While discussing issues surrounding sexuality and gender I encounter a great many conversations affirming the idea that we live in a rape culture, a society that excuses, normalizes, or even condones particularly male perpetrated sexual violence toward women and girls. Considering today’s third wave intersectional feminism, which declares itself diverse and inclusive of people of all colours, shapes, sexual orientations, and a wide variety of gender identities, I find it interesting that I still keep encountering this simplistic, exclusionary, unilateral understanding of violence and violence acceptance: it is women who are raped, men who do the raping, and this specific gendered practice which society does not take seriously enough.
As a female survivor of male assault and an anti-violence activist, I’m more than familiar with the public and private responses to any experience like mine: an automatic outpouring of empathy for the female survivor and pitchfork-wielding anger directed toward that person’s male attacker. I’ve seen this time and again with little variance, no matter where I go, no matter my audience, to the extent that I would be genuinely shocked if I stumbled upon anyone who blamed me or dismissed my account of those events.
This, of course, is good news, but I have struggled in vain to find that same compassion and understanding for my many acquaintances and loved ones who have suffered the same or worse, but are male or whose assailants were female, who I am regularly told don’t exist, don’t matter, or are unfortunate but not part of the “real” or “larger” problem we need to address (never mind the way I’m dismissed when I tell of my experiences at the hands of other women). If you’ve read my blog before, you know that my thesis on the subject of rape culture is that it is victims outside this male-on-female model, including LGBT individuals, but especially male victims of any kind, who are widely swept under the rug, neglected, blamed, and mistreated when they are raped. To illustrate my point perhaps more succinctly than I have in the past, here is a simple pop culture comparison.
In 2012 multiple Steubenville high school football players took egregious advantage of a female peer while she was passed out drunk at a party. There were members of the district staff who were aware of the incident but kept quiet, and some even attempted to cover it up. When the story broke, the American people were quite justifiably in a blind rage about this, calling for the heads of the rapists, coaches, and district. Two boys and a staff member were convicted and sentenced. Many other staff were forced to resign and charged, and these events even allowed other cases to be uncovered and addressed within the same district, which appeared to have covered up other assaults, as well as cases of child abuse.
This story is frequently held up as an example of rape culture, despite the outrage expressed by pretty much everyone at the events, despite the fact that most of those involved have been held criminally responsible in accordance with due process, and those who weren’t have lost their jobs, status, and reputation. In this culture where it is supposedly normal and acceptable to rape women, rapists were tried and convicted along with those who enabled them, and everyone’s reputation was smeared across the country in a sensational news story among echoing cries for castration and death.
In 2015 Brock Turner took advantage of a female peer while she was passed out drunk. The two men who discovered and helped her were hailed as the heroes they are. The rapist plead guilty, was convicted, and was sentenced, though his sentence was abnormally light, offensively lenient. When the story broke, the American people were, again very justifiably, foaming-at-the-mouth angry. They called for the heads of the rapist and the judge who sentenced him. When Turner was released from prison there was another wave of outrage as the public was reminded of him and his callous crime, solidifying his name in history as synonymous with a host of ugly and well deserved pejoratives.
Like the previous case, this story is considered a quintessential example of rape culture, despite the outrage it sparked in every corner of the country. It has been widely used to argue that rapists get off easy due to a lack of public interest in punishing them, even though there are currently over 15,000 people incarcerated in federal prisons for sex crimes, even though the average sentence for convicted rapists is about 10 years, not the three months young Brock got away with serving. Turner’s fate is in no way typical for his crime, even less a consequence of his gender, especially when you consider how much more leniently female rapists are treated under the law. It’s overwhelmingly apparent that it was the wealth and influence of Turner’s family that got him off easy, not his sex. And yet this case is iconic in the conversation surrounding the theory of rape culture, used to promote the idea that the American people are okay with women getting raped and don’t care if rapists are punished.
However, in stark contrast to these news reports, a year prior to the events of People v. Turner actress and comedian Amy Schumer gave a speech at the Gloria Awards and Gala. She detailed a story from her college days in which she, sober as a judge, took advantage of a male peer who was so drunk that he couldn’t stay conscious. The line “Is it still considered head if the guy falls asleep every three seconds?” stands out in my mind. And this wasn’t an apologetic admission of guilt, either. This speech was an empowerment story, a brag about how she used a mentally and physically incapacitated person to regain her confidence in her body and her sexuality.
And this time, there were no torches, no pitchforks, no public outcry at all. There was no court case, and no judge held accountable by the people to give a proper and deserved sentence. In fact, there was applause. Social media was ablaze with an outpouring of love and appreciation for Schumer, and she was hailed across liberal news outlets as courageous, empowering, and feminist. She was praised for this speech on Huffpost, Gawker, Bustle, Vulture, and the Washington Post, to name just a few.
Amy Schumer committed exactly the same crime that earned the likes of Brock Turner national vitriolic outrage, and yet the few journalists who tried to point out that her actions even constituted rape were largely ignored or dismissed. There’s even an article entitled “No, Amy Schumer did not give a speech celebrating how she raped a guy,” in which the author blames Schumer’s victim on the grounds that he drunkenly initiated some acts (conspicuously ignoring the fact that Schumer painstakingly described him as being so wasted that he was not himself, had little motor function to speak of, and that he repeatedly lost consciousness during the encounter), and even suggested not-so-subtly that he was the one taking advantage of her due to her dissatisfaction with the experience in the moment.
If either of the women in the above criminal cases had initiated their encounter before passing out, would that have made the men involved not rapists? Would those men have become her victims, rather than the other way around, had they reported feeling uncertain, disappointed, or disgusted by her drunkenness while they raped her? Is there any conceivable excuse by which their actions would not still have been universally and emphatically condemned? Is there any conceivable order of events in which Brock Turner or Ma’lik Richmond would have been praised for penetrating a drunk, unconscious woman? Imagine feminist pundits and journalists, members of a movement whose platform is largely centered around its opposition to sexual violence, hailing those men for their courage had they told their stories on a stage with the goal of empowering men.
No. The difference is clear: Amy Schumer, a woman, is celebrated for raping a man, while men who are caught committing such acts against women are met with conviction, prison time, and the uncensored hatred of every American who reads the news.
So tell me, which gender’s rapists are widely condoned, excused, or swept under the rug? Who is most often told they are asking for it? Who is blamed for their victimization? Who is ignored, laughed at, or disbelieved? If any national news story is to be held up as an example of rape culture, it is the story of Amy Schumer’s speech, in which she brags publicly and unabashedly in front of cameras about raping a young man, and is met with congratulations, in which anyone who objects to her actions is dismissed as hyperbolic or confused, in which the national conversation about rape and the way it’s addressed continues to exclude female perpetrators and male victims because they are generally believed to not exist or not to merit discussion. This is what rape culture looks like.
Don’t misunderstand me. I have no doubt that there are cases in which women are mistreated by the criminal justice system while attempting to report victimization. I’m sure that there are places where women have been disbelieved or told they shouldn’t have been drinking, however patently condemned this practice is by the overwhelming majority of our society. My argument that this sort of treatment is not considered acceptable and is not ubiquitous should not be taken as an ethical statement excusing it. Officials who actually do behave this way should be exposed and punished.
But everyone is aware that women can be, and sometimes are, the victims of sexual assault. Law enforcement and social workers are trained to anticipate female victims of male assailants, and to believe and assist the woman accordingly. Everyone is horrified when male rapists appear in the news, especially when they fail to be properly punished. (Of course, if more women were aware of this, rather than buying into the narrative that they will be disbelieved and blamed by the public and the criminal justice system alike, more women would probably be willing to report.)
But further, male rapists do appear in the news, earning those news stations hoards of outraged viewers. They don’t get laughed off as unusual or silly. Unlike men, women are not assumed to always want sex; their gender and sexuality are not treated as indicators of blanket consent. Men and boys are taught to be respectful and that one of the worst things they can do is take advantage of a woman, while girls get no such lesson. Unlike men, women who say no are not called homophobic slurs or considered less of a woman. Male perpetrators are not celebrated or represented as a comedy trope. Women aren’t laughed at when they try to report, nor are they told there’s no such thing as a female rape victim or that they ought to be happy they got laid. No one hi-fives them or calls them lucky. Female victims are immediately met with compassion when they reveal themselves as such to any audience; they don’t have to seek out small online communities within a fringe human rights movement to find someone, anyone, who is willing to give them empathy and understanding for their suffering.
The majority of the neglected, ignored, and blamed rape victims are male. If you’re going to discuss rape culture, you wouldn’t just be remiss, you’d be neglecting the bulk of the problem if you didn’t address the way we respond to male victims and female rapists.