Sunday, January 25, 2015

Chloe Angyal and the Roots of Rape Culture

Before I begin, I want to state that I’m a Chloe Angyal fan. A feminist, a columnist, an activist, a lover of romantic comedies, and a former dancer, Angyal has been blessed with many talents. Those of us who write while wearing their heart on their sleeve, with an occasionally vicious compulsion for constant self-reflection, must stick together. I’ve watched as she's matured and progressed over the years. I’ve expressed sympathy for her tearful breakups with boyfriends, triumphed at her publication successes, and seen parts of myself in her example.

While an interview subject on MSNBC with Melissa Harris-Perry, back in December, Angyal made a particularly strong statement that some might say was a little inflammatory. She said, emphatically, that we live in a culture that hates women. Prior to that, she said, rather dramatically, that those who doubt the stories and accounts of sexual assault are stabbing these victims in the heart. Both statements were made in response to the numerous and all-too-frequently documented instances of rape on college campuses. Many are, as we know, never reported. But unlike Ms. Angyal, I wouldn’t go quite so far.

When I was in undergrad, a fifteen-year-old girl attained early enrollment. I got to know her a little because she was in my English composition class. I edited a few of her papers and she edited mine. Class over, our paths never crossed again. Within a year, I heard that she’d become the sexual plaything of several athletes.

Her numerous charges of sexual assault and supplying drugs and alcohol to a minor while on school grounds never went to trial, but were instead settled out of court with the university. At the same time that these offenses were being committed, I lived in a dorm on campus. Entering after hours required a magnetic key card, but not much else. Certain dorms were semi-policed, but it was easy to sneak in visitors and alcohol, especially.

Campus security where I attended school was notoriously lax. Only the most intense incidents required the police force of the city of Birmingham. Colleges and universities have only reluctantly agreed to be a semi-parental, a semi-law enforcement presence towards its student body. It is a lack of accountability and adequate on-campus security that leads, in part, to rapes and sexual assaults. This culture doesn’t hate women. Hating women, as is Ms. Angyal’s position, would require special effort. Most colleges and universities don’t focus enough attention on the problem at hand to hate much of anything, except for more work for them.

I do agree that we live in the midst of rape culture. A culture of misogyny with undercurrents of physical violence towards women exists. But in the end, someone must be responsible. We’ve said that rapists ought to not rape, and that it’s unfair to shift the burden onto women. An easy answer would be hiring more security or cops on the beat. But that’s only a protective, defensive response. We have to get inside heads and change behavior.

Getting the message across that No Means No alongside the notion of informed consent is more difficult. Recent advertisements and commercials have noted that everyone has an obligation to prevent rape and sexual assault. This is true. But the roots of criminal behavior, of which rape certainly is, are never that easily dissected. Some say we ought to blame the parents. Others say that a violent culture and the crime that goes along with it is responsible most of all. Each of these answers is correct in part, but not entirely.  

Education is not an answer in and of itself. Women are raised to be deferential, rather than persistent. In a case of trauma, women are even less likely to vocalize and report what happened to them. This requires a quantum leap in gendered expectations. These aren’t products of a culture that hates women. Our culture doesn’t like to think about survivors of any catastrophic event. We don’t like to see veterans with missing limbs and we don’t want to see the bruises of the battered wife. Seeing rape victims reminds many of us of the horrible parts of humanity.

As much as feminists emphasize their own views and their own protocol, a truly successful anti-rape strategy is going to need to include many moving parts. I’m not intelligent enough to eradicate an odious practice that goes hand in hand with wars of conquest and generally evil behavior. It's been around for a long time. But I do know that it will require more than anger, more than simply righteous rage. Even law-abiding citizens will rape and pillage when the opportunity presents itself.

That’s in the DNA of many, usually to be unleashed under terrible circumstances. And unless we examine its great taproot, which is within us, rape and sexual assault will continue. A harsh kind of punishment like this doesn’t hate women, it hates for the sake of hatred. Sometimes I think we ought to more closely inspect what makes us hate before we can ever ask what makes us rape.

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