“[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 Culture—and What We Can Do About It, due 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:
- She asked for it.
- It wasn’t really rape.
- He didn’t mean to.
- She wanted it.
- She lied.
- Rape is a trivial event.
- 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.”