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.” 

Commentary Sexuality

Black Trans Liberation Tuesday Must Become an Annual Observance

Raquel Willis

As long as trans people—many of them Black trans women—continue to be murdered, there will be a need to commemorate their lives, work to prevent more deaths, and uplift Black trans activism.

This piece is published in collaboration with Echoing Ida, a Forward Together project.

This week marks one year since Black transgender activists in the United States organized Black Trans Liberation Tuesday. Held on Tuesday, August 25, the national day of action publicized Black trans experiences and memorialized 18 trans women, predominantly trans women of color, who had been murdered by this time last year.

In conjunction with the Black Lives Matter network, the effort built upon an earlier Trans Liberation Tuesday observance created by Bay Area organizations TGI Justice Project and Taja’s Coalition to recognize the fatal stabbing of 36-year-old trans Latina woman Taja DeJesus in February 2015.

Black Trans Liberation Tuesday should become an annual observance because transphobic violence and discrimination aren’t going to dissipate with one-off occurrences. I propose that Black Trans Liberation Tuesday fall on the fourth Tuesday of August to coincide with the first observance and also the August 24 birthday of the late Black trans activist Marsha P. Johnson.

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There is a continuing need to pay specific attention to Black transgender issues, and the larger Black community must be pushed to stand in solidarity with us. Last year, Black trans activists, the Black Lives Matter network, and GetEQUAL collaborated on a blueprint of what collective support looks like, discussions that led to Black Trans Liberation Tuesday.

“Patrisse Cullors [a co-founder of Black Lives Matter] had been in talks on ways to support Black trans women who had been organizing around various murders,” said Black Lives Matter Organizing Coordinator Elle Hearns of Washington, D.C. “At that time, Black trans folks had been experiencing erasure from the movement and a lack of support from cis people that we’d been in solidarity with who hadn’t reciprocated that support.”

This erasure speaks to a long history of Black LGBTQ activism going underrecognized in both the civil rights and early LGBTQ liberation movements. Many civil rights leaders bought into the idea that influential Black gay activist Bayard Rustin was unfit to be a leader simply because he had relationships with men, though he organized the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Johnson, who is often credited with kicking off the 1969 Stonewall riots with other trans and gender-nonconforming people of color, fought tirelessly for LGBTQ rights. She and other trans activists of color lived in poverty and danger (Johnson was found dead under suspicious circumstances in July 1992), while the white mainstream gay elite were able to demand acceptance from society. Just last year, Stonewall, a movie chronicling the riots, was released with a whitewashed retelling that centered a white, cisgender gay male protagonist.

The Black Lives Matter network has made an intentional effort to avoid the pitfalls of those earlier movements.

“Our movement has been intersectional in ways that help all people gain liberation whether they see it or not. It became a major element of the network vision and how it was seeing itself in the Black liberation movement,” Hearns said. “There was no way to discuss police brutality without discussing structural violence affecting Black lives, in general”—and that includes Black trans lives.

Despite a greater mainstream visibility for LGBTQ issues in general, Black LGBTQ issues have not taken the forefront in Black freedom struggles. When a Black cisgender heterosexual man is killed, his name trends on social media feeds and is in the headlines, but Black trans women don’t see the same importance placed on their lives.

According to a 2015 report by the Anti-Violence Project, a group dedicated to ending anti-LGBTQ and HIV-affected community violence, trans women of color account for 54 percent of all anti-LGBTQ homicides. Despite increased awareness, with at least 20 transgender people murdered since the beginning of this year, it seems things haven’t really changed at all since Black Trans Liberation Tuesday.

“There are many issues at hand when talking about Black trans issues, particularly in the South. There’s a lack of infrastructure and support in the nonprofit sector, but also within health care and other systems. Staffs at LGBTQ organizations are underfunded when it comes to explicitly reaching the trans community,” said Micky Bradford, the Atlanta-based regional organizer for TLC@SONG. “The space between towns can harbor isolation from each other, making it more difficult to build up community organizing, coalitions, and culture.”

The marginalization that Black trans people face comes from both the broader society and the Black community. Fighting white supremacy is a full-time job, and some activists within the Black Lives Matter movement see homophobia and transphobia as muddying the fight for Black liberation.

“I think we have a very special relationship with gender and gender violence to all Black people,” said Aaryn Lang, a New York City-based Black trans activist. “There’s a special type of trauma that Black people inflict on Black trans people because of how strict the box of gender and space of gender expression has been to move in for Black people. In the future of the movement, I see more people trusting that trans folks have a vision that’s as diverse as blackness is.”

But even within that diversity, Black trans people are often overlooked in movement spaces due to anti-Blackness in mainstream LGBTQ circles and transphobia in Black circles. Further, many Black trans people aren’t in the position to put energy into movement work because they are simply trying to survive and find basic resources. This can create a disconnect between various sections of the Black trans community.

Janetta Johnson, executive director of TGI Justice Project in San Francisco, thinks the solution is twofold: increased Black trans involvement and leadership in activism spaces, and more facilitated conversations between Black cis and trans people.

“I think a certain part of the transgender community kind of blocks all of this stuff out. We are saying we need you to come through this process and see how we can create strength in numbers. We need to bring in other trans people not involved in the movement,” she said. “We need to create a space where we can share views and strategies and experiences.”

Those conversations must be an ongoing process until the killings of Black trans women like Rae’Lynn Thomas, Dee Whigham, and Skye Mockabee stop.

“As we commemorate this year, we remember who and why we organized Black Trans Liberation Tuesday last year. It’s important we realize that Black trans lives are still being affected in ways that everyday people don’t realize,” Hearns said. “We must understand why movements exist and why people take extreme action to continuously interrupt the system that will gladly forget them.”

Roundups Politics

Campaign Week in Review: Tim Kaine Outlines Plan to ‘Make Housing Fair’

Ally Boguhn

“A house is more than just a place to sleep. It's part of the foundation on which a family can build a life,” wrote Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA). “Where you live determines the jobs you can find, the schools your children can attend, the air you breathe and the opportunities you have. And when you are blocked from living where you want, it cuts to the core of who you are.”

Donald Trump made some controversial changes to his campaign staff this week, and Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) noted his commitment to better housing policies.

Trump Hires Controversial Conservative Media Figure

Republican presidential nominee Trump made two notable additions to his campaign staff this week, hiring Breitbart News’ Stephen Bannon as CEO and GOP pollster Kellyanne Conway as campaign manager.

“I have known Steve and Kellyanne both for many years. They are extremely capable, highly qualified people who love to win and know how to win,” said Trump in a Wednesday statement announcing the hires. “I believe we’re adding some of the best talents in politics, with the experience and expertise needed to defeat Hillary Clinton in November and continue to share my message and vision to Make America Great Again.”

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Both have been criticized as being divisive figures.

Conway, for example, previously advised then-client Todd Akin to wait out the backlash after his notorious “legitimate rape” comments, comparing the controversy to “the Waco with David Koresh situation where they’re trying to smoke him out with the SWAT teams.” According to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), Conway is also “often cited by anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim organizations such as the think tank Center for Security Policy and NumbersUSA.”

Under Bannon’s leadership, “mainstream conservative website” Breitbart.com changed “into a cesspool of the alt-right,” suggested the publication’s former editor at large, Ben Shapiro, in a piece for the Washington Post‘s PostEverything. “It’s a movement shot through with racism and anti-Semitism.”

Speaking with ABC News this week, Kurt Bardella, who also previously worked with Bannon at Breitbart, alleged that Bannon had exhibited “nationalism and hatred for immigrants, people coming into this country to try to get a better life for themselves” during editorial calls.

“If anyone sat there and listened to that call, you’d think that you were attending a white supremacist rally,” said Bardella.

Trump’s new hire drew heated criticism from the Clinton campaign in a Wednesday press call. “The Breitbart organization has been known to defend white supremacists,” said Robby Mook, Clinton’s campaign manager. After pointing to an analysis from the SPLC linking Breitbart to the extremist alt-right movement, Mook listed a number of other controversial positions pushed by the site.

“Breitbart has compared the work of Planned Parenthood to the Holocaust. They’ve also repeatedly used anti-LGBT slurs in their coverage. And finally, like Trump himself, Breitbart and Bannon have frequently trafficked in all sorts of deranged conspiracy theories from touting that President Obama was not born in America to claiming that the Obama Administration was ‘importing more hating Muslims.’”

“It’s clear that [Trump’s] divisive, erratic, and dangerous rhetoric simply represents who he really is,” continued Mook.

Kaine Outlines Plan to “Make Housing Fair”

Clinton’s vice presidential nominee Kaine wrote an essay for CNN late last week explaining how the Clinton-Kaine ticket can “make housing fair” in the United States.

“A house is more than just a place to sleep. It’s part of the foundation on which a family can build a life,” wrote Kaine. “Where you live determines the jobs you can find, the schools your children can attend, the air you breathe and the opportunities you have. And when you are blocked from living where you want, it cuts to the core of who you are.”

Kaine shared the story of Lorraine, a young Black woman who had experienced housing discrimination, whom Kaine had represented pro bono just after completing law school.

“This is one issue that shows the essential role government can play in creating a fairer society. Sen. Ed Brooke, an African-American Republican from Massachusetts, and Sen. Walter Mondale, a white Democrat from Minnesota, came together to draft the Fair Housing Act, which protects people from discrimination in the housing market,” noted Kaine, pointing to the 1968 law.

“Today, more action is still needed. That’s why Hillary Clinton and I have a bold, progressive plan to fight housing inequities across Americaespecially in communities that have been left out or left behind,” Kaine continued.

The Virginia senator outlined some of the key related components of Clinton’s “Breaking Every Barrier Agenda,” including an initiative to offer $10,000 in down payment assistance to new homebuyers that earn less than the median income in a given area, and plans to “bolster resources to enforce Fair Housing laws and fight housing discrimination in all its forms.”

The need for fair and affordable housing is a pressing issue for people throughout the country.

“It is estimated that each year more than four million acts of [housing] discrimination occur in the rental market alone,” found a 2015 analysis by the National Fair Housing Alliance.

No county in the United States has enough affordable housing to accommodate the needs of those with low incomes, according to a 2015 report released by the Urban Institute. “Since 2000, rents have risen while the number of renters who need low-priced housing has increased,” explained the report. “Nationwide, only 28 adequate and affordable units are available for every 100 renter households with incomes at or below 30 percent of the area median income.”

What Else We’re Reading

CBS News’ Will Rahn penned a primer explaining Trump campaign CEO Bannon’s relationship to the alt-right.

White supremacists and the alt-right “rejoice[d]” after Trump hired Bannon, reported Betsy Woodruff and Gideon Resnick for the Daily Beast.

Clinton published an essay in Teen Vogue this week encouraging young people to fight for what they care about, learn from those with whom they disagree, and get out the vote.

“In calling for ‘extreme vetting’ of foreigners entering the United States, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump suggested a return to a 1950s-era immigration standard—since abandoned—that barred entry to people based on their political beliefs,” explained USA Today.

Trump wants to cut a visa program “his own companies have used … to bring in hundreds of foreign workers, including fashion models for his modeling agency who need exhibit no special skills,” according to a report by the New York Times.

A Koch-backed group “has unleashed an aggressive campaign to kill a ballot measure in South Dakota that would require Koch-affiliated groups and others like them to reveal their donors’ identities.”

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