The conviction of two young men for raping an unconscious young woman challenges us to rethink our assumptions about youth, the legal system and sexual assault.
We are both survivors of sexual assault. In the light of media responses to and other narratives established around the Steubenville rape scandal, we were prompted to discuss our experiences openly and honestly in order to give context to a complicated and uncomfortable topic. This is our first public discussion, a discussion that we agreed is necessary to illustrate the pervasive nature of the "culture of rape" and the need for the entire LGBTQ community to be allies to all survivors.
Our stories are not uncommon. When Sue was in her 20s, she was raped by her then-boyfriend. She had been drinking, but she had not passed out. She said "no," but her boyfriend was stronger and had also been drinking. She had consumed just enough alcohol to remember the incident and blame herself for years.
Ian is a former meth user who is currently in recovery. During his times using, his intoxicated state prevented him from giving informed consent, leading him to be sexually assaulted several times. For months after his experience, he was unable to admit to himself that he had been raped, a result of socialization that made it difficult to conceptualize that a man could be victimized in that way.
We were both disappointed to read a tweet by respected gay blogger John Aravosis in which he implied that alcohol consumption should have been a consideration in the Steubenville case, and that the survivor needed to make a positive impression on him:
— John Aravosis (@aravosis) March 18, 2013
To be fair, after a heated discussion on Twitter, Aravosis apologized. Moreover, we don't necessarily know that he intended to imply any culpability on the survivor's part, as he insisted that his focus of blame was on the perpetrators. However, we feel compelled to explore how sentiments like those expressed in his original tweet exacerbate the damage of assault.
First, alcohol consumption and abuse by teenagers is a serious issue, but impaired judgment in no way changes the rules of consent, and discussing the young woman's drunkenness in this manner certainly does imply that she had responsibility in her horrific experience because of her intoxication, whether or not that's what Aravosis intended to suggest. Aravosis is right to be concerned about alcohol abuse, but he's conflating issues in this context. Alcohol did not plant the seed to rape this young woman, and it certainly did not fuel the ensuing social media flurry and coverup.
Second, members of the LGBTQ community should be on the front lines in the army of allies to survivors. The misogyny that reduces women to sexual toys is the same misogyny that underscores much of the homophobic and transphobic attitudes in our culture. We have high standards for our allies; we would never quietly stand by while someone asked if alcohol abuse was a concern in the murder of Matthew Shepard or the suicide of Tyler Clementi. The bar should be equally high when it comes to acknowledging and supporting survivors of sexual assault.
Finally, rape is not solely a women's issue. Rape is a human issue. A society that tolerates the atrocities that took place in Steubenville is a society that embraces a "culture of rape," and that threatens everyone. The survivor deserves compassion and support because she endured a brutal assault and is a sister human bring, not because she "impresses" us.
The CDC recently released the first set of national data on the prevalence of intimate partner violence, sexual violence and stalking victimization by sexual orientation, based on 2010 data:
- Approximately one in eight lesbians (13.1 percent), nearly half of bisexual women (46.1 percent) and one in six heterosexual women (17.4 percent) have been raped in their lifetime. This translates to an estimated 214,000 lesbians, 1.5 million bisexual women and 19 million heterosexual women.
- Almost half of bisexual women (48.2 percent) and more than a quarter of heterosexual women (28.3 percent) were first raped between the ages of 11 and 17.
- Nearly half of bisexual men (47.4 percent), four in 10 gay men (40.2 percent) and one in five heterosexual men (20.8 percent) have experienced sexual violence other than rape in their lifetime. This translates to nearly 1.1 million gay men, 903,000 bisexual men, and 21.6 million heterosexual men.
Additionally, a 2009 study revealed that approximately 50 percent of transgender people experience sexual violence at some point in their lifetime.
The data are clear. We are in a serious crisis when an educated and intelligent man like John Aravosis does not get that questioning the conduct of a survivor of sexual assault, no matter how the question is couched, reinforces a cultural assumption that survivors are responsible for preventing rape. To his credit, he listened to the pushback, apologized and hopefully absorbed the message, not just the perceived criticism.
As a man and a gay man, Aravosis has a vested interest in changing a culture that embraces these messages. As a white man with privilege and a widely read blog, he has an opportunity to challenge the assumptions and educate other men. As an opinion leader in the LGBTQ community, he has an obligation to be fair and accurate. Conflating the issue of alcohol abuse with rape is an inaccurate reflection on the moral and legal standards around rape.
More urgently, the moral requirement is that the LGBTQ community acknowledge that sexual assault is our issue. We live in a culture that glorifies violence and excuses rape: rape of children, rape of intimate partners, rape of employees and rape of strangers. We live in a society where funding for anti-sexual-violence programs was almost derailed because of the inclusion of provisions for LGBTQ survivors.
We would like to be honest here: We are not merely angry that our peer said something off-color or offensive; we are incredibly concerned, in this troubling age when CNN mourns the destroyed lives of young rapists, that when we begin confusing the issues in this sad case, we shift the blame away from rapists and further traumatize the survivors involved. How can this young woman heal when her own behavior is called into question? Even more pressing, how can we stop victim blaming and rape culture if we insist that rape victims "impress" us with their conduct?