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.

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