Commentary Violence

Men’s Rights Conference Host Says Women Who Drink and Dance Are ‘Begging’ for Rape

Alex DiBranco

A recent USA Today article on the inaugural conference for men’s rights activists asked whether it marked “A kinder, gentler turn to the gender wars.” In short: No, it didn't.

Cross-posted with permission from Political Research Associates.

A recent USA Today article on the inaugural conference for men’s rights activists (MRAs) asked whether it marked “A kinder, gentler turn to the gender wars.” In May, Elliot Rodger killed six people after regularly posting misogynistic rants against the “oppressive feminist system,” and a video warning, “If I can’t have you, girls, I will destroy you.”

In the intervening time, the First Inaugural Conference for Men’s Issues, hosted by A Voice for Men, faced a successful campaign asking Detroit’s Hilton DoubleTree hotel to cancel the event. The petition, which obtained close to 6,000 signatures, pointed out that MRAs were designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center in 2012. It continued, “MRAs are linked to the recent mass shooting in UCSB, wherein a young man declared that he would exact revenge on all the women who had rejected him. MRAs are linked to false rape statistics, further perpetuating the dangerous myth that women, ‘make it up for attention.’ MRAs are linked to threats of rape and murder against women who dare to speak out against them.”

Jaclyn Friedman writes in “A Look Inside The Men’s Rights Movement”: “One of their tactics is to put out a cash bounty for personal information—including home addresses, places of employment, email addresses, and phone numbers—of feminists who upset them. The deluge of hate mail, rape and death threats for those on the receiving end of these witch hunts is hard to describe.”

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After news outlets connected Rodger to groups in the MRA sphere, Paul Elam, founder of A Voice for Men, asserted that his organization is committed to nonviolence and that Rodger was not a member. However, Katie McDonough writes at Salon that “until the moment that he is alleged to have killed six women and men, Elliot Rodger was every bit the same as the other men who are defined by their resentment toward women and their sense of bitter victimization in the world.” While she deems it “irresponsible to lay this violence at the feet of the men’s rights activists with whom Rodger seemed to find support for his rage,” nonetheless it “denies reality to pretend that Rodger’s sense of masculine entitlement and views about women didn’t matter or somehow existed in a vacuum.” In 2009, another man who filled an online journal with misogynistic rants killed three women at a fitness center.

Former Political Research Associates researcher Chip Berlet has written extensively on how toxic rhetoric can feed violence, and the danger in viewing these perpetrators as mentally disturbed lone wolves. As Berlet said following the murder of abortion provider Dr. George Tiller, “[Right-wing pundits] are not legally culpable for the assassination of Dr. Tiller, but they must share some portion of moral responsibility for creating a dangerous environment.”

Moral Responsibility

While claiming to be a pacifist, Paul Elam has gloried in the idea of a judge who ruled against fathers being “doused with gasoline and set afire.” He opposes abortion (and, it seems, adoption and motherhood too) and wrote a Mother’s Day article saying, “If you have a vagina, the blood of all those children, who are abused far more at the hands of women than men, has stained your skin and caked around the cuticles of your fingers.” He further argued, “Progress for men will not be gained by debate, reason or typical channels of grievance … The progress we need will only be realized by inflicting enough pain on the agents of hate, in public view, that it literally shocks society out of its current coma.” Would the murders Elliot Rodger committed fit that vision of public shock?

Then there’s Elam’s 2010 post about women who go clubbing, accept drinks, make out, and enter a man’s apartment, who end up “victims” [quotation marks his] of rape. “In the most severe and emphatic terms possible the answer is NO, THEY ARE NOT ASKING TO GET RAPED .. They are freaking begging for it. Damn near demanding it.”

The next paragraph goes on to claim that women get raped because they are stupid, arrogant, and narcissistic. The post was scrubbed from A Voice for Men’s website as of 2014, and Elam claims it was intended as satire on the impossibility of promoting self-protection without being accused of victim-blaming. The scrubbing of the post smacks of an attempt to clean up his image, as the organization attempts to mainstream itself to the public. Yet even the “satirical” message, if we take it as such, is that empty-headed women need to be informed by a man that they face risks and that the solution is for women to smarten up not address what Katie McDonough calls “toxic male entitlement.”

Other scheduled conference speakers have blamed women for the state of the world because they choose “fucking monsters” and “assholes” rather than “nice guys” (which we assume the male MRAs consider themselves); asserted that women are “demanding” desired violence with their behavior—what another speaker calls “consensual violence” (consent would be a negotiated BDSM situation, not domestic abuse); equated paying for dinner and not getting sex to “a male version of date rape”; and argued that when a woman’s “nonverbal ‘yeses’ … conflict with those verbal ‘noes,’ that the man not be put in jail for choosing the ‘yes’ over the ‘no.’”

Visiting A Voice for Men’s website today, the first thing I noticed was a speaker denouncing feminism as never about gender equality, but always about misandry and “blaming men.” According to MSNBC’s coverage, the first day of the conference was attended by over 100 participants, and focused on rants about the “evil empire” of feminism. Barbara Kay, a columnist for Canada’s National Post, claimed that rape on campus is nothing more than “buyer’s remorse” and rape culture a “baseless moral panic.” (Note: men’s rights activists include women; structural patriarchy and misogyny influence the beliefs of everyone.)

This is a kinder, gentler turn?

As Jaclyn Friedman writes, “you’ll find women (and, gasp!, even feminists) in leadership in most of the institutions actually working to make life safer for men. It’s feminists who fought a long and recently successful battle to ensure that male victims are included in the FBI’s definition of rape. … Feminists have ensured that, through the Violence Against Women Act that MRAs oppose, the overall rate of intimate partner violence in the U.S. declined 64 percent between 1994 and 2010, and that decline is distributed evenly between male and female victims.”

I was proud to be among those feminist women who worked on the campaign to improve the FBI definition of rape. In college, as a committed feminist, I took a course titled “The Masculine Mystique,” which analyzed the problems that a patriarchal, homophobic, violent system causes men, especially considering stereotypes against men of color and the disproportionate number of black men in prison (most egregiously for harmless drug offenses). An inclusive gender justice movement is already a part of the feminist sphere, and expanding as women and feminist gain more authority and ability to make change.

The men’s rights movement, with its history and present-day of virulent anti-woman and anti-feminist hate speech, is not the place to look for a “kinder, gentler turn to the gender wars.” Don’t be fooled by a single pragmatic attempt at portraying a more respectable image.

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.

Commentary Violence

With Sex Workers Too, Rape Is Still Rape

Kate DAdamo

As we talk about the importance of consent in the public discourse, upholding the right to say what is and isn’t violence must take precedence over our own discomfort about someone else's choices.

In the last several months, there have been a number of rape allegations involving sex workers in the news. Most recently, a number of sex workers accused porn star James Deen of rape. Several websites have since dropped Deen, including Kink.com. Also, Jonathan “War Machine” Koppenhaver is facing 34 counts of rape, kidnapping, and attempted murder (among others) against his ex-girlfriend and porn star Christy Mack, which reportedly left her with 18 broken bones and a ruptured liver, and her friend, Corey Thomas.

Every time these stories make headlines, though, they are accompanied by another conversation: Whether because someone engages in sex work, they lose their right to consent and cannot be raped.

The conflation of sex work and rape, and the assumption that all sex work can be framed in a single, narrow description contribute to the denial of consent for those who trade sex, even if the phrasing sounds different.

These arguments are being put forward not just by Twitter trolls or men’s rights activists; they are also being brought in the courts and in the media. Part of the legal defense for War Machine has been that Mack’s porn career displayed her “desire” for “activities that were outside of the norm”—presumably including rape. And just a few months ago Mary Mitchell, who sits on the editorial board of the Chicago-Sun Times, claimed that when a sex worker was raped it should have been prosecuted as “theft of services” (the same charge as jumping a subway turnstile).

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Further, many conversations about sex work held by feminist and anti-trafficking organizations are about denying consent to those in the sex industry. Groups like the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women or the New York City chapter of the National Organization for Women, base their work in this area on deeply flawed claims that all sex work is violence or criminalization is about protecting women from exchanging sex for money.

To be sure, when it comes to sex trafficking, there is no debate it is inherently violent. But to conflate sex trafficking with sex work creates very real harms for those who do report rape.

For sex workers, trading sex is a constellation of experiences that move through the range of choice, circumstance, and coercion. The complexity and nuance of sex work can span a variety of experiences that can change from year to year, month to month, and session to session. Some people trading sex do experience violence, and that experience often informs how a person feels about sex work. To have a single blanket assumption that says that every act of trading sex for resources is an act of violence is not just ideology parading as information; it undermines the dignity of anyone trading sex by not allowing them to define their own experience.

Ultimately, views like this are a step backward for everyone who demands the ability to declare their own boundaries and physical autonomy. And statements pushing this notion need to stop.

Engaging in the sex trade does not remove the ability for a person to determine what is and is not rape. They do not lose the ability to declare boundaries while engaging in sexual activities or to define their own experience when victimized. Further, this logic undermines the very core of consent, because it is grounded in the understanding that a person’s right to self-determination about their body and experience is less important than an outside person’s view of their circumstances.

For example, if a person is involved in kink or BDSM, consent still has a role to play in that experience, even if the sexual activities may look to someone else like violence. Just the same, when a person is in the sex trade they are allowed to determine their own physical boundaries—and decide what is and is not an experience of violence. Anything that undermines self-determination ultimately harms the hard-fought battle won by feminism, reproductive rights, and gender equality advocates over consent and control over one’s own body.

“Having sex for money doesn’t make me less aware of my boundaries—it makes me hyper-aware of them,” New York-based sex worker Vivienne told Rewire in an interview. “I know better than anyone else what it feels like when my consent is violated. Even when I didn’t want to see a client but I had to because of bills, that doesn’t change. Eviction is not consensual. What [work] I do to prevent that was.”

And yet, some feminists argue that the lack of other employment options invalidates the ability of a person to make the decision to trade sex. While for many, trading sex can be an act of survival, nowhere else in society do we take “lack of other options” as a reason to no longer allow a person’s decision, nor would we make it harder for them to access that option. For those seeking an abortion, for example, advocates would never use that person’s financial circumstance as a reason to decrease their ability to terminate the pregnancy. Rather, advocates fight for reproductive health care to be easy to access, under the safest conditions possible, and without stigma.

This assumption that consent rules don’t apply to sex workers can have far-reaching consequences. In 2007 Pennsylvania Judge Teresa Carr Deni ruled that a woman who was gang-raped at gunpoint by a client was not raped but instead declared it, “theft of services.” In a later interview, Judge Carr claimed that calling the incident rape “minimizes true rape cases and demeans women who are really raped.”

Regularly sex workers are also dehumanized by law enforcement who do not take seriously their reports of sexual assault when they do overcome the stigma and fear of arrest and report crimes. As one worker who made the decision to report her sexual assault described to Rewire in an email interview, “I reported an assault, rape, and theft by a client in Dallas, Texas in 2008, and was more or less ridiculed by the detective, and forced to pay for my own rape kit and hospital fees. On top of that, I was forced to do PTSD treatment to stay in school, which was unhelpful and expensive. The repetitive nature of the sad confessionals were so intense, I dropped out of college and became more deeply engaged in sex work than ever to pay off the debts incurred. Dallas police definitely didn’t take my assault seriously, and the institutional shaming following the incident was much more painful than the incident itself and lasted many months longer.”

This conflation of sex work and violence is being used to criminalize the sex trade, which often follows increased violence, stigma, and fewer options for those who wish to leave. Often, the assumption that all prostitution is violence or rape also is used as the reasoning for increasing laws, penalties, and policing of the sex trade.

Loitering and prostitution laws (which generally outlaw even the discussion of exchanging sex for money, while loitering laws often criminalize the appearance of someone who might exchange in prostitution) often leave people with long arrest records that make it difficult for them to get different jobs, access housing, or attend school. Laws that criminalize the “promotion of prostitution” (simply by supporting others, be it through helping someone post an ad or offering them safety tips) often criminalize peers and community members, which sex workers rely upon for safety and harm reduction strategies. The criminalization and policing of clients under anti-trafficking legislation often pushes people in the sex trade into more isolation, meaning they are cut off from their peers and outreach workers and driven to more clandestine locations. Street-based policing, be it to arrest sex workers or potential clients, means that people are more likely to need a third party to negotiate with potential clients, making them more dependent on those third parties and therefore more vulnerable to exploitation. And none of these things address the underlying issues, like poverty, which make the sex trade one of very few, and sometimes, the only option to meet basic needs. Using “all sex work is violence” as the reason for passing laws that increase violence is not just bad logic, it’s inhumane.

Sometimes others make decisions that leave us feeling uncomfortable, but they are not our decisions to make. The judgments we pass on the complex experiences of individuals only stigmatize and shame those in the sex trade.

Denying sex workers the right to determine the boundaries of their own body is an affront to the same arguments that we as feminists and activists are putting forward every day. The ability for someone to declare what is sexual assault only exists if we allow people to also determine what is not sexual assault. As we talk more about the importance of consent in the public discourse, upholding the right to say what is and isn’t violence must take precedence over our own discomfort about someone else’s choices.