So some of my activist colleagues were on NPR's Talk of the Nation last week. If you have a half hour sometime, you should listen to what they have to say. I love when well-informed people are breaking down rape culture. But what I was particularly moved by in this piece was those who called in. Most of them are on the front lines in working with rape victims and I'm so proud of the work that they're doing.
Steubenville and New Delhi are all over the news. I've yet to meet anyone who isn't completely horrified by all that when down in those cases. And I am so proud of the strides we've made as a culture in recognizing that both these cases were gender-based hate crimes. That there was never even a question of "consent" or "no means no". In both these cases, women were being punished. For what exactly is still unclear, but I suspect if you really looked, it wouldn't take too long to find cultural precedents for rape or the devaluation of women and their sexuality.
But the media around these two cases also makes me wonder about when this hate goes underground and starts picking away at our foundation (which in truth has been happening all along). We are calling people out and we're holding them accountable...if not in court, then certainly in the media. And we're doing this more and more. So why haven't statistics changed? Why do people still not report rape? Why are offenders still frequently not prosecuted?
In exposing horrifying rape cases, are we indirectly perpetuating non-disclosure because survivors don't identify with the extremity of Steubenville and New Delhi?
Don't get me wrong. Do I think those cases deserve the attention that they are getting? YES. 100% yes. Always. Ever. Tell these stories. But do I wish that other stories were covered too? Stories of a man and a woman in a room, and a woman saying "no" and the man proceeding anyway? Stories of spousal rape? Stories of date rape? Sex worker rape? Prison rape? YES. 100% yes. Because as it stands, we're defining "rape" in the media as something that is not the norm of sexual assault.
I can't help but think of the history of racism in this country. When we got to the point where we started to prosecute Klan members and white supremacists, it's not like suddenly the culture changed. Racism didn't go away, it went underground. When I married Julio, no one was overtly racist about this, it was all subtle. "You and your children may have a hard life." As if a white guy wouldn't make my life hard. There was even seemingly positive racism, "Christa's marrying a black guy, but Julio's just like Theo Huxtable." Theo Huxtable was okay to marry, J.J. Walker (do not EVEN tell me you don't know Good Times) was not. Julio was the "other" of black men, the okay one who grew up middle class and had a college degree. And there were times when I was just as guilty of this subtle racism, going out of my way to immediately talk about Julio's job and general stability because it helped shut down the doubters. Poor Julio, it's a wonder he stuck with me. The point is: we are not above culture, we're in it. We perpetuate institutionalized racism and sexism even when we don't want to or don't think we're doing it.
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The other day, my family was watching HAIRSPRAY. It's one of my favorite family movies (full disclosure: I always skip over the "Miss Baltimore Crabs" song bc I hate the implication that she slept with judges to win a beauty contest...see? we ALL do it...even John Waters). And Julio asked me why I would let the kids watch HAIRSPRAY and not GREASE. My answer, "Because the message in GREASE is that if you don't let your boyfriend grope you at the drive thru, he's going to break up with you and the only way you'll get him back is to dress in provocative clothes that are totally contrary to who you are. The message in HAIRSPRAY is that beauty comes from the inside and that if you want things to change, you need to stand up and say This Isn't Okay."
So my call to action is: be aware of your choices, the things you say, the things you consume every day in your life. Recognize your participation and make steps toward reconfiguring the lens so that we don't benignly perpetuate messages of sexism, racism, etc. When hate moves underground, we have to be ever more vigilant about it because the chance for infection is all that much greater. We don't even see the sickness because it isn't obvious. This is where we are all bystanders. We justify and we allow it to exist because frankly, it's damn tiring sometimes fighting against it. And because we're sick of being the pissed off people.
But I do believe that change can happen. If we open our eyes and start asking difficult questions, if we look at our own culpability, if we challenge our friends, our family, our partners. Maybe if more of us did it more often, we'd all be a little less pissed off and tired.