Saturday, January 30, 2016

The Responsibility of Rape

Someone I know was raped last week. It was of course devastating for her, as we would expect nothing less after falling victim to such a heinous crime. Unfortunately, the World Health Organization estimates that one in three women will become the victims of sexual assault in their lifetime, a number incomprehensible when you consider how many women that comes out to in our global population of 7 billion (that's roughly 1,139,353,126 rape victims worldwide). Historically, however, judgment has always fallen on the victim: fingers were always pointed as meticulous investigations sought out every detail of what they felt the victim did wrong. In turn, they cast their eyes away from the perpetrator, often but not always male, who could not be held responsible for his carnal instincts. Now the world has lashed out in warranted outrage in response and demanded a change. A movement has begun to battle victim blaming, to turn the focus away from what the victim was wearing, saying, doing, drinking and simply acknowledging that the victim said no. I wholeheartedly agree that no matter what the circumstances, no means no, and that should end all progressions. But is the movement against victim blaming reaching an unsafe extreme? Is perpetuating the fantasy of an idyllic society that has yet to be created minimizing the need for self-protection and risk reduction? Living in a world of shoulds does not guarantee your hopes and expectations; it may just end them.

Victim blaming is, at its core, a societal problem. Of course, some perpetrators are victims of catastrophic childhoods wherein they themselves may have been victims of abuse, and now, as adults, they seek to regain the control and power they lost by dominating and stripping others of their own control and power. Some male perpetrators, however, are taught from an early age that women are inferior and therefore property to be controlled and dominated by a heavy hand. The latter became clear when I was watching the documentary India's Daughter, the story of Jyoti Singh, an Indian woman who was brutally gang-raped by six men in a bus in Delhi. Jyoti had gone against traditional cultural norms and went to a movie with a male friend at night to celebrate the end of her school term. On the way home, she and her friend jumped on the city bus. It was here that her friend was assaulted, and the six men took turns brutally raping her and penetrating her with an iron rod that left her disemboweled. After 13 days and multiple surgeries, Jyoti succumbed to her injuries and died on December 29, 2012.

The men who were convicted of this crime gave plenty of excuses and justifications for their actions. Mukesh, one of the rapists, told the documentary "a decent girl won't roam around at 9 o'clock at night. A girl is far more responsible for rape than a boy." But while this comment will undoubtedly raise the wrath of hell in any morally sound mind, Jyoti supporters in the documentary take full responsibility for the inhuman spawns of their own society. In a culture where men are revered and women are inferior, how can these men grow to respect them? In these homes, the male child is placed on a pedestal; he will carry the family name, he will be the ultimate representative of his lineage and upbringing, and he sees the benefits of his gender from the beginning. He is first to eat, he gets the largest portion of the meal and the most precious milk, as his sister is left to eat the remaining morsels, the smallest amount of milk, and to eat only when all the men in the home have been served. He goes out to play and study, she stays home and cleans, taking care of her brothers and father. He is the king, she is the servant, there to satisfy his needs. Growing up in such an inequitable environment, why wouldn't they think that these needs extend to sexual in addition to domestic? Even Mukesh could not fully understand the problem with the mentality that he had been indoctrinated with since a small child; he genuinely could not comprehend what he had done wrong. She was, after all, just a girl.

The refusal to hear the word no, to respect the limitations and boundaries set by your partner, is a sense of entitlement that has been deeply ingrained in the minds of these perpetrators by their own environments. While the west may not be as extreme as some eastern cultures in their gendered favoritism, there is still underlying messages about the value of a woman versus a man that have yet to be rectified. As such, even in our progressive society, there is still a savage need to dominate over one another that some people simply cannot suppress, which leads to the most important component of the anti-victim blaming movement: teaching a man to take no for an answer. Teaching respect for any partner you may be engaging with, accepting that sex won't happen tonight and moving on. Of course, this is only the tip of the iceberg in addressing the multi-faceted gender gap problems of this country, from wage gaps, exclusions, double standards, etc, we've definitely got our work cut out for us to rectify this imbalance. But change starts at home with our own sons and brothers, teaching them the true value of their female counterparts.

Note from the author: I want to clarify at this point that in these examples provided, I am not negating that women cannot and have not been perpetrators, or that homosexual assaults occur as well; however there are limited studies in female rapists and same-sex sexual assaults, and the underlying causes of such likely stem from differing factors. Therefore most supporting points made in this blog focus on the imbalance of power between men and women in heterosexual assaults. 

Of course, tipping the scales of the world and leveling the gender difference is a social movement, which by definition, progresses and evolves over the course of decades and at times even centuries. Being the realist-borderline pessimist that I am, I don't expect significant results in my lifetime, and thus I know that we as women need to be proactive in our own risk reduction. This is where the anti-victim blaming movement gets a little deluded. Granted, there is a fine line between blaming and taking responsibility for our own safety, and more zealous feminists will send up the battle cry for anyone who remotely suggests that we should be cautious, because that indicates that a lack of caution amounts to fault. This became blindingly clear when Nia Sanchez, crowned Miss USA in 2014, was asked a question involving sexual assaults on college-aged women. In response, the Tae-Kwon-Do black belt stated that she believed women should know how to defend themselves. Following this outrageously sane answer, the torches were lit and the pitchforks were thrust overhead as many screamed "victim blamer" at the pageant winner. "Women should not have to defend themselves, men should learn to take no for an answer!" Well that's half-true. But in my career and in life we have learned about the importance of risk reduction, in spite of life's Shoulds.

Risk reduction is simply taking responsibility for preventive measures, to ensure our well-being to the best of our ability and using our common sense and instinct. For example, I often engage in risk reduction by avoiding walking down the street by myself in the middle of the night in case someone may approach me and attack me. If I go to a club or a bar, I do not leave my drink unsupervised, and I never accept a drink from a stranger in case someone might drug me. If I am at said bar or club, I don't leave the establishment with some random person I just met. If I am online dating, I refuse to meet anywhere but in public places and I never go back to their place or take them to mine until I have gotten to know them and feel comfortable with them. It is ridiculous that such steps must be taken; I should be able to walk where I want when I want. I should be able to set down my drink without worrying because I can't dance and hold my drink without spilling it. I should be able to spend time getting to know someone new without keeping a free hand on the pepper spray in my purse, just in case. I should be able to wear what I want without someone thinking it's an irrevocable invitation into my pants. But I don't live in a world of Shoulds. No matter how society should treat me, life simply isn't this way. As Nia Sanchez said, "it would be great to live in a world without crime and without rape or murder. But that's not reality."

I must admit, in being human, as I sat with this young woman who had so recently been attacked, I had to check and re-check myself as victim-blaming thoughts crept into the back of my mind. Didn't we talk about risk reduction just a few weeks ago? Why would you go anywhere with a man you just met? If you had gotten to know him before you went with him, you might have learned he was a registered sex offender! But these thoughts had been swirling in her mind in the countless hours following her attack, most likely during the attack, and she didn't need to hear them from me. So I jammed those thoughts out of my head and reminded her that no matter what choices she made, he was nothing more than a sick, twisted fuck who took advantage of her, and it wasn't her fault.

I see more and more articles and videos of people in protest of victim blaming, and while most of the arguments are entirely justified and unfathomably legitimate, the pendulum is swinging towards the extremist idealist perspective that may end in someone getting raped simply because the Shoulds they had lived by all their lives could not protect them in that crucial moment. We shouldn't have to deal with an issue like rape at all, but in this less-than-utopian world we live in, it is all-encompassing, and since we cannot rely upon the people around us to make the right decision, until society changes, we have to take care of ourselves the best that we can. The choices we make may mean the difference between safety and assault. Of course, risk reduction is not risk elimination, we may take all the necessary steps to protect ourselves and it still may not be enough. Either way, whatever happens, in the end it is never our faults: no still means no, and whomever you're with bears the full brunt of the responsibility for whatever ensues. But if they can't take no for an answer, a karate chop to the throat and a knee to the crotch may just get the message across.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016


So this conversation is awkward. It's not an easy conversation to have with the impending fear of being labeled a racist for speaking out against anything that doesn't immediately elevate People of Color in the world. But I'm going to have this conversation because I've been reading the articles and the ensuing comments that followed for the past few days, and I even touched on this issue many, many years ago on this blog: the unforgiving world of Oscar nominations.

Since the nominations were announced earlier this year, there has been an outcry among the people for the lack of color in the nomination pool. Blacks and whites were screaming racism, some actors have vowed to boycott the show, and people have flung accusations of white privilege to anyone who questioned their stance. The opposition, however (also blacks and whites), has surged in rebuttal, demanding acknowledgement for achievement alone rather than skin color, retorting that the majority of films that included PoC cast and crew were not Oscar worthy, others were not Oscar eligible, and they accused the general public of requesting a sort of affirmative action for the film industry's biggest night.

The reality of the situation is that there is an issue of color when it comes to the Academy. The majority of members are older and white, and arguably this can skew what films they're drawn to, what films they're willing to watch, and how they are exposed to different films. This inevitably drives an unfair disadvantage to PoC when the nods are handed out. Undoubtedly there needs to be a change in the racial make-up of these award shows' voters. According to Academy president Cheryl Boon Isaacs, years ago, in the 60s and 70s, the academy began recruitment for younger members in order to "freshen up" the ranks. This was intended to give a more balanced approach to the film industry in acknowledging different works, and she plans for the same to be done in the coming year in order to balance the scales for next year's award show. Isaacs stated she was "heartbroken and frustrated" over the white washed Oscar Class of 2016.

But the Academy is not taking too kindly to being called racists for their film preferences. Penelope Ann Miller, an Academy member, shared with The Hollywood Reporter that many of the older members probably didn't see Straight Outta Compton. She also argued the majority of members probably weren't exposed to Beasts of No Nation because it was premiered on the internet streaming service Netflix and they can't figure out how to use computers, hell they're still getting used to the Talkies! She felt it was "extremely offensive" to be called racist or lumped into a class of white privilege, given that she had voted for multiple PoC cast and crew members this year. Jeremy Larner felt Straight Outta Compton was a good film but wasn't worthy of the nomination to begin with due to issues with "structure and substance." I was able to view Beasts of No Nation, and to be honest, I felt it was one of the best films I had seen in awhile, but there was a total lack of exposure. I happened to stumble across it accidentally without knowing that this small, internet streaming production was nominated for SAGs and a Golden Globe. This $6 million only grossed $51K in its opening weekend, and most people never knew it existed. There have been other arguments for Tangerine, Creed, and Concussion, but again, most claim these were not note-worthy performances.

The issue of PoC films rises and falls like the waves of the ocean when films and actors are denied or granted the coveted statuette, and it's hard to discern when we're up or when we're down. Many, many times in the history of this awards show have incredible films been ignored and passed over, other times they got their nods but never took home the gold, and once in a great while, they get a winner. Upsets have included films like Malcolm X, Hotel Rwanda, Ali, and Boyz N the Hood, but there was probably no upset larger than The Color Purple in 1985, nominated for 11 Oscars and taking home none. Some winners have been films and actors such as Training Day with Denzel, Ray with Jamie Foxx, Dreamgirls with Jennifer Hudson, Precious with Mo'Nique, and The Last King of Scotland, with the fabulous Forest Whitaker.

But a new issue arises when there is such a backlash against the academy and its members, and the fear of being politically incorrect drives the affirmative action of Hollywood. No one could have outlined this issue better than Ellen Degeneres when she opened for the Academy Awards in 2014. "There are two options for Best Picture tonight, Option 1: 12 Years a Slave wins, Option 2: You're all racists." It came as a minimal shock that some of the Academy members later admitted to voting for the Best Picture Winner without actually having seen the film, presumably because it seemed the non-racist thing to do. I'm uncomfortable in admitting that I did not care for 12 Years a Slave, because this is what existing in a overtly politically correct society has done to me, but I will say it did not live up to the hype. I'm uncomfortable stating that Lupita N'yongo, albeit a talented actress, did not deserve the Oscar she won for the three bits of dialog she blurted out and the brutal abuse scenes she portrayed. This was the result of the pity Oscar, which I described in the post linked above, when the award members realize they've been too white for too long and they throw a few statues at a few black actors and film makers and call the score settled. Whoopi Goldberg did not get the Oscar for her incomparable performance as Celie Johnson in the adaptation of Alice Walker's The Color Purple, which everyone knew was invariably fucked up. So they gave her the pity Oscar for playing a sassy mouthpiece to a dead white guy and got a few good jokes in the dialog. Sorry, Ghost should not have been her winner. The Academy had never graced an African American actress with the Best Actress statue, though many had been dealt out for Supporting Actresses. Whoopi should have been the first. But she was shoved back to Supporting Actress, and after some bumping and grinding with a racist and a minor dramatic meltdown, Halle Berry got the honor with Monster's Ball. Again, in my opinion, undeserved. Oprah also got passed over for her portrayal of Sofia, another big miss by the show. I never saw Training Day, I don't know if Denzel deserved the Oscar for it or if it was his pity Oscar for losing the Best Actor for Malcolm X, but I saw that one and he totally should have gotten it. Sidney Poitier got an honorary Oscar that same night that Denzel and Halle won for all of his work, because the Academy suddenly realized "Fuck, we were supposed to be giving them to him all along!"

Changes must be made, that is is undeniable. A committee that equally represents all People of Color and varying demographics of gender, sexual orientation, and cultures to ensure a more accurate reflection of the faces we see here in America everyday is desperately needed. But change does not mean slapping a band-aid on the problem by awarding some unworthy actor or writer with a pity Oscar either, giving accolades to the films that are sub-par in order to compensate for the Academy's past failures of truly amazing artistic PoC productions and performances. And as Penelope Miller states, the Academy is not entirely to blame: "There were an incredible number of films in 2015 that were primarily about white people. Talk to the studios about changing that, not the Academy. There's only so much we can do." One commentator on an article I read estimated that only 10% of actors in the film industry are black. It's hard to stand out in that glaring sea of white faces, but neither should the first darker face we see get the gold for simply showing up to the party.