When Will We Blame the Rapist? A Pajiba Sunday Sermon
A few days ago I swore to myself I wasn’t going to write about rape again. The past week has been a demented media festival of victim blaming and it was getting me down—but plenty of other people were addressing the goings-on. As I began reading the myriad parallel articles following Anonymous’ press release about the rape of two young girls in Maryville, Missouri, I realized my resolve was quickly being chipped away. Still, a nagging little voice in my head pestered; “People don’t want to be slapped with a rape headline every damned day. There are so many depressing things going in the news already…people need escape.” Rape is a nightmarish subject, and even the most empathetic reader doesn’t care to dwell on thoughts of it any longer than is absolutely necessary; it’s fucking depressing. For people who have been sexually assaulted, the rest of their lives are often spent trying to get past (forget) the moment their lives completely changed. Some days when I see the headlines, I think to myself, “Do we have to talk about rape every single day?” I don’t know…maybe we really do.
Let me back up just a minute here; last week, there was a big hullabaloo over a Slate piece in which writer Emily Yoffe basically suggested women should stop drinking to the point of incapacitation so they won’t get raped. Now mind you, if she’d written that college girls and guys should stop drinking—ineffectual idea though it is—her piece might not have gotten the same negative attention, but suggesting that if women don’t drink they won’t be raped is foolish. Rape doesn’t happen because people are drinking, rape happens because one human being has no respect for another human being. Inside a rapist’s head there is something that says, “What I want is more important than what you want; in fact, it’s more important than you, so I’m just going to take what I want.” As you can imagine, there were plenty of responses to Yoffe’s piece, then she followed up with another piece, and we were all so distracted by the fighting, we weren’t paying attention to a most relevant case, less than an inch away in the headlines.
If perhaps you hadn’t heard Daisy Coleman’s rape story earlier, this week she wrote about it herself. Fourteen at the time of the attack (her friend was thirteen), Coleman simply recounts that on the night of January 8, 2012, she and her best friend Paige (who was sleeping over) had been secretly drinking, and after Coleman texted with an older boy (17 year old Matthew Barnett), the girls snuck out of Coleman’s house to be picked up by Barnett; he drove the girls to his house. At the Barnett home, several high school boys were gathered, drinking and watching football. Barnett gave Coleman more alcohol, she drank it and at some point blacked out. After she was raped, Coleman was left on her front yard in the snow, barefoot—discarded like trash. Alerted by barking dogs, Coleman’s (single) mother Melinda discovered her daughter outside, wet and freezing, brought her in, and drew a bath to warm her. When she realized something more had happened to Daisy, Melinda took her to the ER where it was confirmed Daisy had been raped. Her friend Paige had also been raped and taken to the hospital. A video of Daisy being raped (taken by one of the other boys) made the rounds at the high school. Though multiple charges—including felony rape—were brought against Matthew Barnett, two months later they were mysteriously dropped (purportedly due to “lack of evidence”), and the Colemans suffered harassment to the point the family left town. The house they left behind was suspiciously burned to the ground. After The Kansas Star published this excellent, detailed piece about the events surrounding these rapes, Anonymous began its campaign to have the Coleman case investigated; two days later Missouri Lieutenant Governor Peter Kinder called for a grand jury review (a special prosecutor is being sought). And so we had a moment in which we could find some solace, knowing there may finally be a little bit of justice found. But wait, don’t even bother to let that feeling begin to wash over—because Fox news was still out there, waiting to pounce.
It’s one thing when an ignorant internet collective hurls around insults, blaming rape victims for wearing certain clothes, being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or drinking themselves into being attacked; quite another when a news outlet (even if it’s Fox) allows someone spewing the same vile horseshit to hit the airwaves. Following the grand jury review announcement, Fox news anchor Shepard Smith asked criminal defense attorney and “industry expert” Joseph DiBenedetto his opinion on the case. After speculating that Daisy Coleman was probably lying, DiBenedetto said,
“She is leaving her home at 1 a.m. in the morning and nobody forced her to drink. And what happens? She gets caught by her mom, she’s embarrassed and the easy way out here is, ‘Mom, someone took advantage of me.’ But what did she expect to happen at 1 a.m. in the morning after sneaking out? I’m not saying — assuming that these facts are accurate and this did happen — I’m not saying she deserved to be raped, but knowing the facts as we do here including what the prosecutor has set forth, this case is going nowhere and it’s going nowhere quick.”
In case you need to see it for yourself:
I almost threw up. So let me get this straight; if a fourteen year old girl leaves her house past a certain hour and drinks, she should expect—but may not deserve—to be raped. Yeah, let that sink in for a minute…
First of all, if one more person talks about rape with the word “deserve” anywhere in a nearby sentence, my head is going to explode. Secondly, no matter what Emily Yoffe or Joseph DiBenedetto say, alcohol does not beget rape. And thirdly, when are we all going to stop shaming, blaming and ripping apart rape victims—even when they are children? When are we going to put the attention squarely where it belongs—on the rapist? There are fundamental steps not being taken, notably visible with these high profile rape cases like Coleman’s, where the rapists are local sports heroes, or from well-connected families or tightly-knit communities. Here are a few statistics (from a 2013 report based on data taken between 1995 and 2010, U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics) you may find surprising:
91% of rape victims are female; 99 percent of arrested rapists are men.
Nearly 2 of 3 rapists are known to the victim (friend or acquaintance).
According to RAINN, 54% of rapes go unreported, and
Only 3% of rapists will ever spend time in jail. 3%.
Let’s get this alcohol business out of the way. Does drinking sometimes make people act stupid, incapacitate them or make them less capable of making good decisions? Yes. Does drinking somehow create rapists or victims; does it give anyone permission to rape, or set a person up for rape? No. I’m all for personal responsibility and awareness; I have two young daughters and you can bet your ass I’ll discuss all manner of self-defense as they’re growing into young women. But I also have a young son, and of all the things we try to instill in him, kindness toward and respect for other people are at the top of the list. Before I ever worry about any of them ingesting alcohol, I’ll do my damnedest to make sure they understand what the word “No” means, and we’ll have plenty of discussions about consent. But beyond each of us making sure our kids are taught right, we have to find a way to change what’s happening outside our insular family walls. We have to stop this stigmatizing that makes so many girls and women afraid to report being raped.
I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but here is what I know won’t help: Slut shaming, victim blaming, harassment, bullying, death threats, shunning, hiding away, name-calling, calling rape anything other than rape, making excuses, feeling badly, ignorance, apathy or hatred. It’s time we all step up, face the hot mess our society has become and make even the tiniest of efforts to effect change. Change begins with brave young girls (and their mothers) like Daisy and Paige coming forward, telling their stories even after they’ve been let down and shut down. It begins with investigative reports like The Kansas City Star’s and with campaigns by organizations like Anonymous. Change begins with people who spread the story through social media, and when the conversation is carried on by regular people, like us. As horrible and negative as some internet groups can be, so can others of us gather to be powerful and effective in a positive way. Change will happen when we refuse to accept that someone we know or love is likely to be raped in her lifetime; when we let it sink in that one of every six American women has been the victim of rape or attempted rape. Change will happen when we stop letting rapists get away with their crimes; when even these high school boys—held up in their respective towns as “sports heroes” or “young men with promising lives ahead of them”—are appropriately convicted and sentenced. Change can happen when in addition to parents fostering respect, children of a certain age understand exactly what rape is; when high schools, colleges and the military establish and publicize very clear standards of behavior and are committed to ongoing awareness education—when they give complete cooperation to law enforcement agencies. Change will happen when we know regardless of a person’s standing or athletic prowess, a rapist will be criminally prosecuted. Change can happen if we all stand behind girls like Daisy Coleman to let them know they are not alone.