Commentary Violence

‘Asking for It’: Why We Need to Get Angry About Rape Culture

Katie Klabusich

Feminist author Kate Harding wields metaphor with unrivaled mastery in her new book to root out the causes and effects of the way an internalized set of myths about sexual assault allow an epidemic to continue.

“[F]alse rape reports are zebras.” Zebras on a highway, to be exact.

Feminist author Kate Harding wields metaphors like these with unrivaled mastery in her new book, Asking for It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Cultureand What We Can Do About Itdue out August 25. In doing so, she roots out the causes and effects of the way an internalized set of myths about sexual assault leaves victims suffering largely in silence and without justice, lest they risk being blamed and persecuted themselves by reporting their attackers.

Accented by snark, punctuated by profanity, and sprinkled with pop culture and literary references, Harding’s writing is accessible in addition to being weighty and informative. My heart leapt with nerdy joy at her inclusion of Kurt Vonnegut’s “grandfalloon”—“a proud and meaningless association of human beings”—to describe the self-professed trolls of GamerGate who tried to spin relentless harassment of female gamers into “ethics in journalism.” Others will find themselves cheering while Harding takes down the celebrity they most love to hate. Daniel Tosh, Tyler Perry, CeeLo Green, Ben Roethlisberger, and Roman Polanski all get the treatment—with plenty of side-eye left over for Woody Allen.

As she tells stories of famous victims and assailants (both admitted and repeatedly accused) as well as her own story, Harding doesn’t shy away from graphic imagery of assault. She explains in the introduction that this choice was made for a very specific reason: to move away from what we ask of those adjacent to victims and potential victims when we implore them to imagine what their “wife, mother, daughter, or sister is hypothetically feeling.” 

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Our culture is in dire shape and more direct and personal visualization is needed. You don’t have to be highly engaged with the news cycle, a sports fan, or a pop culture consumer to have heard about the high-profile cases in recent years. Rape culture has become so unavoidable, that the phrase itself—once tossed around only by feminist and academic circles—is now part of everyday discourse. Of course, there is a sizeable contingent who use it sarcastically in a fact-free attempt to discredit the silly women being all emotional and overreacting to a tiny problem not worth anyone’s time.

People, albeit some subconsciously, widely feel that there is some truth to victim-blaming myths. Harding starts the first chapter, “The Power of Myth,” with this common thought pattern: “If the only thing that happens … is that someone decides to use your body without your consent, well—it’s not like he hurt you. It was basically just bad sex, wasn’t it?” Nearly 2 percent of men are raped in their lifetimes and a full 20 percent report having been victims of other sexual violence, making them, as Harding puts it, “far more likely to be victims of sexual assault than of lying, vindictive [false reporting] women.” But the “bad sex” trope is so pervasive that Harding lets readers know up front in the introduction that she’s going to challenge them beyond the typical exercise of considering how they’d feel if someone they knew was violated:

With this book, I’m asking you to do better than that. I’m asking you to imagine it’s you who was raped. And I’m asking you to get angry about it.

And if you aren’t yet angry five pages in, Harding will guide you step by step.

Asking for It comprises three parts that build on each other. Part I, “Slut Shaming, Victim Blaming, and Rape Myths,” details the tropes embedded in our attitudes and actions that perpetuate disbelief of victims; Part II, ”Law and Order,” outlines the epidemic of mishandled cases and victimization perpetrated by our supposed criminal justice system; and Part III, “The Culture of Rape,” is a much-needed indictment of us all for our participation in a society that perpetuates and even amplifies the myths that allow a rape to occur every seven minutes in this country.

The myths and themes overlap, flowing seamlessly between stories and sections. The seven basic rape myths identified by researchers whose work is cited in the book are:

  1. She asked for it.
  2. It wasn’t really rape.
  3. He didn’t mean to.
  4. She wanted it.
  5. She lied.
  6. Rape is a trivial event.
  7. Rape is a deviant event.

Harding puts together an LOLsob moment with a “Someone has reported a rape” flowchart that demonstrates the power of these rape myths. No matter your choose-your-own-adventure style path, the flowchart inevitably leads to “Everything’s fine! No need to be upset!” It’s an illustration that makes clear that we are all susceptible to at least one of them, making us prone to disbelief and/or self-blame.

The overwhelming and destructive need of human beings to not be uncomfortable, to not have to consider that (unlike in every other crime) the violation has been committed by someone—a rapist—is so powerful that we as human beings bend over backwards to maneuver through whatever series of moves gets us to a place where we don’t have to worry.

“If you’re the person who was raped, you might find you’re still upset after all that,” Harding writes. “But the rest of us can breathe easy, knowing that it never happened, you wanted it, he didn’t mean it, and it was no big deal anyway.” 

Harding touches on the white supremacy of our “justice” system, doesn’t avoid the glossed-over or ignored truth that sending a rapist to prison oftens creates another victim, and wades into the murkiness that is our entertainment industry’s effect on how we think and what we believe. In exploring intersections like those that can derail discussion about rape culture through conflation and hard to unpack contributing factors, Harding somehow emerges with new clarity and effective talking points for dismantling victim blaming—both the sort done by those in the victim’s life and by the victim themselves.

One of her most poignant analogies (it struck me especially hard, being one of my lingering self-blame issues) comes in the chapter titled “Virgins, Vamps, and the View From Nowhere.” Harding is taking on the “personal responsibility” trope that leads even the well-meaning to pile up a can’t-do/must-do list for every woman and individual belonging to an at-risk community, such as transgender and gender-nonconforming individuals. Specifically, she goes after the idea that someone who is intoxicated has some measure of blame for their assault.

“[T]here is no Bad Personal Choices threshold past which someone deserves to be raped,” Harding writes.

After excoriating the cast of Fox News’ Outnumbered on this point, she employs a comparison that should make the irrelevance of a victim’s blood alcohol content to their worthiness of justice and care clear for everyone:

It is everyone’s responsibility to remain on the side of not committing crimes while drinking. Women and men are held to exactly the same standard, in that respect. But no, victims are not typically held to the same standard as criminals. Our legal system does not (technically) require victims to make only impeccable life decisions or else forfeit their right to protection under the law. If a frat boy gets plastered, wanders into the street, and gets hit by a drunk driver, the driver is the criminal.

Clearly. The driver committed the crime, the assault, the violation—of both the law and of the Golden Rule that says we treat each other with care. It is practically impossible in that situation to envision reporters, police, and school officials immediately drilling the victim on their clothing choices, number of beverages consumed, or what in hell they were thinking wandering out near the road by themselves so late at night!

The same courtesy should be shown to any victim no matter their condition, no matter their past, no matter the choices they made right up until the moment they did not give or withdrew consent. It is, in fact, incumbent upon us to not perpetrate a crime while drinking rather than to avoid being victimized while drinking. Harding’s emphasis shift in the “drunk victim” scenario, which personal responsibility advocates and victim blamers like the Fox News crew use continually, was one of the many moments of clarity I had while reading her book.

In the final chapter, “Reasons for Hope,” Harding makes good on the promise of her subtitle, using her own campus rape story as a vehicle for describing what has changed since she was a college freshman in 1992.

“[I]t just so happens that one of the worst things that ever happened to me is a good way to introduce all of the recent changes that give me hope for our culture,” she writes. That hope centers around three things: the rise of student activists revolutionizing the way Title IX law is exercised in this country (i.e., forcing the federal government to actually exercise it), the recent wave of “yes means yes”—aka “affirmative consent” laws, and the way young people utilize a tool she didn’t have 20 years ago: the Internet.

Not only are survivors’ stories being told every day online, but the telling and retelling has awakened would-be activists, joining together to demand comprehensive sex education, recognition from authorities, and form groups like Know Your IX, which puts the “how-to” of filing Title IX complaints in students’ hands.

When dozens of ED Act Now organizers descended on the capitol in July 2013 with more than 100,000 signatures, they didn’t just speak on the steps—they dropped the petition at the doorstep of the Department of Education and prompted the creation of the White House Task Force to Protect Students From Sexual Assault. Almost overnight, federal officials went from investigating zero colleges and universities for Title IX sexual assault violations to 85 open cases.

As Harding puts it: “Survivors did that. Students did that. The young people who are going to be running everything before we know it did that. That gives me hope.” 

That you can complete her 200-some pages on one of the most common and most violent crimes in our culture feeling optimistic is quite a feat. That I could do it as a rape and abuse survivor makes her book not just informative, but extraordinary.

Asking for It is a must-read for advocates and activists who have to break down rape culture for new, often resistant, audiences, as well as for journalists who desperately need to understand the role they play in perpetuating myths under the guise of impartiality. I also recommend it for survivors—those who can safely read the purposely direct descriptions, particularly those who have been unable to confide in anyone and may feel they’re alone or partially to blame. Harding will likely disabuse you of both feelings and leave you, like me, not just better informed, but hopeful about the direction the cultural discourse is taking at long last: “It feels as if maybe, finally, this conversation won’t taper off until sexual violence does.” 

Roundups Politics

Campaign Week in Review: ‘If You Don’t Vote … You Are Trifling’

Ally Boguhn

The chair of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) this week blasted those who sit out on Election Day, and mothers who lost children to gun violence were given a platform at the party's convention.

The chair of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) this week blasted those who sit out on Election Day, and mothers who lost children to gun violence were given a platform at the party’s convention.

DNC Chair Marcia Fudge: “If You Don’t Vote, You Are Ungrateful, You Are Lazy, and You Are Trifling”

The chair of the 2016 Democratic National Convention, Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-OH), criticized those who choose to sit out the election while speaking on the final day of the convention.

“If you want a decent education for your children, you had better vote,” Fudge told the party’s women’s caucus, which had convened to discuss what is at stake for women and reproductive health and rights this election season.

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“If you want to make sure that hungry children are fed, you had better vote,” said Fudge. “If you want to be sure that all the women who survive solely on Social Security will not go into poverty immediately, you had better vote.”

“And if you don’t vote, let me tell you something, there is no excuse for you. If you don’t vote, you don’t count,” she said.

“So as I leave, I’m just going to say this to you. You tell them I said it, and I’m not hesitant about it. If you don’t vote, you are ungrateful, you are lazy, and you are trifling.”

The congresswoman’s website notes that she represents a state where some legislators have “attempted to suppress voting by certain populations” by pushing voting restrictions that “hit vulnerable communities the hardest.”

Ohio has recently made headlines for enacting changes that would make it harder to vote, including rolling back the state’s early voting period and purging its voter rolls of those who have not voted for six years.

Fudge, however, has worked to expand access to voting by co-sponsoring the federal Voting Rights Amendment Act, which would restore the protections of the Voting Rights Act that were stripped by the Supreme Court in Shelby County v. Holder.

“Mothers of the Movement” Take the National Spotlight

In July 2015, the Waller County Sheriff’s Office released a statement that 28-year-old Sandra Bland had been found dead in her jail cell that morning due to “what appears to be self-asphyxiation.” Though police attempted to paint the death a suicide, Bland’s family has denied that she would have ended her own life given that she had just secured a new job and had not displayed any suicidal tendencies.

Bland’s death sparked national outcry from activists who demanded an investigation, and inspired the hashtag #SayHerName to draw attention to the deaths of Black women who died at the hands of police.

Tuesday night at the DNC, Bland’s mother, Geneva Reed-Veal, and a group of other Black women who have lost children to gun violence, in police custody, or at the hands of police—the “Mothers of the Movement”—told the country why the deaths of their children should matter to voters. They offered their support to Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton during a speech at the convention.

“One year ago yesterday, I lived the worst nightmare anyone could imagine. I watched as my daughter was lowered into the ground in a coffin,” said Geneva Reed-Veal.

“Six other women have died in custody that same month: Kindra Chapman, Alexis McGovern, Sarah Lee Circle Bear, Raynette Turner, Ralkina Jones, and Joyce Curnell. So many of our children are gone, but they are not forgotten,” she continued. 

“You don’t stop being a mom when your child dies,” said Lucia McBath, the mother of Jordan Davis. “His life ended the day that he was shot and killed for playing loud music. But my job as his mother didn’t.” 

McBath said that though she had lost her son, she continued to work to protect his legacy. “We’re going to keep telling our children’s stories and we’re urging you to say their names,” she said. “And we’re also going to keep using our voices and our votes to support leaders, like Hillary Clinton, who will help us protect one another so that this club of heartbroken mothers stops growing.” 

Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin, called herself “an unwilling participant in this movement,” noting that she “would not have signed up for this, [nor would] any other mother that’s standing here with me today.” 

“But I am here today for my son, Trayvon Martin, who is in heaven, and … his brother, Jahvaris Fulton, who is still here on Earth,” Fulton said. “I did not want this spotlight. But I will do everything I can to focus some of this light on the pain of a path out of the darkness.”

What Else We’re Reading

Renee Bracey Sherman explained in Glamour why Democratic vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine’s position on abortion scares her.

NARAL’s Ilyse Hogue told Cosmopolitan why she shared her abortion story on stage at the DNC.

Lilly Workneh, the Huffington Post’s Black Voices senior editor, explained how the DNC was “powered by a bevy of remarkable black women.”

Rebecca Traister wrote about how Clinton’s historic nomination puts the Democratic nominee “one step closer to making the impossible possible.”

Rewire attended a Democrats for Life of America event while in Philadelphia for the convention and fact-checked the group’s executive director.

A woman may have finally clinched the nomination for a major political party, but Judith Warner in Politico Magazine took on whether the “glass ceiling” has really been cracked for women in politics.

With Clinton’s nomination, “Dozens of other women across the country, in interviews at their offices or alongside their children, also said they felt on the cusp of a major, collective step forward,” reported Jodi Kantor for the New York Times.

According to Philly.com, Philadelphia’s Maternity Care Coalition staffed “eight curtained breast-feeding stalls on site [at the DNC], complete with comfy chairs, side tables, and electrical outlets.” Republicans reportedly offered similar accommodations at their convention the week before.

News Abortion

Texas Pro-Choice Advocates Push Back Against State’s Anti-Choice Pamphlet

Teddy Wilson

The “A Woman’s Right to Know” pamphlet, published by the state, has not been updated since 2003. The pamphlet includes the medically dubious link between abortion care and breast cancer, among other medical inaccuracies common in anti-choice literature.

Reproductive rights advocates are calling for changes to information forced on pregnant people seeking abortion services, thanks to a Texas mandate.

Texas lawmakers passed the Texas Woman’s Right to Know Act in 2003, which requires abortion providers to inform pregnant people of the medical risks associated with abortion care, as well as the probable gestational age of the fetus and the medical risks of carrying a pregnancy to term.

The “A Woman’s Right to Know” pamphlet, published by the state, has not been updated or revised since it was first made public in 2003. The pamphlet includes the medically dubious link between abortion care and breast cancer, among other medical inaccuracies common in anti-choice literature. 

The Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) in June published a revised draft version of the pamphlet. The draft version of “A Woman’s Right to Know” was published online, and proposed revisions are available for public comment until Friday.

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John Seago, spokesperson for the anti-choice Texas Right to Life, told KUT that the pamphlet was created so pregnant people have accurate information before they consent to receiving abortion care.

“This is a booklet that’s not going to be put in the hands of experts, it’s not going to be put in the hands of OB-GYNs or scientists–it’s going to be put in the hands of women who will range in education, will range in background, and we want this booklet to be user-friendly enough that anyone can read this booklet and be informed,” he said.

Reproductive rights advocates charge that the information in the pamphlet presented an anti-abortion bias and includes factually incorrect information.

More than 34 percent of the information found in the previous version of the state’s “A Woman’s Right to Know” pamphlet was medically inaccurate, according to a study by a Rutgers University research team.

State lawmakers and activists held a press conference Wednesday outside the DSHS offices in Austin and delivered nearly 5,000 Texans’ comments to the agency.  

Kryston Skinner, an organizer with the Texas Equal Access Fund, spoke during the press conference about her experience having an abortion in Texas, and how the state-mandated pamphlet made her feel stigmatized.

Skinner told Rewire that the pamphlet “causes fear” in pregnant people who are unaware that the pamphlet is rife with misinformation. “It’s obviously a deterrent,” Skinner said. “There is no other reason for the state to force a medical professional to provide misinformation to their patients.”

State Rep. Donna Howard (D-Austin) said in a statement that the pamphlet is the “latest shameful example” of Texas lawmakers playing politics with reproductive health care. “As a former registered nurse, I find it outrageous that the state requires health professionals to provide misleading and coercive information to patients,” Howard said.

Howard, vice chair of the Texas House Women’s Health Caucus, vowed to propose legislation that would rid the booklet of its many inaccuracies if DSHS fails to take the thousands of comments into account, according to the Austin Chronicle

Lawmakers in several states have passed laws mandating that states provide written materials to pregnant people seeking abortion services. These so-called informed consent laws often require that the material include inaccurate or misleading information pushed by legislators and organizations that oppose legal abortion care. 

The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) sent a letter to DSHS that said the organization has “significant concerns with some of the material and how it is presented.”

Among the most controversial statements made in the pamphlet is the claim that “doctors and scientists are actively studying the complex biology of breast cancer to understand whether abortion may affect the risk of breast cancer.”

Texas Right to Life said in a statement that the organization wants the DSHS include “stronger language” about the supposed correlation between abortion and breast cancer. The organization wants the pamphlet to explicitly cite “the numerous studies that indicate undergoing an elective abortion contributes to the incidence of breast cancer in women.”

Rep. Sarah Davis (R-West University Place) said in a statement that the state should provide the “most accurate science available” to pregnant people seeking an abortion. “As a breast cancer survivor, I am disappointed that DSHS has published revisions to the ‘A Woman’s Right to Know’ booklet that remain scientifically and medically inaccurate,” Davis said.

The link between abortion and cancer has been repeatedly debunked by scientific research.

“Scientific research studies have not found a cause-and-effect relationship between abortion and breast cancer,” according to the American Cancer Society.

A report by the National Cancer Institute explains, “having an abortion or miscarriage does not increase a woman’s subsequent risk of developing breast cancer.”

DSHS spokesperson Carrie Williams told the Texas Tribune that the original booklet was written by a group of agency officials, legislators and public health and medical professionals.

“We carefully considered medical and scientific information when updating the draft booklet,” Williams said.