By Kristy Kumar
Aug. 7, 2014
“I didn’t actually mean I wanted to rape her,” he said in disbelief, as if I had stripped him of his morality entirely. “You understand that, right?” he asked vulnerably.
A couple weeks ago, I went camping with some friends of friends. As we bonded over a slew of s’mores, I realized that one of the campers and I shared a favorite band. We both raved about the female lead until he nodded in agreement and said, “Ya, if I had to rape anyone, I’d rape her.”
Similarly, a few weeks ago, another male friend of mine was having a humorous debate with his girlfriend and asked for my two cents. He laughingly inquired, “Kristy, if masturbation was socially acceptable as a public act, would rape happen less?”
How is it that in 2014 men and women still casually joke about rape against women? Maybe it’s because of the number of times sexual violence is commoditized in culture through television shows, music and movies. Rape culture is not a new phenomenon, but as our lives have shifted online, so has the glorification of sexual violence.
Research indicates that one in three women will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime, one in five women will be raped and one in four college women have survived rape or attempted rape since the age of 14. Tragically, these numbers are likely under-representative; 60percent of sexual assaults are not reported to the police and 97 percent of rapists will never spend a day in jail. 99 percent of these rapists are men, and 67 percent of them personally know the victim. These are the commonly known and used horrifying statistics. What is less studied is the attitude of individuals who are not direct victims or physical perpetrators of sexual violence —those who choose to be either enablers or allies.
Rape culture compounded by a social media-focused population has culminated in a uniquely dangerous phenomenon. There is a growing proliferation of men and women who are sexual violence enablers. These are the individuals who make rape jokes at dinner parties or those who hear a rape joke and do nothing. These are the individuals who glorify the life of a pimp. These are the individuals who have no intention of physically harming a subject, but aid the culture of violence through their rhetoric and non-action. While the world of sexual violence has always comprised of predators and victims, we have seen a surge in the last decade of enablers, who, often through social media, perpetuate and confirm rape as unexceptional reality that is ultimately humorous.
Last year numerous stories surfaced about girls like Audrie Pott and Rehtaeh Parsons who consumed alcohol, passed out, and then became victim to gang rape and “revenge porn” – exposure of photos on the internet of nude individuals without consent. Both women eventually committed suicide. Other women, however, have chosen to go public with their stories.
Anna, at 18 years old, was sexually assaulted her freshman year at Hobart and William Smith Colleges last semester. A friend of Anna’s saw two football players assault her while she was unconsciousness in a darkened dance hall with six or seven people watching, laughing and taking pictures. While it only took 12 days for the college to investigate the rape report, hear changing testimony from the football players and clear them, Anna was left to face mockery from her peers. The football team went on to finish undefeated in its conference.
Anna had too few allies. She had to endure interrogation by the school’s disciplinary panel, including questions about how much alcohol she consumed, who she may have kissed and how she had danced. Rather than focus on evidence from rape-kit results that indicate “blunt force trauma,” the panel focused on questions that enable victim blaming and preserve the very power structures that perpetuate violence.
Enablers reached a new low when last month, a young girl from Houston named Jada saw photos of her unconscious body go viral on Twitter after she was drugged and raped at a high school party. The perpetrators posted photos of her nude body with crude language and immediately the hashtag #jadapose was born, garnering over 30,000 uses across the U.S. men and women alike used the hashtag to mock Jada’s body and share images of themselves similarly splayed out on the floor.
After Jada’s dehumanizing event was immortalized in cyberspace, a Houston-area rap artist was quick to write a song called “Hit that Jadapose.” Rather than drowning in the wave of violence and degradation, Jada chose to ride and overcome it with the support of allies who have both reclaimed and transformed the hashtag as a symbol of strength and perseverance. “There’s no point in hiding,” Jada said in an interview with Ronan Farrow on MSNBC. “Everybody has already seen my face and my body, but that’s not what I am and who I am.”
In order to halt sexual violence, we must fundamentally alter the association paradigm. Allies for women like Jada and Anna need to be the norm and not the exception; in particular, school officials, law enforcement, judges, peers and even strangers need to step up. While there are two boys being called into question for their actions against Jada, what about the hundreds of individuals who reimagined Jada’s victimization and reproduced it as a point of comedy? Is expanding legislation on revenge porn the answer, or should the focus be on prevention, education, and advocacy that focuses on shifting fundamental social norms?
Ultimately, it’s easy to laugh awkwardly when your friend says a joke that condones violence against women. It’s hard to say “rape is not about sex, pleasure, or physical needs. It’s about dominance. It’s about objectification. And most of all, it’s not funny.” Difficult as it may be, more people need to make the hard choice to speak up so that women like Audrie, Rehtaeh, Jada, and Anna have allies on their team.
Kristy Kumar is a Herbert Scoville Jr. Peace Fellow with Truman National Security Project and Center for National Policy. She was a Fulbright English teacher in rural Malaysia in 2013 and received her B.A. from the University of California, Berkeley.
[Title Photo: The first Slut Walk protest in Toronto. April 3, 2011. Photo by Anton Bielousov, Wikipedia Commons]