[Trigger Warning–this post is about rape culture, including victim blaming.]
Today is the anniversary of the 1964 rape and murder of Catherine (Kitty) Genovese. The astounding account of her story has had a couple of major effects. It inspired psychological research into the bystander effect, the impulse not to do anything to intervene when witnessing something wrong happening based on the assumption that someone else will. And her story has been used as an iconic cautionary tale. It’s been that one specific example that sticks in your mind and implicitly teaches us women, “don’t walk alone at night, or else you will be raped and murdered, and no one will help you”. You won’t deserve to die for walking alone at night, but… The rapist/murderer will definitely be at fault, but– why didn’t you… but you shouldn’t have… but don’t be surprised if…
One day last summer, I discovered that men don’t learn this lesson. It doesn’t sift down into the core of their set of knowledge about the world. The importance of staying safe by not tempting fate doesn’t fill the air around them until it becomes nearly invisible, yet tints everything they see.
During this pivotal summer, my brother had been talking to me a lot about issues of inequality, injustice, and privilege. He told me his incredible privilege as a young, attractive, able bodied, straight, financially secure, well-educated, white man meant he had a responsibility to learn about the rights and struggles of those who face more disadvantages than he, though he could never fully understand their difficulties. I didn’t want to hear it. I thought I didn’t have the capacity to care about so many wrongs when I can do so little to stop them. I told him I knew that having those privileges myself meant I should do the same, but that I wasn’t ready.
“Ah,” he said, “but you’re less privileged. You’re a woman.”
I was indignant at that statement, and said as much. I’ve had things handed to me my whole life, who is he to tell me I’ve been given less or had to overcome more than I thought? Then he asked me if I was afraid to walk alone at night. “Of course I am. Aren’t you?” “No,” he said. “I’m not.” Then he suggested, “Imagine a world where you didn’t feel scared of something worse than property loss by walking alone at night.”
After that conversation, I started to read feminist blogs. I found the following information on rapes committed by strangers.
It’s rare. According to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network, “73% of sexual assaults were perpetrated by a non-stranger”. And the methods of rapists use to rape people they don’t know? A 2002 study found this:
Of the men who used only force against their victims, none reported raping a stranger; all the men knew their victims… [T]he stereotypical rape incident characterized by a man violently attacking a stranger was not reported by any of the respondents. Instead, respondents who used only force against their victims reported raping only women they knew. Men who targeted strangers exclusively reported they used substances only in the rape incident.
Carefully armed with these statistics (and a flashlight that’s got some heft to it), I’ve gotten pretty confident walking the dark, deserted, familiar mile to and from the metro and my home. I do usually turn off my music once I’m away from busy streets and listen to my surroundings, but I don’t get a nervous sweat anymore, and I don’t twitch at every bunny hopping away from my approaching crunch of sneaker on gravel.
If a rapist isn’t “hiding in the bushes”, waiting to violently violate me, I should be free to live, work, walk, and relax as I see fit, no? Well, not exactly. In chanting “stranger rape doesn’t happen” to myself to ease my fear of the night, I’ve made an exchange I didn’t know I was making. You see, if he’s not hiding in the bushes, I already know him. I see him at dances. He’s in my social circle. He’s raped before and he’ll rape again. Knowing a “typical” rapist’s M.O. is basically to get me drunk to the point where no one would believe me if I said the next day I hadn’t wanted it, I feel less comfortable in casual drinking situations. I feel less comfortable alone with my male acquaintances. I feel less open to getting to know new men, and to flirting with men I find attractive. That was my exchange: to feel more confident alone on a street, I must feel less confident with others at a party.
And that confidence is still easily shaken.
Last Friday I went out for a late dinner in the city. It was about 11pm when I got to my metro stop and started to walk through the neighborhoods and cut-throughs to get home. There was a car parked with its hazards on between me and where I needed to go. There was a man inside, who wished me “good evening” as I approached. I pretended not to hear. As I started go to go through the darkest cut through, he called out to me, “You’re brave!” I thought to myself, “What else am I supposed to do to get home? Take my free magic carpet?” and, “How dare you make me feel unsafe again in my own neighborhood! Why should it be brave for me to get home stone cold sober?” Then my imagination flared up. I started to wonder if maybe this man knew something I didn’t—maybe there was a specific violent person–a wanted man–on the loose. He turned a floodlight on me and I was grateful, although the bright light on the way up the hill would make my vision quite poor on the way down the other side. I waved back once I was well away from the man in the truck, thanking him for keeping me “safe” for a moment.
On this anniversary of the rape and murder of Kitty Genovese by Winston Moseley, I urge you to consider implementing a few methods to stop the most common type of rape (see below), and recognize the fog that clouds our night-time reasoning. Just because we know it’s unlikely doesn’t mean we don’t still fear the “rapist in the bushes”. The fact that many people people don’t even consider it rape if she says no but they’re both drunk is discouraging, but makes me hope that if people keep writing about this issue and magnifying the light of statistics, one day the fog will be burnt up, and our vision won’t be tinted with unnecessary fear.
A huge reason this type of rape continues to happen is that rapists feel that their actions are supported. Because they’re being supported. I think Thomas said it well on the Yes Means Yes blog when he said:
“We need to change the environment that the rapist operates in. Choose not to be part of a rape-supportive environment. Rape jokes are not jokes. Woman-hating jokes are not jokes. These guys are telling you what they think. When you laugh along to get their approval, you give them yours. You tell them that the social license to operate is in force; that you’ll go along with the pact to turn your eyes away from the evidence; to make excuses for them; to assume it’s a mistake, of the first time, or a confusing situation. You’re telling them that they’re at low risk.”
That goes for everyone, men AND women. I know it can be hard to tell someone something they don’t want to hear, and it’s hard to be as eloquent on the spot as you can be in a blog. I’d love to be able to say, “What you’re saying isn’t funny; it’s harmful. You’re contributing to rape culture right now by making the rapists who are probably in this room think that you agree with what they do. You are making the survivors of sexual assault in this room understand never to tell their experience not only to you, but to everyone in this room who says nothing against your attitude.” But I’d rather get used to this kind of calling people out than to continue feeling uncomfortably silent.
And phase two of this calling out? Stop socializing with them, and tell them why. It’s easy to make excuses and to rationalize away distasteful remarks as just being rude, or not understanding how offensive they’re being, or to think they just don’t mean it. If you tell someone to stop objectifying you and your friends, and they don’t take your verbal “stop” seriously, you can be pretty sure they won’t take a physical “stop” seriously either. They don’t respect your boundaries, and they are not worth being around.
In this article called “Rape Is Not An Accident”, Amanda Marcotte lays out a pretty good definition of the social license to operate that my above suggestions mean to take away:
“Rapists have a social license to operate because other people are hesitant to describe their behavior as rape, or as wrong anyway. For a lot of people, hearing a male friend brag about nailing that dumb drunk bitch creates cognitive dissonance, and the temptation is to define it as not-rape. …[F]or most people, the weight of the word “rape” makes all the difference. If you can convince yourself that it wasn’t that bad, or that it’s not like she said no, or that she should be making better decisions, or whatever, you can convince yourself it wasn’t rape.”
Imagine a world where you feel safe walking alone at night. To get there, spread statistics and call out people when they’re making bad rape jokes (good rape jokes are possible, see Ever Mainard above).