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“There is nothing funny about rape, but…” appears in my inbox and introduces me to a video of a justifiably irate man defending his sister’s near assault. The video became viral and converted into a song that made Antoine Dodson a household name. And yet, what about the exposure of Dodson’s sister to this potential assault? What is her story? Something strange is going on. And I am concerned.
Not only am I worried about the desire or need for a disclaimer from my friend with the Dodson video, let alone the discomfortingly catchy tune to “They Rape’n Everybody Out Here,” but also how this language reflects a growing trend of cavalier commentary concerning rape.
Despite the history of feminist movements and deliberate development of discourse, healing modalities, and education concerning sexual assault, the language around rape in our media and popular consciousness appears to be loosening and working to displace the responsibility of sexual assault while simultaneously depersonalizing the victim. As demonstrated through our history, the archive, and the current efforts of contemporary activists, sexual assault is about people, human people, many of whom are women and girls.
Recent media works against efforts like the highly personal and humanizing project A Long Walk Home (alongwalkhome.org), co-founded by sisters Salamishah and Scheherazade Tillet, challenges the silences and systemic re-victimization of sexual assault victims by featuring the former’s story of healing as well as programs to educate and support at-risk-girls.
Last week, a Slate article lured me in, promising a discussion of my own potential evolution—my woman’s body naturally armed with defense mechanisms against the sexual assaults suffered by my foremothers. I was met not with a smart, scientifically sound consideration of my body and the socio-historical conditions that led me to have stronger evolutionary defenses, but rather an onslaught of stereotyping of women, our habits, and those men of whom the media consistently reminds me we should be wary.
First, and to be clear, I am not critiquing the author’s quips and type of wit. It appears as if he takes his subject matter, or at least the reporting thereof, with a certain grain. Nonetheless, it seems important to point out that in his January 13th Slate article, “Darwin’s Rape Whistle,” Jessie Bering introduces himself to his woman audience as a “gay man—who once, long ago, feigned sexual interest in your [female] bodies,” and will bring us, women, out of the dark and into the light, with his greater understanding of our physical selves. I would argue that he shines a light mostly on his own misogyny and racism. Perhaps Bering’s title meant to forewarn me, for the “rape whistle” identified belongs not to me or any other woman in the world, but instead to Darwin. Our bodies still not ours.
Bering applies to four semi-documented studies what he calls the “plausible” likelihood that the pregnancy due to rape is genetically unsound, “a catastrophic mess from the vantage point of the mother’s genes.” Suggesting that it is not in the best interest of a “female” to be left baby-in-hand, sans breadwinner, and fully and only traumatized by her assault, in textbook patriarchal fashion he zaps the humanity right out of the women and girls upon whom he claims to focus.
Considering he suggests it is a woman-centered article, it is not only curious that he qualify his expertise through a past and false interest in our bodies, but begins discussing women only after three solid paragraphs arguing against any natural inclination for men to rape. Moreover, his consideration of typical women’s activities as “shopping, going to church, and visiting friends,” as well as his reification of racist stereotypes of black men, calls into question if not the motivations at least the project of the article.
Plausible, yes, is the notion that the bodies and attitudes of women, and probably also girls, change during ovulation. Yet, Bering ignores the historical reality of procreation as a result of rape, documented through the archive of slave narratives, the admissions of wives and partners of rapists, and his own confession that much of the data remains unknown, considering the low numbers of sexual assault reporting.
In truth, I am not about to argue that pregnancy as a result of rape is anything less than complicated emotionally, spiritually, and physically, for both mother and child. This potential and additional consequence to sexual victimization served as the period for which several generations of pro-choice activists rested the ends of their arguments. More importantly, women, some owned by their rapists, some married to them, some of whom actually were my foremothers, delivered and loved the progeny of their rapists while simultaneously bearing the pain of their children’s origins.
Bering’s article highlights both his ignorance of women and common misunderstanding of rape and from whence it most commonly comes. He never considers the fact that most women and girls are assaulted by someone they know (while I award him half-hearted kudos for confirming for us in-the-dark ladies that the number of women who are raped is far greater than the reported 13%). The National Center for Victims of Crime reports that 77% “of completed rapes are committed by non-strangers (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1997)” and that less than 2% of acquaintance rapes are reported to police (Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault, 2002).
Bering’s recent work sadly pairs well with Katherine Bennhold’s December 28th installment of “The Female Factor,” her The New York Times column. In “Is It Rape? It Depends on Who Is Asking?” Bennhold reports that the pair of allegations against Assange, according to her women friends, “cheapens rape,” particularly because the alleged women victims had initially consented to sex with the WikiLeaks founder. The Assange accusers reported that they used condoms in their initial sexual encounters with Assange, and that he penetrated each while they were sleeping, thus without consent, and without wearing a condom. If they did not want to have sex with him and he penetrated them while they were sleeping, rape has already occurred, albeit one could argue that the assault was unintentional and a matter of misrecognized non-consent.
In short and at least, this is the manslaughter version of rape. Yet, even within an article that shines suspicion on the victims who would admit suffering this type of assault, as Bennhold’s argument obviously reaches beyond the bounds of the Assange case, the writer points out the present and then absent condoms in each story. And this, dear reader, suggests the writer’s own suspicion of intent. Still, this is not about determining the guilt of Assange, but rather questioning that sex without consent is anything but rape.
Within Bennhold’s line of questions, inevitably arises the potential protection our law and popular discourse offers to the wives, girlfriends, friends, and other women and girls who are raped by men with whom they have previously consented to sex. Bering passionately disputes the evolution of the rapist man while arguing for the evolutionarily configured rape-thwarting, perhaps justifiably paranoid, increasingly racist (if you’re a white American woman*) who, through the lens of weak science, naturally emerges more responsible to defend herself from victimization. In each article, responsibility lies with the victim, either naturally or legally. What, pray tell, is funny about that?
Nicole A. Spigner is a Ph.D. student in Vanderbilt University’s English program. She received her M.A. and B.A. in English from University of Pennsylvania. Her research interests include the intersections of 19th Century African American and Caribbean literature and classical Greek and Roman texts, depictions of conjure women in 19th and 20th Century African American and Caribbean Literature, as well as black feminist theory, New World syncretic religions, Vedic philosophy and African Diasporic folklore.