The Phantom Rapist

TW: rape

Dear Dad,

Do you remember that story about what rapists look for in victims? I do. It was a chain email that Mom shared with me in middle school. The story detailed what convicted rapists in prison said they look for in a victim. I remember things like long hair, in a ponytail or bun for grabbing, women who are distracted, typically in parking lots.

The story terrified me as a child. I wore my long hair loose as often as possible, for safety. 

Today, the story showed up on my Facebook feed, as a post titled “Through a Rapist’s Eyes.” All the advice was the same: don’t have long hair; parking lots, garages and restrooms are all unsafe; putting up any fight will discourage a rapist because it takes time; umbrellas discourage them as they can be used as weapons. The post also offered self-defense tips, like punching an attacker in the groin.

Reading the post now, more than 10 years later, and seeing all the women commenting how useful this information was, I was horrified. Aside from the fact that this story originates with a “fear merchant,” as Snopes describes him, and has no basis in fact, this rape-prevention advice also promotes an unrealistic of what rape is and who it happens to.

This story claims to be written from interviews with rapists in jail. You know, the big, bad, evil rapists who get what they deserved and smacked with a hard sentence. Never mind that according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN), 98 percent of rapists will never spend a day in jail

More importantly, approximately 4 out of 5 assaults are committed by someone the victim knows. This story spends a dozen paragraphs talking about how to fend of some anonymous hunter, a violent rapist specter who chooses his victim by how she wears her hair and whether or not she’s carrying an umbrella in a parking lot, and yet 4 out of 5 assaults are committed not by the anonymous aggressor but by an acquaintance, a lover, or a friend.

I can’t stand to see stories like this being passed around, Dad, not just because they’re untrue, but because they perpetuate a false idea of what real “legitimate rape” is. Much like conservative male politicians who seem to believe “forcible rape” is some sort of rare crime committed only against virginal young women by nefarious strangers, this rape-defense advice constructs a narrative around sexual assault that is incredibly misleading. 

And that falsehood causes harm. While our culture is busy sharing this meme, while we are busy telling women how to protect themselves, we are failing to protect them against boyfriends, coworkers and family friends, the kind who don’t lurk in parking lots and restrooms.

I suppose that’s not a pleasant reality, to think that people are raped by friends and loved ones. Much better to think of the rapist as the stranger, the hateful, anonymous aggressor. It’s easier to cut your hair, too, than to fear your loved ones. But if we’re not honest about rape, about who it happens to and who commits it, we can never offer the support to survivors that they truly need.

And that’s the real damage this meme does. And that’s the reason myths like this need to end.




It’s just a joke

(TW: rape)

Dear Dad,

I want to talk about comedy today, partly because comedy seems to be all anyone’s talking about today (fitting that it’s April Fools), and partly because the discussion of Ari Shaffir, Trevor Noah and Patton Oswalt has reminded me of my own experience with off-color jokes.

First, my story: It was my first date with this guy. He had heavy eyelids and deep brown eyes and a soft, melodic voice. He recited a poem to me before asking me on the date. He seemed so charming and sensitive. I met him at his house and we decided to drive one town over for burgers.

“Let’s take the backroads!” he suggested.

“All right,” I agreed, “but you’ll have to direct me. I don’t know how to get there from here.”

I drove and he was copilot, but as he gave my directions, I felt we were head further and further out into the countryside, instead of toward town.

“Are you sure this is the way? It feels like we’re heading to the boonies,” I said.

“No,” he laughed. “I’m just taking you out into the middle of nowhere so I can rape you.”

He chuckled. My heart raced.

“That’s not funny.”

“It’s just a joke, because obviously, I would never do that. That’s why it’s funny. I’m clearly not a rapist.”

“What if I were a rape survivor?” I asked.

“If you were, you would obviously tell me,” he said, as if he had created a super supportive environment with rape jokes on our first date. I’d like to say I dumped him right there, Dad, but sadly, it took me a couple more dates to realize he had no respect for personal boundaries.

But what does this have to do with comedy?

There are a lot of comedians in the news right now for making jokes people deem inappropriate, in bad taste or cruel. Ari Shaffir called out a fellow comedian by name in a national special, laughing at her for having one-arm and being fat. Trevor Noah, the future Daily Show host, has come under scrutiny for posting Twitter statuses joking about Jews and violence against women. And today Patton Oswalt went on a 53-tweet twitterstorm about how people are too sensitive about privilege, oppression and triggers.

Now, I think what Ari Shaffir did was mean and unfunny. I think Trevor Noah’s jokes were in poor taste, but I’m willing to see how he does as Daily Show host. And I think Patton Oswalt’s tweets completely missed the point, which is this:

Comedy is not an excuse to be mean. Saying “it’s comedy” doesn’t make something un-terrible. The guy who laughed off threatening to rape me with “it’s just a joke” didn’t make his threat suddenly okay. Comedy is not an excuse.



Dress codes redux

Hey Dad,

Did you see that story in the news about the 15-year-old who was forced to wear a “shame suit” at school because her outfit was deemed to violate school dress code? The story is absolutely disgusting, and I almost cried when reading it.

It’s just another example of dress codes being used to target women and shame them for having the bodies they have. If her outfit was truly deemed to be distracting (and that’s the excuse schools give for making dress codes) then how does an ostentatious outfit advertising her rule breaking create a productive study environment?

The fact is, it doesn’t. It’s not about helping kids learn. It’s about remind women and girls that their bodies do not belong to them in public spaces, that they are always on display, and that they should be ashamed.

Until next time,

On trigger warnings

Dear Dad,

Have you been following this debate on implementing trigger warnings in colleges and universities? What are your thoughts on it?

My guess is, and you can correct me if I’m wrong, that you think it’s another example of liberal over-sensitivity? You wouldn’t be alone. Critics of the suggestion to add trigger warnings even liken it to censorship.

Unfortunately, the problem with the whole debate on trigger warnings is that it directs the discussion away from trauma to vague accusations of “hypersensitivity.” Opponents believe trigger warnings will impede teachers’ ability to instruct and give students an excuse to opt out of class work. But this is a puffed up strawman of the trigger warning request that directs focus away from students’ well-being toward a dark slippery slope of a future educational system.

Trigger warnings, which simply tell people that upcoming content could trigger previous traumas, have their origin in blogs and feminist websites, but the college debate started at UCSB, when student Bailey Loverin, herself a victim of sexual assault, witnessed potentially triggering content in a class and requested an academic senate resolution asking teachers to implement trigger warnings for the benefit of students who have experienced trauma (and with rampant sexual assault in colleges, there are many).

Let me put this in very personal terms:

Remember when I was 15, and that adult man very close to our family hit on me?  And how for years I couldn’t be touched by men, or be alone with them, or stand too near to them? Maybe you didn’t notice, but I couldn’t even stand to sit next to you on the couch to watch a movie. You, who were not the man who hurt me.

Mostly, I’ve recovered and dealt with that phobia. But last week I got into an elevator and an overly friendly older man got in after me, and planned to get off on the same floor. The thought of being alone with him in a small, slow-moving elevator for four floors terrified me. I started to panic, ducked out of the elevator and ran up the stairs. It took me a half hour to relax fully, and I cried later that evening.

This is a mild example, and obviously there is not trigger warning for men in elevators. But my point is that past trauma can be dredged up unexpectedly, and when it is, it can be extremely painful and disruptive to one’s life.

A request for trigger warnings is not a demand that teachers censor their syllabus, or stop teaching certain materials. It is instead a plea to allow students to adequately prepare for their lessons. A warning that a book contains graphic sexual content could allow a rape victim to mentally prepare herself for the passage; a note that a movie contains graphic physical violence could allow an abuse victim to emotionally prepare himself for the scene. Or, if necessary, the student could skip over a portion of the work, at their own discretion.

But they won’t be triggered into a panic attack, or be left with anxiety that could follow them for the rest of the day, week, month, or semester. Trigger warnings aren’t about censorship. They’re about making campuses more welcoming to all students. They’re about prioritizing a student’s education instead of a professor’s right to make their students uncomfortable.

In my French literature class, (trigger warning: sexual assault) we had to read a book in which the main character was sexually assaulted by a stranger. At first, she told him no but didn’t resist when he pulled her into a building. He then pinned her against a wall and forced her to touch him. My professor insisted that the assault was “ambiguous,” that it wasn’t clear whether or not she was a willing participant. His prodding in class was deliberately meant to make us uncomfortable, and a class that was supposed to be about modern French literature instead became a class in which I was constantly uncomfortable and afraid of my professor, who didn’t understand consent. This was disruptive to my education, and marred my experience of French novels.

Education should be about learning, not fear. And that’s why I support trigger warnings.



On predators at the bar

Dear Dad,

You know what’s cool about this blog? I’ve had men telling me about times they’ve noticed systems of oppression working against women since they read my posts and started paying attention.

My friend Eric texted me this weekend to tell me about how he DD’d recently for a group of female friends of his. Outside the bar, as they were leaving, he saw one very intoxicated woman. Her friend was caring for her, but there was a man who obviously saw the drunk woman as a target, and was trying to hit on her as easy prey.

Though her friend shooed the man off, Eric told me how sad and scary it was that women have to have other women present to protect each other because some men see them as nothing but easy conquests, not human beings who happen to be at that time incapable of consent.

It might be easy to wave this off as, “Guys and girls get drunk and they get horny. They make mistakes.” And certainly the prevailing wisdom is that young people drink and hook up indiscriminately.

But a recent study showed that most men who hit on women in bars aren’t intoxicated. And they’re more likely to target women the more drunk the women are. It’s not about sex, or sloppy mistakes. It’s about men who see drunk women as easy prey. It’s about power and ego and dehumanizing an entire group of people. And while when a woman comes forward as having been sexually assaulted, people are apt to ask if she’d been drinking, people rarely ask if the man who assaulted her was intoxicated, or if he took advantage of her.

As someone who has been out to bars with a group of women to go dancing, I know firsthand how prevalent this is. Every night, my friends and I would have to shoo off several unwanted interlopers. They would watch our group for a little while, then try to dance their way in, touching me or one of my friends.

But the fact that we have to travel as a pack, have to constantly have vigilant buddies while we look out for our own friends, and that this defensive behavior is so normalized because these creeps are so unavoidable, is tragic. This is rape culture, Dad, and it’s common and terrifying.

Rape culture, as a refresher, is a combination of cultural influences that teaches women “don’t get raped” instead of teaching men not to rape, as one definition goes. It’s the normalization of violence against women and normalization of men as predators who can’t control their urges. It’s the guy at the bar who uses the loud music and dark lights as an excuse to feel my butt when he walks past me.

It’s what feminists are fighting to end.

And if there’s one good thing out of this whole story, it’s that there are a few more people noticing it and speaking out against it. Maybe the tides are starting to turn.



On “Bravely Default” sexism

Dear Dad,

I recently bought a really fun game for my 3DS (thanks for that awesome present, by the way). It’s called Bravely Default, and it is exactly what I was looking for in an RPG: fun game mechanics, cool job classes, an involved story with an elaborate world and a hefty dose of nostalgia. There’s only one problem. It’s enormously sexist.

I got my first hint with the character of Ringabel, one of the members of the main party, who is constantly asking, “Will there be ladies?” when the group talks about traveling to another place. At one point, he claims he has so many girlfriends he can’t keep track. His advances at the two women in the party are constantly met with rejection and “unacceptable.”

But I was only mildly uncomfortable until the character of the old sage was introduced, a supposedly wise old man who crafts holy cloths for the vestals to wear in religious ceremonies. But instead of greeting the vestal as an equal or religious figure, he remarks that she’s gotten pleasantly curvier since he saw her as a child. He then remarks that the previous vestal was “very firm,” as in having firm, “taught curves.” He then proposes to share his bed with the two young women of the party, who are vocally uncomfortable with this.

Later, the group travels to a town of all women, where the residents are catty and vain, and male visitors happily ogle and critique the women on the street.

At every turn, women in the show, even playable characters, are treated as sexual decoration and prey. The main women, Agnes, a religious leader, and Edea, a knight, do not receive respect they deserve as people, but are reduced to their gender, and how attractive they are. They are constantly protesting Ringabel’s and others’ advances, but the male characters brush this off.

A shot of the video game "Bravely Default" in which the rake character, Ringabel, compares using abilink feature to picking and choosing between two girlfriends.

What is meant to be humorous in fact dehumanizes women. Here, a feature of the game is the same as having two girlfriends, as if women are sex commodities.

I’m sure this is meant to be lighthearted and fun, but instead it promotes rape culture and the objectification of women. The male characters refuse to respect that “No means no.” They don’t honor the women’s right to determine the level of intimacy or lack thereof that they desire. Unfortunately, this passes on the message to the boys and men that play this game that this kind of behavior is acceptable and normal:

“Because of its essential interactive nature, gaming occupies a unique and possibly more detrimental position vis-a-vis the portrayal and treatment of female characters,” says Anita Sarkeesian of Feminist Frequency, in her latest video for her Tropes v. Women in Video Games series.

Not only is the treatment of women very poor in this game, but it also passes on to men that this violation of women’s rights is flirty and humorous. And it tells women that their “no” doesn’t matter.

This is rape culture, Dad,  a combination of media, laws, values, beliefs, jokes, etc.,  that “condones physical and emotional terrorism against women as the norm . . . In a rape culture both men and women assume that sexual violence is a fact of life, inevitable . . . However . . . much of what we accept as inevitable is in fact the expression of values and attitudes that can change,” according to Emilie Buchwald in her book “Transforming a Rape Culture.”

It’s gotten so bad in the game, Dad, that I’ve had to stop playing for a while. With every cut scene and conversation, I’m reminded that my rights and my safety don’t matter to the game creators, and that this message is being passed on to others who play the game. It’s scary.

It’s time for a new gaming culture.



On America’s Next Top Model

Dear Dad,

Do you remember America’s Next Top Model? Yeah, that show’s still around. They just had season 20. So I’ve been watching it, or whatever, catching up on Hulu. What? I like to watch fluff sometimes, okay? But it’s been making me really uncomfortable lately.

And not for the usual reasons. Sure, they’re obsessed with looking skinny, and long, and bizarre. There’s the show’s focus on appearance and the general beauty culture issues, which are mad problematic. And I’m aware of that. But this season threw male models into the competition. And that just got uncomfortable.

I mean, yeah, hormones are raging and suddenly all the heterosexuals on the show are flirting and smooching. Obviously, the addition of men was meant to bring more sex into the mix. But it also brought some scary sexism.

I’m talking about Marvin and Renee, or “Marnee,” two contestants who started dating in the middle of the season. That’s not the issue. Renee is terrifically shy and reserved; Marvin is outgoing and charismatic and kind of trying to be a ladies’ man. That’s not the issue. The issue comes in Marvin’s treatment of Renee. Yes, he’s sweet and affectionate and she says she enjoys his energy, but he is also constantly pushing him to be physically affectionate with her, something she is not comfortable with, especially in public.

The most jarring scene for me was when the whole cast went for elephant rides in Bali, and Marnee shared an elephant. Marvin kept pushing Renee to kiss him, something she didn’t want to do. (As she says in the interview after, which is edited into the scene, she’s not comfortable with PDA.) Marvin’s response is that he “just wants to kiss on an elephant” and that Renee is “stealing” this experience from him.

It is her fault that he is unhappy. She owes him this kiss. She is hurting him by refusing to kiss in public. Her needs or concerns are unimportant. Marvin wants to smooch in public and she should get over her hangups because she is ruining his elephant ride. Finally, she kisses him.

I cringed through the whole scene. See, I know Marvins, Dad. I’ve dated some. One in particular called himself my boyfriend after our first date. When I told him that was moving too fast for me, he apologized. But on the next date he said he hoped we would still be together in two years. And the date after he called me his girlfriend. That’s when I called it off. But he was hurt and upset whenever I told him that I was uncomfortable with where the relationship was going; my actions were causing him distress and I ignored my own discomfort for two dates too long because I was made to feel as if I was somehow at fault or overreacting.

This kind of emotional blackmail isn’t uncommon, and I think as women, we’re taught to ignore our own alarm bells when a man tells us that our alarm bells are insulting or hurtful to him. It recenters the conversation on the male and discounts a woman’s own feelings and instincts on a situation. Marvin, and the non-boyfriend, both felt a sense of “sexual entitlement,” or that the women in their lives owed them physical and emotional affection and that it was wrong to refuse it.

What’s most upsetting to me is that the relationship between Marvin and Renee is portrayed as romantic and supportive. And yes, Renee does say she has feelings for Marvin; I had feelings for the toxic non-boyfriend. But I think we should be teaching our girls (and this show reaches a lot of girls and young women) that they’re not “stealing” anything from men when they listen to their own misgivings. They are not wrong to say “No.” And their desires matter.

At least, that’s what I’d wish I’d seen in that show, Dad.

Love you,