Saturday, April 13, 2013

On Our Rape Culture: Rehtaeh Parsons' Unfortunate Legacy

And another one gone - a victim of assault and revenge porn enacted and filmed by a bunch of teenaged boys who had more power than they might have ever imagined:  they could kill from a distance.  As Elizabeth Renzetti says of these double-barrel assaults, they are, "not just an act of violence but a spectator sport."  And here we thought we had come so far from the bloodlust days of the Colosseum.

The act isn't dissimilar from torturing an animal and showing pictures to people.  It's a behaviour that is absolutely depraved.  Who looks at those types of visuals without looking differently at the goon who took them?  Unfortunately, they have enough of an audience that we need to be afraid.  For some people, their body responds to the visuals even if their brain might hope it didn't.  So clips are saved and circulated endlessly.

Circulating the film is also a mean of re-shaming the act.  After years of the rally cry, "Rape is a crime, not a shame!" some perpetrators are working hard to make people ashamed to be raped for obvious reason:  if they're embarrassed by it, they won't tell.  But Rehtaeh did tell.

Today's G&M reports that after Rehtaeh went to the police, the bullying got worse, "and her friends turned against her."  Ouch.

As cold as it seems, this is typical safety behaviour explained in a description of a study done in the '60s in Mlodinow's Drunkard's Walk (211-12) that found, "...people are inclined to feel that those....who suffer deserve their fate."  They had volunteers watch as one of them, actually a confederate in the experiment, was taken to the next room to do a test on camera while the others watched.  The chosen one, following a script, failed repeatedly.  The volunteers at first sympathized with her, but then, "eventually the observers, powerless to help, instead begin to denigrate the victim."  Mlodinow's conclusion:  "We unfortunately seem to be unconsciously biased against those in society who come out on the bottom."  It is so hard to rise above that bias.

We will do anything to distance ourselves from what might harm us.  And we instinctively sense that to be aligned with the weakest in the group is akin to painting a bullseye on our back.  It takes courage to stand firm beside a victim - a courage often not yet developed in the high-school years.  So we don't talk about it.  We pretend it didn't happen and hope it will all go away.  But the internet ensures that these events will never die.  

If these events won't go away, we have to spin them better.  We can't let the filmmaker dictate the perspective.  

In 1981, a year before the first rape shield law was established, all a rapist had to do to get away with the crime is to find a few friends to testify that the vicitm's a slut that screwed them all.  Tell a few stories in court, and you're free to go.  It was legally impossible to rape any sexually active girl (real or falsely-established) or, until another year passed, your own wife for that matter.  Back in the barbarism of the early 80s, at 17, I was raped, and I'm not ashamed about it.  In fact, I'm mad as hell.

After a party, I got a drive home from a guy I'd known since kindergarten.  He was a harmless sort, kind of a loser.  He took me to a construction site for a few hours before taking me home where he called out, "See ya later!" like nothing untoward had just happened.  Knowing that the law was not on my side, I waited for morning and called my friends.  My only power was in ruining his reputation before he could ruin mine:

"He was horrible.  Worst lay ever.  He stunk and had skid marks in his droopy underwear.  And he didn't know what he was doing at all...."  I spun a believable tale in order to reclaimed my power.  It wasn't very nice, but it seemed a fair piece of perfectly legal vigilantism.

Things haven't gotten better at all since then, but we think they have just enough to let down our guard.  But it's far too soon in our quest for equality to think all teenaged boys will act honourably much less all men and women.  In my day, there were countless other incidents where an assault didn't happen all because we girls banded together.  If someone was sick or passed out, we'd stand vigil over them.  Once I threw a drink in the face of a guy groping a girl tucked away in bed, then loudly berated him until others came to see.  It embarrassed him, not her.  I've been felt-up while vomiting, but girls I didn't even know burst in to kick the guy out of the bathroom and hold my hair.  That's what we did.

And we never left a girl behind.

We were ready for them.  In hindsight that seems...  not nice to expect the worst.  We don't want to suggest guys we know might turn into wolves at parties.  They're our friends.  But something heinous sometimes happens when you mix some teenaged boys with booze.  Unfortunately, that hasn't changed.

The Nova Scotia justice minister is "considering legislation governing the distribution of graphic images."   A new law is awesome, but it's not nearly enough.  A cultural shift has to happen and that's far more difficult to orchestrate.  The G&M implied that Rehtaeh's school didn't do enough to save the day, but how much can a school do?  They can't discriminate against students - even those convicted of a crime.  If the perpetrators are in the building, they have to get equal treatment.  An assembly where admin tells people to be nice to each other will just get blown off or laughed at by the people who need to hear the message most.  This problem is so much larger than that.

We need media involved - not the news, but the films and HBO series.  We need the ubiquity of this party behaviour out there without titillating rape scenes for the voyeurs in the crowd, just the aftermath - the victim shaken and broken.  More At Close Range than Last House on the Left - films devoid of any visuals that might be physically arousing.  We need to change the way we talk about and perceive the situation, to show the attackers for the losers they are:   wimps who can't get it any other way, or sleazy opportunists who don't balk at an unfair fight - four against one - because it's the only way they can win, or psychopaths who are a danger to everyone, not just the current victim.

But we live in a culture that applauds opportunism and bullying at the top ranks.  It's a hard road we're on to shift this and make kindness and respect seen as laudable character goals instead of being perceived as soft or "pussy."

Somewhere between 6% and 25% of Canadian women have been raped.  Stats for male victims are scant because there's a whole other layer of shame enveloping that one.  But suffice it to say there are an awful lot of us out there. We want to insulate ourselves from rape - as if it couldn't happen to us if we're careful about where we go and what we wear.  But those are red herrings to keep us thinking that the people we know are all safe.  It's horrible to think differently, but, for the safety of precious young girls and boys everywhere, we might have to.

One thing that might help is to mirror Rick Mercer's call to action:

We have to make it better now....If you've been sexually assaulted and you're in public life, you can't be invisible.  Not anymore.

We need to show the world that we're not ashamed.  We've done nothing wrong except trust some regular-looking man or woman who turned out to be a rapist.  And maybe then those louts will be too ashamed and embarrassed to look for new victims to torture.  Because if we're not embarrassed for being victimized, then we're not afraid to tell, and we won't stop until these depraved creatures are caught and punished.  Every.  Single.  Time.

ETA:  Also read this, and this open letter from Rehtaeh's dad.


CGHill said...

"In my day, there were countless other incidents where an assault didn't happen all because we girls banded together. If someone was sick or passed out, we'd stand vigil over them."

I remember that sort of thing -- at least, I remember being told about it, which is not quite the same. Has this practice been abandoned in recent years?

Marie Snyder said...

It doesn't seem to be in place the way it once was - OR maybe we just hear about it when it's not in place. The girl that was with Rehtaeh left her there with four guys. Back in the day, we were all wary enough or savvy enough to never do that. I'll survey my class on Monday to see if that kind of thing is even on the radar. We're now all so cautious to never be judgemental of anyone, ever, that maybe some put themselves in dangerous situations just to avoid admitting that they don't entirely trust being along with a group of guys.

Trust shouldn't be automatically expected. It has to be earned.