Commentary Violence

The Patriarchy’s Perfect Weapon: ‘But What If She’s Lying?’

Andrea Grimes

Nowhere in this country do we have an apparatus that is set up to believe those among us who are sexually harassed, abused, raped, when we tell our stories. There is no perfect case. But there is patriarchy.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: But what if she’s lying?

That’s the gist of yet another take on yet another high-profile rape case, this time in the Daily Beast, whose writer Cathy Young trotted it out as the least counterintuitive of all possible premises when it comes to sexual violence.

This time, “she” is Columbia University student Emma Sulkowicz, who has been physically carrying a dorm room mattress around campus in protest of her college’s handling (or lack thereof) of the rape case she brought against a Columbia senior. But “she” could be any number of other women, at any number of other American universities, who have had the courage to come forward to recount stories of sexual violence and seek redress from the collegiate entities that, ostensibly, are meant to ensure safety on campus—only to have their stories doubted because, well, doubt is the default when it comes to the way people hear stories of sexual violence. Because it is entirely too easy to suggest that if “she” were telling the truth, “she” would have done x, or y, or z, to prove that something really happened.

Of course, “she” needn’t be “she.” She might be he, or they. But one thing is consistent: Nowhere in this country do we have an apparatus that is set up to believe those among us who are sexually harassed, abused, raped, when we tell our stories.

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Instead, we nitpick and hand-wring and wait and wait and wait for that perfect case, as if finding just the right scenario is the only thing gumming up the ever-so-slowly turning wheels of American justice. Oh sure, when we find that perfect case, we’ll be more than willing to rally behind a survivor. It’s really just that simple! Don’t get all bent out of shape about it!

The right case. The one where the cops were called immediately (but not too soon, you don’t want it to look like this is a set-up). The one where a completely sober victim (a white, cisgender woman who has never before had penetrative sex) consented quickly to a rape kit (but not too eagerly or too reluctantly, with just the right air of damaged comportment appropriate to a real rape victim). The one with the right kind of physical evidence (real rape victims immediately bag and label their clothing, and are careful to preserve bodily fluids and fingerprints with the skills of a CSI forensics expert). The one with records of text messages and, ideally, a phone recording in which the accused rapist admits wrongdoing (victims should, of course, take care not to be too confrontational in obtaining these messages, because crazy bitches are always asking for it.) The one without a promising athletic career at stake (won’t someone, anyone, think about the football program!?). The one with this, the one with that, the one with …

There is no perfect case.

But there is patriarchy. A perfect, many-armed monster, which lives and thrives in this perfect universe of its own design. And it wields the perfect weapon: rape culture.

The longer we wait for the perfect case to try in the court of public opinion, the more opportunities this many-armed monster has to craft its ongoing attack on justice, to perpetuate a culture of shame and skepticism that silences those who would challenge it.

The monster is smart, and it knows where and when to hide and when to strike. Of course it does. The world is its playground, its lair, a welcoming cavern outfitted with comforting amenities like the phrase, But what if she’s lying.

They say the greatest trick the devil ever pulled is convincing the world he doesn’t exist; so too, this many-armed monster rarely manifests with gnashing teeth and bloody claws. Rather, the monster looks a bit like a beloved American film director with quirky views on modern romance. It looks like a goofy, all-American dad. It looks like a sports star.

The monster moves with a kind of vicious grace, countering every attack with cool, collected reserve. Just, you know, asking honest, innocent questions: Why was she wearing that skirt? What was she doing out so late? Didn’t he find her attractive? Wasn’t he aroused? But wasn’t he already in prison? Why did they have so much to drink? Why did they keep dating? What’s up with those text messages?

Couldn’t it all just have been … a misunderstanding?

We excuse, or even perhaps like, imperfection in our accused rapists. The monster offers us so many rejoinders to smooth out their stories, a call-and-response to any survivor’s attempt to define the terms of their own experience. Maybe they were just a little confused? Isn’t it easy to misinterpret signals in the bedroom? Couldn’t it just have been an awkward, bumbling attempt at romance? Don’t we all know that the human libido is an unpredictable thing?

From our victims, though, we demand perfection. We offer empowering language to them—we offer them terms like “survivor,” a good, strong word that hisses and strikes at the monster. It is one that I myself claim, perhaps in an effort to appear … more perfect. Less cowed by the monster. Less willing to succumb to its brutal grip.

But there are also, indeed, rape victims. Not just rape survivors, not just those of us who have experienced sexual violence and abuse and come out on the other side with the word “survival” on our lips.

There are those among us who do not survive, either in the literal or figurative sense of the word, the violence done to them. People who are irreparably bruised and broken by rape and abuse and harassment and sexual assault, and who are silenced and condemned by this many-armed, all-powerful beast of patriarchy. Those people need not be “survivors” to be loved and respected and believed.

There are no perfect victims. There are no perfect survivors. But the monster wants us to keep looking, to interrogate them rather than focusing our attention on perpetrators. This sends a message—nothing subtle about it—that to speak is to be at risk of awakening this monster’s ire when they don’t present the perfect case.

And of course, they—we—never do present the perfect case. This is the cruel catch: The monster has us on a quest for a reward we can never find. That’s what I mean when I say we are battling a beast that is both in and of this perfectly constructed universe, who wields the perfect weapon of doubt. The more we fruitlessly look for that perfect case, the less we look for ways to best that beast, who thrives on the search itself, a villain who is perfectly skilled in the art of finding new, exculpatory questions, who grows stronger every time we wonder: But what if she’s lying?

We must stop looking for that perfect case; we must stop trying to appease those who would demand it. We must believe survivors. We must trust their stories. Maybe that seems like a small step. An obvious step. But it is a tremendous intervention.

Then, and only then, might the scales of justice tip anywhere near a balance.

Roundups Sexual Health

This Week in Sex: The Sexually Transmitted Infections Edition

Martha Kempner

A new Zika case suggests the virus can be transmitted from an infected woman to a male partner. And, in other news, HPV-related cancers are on the rise, and an experimental chlamydia vaccine shows signs of promise.

This Week in Sex is a weekly summary of news and research related to sexual behavior, sexuality education, contraception, STIs, and more.

Zika May Have Been Sexually Transmitted From a Woman to Her Male Partner

A new case suggests that males may be infected with the Zika virus through unprotected sex with female partners. Researchers have known for a while that men can infect their partners through penetrative sexual intercourse, but this is the first suspected case of sexual transmission from a woman.

The case involves a New York City woman who is in her early 20s and traveled to a country with high rates of the mosquito-borne virus (her name and the specific country where she traveled have not been released). The woman, who experienced stomach cramps and a headache while waiting for her flight back to New York, reported one act of sexual intercourse without a condom the day she returned from her trip. The following day, her symptoms became worse and included fever, fatigue, a rash, and tingling in her hands and feet. Two days later, she visited her primary-care provider and tests confirmed she had the Zika virus.

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A few days after that (seven days after intercourse), her male partner, also in his 20s, began feeling similar symptoms. He had a rash, a fever, and also conjunctivitis (pink eye). He, too, was diagnosed with Zika. After meeting with him, public health officials in the New York City confirmed that he had not traveled out of the country nor had he been recently bit by a mosquito. This leaves sexual transmission from his partner as the most likely cause of his infection, though further tests are being done.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s recommendations for preventing Zika have been based on the assumption that virus was spread from a male to a receptive partner. Therefore the recommendations had been that pregnant women whose male partners had traveled or lived in a place where Zika virus is spreading use condoms or abstain from sex during the pregnancy. For those couples for whom pregnancy is not an issue, the CDC recommended that men who had traveled to countries with Zika outbreaks and had symptoms of the virus, use condoms or abstain from sex for six months after their trip. It also suggested that men who traveled but don’t have symptoms use condoms for at least eight weeks.

Based on this case—the first to suggest female-to-male transmission—the CDC may extend these recommendations to couples in which a female traveled to a country with an outbreak.

More Signs of Gonorrhea’s Growing Antibiotic Resistance

Last week, the CDC released new data on gonorrhea and warned once again that the bacteria that causes this common sexually transmitted infection (STI) is becoming resistant to the antibiotics used to treat it.

There are about 350,000 cases of gonorrhea reported each year, but it is estimated that 800,000 cases really occur with many going undiagnosed and untreated. Once easily treatable with antibiotics, the bacteria Neisseria gonorrhoeae has steadily gained resistance to whole classes of antibiotics over the decades. By the 1980s, penicillin no longer worked to treat it, and in 2007 the CDC stopped recommending the use of fluoroquinolones. Now, cephalosporins are the only class of drugs that work. The recommended treatment involves a combination of ceftriaxone (an injectable cephalosporin) and azithromycin (an oral antibiotic).

Unfortunately, the data released last week—which comes from analysis of more than 5,000 samples of gonorrhea (called isolates) collected from STI clinics across the country—shows that the bacteria is developing resistance to these drugs as well. In fact, the percentage of gonorrhea isolates with decreased susceptibility to azithromycin increased more than 300 percent between 2013 and 2014 (from 0.6 percent to 2.5 percent).

Though no cases of treatment failure has been reported in the United States, this is a troubling sign of what may be coming. Dr. Gail Bolan, director of CDC’s Division of STD Prevention, said in a press release: “It is unclear how long the combination therapy of azithromycin and ceftriaxone will be effective if the increases in resistance persists. We need to push forward on multiple fronts to ensure we can continue offering successful treatment to those who need it.”

HPV-Related Cancers Up Despite Vaccine 

The CDC also released new data this month showing an increase in HPV-associated cancers between 2008 and 2012 compared with the previous five-year period. HPV or human papillomavirus is an extremely common sexually transmitted infection. In fact, HPV is so common that the CDC believes most sexually active adults will get it at some point in their lives. Many cases of HPV clear spontaneously with no medical intervention, but certain types of the virus cause cancer of the cervix, vulva, penis, anus, mouth, and neck.

The CDC’s new data suggests that an average of 38,793 HPV-associated cancers were diagnosed each year between 2008 and 2012. This is a 17 percent increase from about 33,000 each year between 2004 and 2008. This is a particularly unfortunate trend given that the newest available vaccine—Gardasil 9—can prevent the types of HPV most often linked to cancer. In fact, researchers estimated that the majority of cancers found in the recent data (about 28,000 each year) were caused by types of the virus that could be prevented by the vaccine.

Unfortunately, as Rewire has reported, the vaccine is often mired in controversy and far fewer young people have received it than get most other recommended vaccines. In 2014, only 40 percent of girls and 22 percent of boys ages 13 to 17 had received all three recommended doses of the vaccine. In comparison, nearly 80 percent of young people in this age group had received the vaccine that protects against meningitis.

In response to the newest data, Dr. Electra Paskett, co-director of the Cancer Control Research Program at the Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center, told HealthDay:

In order to increase HPV vaccination rates, we must change the perception of the HPV vaccine from something that prevents a sexually transmitted disease to a vaccine that prevents cancer. Every parent should ask the question: If there was a vaccine I could give my child that would prevent them from developing six different cancers, would I give it to them? The answer would be a resounding yes—and we would have a dramatic decrease in HPV-related cancers across the globe.

Making Inroads Toward a Chlamydia Vaccine

An article published in the journal Vaccine shows that researchers have made progress with a new vaccine to prevent chlamydia. According to lead researcher David Bulir of the M. G. DeGroote Institute for Infectious Disease Research at Canada’s McMaster University, efforts to create a vaccine have been underway for decades, but this is the first formulation to show success.

In 2014, there were 1.4 million reported cases of chlamydia in the United States. While this bacterial infection can be easily treated with antibiotics, it often goes undiagnosed because many people show no symptoms. Untreated chlamydia can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease, which can leave scar tissue in the fallopian tubes or uterus and ultimately result in infertility.

The experimental vaccine was created by Canadian researchers who used pieces of the bacteria that causes chlamydia to form an antigen they called BD584. The hope was that the antigen could prompt the body’s immune system to fight the chlamydia bacteria if exposed to it.

Researchers gave BD584 to mice using a nasal spray, and then exposed them to chlamydia. The results were very promising. The mice who received the spray cleared the infection faster than the mice who did not. Moreover, the mice given the nasal spray were less likely to show symptoms of infection, such as bacterial shedding from the vagina or fluid blockages of the fallopian tubes.

There are many steps to go before this vaccine could become available. The researchers need to test it on other strains of the bacteria and in other animals before testing it in humans. And, of course, experience with the HPV vaccine shows that there’s work to be done to make sure people get vaccines that prevent STIs even after they’re invented. Nonetheless, a vaccine to prevent chlamydia would be a great victory in our ongoing fight against STIs and their health consequences, and we here at This Week in Sex are happy to end on a bit of a positive note.

News Politics

Former Klan Leader on Senate Run: My Views Are Now the ‘GOP Mainstream’

Teddy Wilson

David Duke has been a fervent support of the Trump campaign, and has posted dozens of messages in support of Trump on Twitter. Duke has often used the hashtag #TrumpWasRight.

David Duke, convicted felon, white supremacist, and former leader of the Ku Klux Klan, announced Friday that he will run for U.S. Senate in Louisiana, Roll Call reported.

Duke said that after a “great outpouring of overwhelming support,” he will campaign for the open Senate seat vacated by former Republican Sen. David Vitter, who lost a bid for Louisiana governor in a runoff election.

Duke’s announcement comes the day after Donald Trump accepted the GOP nomination in the midst of growing tensions over race relations across the country. Trump has been criticized during the campaign for his rhetoric, which, his critics say, mainstreams white nationalism and provokes anxiety and fear among students of color.

His statements about crime and immigration, particularly about immigrants from Mexico and predominantly Muslim countries, have been interpreted by outlets such as the New York Times as speaking to some white supporters’ “deeper and more elaborate bigotry.”

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Duke said in his campaign announcement that he was the first candidate to promote the policy of “America first,” echoing a line from Trump’s nomination acceptance speech on Thursday night.

“The most important difference between our plan and that of our opponents, is that our plan will put America First,” Trump said Thursday night. “As long as we are led by politicians who will not put America First, then we can be assured that other nations will not treat America with respect.”

Duke said his platform has become “the GOP mainstream” and claimed credit for propelling Republicans to control of Congress in 2010. He said he is “overjoyed to see Donald Trump … embrace most of the issues I’ve championed for years.”

Trump in February declined to disavow the support of a white supremacist group and Duke, saying he knew “nothing about David Duke” and knew “nothing about white supremacists.” He later clarified that he rejected their support, and blamed his initial failure to disavow Duke on a “bad earpiece.”

Trump’s candidacy has also brought to light brought many incidents of anti-Semitism, much of which has been directed at journalists and commentators covering the presidential campaign.

Conservative commentator Ben Shapiro wrote in the National Review that Trump’s nomination has “drawn anti-Semites from the woodwork,” and that the Republican nominee has been willing to “channel the support of anti-Semites to his own ends.”

Duke took to Twitter after Trump’s acceptance speech Thursday to express his support for the Republican nominee’s vision for America.

“Great Trump Speech, America First! Stop Wars! Defeat the Corrupt elites! Protect our Borders!, Fair Trade! Couldn’t have said it better!” Duke tweeted.

Duke has been a fervent Trump supporter, and has posted dozens of messages in support of Trump on Twitter. Duke has often used the hashtag #TrumpWasRight.

Duke was elected to the Louisiana house in 1989, serving one term. Duke was the Republican nominee for governor in 1991, and was defeated by Democrat Edwin Edwards.

Duke, who plead guilty in 2002 to mail fraud and tax fraud, has served a year in federal prison.