Thursday, January 24, 2013

When Hate Goes Underground

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. 

One of the callers discussed working with survivors on understanding that what happened was "wrong". The host, Neal Conan, picked up on it, and so did I. The caller didn't say "rape", she said "wrong". And then she explained that she'd found a lot of times survivors didn't identify what happened to them as rape, even when that's exactly what it was. Which got me to thinking about the insidiousness of rape culture and it's ability to shake our foundation so that we don't recognize that a crime is being committed. Or if we do recognize it, we don't want to tell anyone about it because we will become one of "those women". (I'm using "women" here because of the statistically higher number of female survivors, but please note that there are male survivors too and they often have even more to culturally overcome).

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.

This is the art project of a high school student

This is an ad for underwear
We ALL are participants in this. We don't live in trees where we're above perpetuating a rape culture. We write and read books where guys kiss girls who don't want to be kissed, but somehow in the midst of this non-consensual kiss, the girl succumbs to the dude's awesomeness. We watch movies where "benign" sexism or "broken and complicated" heroes are not only part of the plot, but are lauded for it. Think of that Jeff Bridges movie CRAZY HEART. He's a broken hero, but aren't we indirectly sending the message that abusive guys just need the love of a "good woman" like Maggie Gyllenhaal to set them to rights? Isn't that indirectly what women in abusive relationships are told over and over again? If you only loved him enough, changed this, helped him with your unconditional love, you wouldn't be abused. You'd save this guy. It's no wonder why it is difficult for an abused women to leave. It's not him, it's her. She should be good enough to save this broken asshole.

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. 


Mandie Baxter said...

I love the way you write. You take the nitty gritty and put it out there for all to read, think about, and understand. I have a feeling you touch many more lives than you even know. You are amazing!

Kaylee Baldwin said...

Yes. I love your thoughts on this. I've been thinking about rape this week because of a hazing incident of a boy in my community (who now denies that he was sexually assaulted despite a witness who says otherwise). There really does need to be open dialogue about rape and sexual assault.

And I agree with you on Grease. I watched and loved it as a kid, but watching it as an adult, I was just sad that Sandy changed her fundamental self for a guy who couldn't appreciate her for who she really was. Sad message, really. And a poor reflection on men, honestly--like they'd only want a girl who changed herself to fit into their lives. It gets under my skin when men are often portrayed as overbearing, aggressive, demanding, or violently sexual. It's not fair to all of the awesome, kind, loving, and accepting men out there.

Great post.

Melissa Sarno said...

Amazing post, Christa. And I love what you say. 'We are not above culture, we are in it' I love the idea of challenging ourselves and others to ask the difficult questions. This is both on-topic and off-topic -- have you seen the documentary The Invisible War? I hope the film gets more attention with the Oscars coming up. It is asking the difficult questions in a big way.

Jenny S. Morris said...

Wow, such a powerful post. I did a lot of thinking about violence in general after recent events. And I think in American culture most of these things are underground. And things we don't realize we're fed everyday. The messages that shows or ads perpetuate. Or things like what you've pointed out with Grease. It's there and it's been there so long we don't even question it. But we should.

This is something I want to spend more time evaluating in my life.

Thanks for this post!

Rebecca Green Gasper said...

Very powerful. Thanks for being so honest and putting it all out there. It is important to speak out. Everyone needs to talk. Tough issues, violence, abuse, all needs to be things we talk about so we can make steps to end it.

KatOwens: Insect Collector said...

Amen, Christa. On all points.
I have noticed it so much more lately-- when your eyes are opened to the sort of messed-up gender/sexist/racist attitudes pervading our culture you see it everywhere. On all types of tv shows, in print media and movies. It's frightening.

Anonymous said...

Here via the lovely Jessica Corra.

Thank you so much for this post. Yes, yes, a million times yes to everything you said. Argh!