During the spring of 2006 when members of the Duke lacrosse team were first accused of rape (later to be dismissed by North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper), I was teaching a freshman English course that focused on Kurt Vonnegut. Although my university is composed of a female majority, this class was mostly male students; since the university is a small, selective liberal arts university, the students in most ways identified with the lacrosse players.
Nonetheless, I was taken aback that the students almost unanimously (including the females) believed the lacrosse players were innocent. Class and race identification was central to these feelings, I believed, but when the case was exposed as a false accusation, I was placed in a much more complex position.
As the accusation against Florida State University quarterback Jameis Winston unfolded, then, I was once again faced with the tension that accompanies high-profile public discourse about rape and sexual abuse. Beyond the issue of innocence or guilt of Winston, however, we have been confronted with something we seem almost unwilling to acknowledge, something Emily Bazelon frames as How Did Jameis Winston Evade a Rape Charge?:
At a press conference that turned weirdly jokey—at one point, a female reporter in the room blurted “Come on” in exasperation—why did Meggs make a point of the fact that the victim “acknowledged having sex with her boyfriend”? I suppose he felt he had to say something about the presence of someone else’s DNA, in addition to Winston’s, on her clothing. But the effect was to fuel the slut shaming she’s already enduring—treatment that has led her to withdraw from her FSU classes.
Here is what’s bothering me most: I’ve been looking for a case in which a woman accuses a big-time college athlete of rape, and he is charged and then convicted.
Bazelon has found few examples, and adds:
The underlying question about Winston, his accuser, and Meggs’ decision is this: Did she lie, or did she make an accusation of rape that is credible but too difficult, in the view of this prosecutor, to prove in court? One thing is clear: It is uncommon for victims to make false accusations of sexual assault. Yes, it happens, causing terrible damage for men who are falsely accused. But the evidence suggests that the vast majority of the time, women who go to the police about rape are telling the truth.
Reading through the police narrative of this alleged victim’s account, it is hard for me to imagine that she had consensual sex with Winston and then decided to lie and say it was rape. It’s not easy to call the cops and say, as she did, after explaining she was out drinking at a bar with friends, that “next thing I know I was in the back of a taxi with a random guy that I have never met. There was another person in the taxi. We went to an apartment, I don’t know where it was. I kept telling him to stop but he took all my clothes off. He started having sex with me and then his roommate came in and told him to stop. He moved us to the bathroom ‘because the door locked’ and I’m not 100% sure how everything in there happened.” She also said, according to the warrant, that after the drinks she had at the bar, her “memory is very broken from that point forward.”
Again, beyond the specifics of the Winston case, but in the context of high-profile sexual assault accusations such as those identifying Ben Roethlisberger and Kobe Bryant (both of which were not pursued), how must all women feel when sexual assault of any kind is aired publicly with smiles, smirks, laughter, and essentially derision exhibited in the press conferences by Florida State Attorney Willie Meggs and Winston lawyer Tim Jansen?
Are we to believe that women targeting athletes, as Jansen claims, is somehow more prevalent and a greater scar on our society than women being sexually assaulted?
As Laurie Penny declares in a discussion of Miley Cyrus, the agency of women and girls remains decontextualized from their humanity: “We care about young women as symbols, not as people”:
Another week, another frenzy of concern-fapping over teenage girls. A few days ago, I was invited onto Channel 4 News to discuss a new report detailing how young people, much like not-young people, misunderstand consent and blame girls for rape. The presenter, Matt Frei, tried to orchestrate a fight between myself and the other guest, Labour MP Luciana Berger, because it’s not TV feminism unless two women shout at each other….
The tone of the reports on girls’ lack of confidence, on the persistence of myths of ignorance about rape and sexual violence, is as patronising as ever. The implication is that girls fret about their appearance, are confused about sex and consent and worried about the future because they are variously frivolous or stupid.
Penny highlights both the specific mansplaining around Cyrus and the wider mansplaining, paternalism, and objectifying that remains pervasive in public discourse of girls and women. The “slutshaming” of women—whether it be aimed at Cyrus (as simultaneous sexualizing and de-sexualizing of females) or the wink-wink-nod-nod discrediting of Winston’s accuser by Meggs and Jansen—exposes the fact that it’s still a man’s (hostile) world for women, including when women are accused of slutshaming women.
A Man’s (Hostile) World for Women
A rare safe haven for challenging paternalism and slutshaming (see Penny’s The Miley Cyrus complex – an ontology of slut-shaming) is art, where writers (mostly women) and film makers have portrayed the aftermath of sexual assault as another sexual assault.
There is a cop who is both prowler and father:
he comes from your block, grew up with your brothers,
had certain ideals.
And then concluding:
You hardly know him but now he thinks he knows you:
he has taken down your worst moment
on a machine and filed it in a file.
He knows, or thinks he knows, how much you imagined;
he knows, or thinks he knows, what you secretly wanted.
He has access to machinery that could get you put away;
and if, in the sickening light of the precinct,
and if, in the sickening light of the precinct,
your details sound like a portrait of your confessor,
will you swallow, will you deny them, will you lie your way home?
With a dexterity that leaves the reader deeply uncomfortable, Margaret Atwood explores “date rape”—both as an unfolding of the reality of a woman in the context of the possibility of sexual assault by a male blind date and as a complicating of normative views of women having “Rape Fantasies.” (Atwood builds similar examinations in her The Handmaid’s Tale.)
While it raised considerable attention when released, The Accused and the real-life events it was based on, the gang rape of Cheryl Araujo, the film also anticipated discussions of slutshaming by highlighting what was then and still remains the pre-disposition to blame the victim, when the victim is a woman and when the violence is sexual.
But the attention achieved by the film and the sanctuary of poetry and fictional narrative bring us back to Penny’s charge: “We care about young women as symbols, not as people.”
“Our client on principle does not speak to the police or to other persons of authority, and least of all to psychiatrists. The reason is simple. From the time she was a child she tried time and again to talk to police and social workers to explain that her mother was being abused by Alexander Zalachenko. The result in every instance was that she was punished [emphasis added] because government civil servants had decided that Zalachenko was more important than she was.” (The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, p. 733)
Salander’s entire life is the situation in Rich’s “Rape” writ large.
But we must not ignore that even in fiction—Lisbeth as symbol—the first book in the trilogy is given the English title The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (why “girl” not “woman”?), instead of the literal translation from Swedish, “men who hate women,” and as in the film The Accused, why do we appear more concerned about women being assaulted in books and films than in real life? And is it possible that at least in the U.S. film version, we appear more drawn to Salander as vigilante than morally enraged by the repeated violence and sexual assaults she endures?
It is without question that the human dignity of a man wrongly accused of rape is no less valuable than the human dignity of a woman raped; it is without question that I have no inside knowledge and cannot know the innocence or guilt of Winston or his accuser.
But unknowables do not excuse us from confronting the known: The smirks and grins, the innuendo and direct slutshaming aimed at Winston’s accuser were all the sort of double assault we have been warned about, the sort of double assault that affects all women, the sort of double assault that must not be tolerated:
“The victim and her family appreciate the State Attorney’s efforts in attempting to conduct a proper investigation after an inordinate delay by the Tallahassee Police Department,” Carroll [the accuser’s lawyer] said in a statement. “The victim in this case had the courage to immediately report her rape to the police and she relied upon them to seek justice. The victim has grave concerns that her experience, as it unfolded in the public eye and through social media, will discourage other victims of rape from coming forward and reporting.”
There was laughter. There were jokes. There were smiles. The news conference in which Florida state attorney Willie Meggs announced that Jameis Winston was not going to be charged with sexual battery was an extremely light-hearted affair.
Everyone seemed so incredibly happy to be talking about an alleged sexual assault.
The known has confronted us: relief that a football career and national championship would not be derailed combined with a levity not suited for public talk around the possibility of sexual violence—it’s still a man’s (hostile) world, and as Rich reminds us in “What Kind of Times Are These?”:
…this is not somewhere else but here,
our country moving closer to its own truth and dread,
its own ways of making people disappear.