[CN: rape, rape culture]
We have been compelled in our bodies and in our minds to correspond, feature by feature, with the idea of nature that has been established for us.
Monique Wittig, “One Is Not Born a Woman”
To be feminized means to be made extremely vulnerable; able to be disassembled, reassembled, exploited…leading an existence that always borders on being obscene, out of place and reducible to sex….
Cyborg imagery can suggest a way out of the maze of dualisms in which we have explained our bodies and our tools to ourselves. This is a dream not of a common language, but of a powerful infidel heteroglossia.
Donna Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto”
That is a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action…
Dan Turner, letter to the judge requesting leniency in sentencing for his son, convicted Stanford rapist Brock Turner
I am still thinking about court statements that came out after the sentencing of Brock Turner, the so-called “Stanford rapist,” at the start of June. “Not a danger,” said the judge. “Not serious harm,” said the legal subtext of his 6-month sentence. “Not a monster,” said his childhood friend. Tell my son “that his life still has meaning,” pleaded his mother. Only “20 minutes of action,” bargained his father.
Nor has the victim’s statement left my mind. Did you know she keeps a drawing of two bicycles taped above her bed? It reminds her of the two passersby on bikes who stopped the assault and gave chase to her assailant when he fled, holding him until police arrived. These bikes are the one detail I remind myself of, the one I have to remind myself of, day after day. I think about the bicycles in an effort to drown out the detail I want to forget and can’t: how the hospital found dirt—and pine needles, and other debris—in her vagina.
Did you notice that detail too?
He filled her with dirt.
My mind won’t put this fact down. Or rather, part of my mind won’t put this fact down.
The part of my mind that can flood with shame just watching a dog squat to piss on the sidewalk, thus announcing its female genitalia; and the part that feels soothed by the impenetrable blankness between a Barbie doll’s legs. The part of my mind that would limit my vocabulary to only the crudest obscenities for sex, and for my own anatomy.
The part that still believes my survivor’s body is forever filled with mud.
promiscuity (adj.): indiscriminate mingling, mixture, or confusion of parts; elements brought together irresponsibly and without order or careful thought.
Before “promiscuity” came to refer primarily to sexual behavior, it could mean any sort of inappropriate intermingling. Boundaries crossed, conventions ignored, proprieties flouted. Precise order reduced to irresponsible chaos. Discrete elements rendered into muddy blobs.
After the word became primarily a sexualized accusation—once it began to mean a chaotic and inappropriate sexuality, specifically—speakers applied it in an anything-but-promiscuous fashion: they directed it at women. Harlots. Hussies. Wanton floozies. Sluts. Choose your term; the implied guilt of the sexual woman [whether she is sexually active in reality or merely in potentia] remains the same. She crosses the boundaries. She makes things improper.
But why am I talking about promiscuity?
Because when Dan Turner mourned that his son had already suffered enough, just by being found guilty at trial of things he was undeniably guilty of doing, he proposed this as Brock’s alternate path to justice:
“Brock…is totally committed to educating other college age students about the dangers of alcohol consumption and sexual promiscuity.”
Turner’s words dance coyly along the line between obligatory contrition and dog-whistle victim-blaming. “Yes yes, my son is guilty…of having had too much to drink,” he concedes, while also implying “of course, she had far more to drink^, and—as a woman with legs that open [even if they were, yknow, pulled apart on this particular occasion]—her sexual agency can be presumed and is inherently suspect.”
It is a masterful—and masterfully irresponsible—muddying of categories.
I wonder if how much of that mud Brock Turner will repeat, when our young
rapist hero sallies forth to redeem himself on the campus talk circuit?
♦ ♦ ♦
Like many victims, I dissociated during my assaults. Separated my awareness from my body, like popping the head off a doll. But once removed, a human head is not so easy to reattach.
I am still looking for an armor that lets me feel both safe and fully alive. I am not sure such a thing exists.
Besides, decades have now passed.
Before entering this wound to heal it not-quite three years ago, I had grown almost comfortably monstrous myself: decapitated robot with my human head slung companionably over my shoulder in a sack.
♦ ♦ ♦
Putting aside for a moment the rape-culture-induced preconceptions that muddy this case in so many minds (not least of which, those belonging to the rapist and his supporters), the crime and conviction of Brock Turner follow exceptionally clean lines of demarcation.
- The centering of whiteness. (Both Turner and his victim are white.) [I’ma just say: the US has a grotesquely-not-so-stellar history when our race-n-rape issues get entangled. And also that I’m competing for Most Egregious Understatement of the Year. I hope I can count on your support!]
- The highlighting of college campuses as the loci of sexual assaults. [Whew! Bypassing all those awkward conversations that come up in cases within families, inside churches, involving sex workers, etc.]
- The presence of witnesses, who saw—and stopped—the assault while in progress. [Making the case “he said” vs. “he and also-he said.” At last, no “she said” even needed!]
- The heteronormative appearance of having a cis male rapist and a cis female victim. [What male victims, what female perpetrators? Trans and non-binary folk? Never heard of ’em!]
This whole case is about as non-intersectional, non-socially-controversial-to-structures-of-power-and-privilege as a rape case can ever be. Or, in the words of the immortal Damon Young at VSB, this is “a Fisher Price-meets-Trump University-level lesson plan for recognizing White privilege and rape culture.” The “perfect fuckshit soufflé,” if you will.
And now consider this:
- None of that mattered. Brock Turner will spend no more than 6 months (likely no more than 3) in a county lockup.
- All of that mattered. Brock Turner will spend more time in prison than 97% of all rapists.
I hope we can now please acknowledge that criminalization is a failed strategy for stopping sexual violence. This “nothing but a hammer in my toolbox” approach is servicing no one’s needs.
We need a different ways to answer the question, or perhaps different questions to ask.
Dare I suggest: we need a dose of responsible promiscuity in imagining a new way forward.
“Boys will be boys.”
Dangerous, damaging myth—no question.But what is the parallel message we tell about our daughters?
An anecdote: the spotted hyenas of sub-Saharan Africa organize their clans as matriarchies, yet observers failed to recognize this for years. Researchers looked at the females—larger, more aggressive—and saw only maleness in their assertive dominance. Their genitalia was also blamed: the hyena’s large clitoris, erect as a penis; her labia fused into the round and fleshy appearance of a scrotum.
We’ve had these hyenas correctly sexed since the 1930s—yet a recent web search still turned up article after article “demystifying” their anatomy. And also this astonishment: the hyena is the only mammal whose vagina is “not open to the world”! The hyena is “impossible to rape”! This is a female body, my search results reassure me, as though I were protesting. Undeniably female, even if closed to the world. Female—even if unrapeable.
Because that’s still our common understanding of what makes a thing “female.”
“Girls will be rapeable.”
[Do you feel filled with mud yet too?]
I have a folder on my computer dedicated to first-person accounts of surviving sexual assault. The folder is labeled “MY RAPE” STORIES, and it contains more narratives than I can remember and more links than I am willing to count.
I began saving articles here just over two and a half years ago, when I finally realized that recovering in the present was going to require grappling with the events from 25 years prior, which I had begun for the first time to name as rape. I had been reading about rape for months by then, driven by a compulsion I did not yet understand.
I can’t say exactly why I keep these stories, which I rarely if ever reread—only that I feel compelled to not look away. To not refuse audience to those who have been denied voice and belief long enough.
The authors span all ages, genders, and races, yet common patterns emerge. Chief among them: grappling with a litany of particulars—the inner guilt of but I had been drinking / but I invited them in / but I think she loved me / but I could have fought back harder / but I saw him again later / but I was her girlfriend. So many of us carry our own catechism of just-so stories that exonerate our assailants and heap the guilt back upon ourselves.
“But I didn’t do everything perfectly” is a rapist’s loophole victims internalize (with plenty of society-wide encouragement) and must then fight against.
Reading these stories is how I first learned, in the words of Roxane Gay: There are no “good” or perfect victims. There are only bad victims.
There are only humans, all carrying the burden of their own imperfect stories.
We are all made of mud.
We are all made of transcendence.
Once released from incarceration, Turner faces a lifetime of registering as a sex offender—despite the fact that the draconian implications of being on the registry will have zero impact on his ability to commit another rape exactly like he did before. And he will not have attended any rehabilitation program, which have proven highly successful with preventing young offenders (the kid is still only 20 years old) from becoming repeat offenders.
It is not clear to me, from his own letter to the court, that this young man grasps even a fragment of his own culpability. Or understands that he is, morally as well as legally, guilty of a sexual crime.
I am very afraid for the women he will encounter in the years to come.
This is why, though no one but Brock Turner is responsible for Brock Turner’s actions on the night of January 17, 2015, I see his parents as the true monsters of this story. His parents who, in their own irresponsible decision to fight this case to court, valued the appearance of their family’s innocence over the substance of their son’s guilt and, in the process, sacrificed their best chance to see him educated into being a safe adult.
They did so at the expense of their son’s [I am without doubt] next victim(s).
They did so at the cost of their son’s own soul.
♦ ♦ ♦
I cannot understand the capacity of rapists to dehumanize their prey. Even the simulacrum of a human form softens me to kindness.
After taking the photos for this piece, I felt so well-disposed towards my model-homunculae that I did not promptly put them away and out-of-sight—but instead gave them names and a vantage point from which to observe the daily goings-on of the apartment.
We have none of us yet gotten the courage to reattach ourselves completely, though we each keep our heads and bodies close. For me, at least, this fact alone represents great progress. We have traveled so far already, my body and mind and I.
We can afford to be patient a while longer yet, for the full reunion I feel certain is coming.
# # #
^Let’s be clear, alcohol is the #1 facilitation drug chosen by rapists. After all, why bother with illegal (and detectable-in-the-bloodstream) roofies, when you can incapacitate your target with readily-available alcohol or, as in the Stanford case, target someone already incapacitated?