Human Rights

The Limits of Free Speech

Joyce Arthur

Hate speech should not be tolerated in the name of free speech. It has real and devastating effects on peoples' lives and risks their health and safety. It's harmful and divisive for communities and hampers social progress in fighting discrimination. Left unchecked, hate speech can lead to war and genocide. Although the right to free speech is a fundamental value, it should not be allowed to outweigh the basic human rights of other people, especially their right to life.

The popular catchphrase of free speech defenders is a quote attributed to Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Civil libertarians often defend and support the notion that the right to freely express offensive opinions is a bedrock human right that should not be abridged except under very narrow circumstances—typically for hate speech that directly incites violence against a person or group of persons. However, I support broader prosecution of hate speech—defined here as speech that disparages a person or class of persons based on an immutable characteristic (colour, race, origin, gender, sexual orientation, disability, and age), or their occupation, family or marital status, and religion or lack of religion. Proscribing hate speech more broadly would, I believe, foster a more inclusive, tolerant, and safer society.

Many western countries already do criminalize hate speech in a more encompassing way, although enforcement is often weak and spotty. A typical example is Canada, where it is illegal to “expose a person or persons to hatred or contempt…on the basis of a prohibited ground of discrimination” (Canadian Human Rights Act) and to “wilfully promote hatred against any identifiable group” (Criminal Code of Canada). The United States, however, stands almost alone in its veneration of free speech at almost any cost. The U.S. Supreme Court insists that the First Amendment protects hate speech unless it constitutes a “ true threat” or will incite imminent lawless action.

But societies should take action against hate speech without requiring that a few specific words by themselves must directly and immediately incite violence, or be likely to. That sets a very high bar and is difficult to prove. It also allows purveyors of hate to evade responsibility simply by not making explicit calls for violence. Further, our new digital world raises the stakes—the Internet has spawned a proliferation of hate speech along with useful information such as bomb-making instructions or the home addresses of abortion providers. This has enabled others to commit violence long after the words were first published.

Violent acts of hate are generally preceded by hate speech that is expressed publicly and repeatedly for years, including by public figures, journalists, leading activists, and even the state. Some examples include Anders Behring Breivik’s terrorist acts in Norway (June 2011), the assassination of Kansas abortion provider Dr. George Tiller (May 2009) and other abortion providers in the 1990’s, the Rwandan genocide against the Tutsis (1994), the ethnic cleansing of Bosnian Muslims in Bosnia-Herzegovina (1992-1995), and the Nazi Holocaust.

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Courts of law should be able to look at broader patterns of hate speech in the culture to determine whether a hateful atmosphere inspired or contributed to violence, or would likely lead to future violence. When hate speech is relatively widespread and acceptable (such as against Muslims or abortion providers), it’s not difficult to see the main precursor to violence—an escalation of negative behaviour or rhetoric against the person or group. Dr. George Tiller endured a previous assassination attempt and a decades-long campaign of persecution waged by the anti-abortion movement, which worsened over time, especially in the last year or two of the doctor’s life. Anders Behring Breivik had actively opposed multiculturalism for years and had immersed himself in Christian Right propaganda about the supposed threat of Muslim immigration to Europe, a view popularized only in recent years by a growing army of anti-Muslim bloggers and right-wing journalists.

As these examples illustrate, we can often pinpoint the main purveyors of hate speech that lead to violent crimes. In the Norway shootings, the killer Breivik relied heavily on writings from Peder Jensen (“Fjordman”), Pamela Geller, Robert Spencer, Mark Steyn, Jihad Watch, Islam Watch, Front Page Magazine, and others. Such individuals and groups should be charged with incitement to hatred and violence. Similar culpability for the assassination of Dr. George Tiller should rest on the shoulders of the extremist anti-abortion group Operation Rescue and Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly.

In general, anyone spewing hate to an audience, especially on a repeated basis, could be held criminally responsible. This would include politicians, journalists, organizational leaders and speakers, celebrities, bloggers and hosts of online forums, and radical groups that target certain categories of people. We also need to hold people in accountable positions to a higher standard, such as government employees and contractors, ordained religious leaders, CEOs, and the like.

Criteria by which to assign culpability could include a speaker’s past record of prior hate speech against a particular person or group, how widely and frequently the views were disseminated, and the specific content and framing of their views. In cases where violence has already occurred, judges could determine how likely it was that the violent perpetrators had been exposed to someone’s specific hate speech, and hand down harsher sentences accordingly.

The Harms of Hate Speech

The apparent assumption of free speech defenders is that offensive speech is essentially harmless—that is, just words with no demonstrable link to consequences. But questioning whether speech can really incite someone to bad behaviour seems irresponsibly obtuse. Obviously, words have consequences and frequently inspire actions. A primary purpose of language is to communicate with others in order to influence them. If that weren’t so, there would be no multi-billion dollar advertising industry, no campaigns for political office, no motivational speakers or books, no citizen-led petitions, no public service announcements, and no church sermons, along with a myriad of other proven examples where speech leads others to act.

The majority of hate speech is targeted towards gays, women, ethnic groups, and religious minorities. It’s no coincidence that straight white men are generally the most ardent defenders of near-absolute free speech, because it’s very easy to defend hate speech when it doesn’t hurt you personally. But hate speech is destructive to the community at large because it is divisive and promotes intolerance and discrimination. It sets the stage for violence by those who take the speaker’s message to heart, because it creates an atmosphere of perceived acceptance and impunity for their actions. Left unchecked, it can lead to war and genocide, especially when the state engages in hate speech, such as in Nazi Germany.

Hate speech also has serious effects on its targets. Enduring hatred over many years or a lifetime will take a toll on most people. It can limit their opportunities, push them into poverty, isolate them socially, lead to depression or dysfunction, increase the risk of conflict with authority or police, and endanger their physical health or safety. In 1990, the Canadian Supreme Court stated that hate speech can cause “loss of self-esteem, feelings of anger and outrage and strong pressure to renounce cultural differences that mark them as distinct.” The court agreed that “hate propaganda can operate to convince listeners…that members of certain racial or religious groups are inferior,” which can increase “acts of discrimination, including the denial of equal opportunity in the provision of goods, services and facilities, and even incidents of violence.”

In democratic societies that stand for equality and freedom—often with taxpayer-funded programs that promote those values by assisting vulnerable groups—it makes no sense to tolerate hate speech that actively works to oppose those values. Further, hate speech violates the spirit of human rights codes and laws, diminishing their purpose and effect. A society that allows hate speech is a society that tolerates prejudice at every level—politically, economically, and socially—and pays the consequences through increased discrimination and violence.

Answering Objections from Hate Speech Defenders

The most popular solution to the problem of hate speech is “more free speech.” This seems to make sense on the surface, and sometimes works well in practice. For example, there are many outspoken atheists who do a good job of publicly defending themselves and their fellow atheists from the prejudice and hatred too often expressed by religious people. But even if the targets of hatred can ably defend themselves from verbal violence, why should they have to? Why should a democratic society privilege the right to free speech over the well-being and privacy of those with less privilege?

Most vulnerable groups, however, do not have a level playing field on which to respond to hate speech against them. They are often outnumbered, out-resourced, and out-funded by the haters, simply because of their disadvantaged position in society. Sexism and racism are still thriving in the 21st century, which means women and most minority groups have a harder time getting published and heard and taken seriously in mainstream society. Which brings us full circle—perhaps one of the reasons sexism and racism are still so prevalent in modern society is because free speech is exercised largely by the privileged at the expense of the unprivileged.

A common objection to prosecuting hate speech is that it might endanger speech that counters hate speech. For example, a critique may repeat the offending words and discuss their import, or it may subvert the hate message in a subtle or creative way that could be misunderstood by some. But context is everything when determining whether speech is actually hateful or not, so this objection seems nonsensical. Any reasonable judge should be able to discern the difference in intent or effect behind a hateful message and the speech that critiques it.

Another objection is that prosecuting hate speech removes accountability from those who actually commit the violence, turning violent perpetrators into victims of hate speech. But no-one is suggesting that hate speech causes people to act against their will or takes away their personal responsibility. Typically, hate speech creates an environment in which a person who is already sympathetic to the views of the speaker feels validated and encouraged to take action, with a reduced fear of punitive consequences and even anticipation of praise and support from the in-group that shares their views. Nothing prevents a hate-inspired murderer from being prosecuted in the same way as any other violent murderer—in fact, many countries mete out harsher penalties for hate-motivated crimes. But those who inspired the murderer should also be prosecuted separately under hate speech laws.

Many people seem to treat freedom of expression as an almost sacred, inviolable right, but this is far from the reality. In constitutional democracies, free speech is already justifiably restricted in a multitude of ways by law or policy, even in the United States. The quintessential example of prohibited speech is falsely shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theatre. Besides hate speech itself, some other generally accepted prohibitions of speech include:

  •  Sedition (advocating force as a way to change the government)
  • Threats
  • Defamation (libel and slander)
  • False or misleading advertising
  • Buffer zones around abortion clinics that prevent anti-abortion protesters from harassing patients and staff
  • Quiet zones near hospitals or schools
  • Municipal bylaws restricting the location, size, type, content, and display of signs, posters, objects, ads, etc.
  • Profanity on public airwaves
  • Publication refusal, censorship, and the right to edit enforced by news websites, online forums and blogs, newspapers, magazines, radio, and other media
  • Company confidentiality policies (such as employees being prohibited from sharing trade secrets or talking to the media)
  • Gag orders or publication bans in contracts, court cases, and settlements

In practice, courts will look at circumstances on a case-by-case basis to see where a balance should be struck between freedom of expression and some other value or right. No single right trumps another in all circumstances, not even the right to life. For example, Canada’s constitution (Section 1 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms) allows a fundamental right such as freedom of expression to be limited to protect someone else’s fundamental rights, such as the right to life or liberty—or in the case of abortion, women’s right to safely access a necessary medical service, which courts have determined outweighs the protesters’ right to protest outside clinics.

Some current legal restrictions on free speech are not on the above list because they are clearly illegitimate. One of those is insulting your country’s head of state, currently illegal in at least eight countries, mostly in western Europe. This offence is called “lese-majesty,” a holdover from the days when kings were divine. But if political leaders are immune to criticism or ridicule, they have far too much power over the people and the country cannot be a true democracy. In general, the public must be allowed to pass judgment on public figures, because the latter owe their position to public support in the first place, which should not be coerced or bought. For example, public figures in the U.S. are not protected from defamation unless it was done with malice—knowledge of falsehood or reckless disregard for the truth. 

Many countries also criminalize blasphemy—the criticism of religious doctrines or practices. But the desire to protect religion from criticism is simply a reflection of the insecurity of believers who doubt their own beliefs. Blasphemy laws have more in common with hate speech actually, because they often result in hateful rhetoric and violent acts against the “blasphemers.” Further, many religious people have a tendency to confuse hate speech with dissent, such as Catholics who hurl accusations of “bigotry” when someone criticizes Church policies or dogma. But hate speech is personal—it is directed against people based on their identifiable characteristics. Dissent on the other hand is speech against other opinions, beliefs, or positions. Dissent is an essential component of a free democracy, and it includes blasphemy. In other words, you should be free to attack Catholic policies that protect abusive priests, but it would be hateful to say that all Catholic priests are pedophiles.

Examples of Anti-Abortion Hate Speech That Should Be Prosecuted

The history of violence against abortion providers makes a very strong case for prosecution of those who disseminate hate speech against them. Almost all of this violence has occurred in the U.S., which makes a compelling argument for limiting First Amendment protections of hate speech.

On a Sunday morning in May 2009, abortion provider Dr. George Tiller was assassinated while attending church in Wichita Kansas. The killer, Scott Roeder, had been planning the act for some time and had gleaned information about the doctor’s movements from Operation Rescue—an anti-abortion group that Roeder was actively involved in and donated money to. This radical group had moved to Wichita in 2002 for the sole purpose of driving Dr. Tiller out of business, and in the seven years leading up to his murder, Operation Rescue (OR) engaged in a relentless campaign of hate and harassment against him, including aggressive picketing, numerous articles and press releases, baseless criminal charges, frivolous lawsuits, and trumped-up grand juries convened against him. (Dr. Tiller was fully vindicated in every legal battle.)

Two years before the assassination, Roeder posted on OR’s blog, urging people to attend Dr. Tiller’s church. He himself attended the church a few times, and also participated in OR’s pickets outside Dr. Tiller’s clinic. Roeder was in regular contact with OR’s President Troy Newman, as well as Senior Policy Advisor Cheryl Sullenger, who was convicted in 1988 of conspiring to bomb a California abortion clinic. When Roeder was arrested, Sullenger’s phone number was found on a post-it note on the dash of his car. Sullenger later admitted having several previous conversations with Roeder, in which she gave him information on Dr. Tiller’s habits and whereabouts, including his trial dates. In the months before the murder, Roeder had attended at least one court hearing—sitting beside OR’s President Troy Newman—to hear Dr. Tiller defend himself against scurrilous charges brought by OR.

It’s clear that Roeder was not a “lone wolf.” Perhaps Roeder did not directly involve anyone else in his plans, but no-one develops their views in a vacuum. Dr. Tiller’s murder was the natural culmination of over 20 years of anti-abortion harassment and violence directed at him and his clinic, much of it by Operation Rescue. Roeder had been immersed in OR’s violent anti-abortion rhetoric for years, so his beliefs and compulsions were fed by that environment, and thrived on it. Obviously, it played an encouraging role in the violence he committed.

Another key person who helped fuel the fire was Fox TV commentator Bill O’Reilly, who has about 3 million listeners. Between 2005 and 2009, Bill O’Reilly and his guest hosts talked about Dr. Tiller on 29 episodes, including just one month before the assassination. The most common epithet repeated many times by O’Reilly was: “Tiller the Baby Killer.” Other comments by O’Reilly included: “[Tiller] destroys fetuses for just about any reason right up until the birth date for $5,000.” He ‘s guilty of “Nazi stuff.” “This is the kind of stuff that happened in Mao’s China, Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Soviet Union.” He “has blood on his hands.” He’s “a moral equivalent to NAMBLA and al-Qaida.” He operates a “death mill” and a “business of destruction.” “I wouldn’t want to be [him] if there is a Judgment Day.” Although O’Reilly didn’t specifically incite someone to murder Dr. Tiller, he put him in the cross-hairs, providing enough motivation and encouragement for someone to carry out the unspoken deed.

Of course, it wasn’t just Dr. Tiller and his clinic that were the targets of ongoing harassment and inflammatory hateful rhetoric. The reign of terror directed at clinics and providers across North America has been going on for 35 years—including 9 previous murders and 20 attempted murders of doctors or clinic staff, 100’s of arsons and bombs and butyric acid attacks, and 1000’s of death threats, stalking, clinic invasions, vandalism, aggressive pickets, and hate mail. Some shootings in the early 1990’s were directly preceded by “Wanted Posters” put out by anti-abortion groups on the doctors, complete with their home and clinic addresses and often their photographs. Doctors David Gunn and John Britton were murdered by anti-abortion extremists and had been featured on wanted posters, along with George Tiller, who was shot and wounded in 1993. (The murder of a fourth doctor on a wanted poster, George Patterson, could not be conclusively linked to an anti-abortion extremist.) The posters were deemed by a federal court in 2002 to be a “true threat” under the FACE Act, federal legislation that protects clinics from violence. Noting that the posters had preceded the murders, the court said it was the “use of the ‘wanted’-type format in the context of the poster pattern—poster followed by murder—that constitutes the threats,” not the language itself. With this decision, the judges overturned a lower court ruling that had deemed the posters and a related website to be “protected speech” because they did not directly threaten violence.

Conclusion

When people and courts defend hate speech against abortion providers as “protected speech,” it must be asked: Why are abortion providers required to risk their lives so their persecutors can have free speech rights? Why should doctors constantly have to look over their shoulder in fear, go to work in bullet-proof vests, pay out of pocket for security guards and other expensive safety measures, keep their home address a secret and their curtains permanently drawn shut, and see their children ostracized and bullied at school, just so their persecutors have the right to call them “baby killers”? Why does the right to free speech allow members of this vulnerable minority to be openly defamed and targeted for decades until they’re finally assassinated? And why do the families of the slain victims have to suffer in their grief and loss, because free speech was deemed more important than the lives of their loved ones?

The idea that vulnerable persons and groups should have to tolerate hate speech against them in the name of freedom of expression—often over decades or a lifetime—is offensive. We’re talking about peoples’ lives after all—this is not just a philosophical debate. The right to free speech is a fundamental value, but it should not be allowed to outweigh the basic human rights of other people, especially their right to life.

Analysis Politics

Donald Trump and Mike Pence: The Anti-Immigrant Ticket

Tina Vasquez

“My greatest fear is that this ticket doesn’t seem to realize immigrants are actually an incredible resource that fuels our country," Wendy Feliz of the American Immigration Council told Rewire.

On Friday, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump announced Indiana Gov. Mike Pence as his running mate, giving legitimacy to concerns a Trump presidency would be anti-choice and decimate LGBTQ rights. As Rewire reported last week, Pence has voted against nondiscrimination efforts, signed a so-called religious freedom bill, opposed marriage equality, and attemptednumerous times—to defund Planned Parenthood, something Trump has promised to do if elected president.

But the two Republicans also have something else in common: They are brazenly anti-immigrant.

Despite a misleading article from the Daily Beast asserting that Pence has had a “love affair with immigration reform” and has “spent his political career decrying anti-immigrant rhetoric,” the governor’s record on immigration tells a different story.

Let’s take a look at Trump’s “xenophobic” and “racist” campaign thus far, and how closely Pence’s voting aligns with that position.

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Donald Trump

For months it seemed, Donald Trump’s talking points in the media rarely drifted away from anti-immigrant rhetoric. During his kickoff speech, he referred to Mexican immigrants as “rapists” and “killers” and in the months since, has promised to build a 2,000-mile-long wall along the United States-Mexico border to keep “illegals” out, a wall the billionaire has promised that Mexico will pay for.

Despite being called “racist” by members of his own party, Trump’s immigration plan is largely consistent with what many Republicans have called for: a larger border wall, increasing the number of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers, requiring all U.S. companies to use E-Verify to check the immigration status of employees, increasing the use of detention for those who are undocumented and currently residing in the United States, and ending “birthright citizenship,” which would mean the U.S.-born children of undocumented parents would be denied citizenship.

Again, Trump’s proposed immigration policies align with the Republican Party’s, but it is the way that he routinely spreads false, damaging information about undocumented immigrants that is worrisome. Trump has repeatedly said that economically, undocumented immigrants are “killing us by “taking our jobs, taking our manufacturing jobs, taking our money.” 

Market Watch, a publication focusing on financial news, reported that this falsehood is something that a bulk of Trump supporters believe; two-thirds of Trump supporters surveyed in the primaries said they feel immigration is a burden on our country “because ‘they take our jobs, housing and health care.'” This, despite research that says deporting the 11 million undocumented immigrants who currently call the United States home would result in a “massive economic hit” for Trump’s home state of New York, which receives $793 million in tax revenue from undocumented immigrants. A recent report by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy also found that at the state and local level, undocumented immigrants nationwide collectively pay an estimated $11.6 billion each year in taxes.

Trump has also been accused by Muslim Americans and members of the media of engaging in “reckless, dangerous Islamophobia” at every opportunity, using terrorist attacks to call for a ban on all Muslim immigration, while also using terrorism in a self-aggrandizing manner. In a statement released after the Pulse nightclub shooting, Trump said, “I said this was going to happen.”

These dangerous assertions that all U.S.-based Muslims are secretly harboring terrorists or that undocumented immigrants are killing “thousands of peoplea narrative he continued to push at the Republican National Convention by having the families of three Americans killed by undocumented people speak—can be deadly and inspire hatred and violence. This was made all the more clearer when in August 2015 two white brothers cited Trump when they urinated on and beat a homeless Latino man. According to Huffington Post, the men “alegedly [sic] told police they targeted the man because of his ethnicity and added, ‘Donald Trump was right, all these illegals need to be deported.’” Trump’s response? He said that his supporters are simply “passionate” people who want America “to be great again.”

Mike Pence

Wendy Feliz, a spokesperson with the American Immigration Council, succinctly summarized Pence’s immigration approach to Rewire, saying on Monday that he “basically falls into a camp of being more restrictive on immigration, someone who looks for more punitive ways to punish immigrants, rather than looking for the positive ways our country can benefit from immigrants.”

After Trump’s announcement that Pence would be his running mate, Immigration Impact, a project of the American Immigration Council, outlined what voters should know about Pence’s immigration record:

Pence’s record shows he used his time in Congress and as the Governor of Indiana to pursue extreme and punitive immigration policies earning him a 100 percent approval rating by the anti-immigration group, Federation for American Immigration Reform.

In 2004 when Pence was a senator, he voted for the “Undocumented Alien Emergency Medical Assistance Amendments.” The bill failed, but it would have required hospitals to gather and report information on undocumented patients before hospitals could be reimbursed for treating them. Even worse, the bill wouldn’t have required hospitals to provide care to undocumented patients if they could be deported to their country of origin without a “significant chance” of their condition getting worse.

Though it’s true that in 2006 Pence championed comprehensive immigration reform, as the Daily Beast reported, the reform came with two caveats: a tightening of border security and undocumented immigrants would have to “self-deport” and come back as guest workers. While calling for undocumented immigrants to self-deport may seem like the more egregious demand, it’s important to contextualize Pence’s call for an increase in border security.

This tactic of calling for more Border Patrol agents is commonly used by politicians to pacify those opposed to any form of immigration reform. President Obama, who has utilized more border security than any other president, announced deferred action for the undocumented in June 2012, while also promising to increase border security. But in 2006 when Pence was calling for an increase in border security, the border enforcement policy known as “Operation Gatekeeper” was still in full swing. According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Operation Gatekeeper “concentrated border agents and resources along populated areas, intentionally forcing undocumented immigrants to extreme environments and natural barriers that the government anticipated would increase the likelihood of injury and death.” Pence called for more of this, although the undocumented population expanded significantly even when border enforcement resources escalated. The long-term results, the ACLU reported, were that migrants’ reliance on smugglers to transport them increased and migrant deaths multiplied.

There are more direct ways Pence has illustrated a xenophobic agenda, including co-sponsoring a congressional bill that would have made English the official language of the United States and as governor, blocking Syrian refugees en route to Indiana, saying he would not accept any more Syrian refugees out of fear they were “terrorists.” The governor also added Indiana to the Texas lawsuit challenging expanded Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA). And he praised the inaction by the Supreme Court last month to expand DACA and DAPA, which leaves millions of undocumented immigrants living in fear of deportation.

According to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, “when a child who is not accompanied by a parent or legal guardian is apprehended by immigration authorities, the child is transferred to the care and custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). Federal law requires that ORR feed, shelter, and provide medical care for unaccompanied children until it is able to release them to safe settings with sponsors (usually family members), while they await immigration proceedings.”

The ORR added that these sponsors “live in many states,” including Indiana, which received 245 unaccompanied minors between January and July 2014. Pence was reportedly unaware that unaccompanied minors were being placed in his state by the federal government, something he said he was made aware of by media reports. These are asylum seeking children, often girls under the age of 10, escaping violence in their countries of origin who arrive at the United States-Mexico border without an adult. Many, including advocacy organizations and the Obama administration, have contended that the circumstances surrounding unaccompanied minors is not simply an immigration issue, but a humanitarian crisis. Not Pence. In a letter to President Obama, the Indiana governor wrote:

While we feel deep compassion for these children, our country must secure its borders and provide for a legal and orderly immigration process …. Failure to expedite the return of unaccompanied children thwarts the rule of law and will only continue to send a distorted message that illegally crossing into America is without consequence.

In the four days since Pence was named Trump’s running mate, he’s also taken a much harsher stance on Muslim immigration. Back in December when Trump called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” Pence tweeted that banning Muslims from entering the United States was “offensive and unconstitutional.” However, on Friday when Pence was officially named Trump’s VP pick, he told Fox News’ Sean Hannity, “I am very supportive of Donald Trump’s call to temporarily suspend immigration from countries where terrorist influence and impact represents a threat to the United States.”

Wendy Feliz of the American Immigration Council told Rewire that while Pence’s rhetoric may not be as inflammatory as Trump’s, it’s important to look at his record in relation to Trump’s to get a better understanding of what the Republican ticket intends to focus on moving into a possible presidency. Immigration, she said, is one of the most pressing issues of our time and has become a primary focus of the election.

“In a few days, we’ll have a better sense of the particular policies the Republican ticket will be pursuing on immigration. It all appears to point to more of the same, which is punitive, the punishing of immigrants,” Feliz said. “My greatest fear is that this ticket doesn’t seem to realize immigrants are actually an incredible resource that fuels our country. I don’t think Trump and Pence is a ticket that values that. An administration that doesn’t value immigrants, that doesn’t value what’s fueled our country for the past several hundred years, hurts all of us. Not just immigrants themselves, but every single American.”

Commentary Violence

This is Not The Story I Wanted—But It’s My Story of Rape

Dani Kelley

Writer Dani Kelley thought she had shed the patriarchal and self-denying lessons of her conservative religious childhood. But those teachings blocked her from initially admitting that an encounter with a man she met online was not a "date" that proved her sexual liberation, but an extended sexual assault.

Content note: This article contains graphic descriptions of sexual violence.

The night I first truly realized something was wrong was supposed to be a good night.

A visiting friend and I were in pajamas, eating breakfast food at 10 p.m., wrapped in blankets while swapping stories of recent struggles and laughs.

There I was, animatedly telling her about my recently acquired (and discarded) “fuck buddy,” when suddenly the story caught in my throat.

When I finally managed to choke out the words, they weren’t what I expected to say. “He—he held me down—until, until I couldn’t—breathe.”

Hearing myself say it out loud was a gut-punch. I was sobbing, gasping for breath, arms wrapped as if to hold myself together, spiraling into a terrifying realization.

This isn’t the story I wanted.

Unlearning My Training

I grew up in the Plymouth Brethren movement, a small fundamentalist Christian denomination that justifies strict gender roles through a literal approach to the Bible. So, according to 1 Corinthians 11:7, men are considered “the image and glory of God,” while women are merely “the glory of man.” As a result, women are expected to wear head coverings during any church service, among other restrictions that can be best summed up by the apostle Paul in 1 Timothy 2:11-12: Women are never allowed to have authority over men.

If you’ve spent any number of years in conservative Christianity like I did, you’re likely familiar with the fundamentalist tendency to demonize that which is morally neutral or positive (like premarital sex or civil rights) while sugar-coating negative experiences. The sugar-coating can be twofold: Biblical principles are often used to shame or gaslight abuse victims (like those being shunned or controlled or beaten by their husbands) while platitudes are often employed to help members cope with “the sufferings of this present time,” assuring them that these tragedies are “not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us.”

In many ways, it’s easy to unlearn the demonization of humanity as you gain actual real-world experience refuting such flimsy claims. But the shame? That can be more difficult to shake.

The heart of those teachings isn’t only present in this admittedly small sect of Christianity. Rather, right-wing Western Christianity as a whole has a consent problem. It explicitly teaches its adherents they don’t belong to themselves at all. They belong to God (and if they’re not men, they belong to their fathers or husbands as well). This instilled lack of agency effectively erases bodily autonomy while preventing the development of healthy emotional and physical boundaries.

On top of that, the biblical literalism frequently required by conservative Christianity in the United States promotes a terrifying interpretation of Scripture, such as Jeremiah 17:9. The King James Version gives the verse a stern voice, telling us that “the heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked.” If we believe this, we must accept that we’re untrustworthy witnesses to our own lives. Yet somehow, we’re expected to rely on the authority of those the Bible deems worthy. People like all Christians, older people, and men.

Though I’ve abandoned Christianity and embraced feminist secular humanism, the culture in which I grew up and my short time at conservative Bob Jones University still affect how I view myself and act in social situations. The lessons of my formative years created a perfect storm of terrible indoctrination: gender roles that promoted repressed individuality for women while encouraging toxic masculinity, explicit teaching that led to constant second-guessing my ability to accurately understand my own life, and a biblical impetus to “rejoice in my suffering.”

Decades of training taught me I’m not allowed to set boundaries.

But Some Habits Die Hard

Here’s the thing. At almost 30, I’d never dated anyone other than my ex-husband. So I thought it was about time to change that.

When I found this man’s online profile, I was pleasantly surprised. It was full of the kind of geekery I’m into, even down to the specific affinity for eclectic music. I wrote to him, making sure my message and tone were casual. He responded instantly, full of charisma and charm. Within hours, we’d made plans to meet.

He was just as friendly and attentive in person. After wandering around town, window-shopping, and getting to know one another, he suggested we go to his favorite bar. As he drank (while I sipped water), he kept paying me compliments, slowly breaking the touch barrier. And honestly, I was enthralled—no one had paid attention to me like this in years.

When he suggested moving out to the car where we could be a little more intimate, I agreed. The rush of feeling desired was intoxicating. He seemed so focused on consent—asking permission before doing anything. Plus, he was quite straightforward about what he wanted, which I found exciting.

So…I brought him home.

This new and exciting “arrangement” lasted one week, during which we had very satisfying, attachment-free sex several times and after which we parted ways as friends.

That’s the story I told people. That’s the story I thought I believed. I’d been freed from the rigid expectations and restraints of my youth’s purity culture.

Now. You’re about to hear me say many things I know to be wrong. Many feminists or victim advocates almost certainly know the rationalizations and reactions I’m about to describe are both normal responses to abuse and a result of ingrained lies about sex in our culture. Not to mention evidence of the influence that right-wing conservatism can have on shaping self-actualization.

As I was telling people the story above, I left out important details. Were my omissions deliberate? An instinctive self-preservation mechanism? A carryover from draconian ideals about promiscuity?

When I broke down crying with my friend, I finally realized I’d kept quiet because I couldn’t bear to hear myself say what happened.

I’m a feminist, damn it. I left all the puritanical understandings of gender roles behind when I exited Christianity! I even write about social justice and victim advocacy. I ought to recognize rape culture!

Right?

If only being a socially aware feminist was enough to erase decades of socialization as a woman within rape culture—or provide inoculation against sexual violence.

That first night, once we got to my car, he stopped checking in with me. I dismissed the red flag as soon as I noticed it, telling myself he’d stop if I showed discomfort. Then he smacked my ass—hard. I pulled away, staring at him in shocked revulsion. “Sorry,” he replied, smirking.

He suggested that we go back to my house, saying we’d have more privacy than at his place. I was uneasy, unconvinced. But he began passionately kissing, groping, petting, and pleading. Against my better judgment, I relented.

Yet, in the seclusion of my home, there was no more asking. There was only telling.

Before I knew it, I’d been thrown on my back as he pulled off my clothes. I froze. The only coherent thought I could manage was a weak stammer, asking if he had a condom. He seemed agitated. “Are you on birth control?” That’s not the point! I thought, mechanically answering “yes.”

With a triumphant grin and no further discussion, he forced himself into me. Pleasure fought with growing panic as something within me screamed for things to slow down, to just stop. The sensation was familiar: identical to how I felt when raped as a child.

I frantically pushed him off and rolled away, hyperventilating. I muttered repeatedly, “I need a minute. Just give me a minute. I need a minute.”

“We’re not finished yet!” he snapped angrily. As he reached for me again, I screeched hysterically, “I’M NOT OK! I NEED A MINUTE!”

Suddenly, he was kind and caring. Instead of being alarmed, I was strangely grateful. So once I calmed down, I fucked him. More than once.

It was—I told myself—consensual. After all, he comforted me during a flashback. Didn’t I owe him that much?

Yet, if I didn’t do what he wanted, he’d forcefully smack my ass. If I didn’t seem happy enough, he’d insistently tell me to smile as he hit me again, harder. He seemed to relish the strained smile I would force on command.

I kept telling myself I was okay. Happy, even. Look at how liberated I was!

All week, I was either at his beck and call or fighting suicidal urges. Never having liked alcohol before, I started drinking heavily. I did all I could to minimize or ignore the abuse. Even with his last visit—as I fought to breathe while he forcefully held my head down during oral sex, effectively choking me—I initially told myself desperately that surely he wouldn’t do any of this on purpose.

The Stories We Tell and The Stories That Just Are

Reflecting on that week, I’m engulfed in shame. I’m a proud feminist. I know what coercion looks like. I know what rape looks like. I know it’s rarely a scary man wearing a ski mask in a back alley. I’ve heard all the victim-blaming rape apologia you have: that women make up rape when they regret consenting to sex, or going on a date means sex is in the cards, or bringing someone home means you’re game for anything.

Reality is, all of us have been socialized within a patriarchal system that clouds our experiences and ability to classify them. We’re told to tend and befriend the men who threaten us. De-escalation at any cost is the go-to response of almost any woman I’ve ever talked to about unwanted male attention. Whatever will satiate the beast and keep us safe.

On top of that, my conservative background whispered accusations of being a Jezebel, failing to safeguard my purity, and getting exactly what I deserve for forsaking the faith.

It’s all lies, of course. Our culture lies when it says that there are blurred lines when it comes to consent. It violates our personhood when it requires us to change the narrative of the violence enacted against us for their own comfort. Right-wing Christianity lies when it says we don’t belong to ourselves and must submit to the authority of a religion or a gender.

Nobody’s assaulted because they weren’t nice enough or because they “failed” to de-escalate. There’s nothing we can do to provoke such violence. Rape is never deserved. The responsibility for sexual assault lies entirely with those who attack us.

So why was the story I told during and after that ordeal so radically and fundamentally different from what actually happened? And why the hell did I think any of what happened was OK?

Rape myths are so ingrained in our cultural understanding of relationships that it was easier for me to believe nothing bad had happened than to accept the truth. I thought if I could only tell the story I wanted it to be, then maybe that’s what really happened. I thought if I was willing—if I kept having him over, if I did what he ordered, if I told my friends how wonderful it was—it would mean everything was fine. It would mean I wasn’t suffering from post-traumatic stress or anxiety about defying the conservative tenets of my former political and religious system.

Sometimes, we tell ourselves the stories we want to hear until we’re able to bear the stories of what actually happened.

We all have a right to say who has what kind of access to our bodies. A man’s masculinity gives him no authority over anyone’s sexual agency. A lack of a “no” doesn’t mean a “yes.” Coercion isn’t consent. Sexual acts performed without consent are assault. We have a right to tell our stories—our real stories.

So, while this isn’t the story I wanted, it’s the story that is.

I was raped.