Silence, Silencing, and Rape Culture: a meditation in three parts

When I received an email recently from an unknown sender and cryptically titled “from your least favorite writer,” I was intrigued.

monsters_abbott-and-costello-meet-frankenstein-smiles
NOT me and the letter-writer chumming around.

Turns out, the author of a web essay published over a year ago had just located the excoriating critique of her work I posted at the time. By turns professional, embarrassed, and angry in tone, JD’s letter acknowledges some errors she wishes she’d avoided, defends some choices she made, and could be construed as an attempt at dialogue. Or, rather: could be so construed except for the final paragraph, in which she offers to write more carefully about rape in the future — “in return” for my taking down the post, or at least removing her name from my critical discussion of her still-available-online essay.

In a word: No. 

I offered, instead, to include her rebuttal as an addendum to my initial post. I have no animus towards this writer personally, much as I disagreed with this one piece — and I am strongly committed to the idea that the only way any of us get better at honestly discussing hot-button social justice issues is by, yknow, honestly discussing hot-button social justice issues. Having gotten no response in over two weeks, I am instead going to talk with you all about what this exchange foregrounded for me: about mistakes, and how we talk about them; about blogging, and why I do it; about calling people out and calling people in; and about why asking for a call-out to be expunged strikes me as the wrongest of wrong approaches to take, especially when the topic under discussion is rape or abuse.

I

In 2003, the Boston Globe published a series of investigative reports that broke the story of widespread and systemic sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests in the Boston area. Last year’s movie Spotlight, named for the Globe’s investigative journalism unit, tells the story behind those stories — beginning with the newspaper editor’s decision to sue for access to sealed documents that one local lawyer insists will prove how high-ranking Church officials knew of the abuse and actively protected the abusers.

The documents in question turn out to be a series of letters to the Cardinal — some from families of young victims and others from church officials who had witnessed the abuse — all asking for his help and intervention. Dating over decades, the letters have been for all these years ignored, concealed, and finally locked away by the courts.

Spotlight is an extraordinary film. I have lost count of how many times I’ve watched it in just the last month. Over and over, the movie generates tension simply through showing how people’s belief that the Church does good, that Church officials are doing good work, translates into a refusal to see or acknowledge the concomitant harm — the monstrous acts — also being perpetrated. In one critical scene, a judge asks a reporter: “Tell me, where is the editorial responsibility in publishing records of this nature?”

The reporter’s response: “Where is the editorial responsibility in not publishing them?”

Spotlight is not a movie about how abuse got abetted by church leadership. It is a movie about how silence gets abetted by the rest of us.

II

Former Speaker of the House (and thus second-in-line to the presidency) Dennis Hastert was sentenced last month to 15 months in prison for banking fraud† related to monies he paid to one of several men whom he sexually abused decades ago, while employed as their high school wrestling coach. One week prior, the court had released over 40 letters written in defense of Hastert’s character and asking for leniency — letters which made for…interesting reading, let’s say.

The standout for many was this bit of genius from Tom DeLay (yes, THAT Tom DeLay, another former-Speaker who only narrowly escaped prison for his own financial shenanigans on appeal): “We all have our flaws, but Dennis Hastert has very few. He is a good man that loves the lord. He gets his integrity and values from Him. He doesn’t deserve what he is going through…” [emphasis added].

[Uh, Tom? Little fyi: Once you’ve got “serial molester of children” going for ya, don’t much matter to me — like, AT ALL — whether or not your flaws-list has an item #2.]

If everyone’s back now from headdesking themselves into oblivion? Great! Lemme point out the obvious: That beloved shibboleth, “if a man does good, he can’t possibly be monstrous,” is at play here too. 5-acts-Shakespearean-level play, at that. Over and over, these 40+ letter-writers repeat this idea: “I know him as a man of faith, integrity and honesty.” “Selfless.” “[A] rock solid guy with center of the country values.”

Now, amid all the gasps and eye-rolling, one important detail about these letters got lost in the reporting. There were originally 60 letters submitted under seal to the court, but Judge Thomas Durkin refused to consider any statement of support that the author was unwilling to submit publically. No “but I know the man!”-letters admissible under shroud of silence.

I wonder if the judge has seen Spotlight, too.

III

The Salon essay I objected to so strenuously also tangoed (albeit without resolution) with this question of man-vs-monster, specifically whether one can simultaneously be 1) a rapist and 2) an artist.

Here’s my response to the author, regarding her request:

Hi [JD],

Thank you for writing me; I do not underestimate the difficulty of doing so. As a writer myself, I know how painful reading criticism of our words can be — and my critique certainly pulled no punches.

I join you in wishing that Salon had put this piece through a more rigorous editorial review process. I believe that failure did a great disservice to you, as well as to their readers. The “rapists are monsters” trope is a powerful and ubiquitous belief system in our culture, which does great harm on many levels, and I know how hard it is for all of us to confront and root out rape mythologies in our own thinking. As I point out in my post, I did find your initial framing of the issue compelling. If I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have bothered to read it, let alone dedicate any time to writing a response, and my intent has never been — then or now — to attack or belittle you personally. I think these issues matter. I think we all, individually and collectively, can and must do better at how we think and talk about rape, if we are to have any hope of aiding survivors or reducing the sexual violence that produces so many victims. My blog itself exists primarily as a place for me to practice and get better myself at talking about sexual violence, and the small readership I have (many of whom are rape, assault, and abuse survivors themselves) is one that has developed out of trust that I will keep challenging them — and they me — on this path.

It is for this reason that I am respectfully declining your request that I take down the post, or remove your name from it. What I would like to offer instead — with your permission — is that I post your letter to me as an addendum to the post, allowing your response to stand next to my initial critique….

Best wishes,
Alice

TL;DR I don’t do silence. I do conversation. 

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

I’m deadly serious about the conversation part. In thinking through how to respond to JD, I kept remembering an exchange that occurred on here a couple months ago, when another blogger (with whom I’ve had a few exchanges in the past, but nothing I’d consider “blogger intimacy”) left a comment that — while expressing great sympathy for victims — also struck me as heavily steeped in the language and logic of rape culture.

My reply ran longer than the original post.

The resulting exchange I still find quite remarkable. BT and I wrote back and forth for the next 3 1/2 hours. I suggested other posts for her to read — both aggressively “STFU RIGHT TF NOW” stuff and deeply raw, “here’s how my own rapes went down” stuff — which she not only read but then left thoughtful responses to. While I can’t say what exactly I convinced her of that night nor what effects, if any, endure for her from our conversation, the very fact that for more than three hours, this stranger was willing to engage with me on the subject of rape, and to remain open to my stories and my persuasions? matters to me more than I can say.

Look, this sh!t runs deep. Without a driving personal need or explicit deprogramming intervention, pulling yourself free from the winding vines of rape culture logic can be hella hard. And it is rape culture that I write back against here, not rapists themselves. To paraphrase Ta-Nehisi Coates [speaking in a vastly different context, but about the same basic problem]:

The point is not to change the thinking of the rapist. (Highly unlikely.) The point is to force the enablers to take responsibility for their own thoughts.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Make no mistake: all this Human being? or MONSTER?! logic is bogus on its face. The capacity for cruelty, callousness, violence, and wanton destruction is warp-and-weft of our common humanity. But my frustration reaches far beyond the illogic of it.

This way of thinking shelters abusers.

This way of thinking abets rapists.

This way of thinking enabled Hastert, the priests in Boston, and countless others to rape/abuse/assault/violate with impunity and without repercussion.

Man-or-monster thinking also thrives in silence. Hell, it demands silence.

Because if one believes in rigid, impermeable boundaries around what defines humanity, then seeing any humanness in someone — even ourselves — requires denying the possible co-existence of evil. This logic also promises that good behavior will follow in the future…provided everyone first shut up about the bad behavior in the past.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

I can never know exactly why JD wrote me (though I have suspicions‡) nor why she did not write me back. I cannot decipher anyone else’s silence, and I have long-since learned not to try.

If she is genuinely rethinking how she approaches the issues her essay touched on (which include not only rape and rape culture, but also how these intersect with US racism and the prison-industrial-complex), I wish her well on her journey. Should she — or any of y’all — want more of my perspective on the profound toxicity of this “human being? OR MONSTER??!” way of thinking so fundamental to predators in our midst, my original post remains online and available.

As does JD’s essay that sparked it.

# # #


† I’ve been seeing memes and internet outrage a-plenty related to what people perceive as the leniency of Hastert’s sentence (“only 15 months for RAPING FOUR YOUNG BOYS?!!” has hella shock value), so quick reminder: the statute of limitations had already expired for any charges to be brought related to the molestations. This is what prosecutors argue he DID do.

‡ If her intent was simply to clean up her online presence and to eliminate any negative hits when one googles her name, well — let’s just say that UC Davis’ recent (and spectacularly-backfired) effort should be instructive to us all.

Featured image: Frankenstein and the Wolfman enjoying each other’s company via

11 thoughts on “Silence, Silencing, and Rape Culture: a meditation in three parts

  1. Drs. Philip Zimbardo and Stanley Milgram both spent their scientific careers trying to understand how ordinary people can do terrible, evil things. They were both motivated to study this, to a certain extent, by the Holocaust and the fact that thousands (or millions, depending on how wide you cast your net) of ordinary Germans went along and helped with Hitler’s Final Solution.

    What they discovered in the course of their experiments is truly frightening. Milgram was easily able to convince most of his research subjects – men, women, young, old, religious, law abiding, you name it – to electrocute another person to death in the name of science. Zimbardo was able to take a group of carefully screened young men at Stanford and turn half of them into sadistic “prison guards” who tortured and tormented the “prisoners” under their care (who were the other half of the research subjects). He wrote a book about The Stanford Prison Experiment called The Lucifer Effect. Should be required reading for everyone. He has a website that summarizes most of it for free: http://lucifereffect.com

    So, definitely not MONSTER? or HUMAN? More like: human and husband/wife and enjoys music and monster and loves hiking and and and…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The Stanford Prison experiment is fascinating, though perverse — thank you IRB boards for no letting that level of fuckery be done in the name of “science”!.

      A researcher recently (the article I read* was published last year) went back through Milgram’s data and reached some different conclusions as to *why* people participated and continued to deliver the electric shocks when instructed. What he saw was not people being convinced to obey without conscience — the common interpretation of that study — but people attempting resistance, but with differing levels of skill at resisting authority. Folks that resisted used a variety of six resistance strategies (“silence or hesitation, groaning or sighing, laughing nervously, challenging the authority figure, addressing the person being electrocuted and finally, refusing to carry on”), whereas individuals that “obeyed” typically only tried one strategy, albeit multiple times.

      The new interpretation fascinates me, especially in the context of rape culture/acquaintance rape. Consider: those first three resistance strategies sound exactly like how young (and not-so-young) women often express themselves when feeling pressure to engage in sexual behavior they don’t want. And ALSO like the kinds of signals young (and not-so-young) men learn to respond to by ignoring and upping the pressure. “Lips say no but eyes say yes” or whatever the hell. Because only “no means no” — and if she doesn’t SPEAK it, he can choose to believe he never heard it.

      Which would mean that the only resistance strategy we are teaching kids (girls, especially) to use is the hardest one to pull off — and without the skill set needed to work through the other tactics in order to even _reach_ saying NO.

      Food for thought…

      * here’s the link: http://mic.com/articles/108578/the-surprising-thing-people-who-resist-authority-have-in-common#.PCxMk0zWm

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It’s very true that IRB’s used authorize some *messed up* stuff, to put it very mildly. Zimbardo clearly did not anticipate the extreme results he got, thinking his careful pre-screening and the fact that it was supposed to be a simulation would protect the participants, but I do agree he is culpable for not terminating the experiment far sooner, when those deeply pathological behaviors first emerged. His book is still worth a read, even with that in mind.

        I hadn’t seen that article on Milgram’s work – thank you for the link! Wow. The footage is still so powerful. You definitely see all six of those strategies employed – and I think early interpretations of his work really only looked at the last one, flat out saying “no, I won’t continue”, as the measurement for resistance versus obedience. Which fits perfectly with what you are saying: that is by far the hardest one to pull off, and, culturally, the least acceptable for women. If that is the only form of resistance we are taught to recognize as legitimate, then rape culture flourishes. Those first three are often even glamorized as “encouraging” signs for the encounter to continue!

        I really like the idea of the six strategies as a skill set, perhaps with one building upon the other. Even teaching people that they exist and to recognize them is huge. And like any skill set, you can acquire them, practice them, and get more proficient at using them.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Isn’t it delightful?!!

          And thanks for the reminder about Milgram’s shock experiment: I cribbed the reply I just sent you from notes I made in a draft post back when the article first came out, and then never got back to. Had forgotten all about it until you mentioned him!

          Liked by 1 person

    1. Haha! Yeah, sorry about that! It’s an image I’ve used before, talking about the “man or monster?” logic. Glad you stuck with me, Wolfman and Frankenstein notwithstanding!

      Like

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