24 May 2011

Why we all want to justify rape (sometimes)

In the wake of Dominique Strauss-Kahn's arrest on attempted rape charges last week a furor arose over apologia written by Ben Stein and Bernard-Henri Levy. (In case you're wondering why I didn't write about this sooner… I had finals and an ACLS class, oh and I have a board exam in a month.)

Occasionally mentioned—usually in passing—as this saga has unfolded is the (United States') general media portrayal of rape. In particular there have been a few mentions of this (recently notorious) NYT story on the vicious gang rape of an eleven year old girl by eighteen men. As Roxane Gay at The Rumpus did a masterful job dissecting the story I will just quote one of Gay's paragraphs that synopsizes the NYT's troubled reporting.
The overall tone of the article was what a shame it all was, how so many lives were affected by this one terrible event. Little addressed the girl, the child. It was an eleven-year-old girl whose body was ripped apart, not a town. It was an eleven-year-old girl whose life was ripped apart, not the lives of the men who raped her. It is difficult for me to make sense of how anyone could lose sight of that and yet it isn’t.
As usual I find the the way these events were reported on interesting. However, I find why they were reported this way to be a lot more interesting.

While it may seem crazy for me to say that the same psychological and social mechanisms are at play in Stein and Levy's bizarre defenses of Strauss-Kahn as in the NYT Texas gang-rape apologia, I'd like to explain why it's not. What's most important to readers about these stories is the protagonist (i.e. the person/s who committed the crime), rather than the victim. None of us know the victim and thus are able to relate to them only in an abstract sense (the terms of this relationship are influenced by many things; e.g., your own sexual assault, or that of a relation, and so on). Due to this ambiguity the story, necessarily, focuses on the protagonist (even in cases where the protagonist isn't the prima facie focus, this lack of focus becomes the meta-narrative [ibid]).

The reason that for the protagonist's centrality to the story is the intersection of crime and journalism. Societally we have agreed that what is reported by journalists matters and is important, while we may quibble around the edges about some definitions, it is taken on faith that the things we read in newspapers are written to inform us about the world around us. I know I'm using lots of italics here, but these ones are important. The mission of the fourth estate is to inform the public and thereby act as a check on the other three estates.

In this way the very medium in which "news" is transmitted carries an enormous amount of subtextual baggage. Moreover, it must accede to the public's demand for "news" in a digestible fashion, i.e. in a narrative format (if you don't believe me, head to PubMed, type anything in, and start reading). Satisfying the twin demands of information dissemination and narrative formatting entails that we have characters and a plot.

In the case of Strauss-Kahn's alleged rape the character and plot are tailor made for the NY Post and its editors. Our lead character is the head of an international organization whose precise mission is only vaguely understood by the public—who assume it's related to pillaging the poor—as well as a plot including abuse of a chambermaid (honestly, who even knew that word was still in common use?). However, there are those to whom this narrative is particularly ill suited—those who identify with Strauss-Kahn.

There's an oft mentioned proverb, "A man is known by the company he keeps." Relatedly, there's also the proverb, "Birds of a feather flock together." As trite as they may be, one must give weight to such aphorisms, if only for their culture-wide credibility. Taken together these two adages tell us we ought to judge a man by who he chooses to associate with, and that he ought to choose with whom to associate judiciously. Which brings us full circle to Levy and Stein.

If we are to set aside the presumption of innocence (which, despite his recent protestations, Ben Stein has been fine with doing in the past) and consider the thought process of those who identify with Strauss-Kahn, things begin to make a bit more sense. While Levy professes straightforwardly to count Strauss-Kahn a colleague and friend, Stein disclaims any personal knowledge of Strauss-Kahn. While I can't (entirely) explain Stein's identification with the rich and powerful, I will point out this is not his first adventure with apologia for the powerful (e.g. W. Bush for Katrina, Larry Craig for bathroom solicitation, oil companies for price fixing, Herbert Hoover for Smoot-Hawley, you get the idea…), I will point out that you can get a fairly complete impression of who he is from his website's online biography. Whether he is a member of the political and intellectual elite or not, he certainly considers himself to be. All of which is to explain why he would identify with Strauss-Kahn in this case, no matter what—if anything—Strauss-Kahn thinks of Stein.

This dichotomy between how the public views Strauss-Kahn in light of these accusations, contra those who identify with him, is the ultimate point here. For most Americans it is not only commonplace, but satisfying, to see elites succumb to such foibles. Yet, to those with a vested interest in the stature of individuals (or entire classes of individuals), such occurrences represent a very real threat to their overall world view. As I wrote in one of this blog's first posts, when ideals by which someone defines their own identity (in this case, group affiliation and the moral rectitude thereof) come under attack the possible damage is great enough that they will go to great lengths to protect themselves from cognitive dissonance (more on that…).

The reason I've spent so many words explaining the genesis of Levy and Stein's rape denialism is that the same principle is at work, at a different scale, in our cultural propensity to blame rape victims, or otherwise offer justification. To put it more succinctly, I contend that one of the underlying reasons we engage in a myriad of rape justifications is because we are not mentally or emotionally prepared to confront what it means when eighteen men sexually assault a pre-teen. To be clear, I am not claiming that anyone is making a singular decision to steer the narrative away from confronting such facts; rather, it seems that we make use of preexisting cultural norms to transform and replace the narrative of rape.

The most convenient aspect of American sexual culture to exploit in transferring the protagonists' duties from the rapist to the rape victim is our cultural emphasis on consent. Awhile back on Jezebel an American guy who had recently spent some time in Paris wrote a deeply flawed essay contrasting the French and American views on sex. I say that it is deeply flawed because of everything that it gets utterly and completely wrong about France, not because of what it got right about America. In fact, the only part of the entire essay really worth reading is this:
In America, by contrast [to France], the discourse on consent impresses upon us all, men and women alike, that sex is something more important than a decision. A lot more is involved in obtaining or denying consent than making a decision.
Ask yourself what you have consented to in the past year besides sex. Perhaps a legal agreement of some kind, maybe to a background check or a drug screen. There are pitifully few things that we consent to with any regularity. By making all sexual narratives revolve around this inordinately powerful word and act, we imbue it with a hugely disproportionate amount of power vis-a-vis anything else in society. Many would argue this is a good thing, in that sex is something that must be elevated above regular decision making, others may disagree; that is beside the point though, the point is that all conversations about it take place in a context where consent is king.

If one pries a tiny bit deeper into the sexual zeitgeist the next thing you will discover is that the power of consent resides with the woman. In nearly every narrative form (movies, television, music, novels) it is overwhelmingly the man who pursues and the woman who grants consent (or withholds it). Nowhere is this more abundantly clear than advertising; advertisements directed at men sells a product in order to impress a woman so she will consent to sex; those directed at women pitch a product which allows her to choose the best mate. Right or wrong, this is the narrative we live in.

Now reconsider the gang rape of a pre-teen by nearly twenty men. It is naturally, unavoidably, revolting to believe that so many men (who are unidentified and undescribed) would do something so heinous. It becomes even harder for us to consider this because the men are largely undescribed (aside from ages and that a few played sports and a few were criminals). Leaving the men anonymous forces us to confront the possibility that they could be anyone. When the perpetrator of a crime goes taxonomically unclassified it becomes infinitely more difficult for readers to place him outside of their own social (e.g. racial) group. Thus, we desperately seek a way to move them from guilty to innocent, or from us to them.

This desperation to exonerate or excommunicate seizes upon our obsession with consent to invent a new, more palatable account. Instead of acknowledging the brutality we are all capable of, we decide that the men were tricked into the act. After all, in our collective experience it is the men who pursue and the women who grant license. In this case the men pursued as usual, and then something tragic allegedly happened. The only palatable explanation remaining is that it's the woman's fault. After all, she is the one with the power to permit or deny sex.

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