I'm supposed to be working on my dissertation right now, but I'm so frustrated/angry/bewildered that I can focus on anything other than what's bothering me. And what is bothering me is how our culture and media has responded to the Steubenville rape verdict.
First and foremost, I've never identified myself as a feminist. I recognize that women have historically been treated more inferior than men and we have had a harder go of it in our classrooms, in our workplaces, in our families, and in our culture overall. There are unreal and impossible expectations put upon us at the same time we are often viewed as weak and in need of protection and a provider. However, I also recognize that man, too, have unreal and impossible expectations placed upon them -- especially in today's society -- and that neither situation is ideal. Men have, historically, had the upper hand and all of it's advantages, and that's not right. But I'm definitely not a man-hater as so often feminists are painted to be (which is a whole different conversation that I choose not to engage in). I'm not a feminist. I'm a humanist (not in the traditional definition) in the respect that all humans deserve fair treatment in all aspects of our culture. Sadly, we haven't achieved this, but I consistently hope that someday we will.
My heart aches for the victim of these assaults. She has been violated in a way that she may never recover from, and, like many rape victims, will be prone to depression and anxiety for the rest of her life. She has lost control over her own body and her own decisions at this point, and that feeling of total helplessness and violation must be hard to bear. Thankfully, she has a supportive family that surrounds her with love and compassion. It's unfortunate that the rest of her community does not do the same, but I'll save that discussion for later. I grew up in a generation that was very "blame the victim," especially when it came to rape. Girls shouldn't wear certain things or go to certain places or act a certain way because they would be "asking for it." We've all heard or said the phrase regarding rape, regardless of your gender. Because of this cultural climate growing up, I learned very early to "protect" myself. I learned to never go to a bar or club without trusted girlfriends who would watch my drink, accompany me to the ladies room, and who would make sure I got home safely. I learned to never accept a drink from a stranger and to never leave my drink when I went out on the dance floor to move. I learned that what I wore was a reflection of my intentions and my sexuality. Wearing a short skirt meant that I was easier than if I wore a knee-length skirt. Wearing a low-cut blouse invited unwanted stares and advances. I learned to never walk down a dark street alone and to always lock my doors and windows, even when driving in my car. I learned that carrying an umbrella made me less likely to be attacked, but having a ponytail made me more likely to be attacked. These are all things I think about each and every day.
But I shouldn't have to. I was raised by honorable and trustworthy men who valued women and would never dream of hurting one. But, sadly, the men outside of my home were less valiant and chivalrous. They couldn't be trusted and I needed to protect myself from their potential violence. This is sad in many ways. First, I've never been put in a situation where I was victimized by a man, but my distrust has been ingrained in me from the start. Second, by living a life where men couldn't be trusted and knowing that I had to protect myself, I've probably missed opportunities for good friendships and relationships. Third, I shouldn't have to focus on protecting myself. The cultural expectation should be reversed and men should be expected to control themselves.
I worry for my nieces and the young girls I teach. I see every day the cultural influences that bombard them, teaching them what it means to be an attractive and desirable woman in our world. You must have the curves of Kim Kardashian and the long blond tresses of Blake Lively. You need the perceived purity of Taylor Swift at the same time you exude the overt sex appeal of Katy Perry. This is impossible for our girls, and, with each attempt at making themselves into someone else, they lose a little more of who they are. Something in our culture has taught our girls that they need to be sexual and sexy, even as young as 10 (and probably younger but that scares me to think about that). Unfortunately, to be sexy and sexual, girls need to dress in revealing clothes, drink heavily, and be open to performing sexual acts. She should appear wholesome and good to the outside adults, but she needs to be up for anything among her peers of both genders. For a girl in our culture to have value and worth, she needs to be deemed attractive and desirable ("do-able") by a man (and, preferably, many men).
But, at the same time, I worry about my nephews and the boys in my classroom. Like so many of the young men in our culture, the two young attackers in Steubenville grew up in a world that told them that their value was based on their athletic and sexual prowess. Women were to be mere toys of conquest until after college when it is time to settle down and marry one. They are objects to be used rather than individuals with value and identity. Men are congratulated for their sexual conquests while women are expected to be chaste and pure ... an impossible dichotomy. Athletes seem to be above wrong doing and should be celebrated and honored, simply because of their athletic ability and regardless of the things that they do wrong or the laws they break. How many professional football players and baseball players and basketball players have been accused of sexual violence in the last decade and what has come of those charges? What role models are we encouraging for both our boys and our girls?
By no means do I give the attackers a free pass because of social conditioning. They chose to commit these acts of violence, and they deserve to face the consequences of their actions. The way the press is handling the verdict only reinforces the expectations of boys: women are to be play things, especially for those with athletic talent and skill. These are not poor boys who have had their futures stripped away. These are young men who consciously made a choice to violate and humiliate a vulnerable young woman who was unable to make decisions for herself. And then they documented it with video and images and texts which they shared with their peer community as a source of entertainment. This should be completely unacceptable and reprehensible but, somehow, the media has taken pity on the rapists. They've made them into victims of circumstance, and that is sickening.
Sometimes I am ashamed to be a part of this culture. And the thing that frustrates me the most is I don't know what, if anything, I personally can do to make a difference.