, at least, very few people – would say that violence towards women is a good thing. This vague message, however, creates a vague outcome. What exactly are men who pledge actually supposed to do?
Beyond the pledge, the website’s downloadable Action Kit encourages people to share the message online and at universities. But other than spreading this vague awareness of gender inequality, the campaign does not seem to have any specific goals or actions.
A man might say that he does not believe in violence or discrimination against women, but then he may catcall a woman in the street or deny her a deserved pay raise. He might wear a provocative shirt featuring women in lingerie during a press conference. He might pass legislation that endangers reproductive rights. He might verbally or physically assault a trans woman. The reason why these gender issues are political, in contrast to “He For She,” is that they are specific.
Or, perhaps, he might sexually harass and discriminate against a female employee in the workplace. For instance, JP Morgan Chase & Company, the Campaign Title Partner and Sponsor of “He For She”, faced lawsuits for sexual harassment or discrimination in 2000,2001, 2007, 2008, 2012, 2014.
Watson’s speech could act as an appeal to people who were unfamiliar with the feminist movement. However, it fails to be “game-changing,” because it chooses appeal over action. It is unclear what its goals are or how these goals are supposed to be accomplished.
The White House’s new anti-sexual assault campaign, “It’s On Us”, has four basic principles that it asks people to support: 1) recognize non-consensual sex is sexual assault, 2) identify situations in which sexual assault may occur, 3) intervene in situations where consent has not or cannot be given, and 4) create an environment in which sexual assault is unacceptable and survivors are supported.
The crux of the “It’s On Us” campaign seems to imagine rape as something terrible, but perhaps inevitable. The best-case scenario to stop rape is bystander intervention. When you see something that looks like rape, remember that it might be rape, and if it might be rape, intervene to stop it. Yes, that is a good thing and a good practice: be a decent human being. But it is difficult to know when rape is going to take place, especially since in our culture, rape, as well as consensual sex, often happen in private, intimate spaces. Bystander intervention only goes so far for the same reason that rape cases often boil down to a terrible “he said-she said” in front of courts, disciplinary panels, the media, and even in popular understanding.
Another shortcoming of the “It’s On Us” campaign is its failure to bring rapists to justice. This is especially troubling in the often-quoted David Lisak study that concludes that serial rapists commit a majority of rapes. If “It’s On Us” encourages bystander intervention, then it prevents a single instance of rape, but not necessarily rape itself. A rapist may not rape your friend if you intervene, but they may rape another woman in the same bar.
In addition, “It’s On Us” is a positive idea, but it is hardly groundbreaking. Its basic guidelines are so generic that there is little that anyone can argue with. For instance, few people would argue that creating “an environment in which sexual assault is unacceptable and survivors are supported” is a universally applauded idea in the abstract. But in practice – how do we know for sure? but my friend isn’t a rapist! but did she say, “no”? – that environment is rarely achieved. “It’s On Us” doesn’t necessarily outline how that environment is created, and in that, it’s unclear if it will really affect any change at all.
Perhaps “It’s On Us” is a step in the right direction. But it such a small step, that it seems more like political symbolism than a movement that will cause real change.
“It’s On Us” is a comfortable response that assumes that good people, particularly “good guys”, can work together to stop bad people from raping others. That narrative is so easy to believe – it’s comforting, even. However, it ignores important facts, even from the study that has helped to perpetuate it.
When we examine Lisak’s study, there are two things that we need to be aware of. First, Lisak’s questioning limits his results somewhat by who he defines as “rapists”. In the study, participants were considered rapists if they knowingly had sex with an unwilling participant through the use of intoxication, physical violence, or the threat of physical violence. This does narrow the scope of rape, leaving out scenarios of emotional abuse and coercion. It also assumes that the rapist was aware of the threat that they imposed or the power that they exerted, which is not necessarily the case. Because of this, I am willing to believe that Lisak’s reported number of rapists is actually on the low side.
In addition, Lisak cites himself as being on the low end of the spectrum. Other studies that Lisak lists in his report cite anywhere “from 6% to 14.9% of men report acts that meet legal definitions for rape or attempted rape.” He cites the following studies: “Collings, 1994; Greendlinger & Byrne, 1987; Koss, Leonard, Beezley, & Oros, 1985; Koss, Gidycz, & Wisniewski, 1987; Krahe, 1998; Lisak & Roth, 1988; Merrill et aI., 1998; Mosher & Anderson, 1986; Ouimette & Riggs, 1998; Rubenzahl & Corcoran, 1998).” i
6% of men is not a limited or small amount. 6% is one in sixteen men.
14.9% is one in seven.
That includes your father, your uncle, your brother, your boyfriend, your husband, your son, your friend, your classmate, your teammate, maybe yourself.
One in seven men.
Men make up slightly less than half of the population in United States, approximately 158,000,000 people. This means that there are anywhere from 9.5 million (6%) to 24 million (15%) rapists in America.
Should we fear for our daughters or our sons?
When I read Lisak’s study, my heart sank. It is quoted so often because some have interpreted it to mean that there are a limited number of repeat offenders that need to be brought to justice. But the reality is harsher than I think most people want to accept: this is an epidemic.
Meanwhile, California’s “Yes means Yes” consent laws have been met with a strange, fearful backlash. Over and over again, it seems that “good men” and “good guys” are worried that they might be mistaken for “evil no good bad rapists” if they don’t ASK for consent.
But the fear of asking for consent is really the fear of hearing “no”.
“No means no” is our catchy consensual slogan. If someone says, “no,” then we have been taught that we must stop. Because if someone says, “no,” and you do anyway, that is rape. This has been largely engrained, to the point that survivors are asked if they did say, “no.”
The truth is, we are so afraid of hearing the word, “no,” that we have stopped asking.
It is sexual violence if you didn’t ask and they would have said, “No.” And yes, you can be a rapist even if a person doesn’t say, “no.”
In addition to asking, your partner’s consent must be informed as well. What does that mean? It means that it is sexual violence if you lie to your partner, whether it be about your HIV-status or your fidelity. It is sexual violence if you say something that is not true, or omit something that is true, because if you told them the truth, they wouldn’t want to have sex with you.
We live in a culture that rejects affirmative, informed, enthusiastic consent. “No means no” creates a grey where “no” isn’t said – or isn’t said loudly enough, or enough times. When we live in that grey, we endanger each other. When we live in that grey, we can pretend that we are not capable of something as terrible as rape.
The fundamental flaw of “It’s On Us” is that it assumes that rape in our society is an “us versus them” scenario, where inherently good people need to protect each other from an unknown and inevitable threat. But it’s not us and them. It’s just us.
The real fear is not that we will be “mistaken” for rapists, but that we could be – or we already are – rapists.
And I understand that’s scary.
But we need to be brave. It really is on us, more than the “It’s On Us” campaign wants to imagine or admit. We need to embrace what it means to create a consent-based environment.
It’s on us to recognize that our culture’s attitudes toward sex enable high levels of violence. It’s on us to reject the idea that rape is an inevitable reality for one in five women. It’s on us to believe and support survivors, not just in the abstract, but in the up-close and messy and personal. It’s on us to advocate for timely and effective institutional channels at universities and in our justice system.
It’s on us to ask. We need to actively seek and gain affirmative and informed consent. We need to refuse anything less. We need to change our society, and we need to start by changing ourselves.
It’s six months later. We’re still talking. And I’m tired of it. When are we going to do something?
Or, more specifically, what are you going to do?