"Draw a monster. Why is it a monster?"
Megan Kennedy is a fiction writer, artist, and journalist from Salt Lake City.
My feature article in SLUG Magazine this month is a portrait of the amazing Dax Riggs of Acid Bath, Agents of Oblivion, and his various solo projects. This was a huge deal to me; Riggs is one of my favorite musicians of all time. I was honored to talk with him about his work, and am so looking forward to shooting him at his set tomorrow night.
Of course I did, and everything I have to say regarding it has already been said in my response blog. The problem with Yoffe’s article is not that she is wrong in wanting “harm reduction methods”, it’s that she is willfully ignoring the consequences of passing off such an opinion as “common sense” in our current cultural environment, as you are in defending her. Harm reduction methods are the only things that are acknowledged.
Slate’s Emily Yoffe posted yesterday a well-intended but failed opinion column regarding rape and binge drinking. Ms. Yoffe seems to think that women “don’t understand” or are never taught the connection between alcohol (especially on college campuses) and sexual assault. I’d like to know what planet Yoffe has been living on; this is a message that has been drilled into me and my female friends since we were pre-teens. It is also a message that is perpetuating the very culture that allows sexual assault to continue practically unabated. Many defenders have risen for Ms. Yoffe on the grounds that “she’s just talking about binge drinking, not defending rape culture”, or “her advice is just common sense: women need to be aware of their surroundings”.
I’ve been amazed by the apologist responses to this article. It saddens and frightens me. Twitter user @SteveCoy gave me a particularly useful platform on which to argue against the appearance of this article as “common sense practical advice” which I would like to present to you now.
“We don’t expect to get hit by cars, but we still look both ways before we cross the street.”
There are two avenues of this statement I’d like to explore.
First, the obvious: let’s do a little visualization. Imagine a rash of collisions begins to take place all over the country, in small towns and big cities. Imagine certain drivers began simply targeting pedestrians on the sidewalk and mowing them down with intent to maim or kill. Imagine further that many of these targeted pedestrians are already people in a disadvantaged state, such as minorities, adolescents, or the working poor. The collisions are devastating. Some people lose limbs or even their lives. Victims suffer psychological scars every time they have to leave the house knowing drivers are everywhere, knowing the potential for them to be hit again is real. The toll extends to their families who must care for the injured and help them assimilate back into life. Some of them may never defeat the demons from this trauma and commit suicide.
If these systemic, intentional attacks by drivers against pedestrians were to be treated like America treats rape, the pedestrians would be blamed. Maybe they had their iPod in their ears, or were on their cell phone. Maybe they were window shopping. Maybe they were busy buying a hot dog at a cart. Regardless, the apologists would say, it’s their fault they were run down by the car. Apologists would advocate against people using electronic devices on sidewalks, stopping to converse with their neighbors, walking dogs, delivering papers, and anyone who refused to heed this advice would be blamed for their injuries when one of these drivers ran them over. This advice would even be treated as “practical”, completely ignoring the reality of the devious people behind the wheel intent on causing harm. Many or most of the victims would live with shame and guilt for “allowing” themselves to have been hit by a car; some of them are chastised, bullied, or publicly scorned.
It doesn’t matter that they were on the sidewalk, the place we have set aside specifically for them to commute safely. It doesn’t matter that the driver targeted and carried out a violent attack against an innocent person. Few of them would even get their license revoked, let alone thrown in prison for attempted murder or manslaughter. Community outrage at the attacks would be blown off as alarmist or even seen as an agenda of a specific political or social group. The lack of punishment would embolden other drivers to give into their own impulses, confident they will walk away unscathed.
Can anyone honestly say this scenario doesn’t sound insane? Can you imagine an America where we would punish the pedestrians over the drivers when it was clearly the drivers who were out to harm people, regardless of how ‘prepared’ the pedestrians were to prevent it?
Yet this is exactly how we treat sexual assault in this country, and the “harmless” writings of people like Yoffe who, on the grounds of “practical advice”, continue to make front and center the behavior of the victim. We ignore the intent of the attacker and instead focus on what the victim was, could have been, or should have been doing to stop themselves from being targeted. It’s not enough to throw in a few sentences about how “the perpetrator is the one responsible, of course, BUT”… and continue on with the diatribe against women drinking. The problem isn’t women drinking. The problem is men raping.
The second avenue this statement has highlighted is much more troubling. The fact that so many are coming forward to defend this article and others like it under the flag of “practical advice”, the fact that they are comparing it to not getting hit by a car while crossing the street, reveals in and of itself the systemic indoctrination of American youth regarding rape culture.
We see rape as “normal”. We see it as something that can, does, and will happen, no matter what. We see rapists as part of the landscape that we can’t do anything about. And so (in what is admittedly usually a good conscious attempt) we try to mitigate these crimes by turning responsibility to the victim, asking him or her to adjust their behavior so as not to seem an attractive target. In other words, don’t be the pedestrian on the sidewalk with your headphones in walking your dogs: you’re just asking for it.
Rape will probably always happen, and I’m sure the great majority of us are all in agreement that we want it to not happen, or at least happen less.
The only way—the only way this is going to happen is if we show would-be attackers that there is a high price to pay for sexual assault. If we stand up as a culture and say “Fuck your excuses”. If we refuse to ask “Was she drinking? What was she wearing?”
If a driver swerves to hit a pedestrian, it doesn’t matter what that pedestrian was doing: the driver is at fault and should be punished.
If a person sexually assaults another person, it cannot matter what the victim was doing: the assaulter is at fault and should be punished.
The victim’s behavior has to stop mattering. These softball articles about “rape prevention” and “common sense” and “self-defense” are contributing to the cultural perception that victim behavior affects this crime, and it is only making things worse. If this advice is so “common sense”, so “preventative”, then I ask its proponents to explain rapes that happen in supposedly safe environments like the home or church, in dry countries in the Middle East, in sheltered religious communities, in youth sports; explain why rapists are very often people women know and trust, even family members. What “preventative” measure are these victims supposed to have violated?
Once our culture catches up—once judges and lawyers and friends and football coaches and ex-girlfriends and politicians and juries stop letting rapists get away with their crimes by referencing what the victim wore, said, drank, had sexual relations with before—then we can talk about these “common sense” tips as actual common sense. But right now, they are not common sense. They are an echo chamber of shame and guilt that tells would-be rapists that their actions are not their fault, and tells would-be victims that unless she is a model, virginal citizen, she has no right to complain about what happens to her. They are the very tools that are handed to women to protect themselves, and then turned against them once tragedy strikes.
Tell me, how much sense does that make?
Bouts of insomnia have returned to pick at me during the long weeks. Fortunately my general exhaustion at the end of the day means it can’t pull too strong, and I’ve found my secret weapon for unraveling its hold. Safe in bed, I imagine I’m laying deep in some great and ancient wood, curled up on moss and leaves, dying on the forest floor. I call the attention of a pack of wolves who sniff me curiously before they cuddle up against and around me, deciding to comfort my exit rather than hasten it. There’s no where to go and nothing to ponder, only the slow descent into the dark, and so my mind becomes an echo chamber for the bursting wind, the birdsong, the quiet breathing of the beasts, the forest’s creaking heartbeat. I find I slip into the death of sleep like a mermaid slipping off a captor’s boat and back into the bottomless sea where she belongs.