At the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C., the vilification of an apparent rape victim has taken over the past week, with all the pomp and circumstance of a judicial proceeding. At what is known as an Article 32 hearing—a preliminary proceeding that determines whether a case goes to court martial—a young woman midshipman at the U.S. Naval Academy has been subjected to a humiliating barrage of questions meant to disparage her character after she reluctantly came forward to accuse three members of the academy’s football team of raping her at an off-campus party after she was incapacitated from drinking.
She said she started to piece together the story of what happened to her the next day, after learning of tweets and hearing from friends suggesting that she had had sex with several men that night.
The accuser soon came under fire from Andrew Weinstein, an attorney for [alleged perpetrator Tra’ves] Bush, who bombarded her with questions about how often she lies and whether she was wearing a bra and underwear the night of the party.
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They asked her to describe how wide she opens her mouth during oral sex. They asked her if she “felt like a ho” the next morning.
And Pentagon brass can’t imagine why only 3,374 of the estimated 26,000 recipients of “unwanted sexual contact” in the military dared to come forward in 2012, according to the Defense Department’s own report.
Then there’s the way in which commanders are known to cover for perpetrators, and to permit retaliation against victims. In response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request from an assault victim, the U.S. Air Force (USAF) last week released a series of emails surrounding the decision of Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin, commander of Third Air Force, to overturn the 2012 sexual assault conviction and dismissal from the Air Force of Lt. Col. James Wilkerson, despite the pleas of Wilkerson’s direct commander not to do so. The documents requested under FOIA by the woman who accused Wilkerson were released only after Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) demanded that the Air Force comply with the request, according to the advocacy group Protect Our Defenders.
Concerned that Franklin would reinstate Wilkerson, Brig. Gen. Scott Zobrist, commander of the 31st Fighter Wing at Aviano Air Base, Italy, where Wilkerson was based, urged his superior not to do so, according to Stars and Stripes, even if only to ensure that Franklin’s retirement benefits would be received by his family.
“That would be absolutely devastating in so many ways that I cannot even begin to consider it,” Zobrist wrote in the Feb. 19 email. “Having Wilkerson back on active duty at Aviano, even for one day, would … have a huge negative impact on morale, send a very negative message about how seriously we take sexual assault in the AF, and potentially call into question the effectiveness of our UCMJ (Uniform Code of Military Justice) system in general.”
“I hope I’m not out of line here, sir,” Zobrist continued, “but … I’m concerned that … reversing the dismissal will have major second- and third -order consequences, here at Aviano and around the USAF.
“Finally, the victim still works at the base and she deserves consideration, too,” Zobrist wrote. “Any change to his penalty will affect her as well.”
She is opposed by Sens. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) and Carl Levin (D-MI), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, who included in the mark-up of the National Defense Authorization Act a measure pushed by McCaskill that would prevent the overturning of such convictions by commanding officers, who currently have the rather omnipotent power to do so. McCaskill has been outspoken in expressing outrage over the exoneration of Wilkerson, whose case was mostly built on the idea that he is a faithful husband and doting father.
After Wilkerson’s reinstatement and exoneration on the assault charge, it was revealed that he had fathered a child by a woman with whom he was having an affair.
But removing the power to overturn such convictions from commanders doesn’t change the fact that it’s the commanders who handle such cases, and commanders who determine whether or not a case should go forward. Those who advocate taking the authority to prosecute such cases out of the hands of the commanding officers of those accused of sexual assault say there is little hope that the military’s rape-culture crisis will dissipate until the immediate commanders of the accused are taken out of the picture.
And if the travesty of justice now taking place in the Navy Yard is any indication, that culture is very real.
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 tendencyto 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.
On top of that, the biblical literalism frequentlyrequired 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!
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.
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.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte's defenders have made claims about her commitment to "strengthening women's health" through action on various measures; reproductive rights advocates point out, however, that most of these measures would have done more harm than good.
The tight race between incumbent Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) and challenger Gov. Maggie Hassan (D) could help determine which party takes control of the U.S. Senate after the November elections. In recent months, a key point of contention has emerged among Ayotte’s supporters and critics: the senator’s record on reproductive rights and women’s health.
Planned Parenthood Votes released an ad in April claiming Ayotte is “bad for New Hampshire women,” signaling the continuation of the heated narrative in the lead-up to the election.Ayotte’s defenders have responded to the accusations with claims of her commitment to “strengthening women’s health” through action on various measures; reproductive rights advocates point out, however, that most of these measures would have done more harm than good.
“For months, Senator Kelly Ayotte has followed party bosses, refusing to fill the Supreme Court vacancy. And for years, Ayotte has waited for an opportunity to push for someone to end access to safe, legal abortion and overturn Roe v. Wade,” claims the Planned Parenthood Votes ad, before playing an August 2010 clip of Ayotte advocating for the Supreme Court to overturn Roe. “For New Hampshire women, the consequences of letting Kelly Ayotte play politics with the Constitution could last a lifetime.”
The $400,000 ad buy, slated to run on broadcast and cable in New Hampshire, has beenPlanned Parenthood Votes’ first on-air ad targeting a Senate race in the 2016 election cycle. The organization, a national independent expenditure political committee, is criticizing Ayotte for claiming to protect women but failing to protect reproductive rights, also drawing on her pledge to obstruct filling the vacant Supreme Court seat in the aftermath of Justice Antonin Scalia’s death.
“Kelly Ayotte may try to paint herself as pro-woman, but her record tells a very different story. Every chance she’s gotten she’s voted to ‘defund’ Planned Parenthood and cut women off from essential health care like birth control and breast and cervical cancer screenings,” said Deirdre Schifeling, executive director of Planned Parenthood Votes, in a statement on the organization’s new ad. “She has been advocating for years to ban women’s access to safe, legal abortion, and it’s clear she now sees her chance in the Supreme Court process. Kelly Ayotte is refusing to do her job, and abdicating her constitutional duty, in order to push an extreme agenda that no one in New Hampshire wants.”
Ayotte’s campaign manager, Jon Kohan, meanwhile, defended the senator’s record on women’s health and rights in a press release. He wrote, “Kelly’s long record of standing up for New Hampshire women and families is clear, and she cares deeply about ensuring all women have access to health services.” The release included a bulleted list providing examples of Ayotte’s work “strengthening women’s health care,” “supporting working women,” and “protecting domestic or sexual assault victims.”
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The claims may be familiar to those following the New Hampshire race. After Hassan announced her candidacy in October, for example, One Nation, an issue-advocacy organization that does not need to disclose where their funding comes from and is affiliated with Karl Rove’s American Crossroads super PAC, pushed a 17-day, $1.4 million ad campaign toutingAyotte’s record on women’s health.
Hassan, on the other hand, has the support of organizations such as EMILY’s List, whose stated mission is to help elect pro-choice women into office. After endorsing the governor in the Senate race, the group added Ayotte to its “On Notice” list for “voting for anti-woman legislation and standing in the way of policies that give working families a fair shot.”
But with both sides of the race simultaneously claiming opposing positions on whether Ayotte has been good for women and reproductive rights, what is the truth?
Ayotte has made no secret of her desire to defund Planned Parenthood, and she “has shown support for defunding the organization or opposition to continued funding in at least six votes,” according to PolitiFact, though some of those votes were procedural. Though she famously chided Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) for attempting to shut down the government over his crusade to strip the reproductive health provider of money in the wake of anti-choice front group Center for Medical Progress’ deceptively edited videos, it was because she didn’t view his methods as a winning strategy for accomplishing that goal—not because she didn’t believe in the cause.
In a letter to Cruz, Ayotte told the Republican presidential candidate that she too is “deeply disturbed by” CMP’s videos and doesn’t believe Planned Parenthood should have federal funding.”This callous disregard for the dignity of human life is heinous, and I do not believe taxpayer dollars should be used to fund a private organization that performs hundreds of thousands of abortions each year and harvests the body parts of unborn children,” wrote Ayotte. She went on to ask what Cruz’s “strategy to succeed in actually defunding Planned Parenthood” really was, given that their mutual efforts to redirect the organization’s funding to other clinics had failed.
Planned Parenthood does not use its federal funding to provide abortions; its fetal tissue donation program has been cleared of wrongdoing in multiple state and federal investigations. And despite claims from conservatives, including Ayotte, that other facilities could provide Planned Parenthood’s patients with health care should the organization lose funding, the Guttmacher Institute found that “credible evidence suggests this is unlikely. In some areas, Planned Parenthood is the sole safety-net provider of contraceptive care.”
“Our analysis shows unequivocally that Planned Parenthood plays a major role in delivering publicly supported contraceptive services and supplies to women who are in need of such care nationwide,” the Guttmacher Institute concluded.
Ayotte has also supported numerous other anti-choice restrictions and legislation, including a 2015 20-week abortion ban based on the medically unfounded claim that fetuses feel pain at this point in pregnancy.
According to NPR, Ayotte has “been a hero to anti-abortion activists since 2005, when as New Hampshire attorney general she defended a parental notification law all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.” The law required doctors to notify parents of minors seeking an abortion at least 48 hours prior to the procedure, and contained no exceptions for the health of the patient. The Court ultimately ruled against Ayotte, affirming that states may not enact abortion laws that don’t protect women’s health and safety.
National Right to Life found that the New Hampshire senator voted “with” the anti-choice organization in all 14 of the scored votes from 2012 to 2015it examined.
In 2012,Ayotte co-sponsored the failed “Blunt Amendment,” which would have allowed exemptions from the Affordable Care Act’s birth control benefit for any employers or insurers that had moral objections to providing contraceptive coverage to their employees. And in a 2014 commentary for the Wall Street Journal,Ayotte and Sen. Deb Fischer (R-NE) defended the Supreme Court’s ruling in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, which grants someemployers the right to deny contraceptive coverage to their staff based on the owner’s religious beliefs, falsely claiming that the ruling did “not take away women’s access to birth control.”
Ayotte’s campaign is quick to point to legislation sponsored by the senator that would have allowed over-the-counter contraception as proof that she cares aboutwomen’s health. Reproductive health advocates, however, called Ayotte’s Allowing Greater Access to Safe and Effective Contraception Act a “sham” when it was introduced in 2015. Though the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) generally supports over-the-counter birth control, the organization’s president Dr. Mark S. DeFrancesco, said in a statement that Ayotte’s measure “would actually make more women have to pay for their birth control, and for some women, the cost would be prohibitive.”
Paid leave is yet another issue in which Ayotte has put forth legislation in the name of helping women. Ayotte introduced the Family Friendly and Workplace Flexibility Act of 2015 in March of that year, claiming it would “allow greater flexibility for workers who are looking to better balance their work-life demands.” Analysis by ThinkProgress, however, found that the measure “could weaken already weak rules that require workers to be paid extra for working extra hours, thus ensuring that workweeks don’t grow out of control and employees are compensated fairly.”
Earlier in 2015, Ayotte signed on as a co-sponsor of the Working Families Flexibility Act. According to a statement from the National Partnership for Women and Families (NPWF) condemning the legislation, the act claimed to “give hourly workers more flexibility and time with their loved ones by allowing them to choose paid time off, rather than time-and-a-half wages, as compensation for working more than 40 hours in one week.” However, the bill did “not promote family friendly or flexible workplaces,” explained the nonprofit organization in a fact sheet. “Instead, it would erode hourly workers’ ability to make ends meet, plan for family time, and have predictability, stability, and true flexibility at work.”
Ayotte’s record on equal pay has been similarly debunked by advocates. One of the policies highlighted by Ayotte’s campaign in the wake of Planned Parenthood Votes’ ad was the senator’sintroduction of the Gender Advancement In Pay (GAP) Act in September 2015, which she reintroduced ahead of Equal Pay Day thisApril. The measure was meant to make clear that “employers must pay men and women equal wages for equal work, without reducing the opportunity for employers to reward merit,” according to a press release from Ayotte’s office upon the initial release of the bill.
Critics argued that Ayotte’s bill was nothing other than an election-year stunt. New Hampshire state Sen. Donna Soucy (D-Manchester) told NH1 News that Ayotte’s move was an attempt to look “for some cover … in an effort to be more in line with” New Hampshire voters, after Ayotte voted against other fair pay measures. However, Soucy said, the legislation didn’t really address the issue of pay equity. “Sen. Ayotte’s bill attempts to create paycheck fairness but doesn’t in fact do so because employers could preclude their employees from discussing what they make with their fellow employees,” claimed Soucy.
Similar arguments were made when Ayotte co-sponsored another equal pay measure, the Workplace Advancement Act, with Sens. Deb Fischer (R-NE), Susan Collins (R-ME), Joni Ernst (R-IA), Thad Cochran (R-MS), and Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) in April 2015. Though the legislation would ban employers from retaliating against their staff, it failed to garner support from Democrats. According to the National Women’s Law Center, the bill would have done “more harm than good” as it “entirely [ignored] the many loopholes and inadequacies in current equal pay laws and simply [stated] that pay discrimination ‘violates existing law.'”
Their arguments are bolstered by Ayotte’s repeated votesagainst the federal Paycheck Fairness Act, though as Politifact again pointed out, some of these votes were procedural and not against the bill itself. Ayotte did cast one vote in favor of ending debate on the measure and advancing it; the fact-checking site noted, though, that Ayotte’s office reportedly did so in the ultimately denied hopes of changing the bill.
Had it passed, the legislation would have updated the Equal Pay Act of 1963 to include protections such as prohibiting retaliation against employees who share their salary and strengthening penalties for those who violate the law. Ayotte claims she voted against the measure because it “could reduce the ability of employers to award merit pay for good performance and limit the opportunity for women to have flexible work schedules,” according to a press release on the matter.
Speaking at a town hall event in 2013, Ayotte had previously justified her vote against equal pay legislation by asserting that it “created a lot of additional burdens that would … make it more difficult for job creators to create jobs.” The New Hampshire senator went on to add that there were already laws in place that could help address the issue.
There are, however, some examples of Ayotte supporting and introducing legislation that would help women. In June 2015, Ayotte co-sponsored the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act to protect pregnant people from workplace discrimination. Though the legislation never came to a vote, it would have helped “end … discrimination and promote healthy pregnancies and the economic security of pregnant women and their families,” according to the NPWF. That same year, the New Hampshire senator co-sponsored the Protect Access to Lifesaving Screenings (PALS) Act, bipartisan legislation that would have safeguarded access to free annual mammograms for women ages 40 to 74. Ayotte co-sponsored the bipartisan Campus Accountability and Safety Act in 2014 and 2015, which, according to Democratic New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s website, would “protect students and boost accountability and transparency at colleges and universities” when it comes to sexual assault. Ayotte also co-sponsoredthe Combating Military Sexual Assault Act of 2013 to address the issue in the military.
Overall, Ayotte has signed onto or supported numerous pieces of legislation that at face value seem to promote reproductive health and women’s rights. Further examination shows, however, that—with a few exceptions—they largely failed to hold up to scrutiny. While Ayotte’s campaign alleges that many of her measures would have helped women and families, analysis suggests that her conservative solutions to addressing these issues often would have made the problems worse. This, coupled with the senator’s fierce anti-choice advocacy, will no doubt keepthis portion of Ayotte’s record under tight observation as November’s election approaches.