Anti-choice politics and rape culture

18 Mar 2013 06:39 pm
Posted by: Donna

Like many observers of the Steubenville rape case, I was heartened by the guilty verdict (the disgusting claim by the defense attorneys that the victim was consenting because she had not “affirmatively” said no failed) and dismayed by the insensitivity and outright cruelty some people have shown toward the victim. CNN correspondents Candy Crowley and Poppy Harlow oozed sympathy for the perpetrators after the verdict was handed down.

Harlow explained that it had been “incredibly difficult” to watch “as these two young men — who had such promising futures, star football players, very good students — literally watched as they believed their life fell apart.”

“One of the young men, Ma’lik Richmond, as that sentence came down, he collapsed,” the CNN reporter recalled, adding that the convicted rapist told his attorney that “my life is over, no one is going to want me now.”

At that point, CNN played video of Richmond crying and hugging his lawyer in the courtroom.

“I was sitting about three feet from Ma’lik when he gave that statement,” Harlow said. “It was very difficult to watch.”

Candy then asked CNN legal contributor Paul Callan what the verdict meant for “a 16 year old, sobbing in court, regardless of what big football players they are, they still sound like 16 year olds.”

“What’s the lasting effect though on two young men being found guilty juvenile court of rape essentially?” Crowley wondered.

The poor things. I’m of the opinion that ruining your promising young life with a rape conviction and having to register as a sex offender is fairly easily avoided. Just don’t rape someone. It’s that simple. Obviously and sadly, many other people don’t share that view. This is why feminists like to say that we all operate in a thing called “rape culture”. It’s as ambient and unavoidable as the air we breathe.

WHAT IS RAPE CULTURE?

In a rape culture, people are surrounded with images, language, laws, and other everyday phenomena that validate and perpetuate, rape. Rape culture includes jokes, TV, music, advertising, legal jargon, laws, words and imagery, that make violence against women and sexual coercion seem so normal that people believe that rape is inevitable. Rather than viewing the culture of rape as a problem to change, people in a rape culture think about the persistence of rape as “just the way things are.”

This is what it means when people say that sexism and violence against women are “naturalized.” It means that people in our current society believe these attitudes and actions always have been, and always will be. For more about how rape is engrained in our consciousness, read Lynn Higgins and Brenda Silver’s important collection of essays, entitled Rape and Representation. For a quick reference, read Wikipedia’s article on the definition of rape culture.

What does it mean to perpetuate rape and rape culture?

Media imagery perpetuates rape by excusing it, validating myths about rape, and/or sexualizing rape. The Stanger Rape myth, for example, is frequently reinforced through Lifetime movies like She Fought Alone, or most episodes of Law and Order: Special Victim’s Unit. This kind of media perpetuates rape, because it continues the shame and silence that surrounds the majority of survivors who were raped by friends or family; and it allows perpetrators to avoid dealing with their problems, since they do not match the profile of rapists “As Seen On TV.”

Our very laws and lawmakers also contribute to perpetuating the Stranger Rape myth, such as in the controversial “No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act” that Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) introduced in early 2011. Smith wanted to define rape, for the purposes of their anti-abortion bill, as “forcible rape,” therefore excluding non-consensual sex and statutory rape. See Nick Bauman’s article for more details of the controversy surrounding this bill. The problem here is the continued emphasis on the actions of victims- in this case, dissecting whether they resisted enough- rather than putting energy into preventing rape by changing the behaviors of perpetrators.

I tweeted the following about the disturbing reactions to verdict:

Lots of people think a clump of cells should have more rights than a woman so why are we surprised people sympathize w/rapists over victims?

Nothing happens in a cultural vacuum and it’s not hyperbolic at all to point out the substantial overlap between anti-choice politics and rape culture. Both are firmly rooted in the belief that women are subhuman and that our bodies don’t belong to us. Rapists believe that there’s nothing wrong with violating other people’s bodies because that view is constantly reinforced in rape culture. And anti-choice politicians regularly express their ghastly views on rape and attempt to redefine it legislatively because the anti-choice movement both reflects and perpetuates rape culture. In anti-choice politics, men are privileged over women and so are “unborn children” at every stage of development from fertilized egg to birth. In a culture where a large number of people loudly proclaim that fertilized eggs and fetuses are more important than women, should we really be surprised that the future college and sports prospects of high school rapists are of more concern to at least some people than the trauma they inflict upon their victims?

Rape culture is why anti-choice politicians who claim to be for “exceptions for rape and incest” should be regarded with deep skepticism but are generally given a pass. Our new Senator Jeff Flake was able to appear “moderate” on abortion during debates and editorial boards – despite having a voting record on women’s reproductive rights nearly identical to Todd Akin’s – by putting on his concerned face and mouthing the “exceptions for rape and incest” platitude. Not one reporter or moderator asked simple but crucial follow-up questions, such as how would a rape and incest exception work? Who will decide whether or not a woman was sufficiently raped to qualify for one? Why is it so often necessary to specify “forcible rape” in abortion ban exceptions? Does that mean the victim has to have said no clearly and struggled mightily? What does that mean for women who are incapacitated by drugs or alcohol or for mentally challenged women? How would it work for someone like the Jane Doe in the Steubenville case? I’m sure if someone asked Flake about Steubenville he would insist Jane Doe should get the abortion she is seeking. But since her assailants denied it was rape does she then have to wait for the case to be adjudicated? What if the rapist appeals? Since Flake and other anti-choice politicians who would magnanimously grant us “exceptions” are never called upon to explain how they would work, their statements should regarded as disingenuous b.s. intended to fool credulous reporters and voters until they provide some substantive policy details.

Since most rape victims can’t catch a break in rape culture, what of women who are *gasp* sexually active of their own volition? The anti-choice movement adeptly exploits society’s suspicion of sexually active women not just through abortion restrictions, but also in their increasing efforts to limit women’s access to contraception under the guise of “religious freedom”. Allowing health care providers, pharmacists, and employers to deny women contraception on some flimsy moral premise is to codify into law the idea that female sexuality is bad and wrong, which helps to perpetuate (guess what!) rape culture.

Really, the ways in which the anti-choice movement mirrors and reinforces rape culture are nearly infinite. There’s the constant emphasis on protecting the “innocent unborn”, which implies that the pregnant woman is guilty and deserving of punishment. Then there’s the insipid paternalism of mandatory waiting periods, sonograms, and lectures implying that women are too mentally and morally deficient to know if they’re fully consenting to something or not. Don’t even get me started on abstinence-until-marriage sex ed and purity pledges. It just goes on and on. I’m not calling the anti-choice movement pro-rape, but it sure looks and acts like rape culture on steroids a lot of the time.

That accusation may seem harsh to those who consider themselves “pro-life” because they really, truly, deeply believe that abortion ends a human life. A good number of liberals number among them, and that’s fine. Here’s what people who oppose abortion for non-misogynistic reasons, and who don’t want to enable rape culture, need to do: Support things like health care access, comprehensive sex ed, easily available contraception, and a strong social safety net for post-birth human beings. Resist efforts to criminalize women and doctors, to deny women birth control, to redefine rape, to allow rapists to sue for custody and visitation of their children, to enable abusive partners, and to gut public assistance and insurance programs. It’s not that difficult to identify who the misogynistic opponents of abortion are. They’re the ones constantly saying awful things about rape and working furiously to shred the social safety net. Don’t side with them.

3 Comments

  1. Comment by Mike Slater on March 19, 2013 3:48 pm

    Donna, one of the few things we can agree on. I have no sympathy for those boys and am puzzled as to why the liberal media would stick up for them.

  2. Comment by Suzanne on March 19, 2013 9:24 pm

    I enjoyed reading this column Donna.

    Interestingly Richmond’s self-pity over future prospects became clear a bit too late.

  3. Comment by Timmys Cat on March 19, 2013 9:28 pm

    Another excellent post.

    I think what is the thing that stands out is the whole depersonalization of both rape and abortion. Rarely if ever from the Right is the woman and her feelngs brought forward to personalize the debate. The disgusting parsing of the definition of rape shows that the womans humanity is taken from the argument. Rape is a violent act of dominance that is not invited nor “asked” for. I don’t think I’ve ever heard the Right present a womans side to either argument, allowing them to intellectualize false even dangerous arguments for their cause.
    Legitimate rape?
    Most telling that the Right never brings forward rape victims to support their positions.
    As far as trying to shift the blame onto the girl because of her level of intoxication, that argument is not only dangerous but also absurd. By that logic if one of the male football players had passed out from drinking, then was stripped and raped, with pictures of their rape passed around among schoolmates. it would not be such a bad thing.
    I wonder if the reaction of the television idiot isn’t a subconcious need to push the blame onto the girl to deny that rape can happen to herself. A cause is needed to delude herself that attacks are provoked not planned or random.

    Not all rapists are male and not all rape victims are female.
    Again, this is a violent, violent act. It is for power and dominance, not sex.

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