Thursday, April 06, 2006

Seeing rape culture

Shakespeare's Sister has a very good analysis of the homosocialized dynamics of gang rape and other ways that women are dehumanized by men, as a reaction to the horrifying e-mail that one of the Duke lacrosse team members sent out within a few hours after an alleged rape of an exotic dancer committed by his team. (If you have not been following this case, check out this victim's advocacy blog or Ampersand's recent roundup of links.)

The email described some truly despicable violent/sexual fantasies involving strippers that the author apparently thought he needed to share with the rest of the world. Here's a quote from Shakes' reaction:
I’ve never been accused of anything but unabashedly wearing my politics on my sleeve, but because I have a filthy mouth, a dirty sense of humor, an aesthetic lack of girliness (as in no make-up, no skirts, and perpetually untidy hair), and a collection of attributes which men and women alike deem “boyish”—namely, a fondness for Star Wars and Lord of the Rings, video game junkitude, the ability to correctly distinguish between DC and Marvel superheroes, and a pathological aversion to shopping—I have often found myself in the position of having been given a “pass” by a group of straight guys. Some women will immediately know what I’m describing—a group of male coworkers, perhaps, who let down their guard in your presence, after one of them, invariably, anoints you a “cool chick,” as if differentiating you from the rest of womankind is some kind of praise. It doesn’t matter whether these guys are conservatives or liberals; they are, however, always the kind of guy who thinks the highest compliment one could give a girl is treating her like a man with tits.

This is always a weird situation, especially since I have never coveted an entrè into such a group, but let a couple of dirty jokes fly in your presence sans objection, and you’ll find yourself being led behind the curtain in no time.

And among this particular kind of guy, it’s pretty damn ugly back there.

Back there is where “jokes” like the one above get told. And if you ever laughed at a blowjob joke, they expect you to laugh at that kind of “joke,” too.

I, of course, being me, tell them that violence against women isn’t funny, and ask them why they think it is.

“Oh, come on,” they say, and that’s when the eye-rolling begins. “It was a joke.”

“How so?” I ask. “What’s funny about it?”

Of course, there’s nothing funny about “jokes” like that, so they do the only thing they can. Attack.

“Dude, I thought you were different. You’re just a feminazi like every other chick. No sense of humor.”
About a year ago, I was in an ice cream shop with my spouse deciding over cookies and cream or orange sherbert when a group of about six or seven late high school or early college-aged guys came in, with a blonde girl of the same age in tow. These guys were of the jocky type, with basketball shorts and expensive cell phones, tanned and lean. The group quickly overtook the small shop while my husband and I sat back to eat our ice cream, eventually just quietly taking in the show that these kids were putting on for us. The one female in the group seemed a little nervous but eager - like she was finally getting to play with the big boys. The joking and teasing began to turn sexual and slightly obscene, with the majority of the teasing and joking being directed at the girl. She smiled along with it, feigning ignorance as to what they were talking about when they asked her if she enjoyed certain euphemistic sexual acts, and even giggled nervously when one guy grabbed her and pulled her into his lap. You could see that she was embarassed but not sure what to do about it without jeapordizing her newfound social status.

It was at that point that I understood exactly how gang rape occurs. These guys were competing with each other, showing off their virile desire to sleep with the young blonde thing. Not only that, they were competing to see who could humiliate her the most - this girl doesn't even know what a "pearl necklace" is, what a prude. It was a game where the winner was the one who could extract the most sexual power from humiliating her.

By the time they left, I was really quite scared. I knew I'd been in situations like this before - one particularly bad one where I was in high school, drunk, and all of the sudden the only girl at a party full of college students - and did just as much this time as I had the last time. I wish so deeply that I'd had the presence of mind and courage to pull her aside and ask her if she wanted a ride home or to call a friend or for me to give these guys a piece of my mind. It still haunts me, and the only thing I'm glad about is that it affected me enough to make me vow to never stand by and let that happen again.

A society that rewards men who treat women like this - as sexual objects that men collect and trade and own - promotes a culture of rape. The competitive team dynamic, like the Duke lacross team's, synergizes poisonously with ambient misogyny to create groups of men who band together with the goal of proving their supremacy over other men.

I don't mean to imply that team sports turn men (or women) into power-hungry rapists, or that if you are into sports that you hate women. There are plenty of perfectly nice athletes out there. What I am saying is that the competitive pack mentality makes for a particularly rich breeding ground for the kind of scene I described above, and for what likely occurred at Duke. It's hard to stand up for people who aren't immediately around, but in these examples, it's easy to see how things wind up ugly if you don't.
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