Rape culture: How we all contribute and what we can do to change

Just a day before the Trump video was leaked, I read a boldly written piece on rape culture you can find here.

I shared the essay on my Facebook, knowing that most men  would not sit well with the text (for the purpose of this essay “men” will refer to cisgendered men).

As it turned out, only women liked it and few women at that.  It isn’t easy to read over and over “men ain’t shit.”  But, it’s important to realize the author is saying, “We ain’t shit when it comes to rape culture.”

I did not read that as a condemnation of men as human beings.  The friend who’d initially shared it is a man; I never got the feeling the author was saying that men have no worth.  He was specifically addressing the work that doesn’t get done when any of us think we’ve arrived at enlightenment.

None of us have arrived.  We need to keep arriving.  If we think we’ve already arrived we can no longer learn about what work we still need to do.

I had more men in my life favorably receive this article which importunes men to own their  responsibility as it pertains to participation in rape culture.

We all are aware that there are people who rape.  Our laws have called such action a crime and we have a system of justice to hold people accountable for the act of rape.

The term “rape culture” acknowledges that while rapists are responsible for their actions there may have been many people along the way who led each individual to believe that the rape was warranted and excusable.

Most women are raped by someone they know.  An acquaintance.  A neighbor.  A friend.  A boyfriend. A husband.  A doctor.  A coworker.  A mentor. A teacher.

I think one of the more frightening realizations is that sometimes the person raping may not even regard what they have done as rape.

Many women who’ve been raped have yet to come to terms with the idea that they were raped.  As a society, we’re so good at blaming women that women who have been raped continue to blame themselves, and excuse the rapist.

I’ve heard many men say, “Well, this woman doesn’t think it’s rape either,” as though that settles the matter.  But this ignores that the woman who defends the rapist  grew up in the same culture that told her women were to blame, as a rule.

Yes, women have also participated in rape culture.

The culture of rape is a system of stories we’ve be told and keep telling, again and again, to young girls and young boys. These stories are remnants of a past when women were literal property to be completely controlled by their fathers until they were given off to a husband who would continue that level of control.  Of course, that dynamic still exists in the world.

After millennia, narratives which supported the exploitation and abuse of women were maintained as truth regardless of the merit or contradictions within.  Those stories say things like:

Boys want sex all of the time.  Boys can’t control their behavior when it comes to sex, therefore, it is up to girls to keep their legs shut.  Boys can’t control their behavior so girls must wear modest clothing (“modest” will be different for each culture).  Boys can’t control their behavior.  Boys can’t control their behavior.  Boys can’t control their behavior.  Boys can’t control their behavior.

We needn’t have been instructed by our parents, either.  Words from peers, coaches, mentors, song lyrics, movies, TV shows, politician’s speeches- all may have elements which to reinforce the culture which tells us that rape, or groping, or harassment, is excusable for men because they have no control -so we must be in control.

A clear example of this are rapes which occur in the military.  Often it’s said “What did she expect?” and “That’s why we keep women out of the military.”  Reckon that justification with the reality that more than half of the sexual assault victims in the military are male.

The truth is that much of the motive behind sexual assault is a show of power and dominance.  The cover story in our narratives remains that men have no control over what they do because their sexual desire cannot be contained.

This narrative exists side-by-side with the narrative that boys are better suited for leadership because they are less emotional.  Western culture prizes the rational mind as superior and categorizes men as more rational, on the whole.

Emotions can be volatile things, I will agree.  In what sense does passion escape that same category of emotion?  Anger is an emotion, yet the culture allows that passion and anger are acceptable- even expected- traits among men.

Men are simultaneously granted the monopoly on mastery of one’s self as it pertains to the ability to execute in positions of authority (she’s too emotional to lead) while still getting monopoly’s “get out of jail free” (often literally) when we’re speaking of self-control as it pertains to sexual desire.

Men and women both have sexual desire though the level of desire varies within each gender.

We shame men who have little desire to the point that it’s not even discussed.  If not for the commercials for Viagra,  we might think a lack of desire in men was a myth.

Conversely, women are told that they don’t have sexual desire, particularly when compared with men.

The message in our narratives maintains that men are out of control of their own bodies when it comes to sex; they are ruled by their own desire. All in our society are taught that men can’t control their sexual impulses so it’s expected that they’ll verbally harass, leer, grope, cheat, sexually assault, or fully rape you.

Men are encouraged to pride themselves on control so when the control is lost, the blame is placed with the woman whose body caused his desire.  Again, many stories throughout time have reinforced that narrative while others merely reveal that the culture has encouraged men to use women as a scapegoat for their own lack of control.

Men have been excused of responsibility and, instead, the responsibility is placed on women. Your woman’s body is too attractive and too irresistible.  Really, your body made them do it.

What happens when we do encounter a woman with sexual desire?  She is immediately called names to let her know that she is a lowlife in society.  “Slut.” “Whore.” She is a lowlife for having the same desire as a man.  In some cultures, they cut out all of the areas of pleasure because of the fear they have over women’s desire.

No one seems to notice that this woman with desire wasn’t supposed to exist in the first place- after all it was the biological difference in men’s level of desire that was supposed to excuse men’s behavior.

If a woman has desire but isn’t harassing, isn’t groping- isn’t raping- we’d have to acknowledge that women exhibit more control over their own bodies than men do.

I do not feel that the level of control, or lack, is innate in any of us.  We have either been trained from an early age to self-police our desire, or to be libertine.

If a woman is verbally harassed on the street, or physically assaulted, someone will ask “Well, what was she wearing?”

If she was raped they’ll ask:

“Did she drink?”

“Has she had sex with many (or any) other men before?”

“What was she doing there?”

Women are trained that they must be the ones to cover up, stay sober, and not ever have sex (unless they are married in which case they have to always say “yes”).

Men can wear what they want.  Men can drink.  Men can have sex- in fact they are compulsive seekers of sex in our narratives.  We give men freedom to do all these things; they can be wherever they choose to be.

Men can have sex but they cannot get pregnant.  Men cannot get pregnant but they can brag about getting women pregnant and will not be shamed.

Women who have children from multiple partners will be shamed.  Women who choose to abort will be shamed.  Women who want the option to abort will be told that they cannot have control over their own body.

When pregnancy begins a man leaves some blue prints but the woman builds the fetus out of her own blood, her own cells, her own life.  It is a part of her body.  That is the entire concept of viability- the point at which a fetus can live separate from its creator.  Up until that point, the fetus is her body.

Men are not in control of their own bodies but are somehow allowed control over yours.

Whether we’re speaking about how society excuses sexual assault as “boys will be boys” or we’re letting the state tell women they can’t have an abortion, really we’re telling young girls and women- “Your body is not yours.”

If abortion were not at all about control of women’s bodies and sexuality, then those who wish to see fewer teen pregnancies and abortions would encourage us to nationally adopt the same strategy which has worked in Colorado.  There, the birth rate and abortion rates both fell nearly 50% in merely five year’s time.  It’s insincere to state that you are against abortion and fail to embrace such programs.

Men are not in control of their own bodies but are somehow allowed control over yours.

Trump’s words regarding his sexual assaults and his statements regarding punishing women for abortion continue to foster the environment which told the boys and men in our lives that our bodies existed for them.

We’re taking back our bodies for us.

Our bodies exist so we can breathe. Our bodies exist so we can learn.  Our bodies exist so we can experience, teach, love, dream, sing, and dance. Our bodies are not here for you.

Our bodies are our own.

Your eyes don’t have to be beautiful; they are here so you can see the sunrise, the trees, and faces of loved ones.

Your legs don’t have to look the way anyone else wants them to look; they’re here for you to walk and explore your world.

Did we even remember that women have minds? This seems lost in the narrative where women only exist to give sex or children to men.

Women’s bodies are not here so that men can experience them but so that women can experience the world.  That is the story we need to tell now.

We’re taking back our bodies for us.

Women: your body is your own.  Your body is your own. It’s here to serve you.  Your body exists for your edification, your enjoyment, your adventure, your teaching, your learning, your pleasure.

It’s insulting to men to suggest that they have no control over their own bodies – particularly to men who do exhibit control and don’t feel the need to speak every thought which pops into their head as though they were a child.

I would ask even of those men to remember that the purpose of a woman’s body is not to be beautiful for you, or even to be beautiful at all.

The purpose of her body is to serve her adventure and exploration of this life.  If you love the women in your life, please promote that narrative.


The Danger of Hero Worship

Our world has lost an artist who inspired and affected people across age and cultural boundaries.  As we have mourned and reminisced over the loss of David Bowie, many of us have become aware of stories that might threaten the memories we cherish.

Important dialog is taking place on the internet, in blogs and in comments. Like most important dialog, it makes people uncomfortable.

Did David Bowie rape a 13 year old girl? From what I’ve been reading, it seems likely.

Instead of dissecting the past in terms of what one individual may have done (as many  have done with others like Woody Allen and Bill Cosby) I will examine why we, as a society, and as individuals, don’t want to look.

Many people live in fear that if they begin to examine these issues, they will lose something they love. They fear they will no longer be able to enjoy the art and music that has shaped and deeply impacted their lives.

They also wish to hold onto the person who inspired them as an untarnished hero.  Rather than lose something precious to them, they turn away from the discussion, altogether.

Artists are not their art.  Art exists independently of the artist.  

I come from a family of artists and musicians.  Never once have I felt that the art I create comes directly from me.  I’ve felt that art moves through me.  What intention I have when I make the art, if I have intention at all, may have little to no bearing on how the art is experienced by others.  The art is its own, after it is birthed.  Because of my own feelings toward my creations, it’s been easy for me to view art independent from the artist.

I can read the dialogs of Plato and still find instruction despite the fact that his culture would have had little room for my voice, as a woman.  If a book, concept, or quote stands on its own, I can use it to feed me apart from how the author may have intended.  I can read Enlightenment thinkers who were never able to live up to their own beautiful ideals and still find inspiration.

There is, of course, a valid concern that we may not want to give monetary support to living artists, musicians, writers, and entertainers, if we feel they did abuse people, or may still be abusing.   Each person can examine whether they want to remain patrons of any individual, though I’d ask those same people to give as much thought regarding each dollar they spend in any regard.   I doubt any of us is unscathed by connection to exploitation in this way, even when we try (we should still try).

However, I don’t think we need a moral crisis over the consumption of art. If you’re looking for art/music only from saints, you will likely be left with no art and no music.

Artists are people.  People are complex.

Do we need to lose our heroes? Maybe. Or, perhaps we need to redefine what “hero” means.

Hero worship relates in some fashion to family pride and nationalism.  It draws on the same desire to protect that which we hold dear as though it were a part of our own body.  We have difficulty finding fault in any person, or group, to whom we’ve developed that kind of attachment.

Hero vs. villain is a flawed notion, as presented in our culture. We deify our heroes and view attention brought to failings as an offense.  I’ve witnessed this reaction, in the past year alone, in regard to criticisms of  Bill Cosby, Jon Stewart, various political figures, and police officers.  It appears that people are allowed to either love or hate someone.  Yet, finding flaws can be a high form of love when we ask, “Can you do better?”

Certain people in our society have bonded to the concept of police in general and glorify the officers in abstraction, while others find all police to be villainous.  Neither group are able to view police as individuals.  The nuance of the individual is also lost with those who will bond to one political party, and malign another.  Read any comment section on a political article and you’ll find ad hominems of: “That’s what I’d expect from a (insert “Republican” or “Democrat”) like you.”

Furthermore, it’s important that we examine which groups we, as a society, readily and consistently vilify.  I’ve seen many people share articles  showing that rowdy white people at sporting events are portrayed as “revelers” while rowdy people of color protesting are portrayed as “thugs.”  We can witness statistics which bear out that people of color are policed in ways that white people are not; it’s impossible for me to imagine a black militia being allowed to take over a portion of Baltimore and claim it as their own.  I don’t believe the response from authorities would be at all the same as we’ve seen with the militia in Oregon, even if the occupied area were uninhabited.

If we are able to search for excuses for our heroes, who essentially are strangers to us, how can we fail to extend the same understanding to those who are, actually, equally unknown to us?  In all of these circumstances, people are seeking to prove that a person is good, or bad.

In truth, there are no good people. There are no bad people. This oversimplification is a false dichotomy.

In a strict definition, a good person would find it impossible to do something bad and a bad person would, likewise, never do anything good. That’s just not how humans are.

Yet, there is good action, and bad action.

Good and bad are what we do, not what we are.

As individuals, we are all made up of the sum of *all* of our actions. But that doesn’t come out to a grade at the end. It’s more like each action still lives on, with all of its consequence attached. Each of us should appreciate that all our own actions play out in this way.

It’s important that we focus on the culture (that’s us) that supports these events rather than singularly focus on any one individual.  In what way does our society prime young women to offer themselves to men, sexually?  In what way do we prime men to treat women as something which exists for them? In what ways do we still excuse the men and blame the young girls?

Do we treat a young girl who has been with a rock star with a similar attitude that we treat a young boy who has been with any older woman: you were so lucky.   When we do this, our reactions make it harder for a person who was harmed to say, “This wasn’t what I wanted,” even to themselves.

I wonder how much of what our culture does relates to family dynamics within households.  I know of too many situations where a child was abused and if the child wished to speak out, the rest of the family condemned them and essentially said the victim would be the one ruining the family.   It seems like we still get angry at the ones who are telling us they’re hurt.  This is part of what is meant by the term “rape culture.”

If you start to read articles, you’d be hard pressed to find any musician of the 70’s era that isn’t linked to sex with teens. Given the way the music and art scene is described, even if one could argue Bowie wasn’t involved with any 13 year old, he was certainly surrounded by friends who were.

This means everyone around, at the time, was aware of what was happening.

I watched a video of Dinah Shore interviewing Iggy Pop where he talks about cutting himself with a bottle while on stage to punish himself because he feels guilty about leaving a 13 year old girl stranded, at the airport. Bowie is sitting next to him during this interview. I had a bad feeling about what that might imply even before reading anything about Bowie’s possible involvement with a minor. Yet, Dinah Shore doesn’t seemed fazed one bit.

I don’t believe we have to abandon art because the artists have done things we abhor but we do need to have the courage to look at what has happened so that we may say “how did/does our culture foster this?”

If I have a friend I love who has done something wrong, I will call them out on it. It doesn’t mean I’m saying, “You are bad.” I’m saying “This *action* is unacceptable.”  Similarly, we can condemn an action of a beloved artist of any kind and still make use of whatever they created that had merit.

I think it’s important we call out those artists who may be currently harming someone, or who have yet to own to past abuse.

For artists who have passed on, we must accept that genius does not equal greatness in terms of ethics. It never did. It also doesn’t equal a pass.

If we can separate the art from the artists, perhaps we can allow ourselves to look more closely at things which we may not want to, and ask questions, and have conversations about these topics.

Understanding that Bowie was an addict, and owned to harming those around him while an abuser, I’d like to think he regretted any action he took, or failed to take, regarding other abuse around him. I’d like to think that. Is it true? I’ll certainly never know.

It’s hard for me to reconcile a man so evolved in so many ways, championing so many virtues, who would fail so glaringly in this one. Yet, sadly, it’s not uncommon in our society.

For me, I don’t want to look at the past with accusation and say “they.” I want to look to the present and the future to say “We” can do better.

I think we are already doing better because, in my youth, these conversations were not happening. Women were always blamed for anything bad that happened to them. Let’s, at least, safely discard that concept and move forward, with courage, to face the failings of heroes so we can all learn to be better.

I don’t think we have to abandon the art. I do think it’s necessary to abandon the hero.



*Correction: an earlier version of this piece asked if Bowie “had sex” with a 13 year old girl.  This has been corrected to properly state this as rape.