On Sexual Assault, Silence, and Rape Culture…

I’m going to start off with a story that I haven’t told very often, not so much out of shame or guilt but that I hadn’t ever particularly thought of it as relevant to whatever topic I addressed.  But now, for this topic, it is.

When I was a freshman in high school (no, I’m not going to tell anyone how long ago that was), I became a target of some of the upperclassmen student assistants to the phys ed teacher (he was an older man and needed the assistance with larger and bulkier equipment).  They decided I was “stuffing” my shorts for reasons I’m not terribly certain of (at least that was the cited reason I was told), and that I needed to be “checked.”

I was rather fortunate that my PE class was at the end of the day, because I didn’t have to go through the rest of my classes after the student assistants and three classmates who joined into the plan overpowered me in the hall leading to the locker room, ripped my shorts down, tore off my underwear, pushed me around, then left me with my shredded underwear rubbed in my face.

At the time, I wasn’t sure what to make of it (I was not the most sexually mature child even by the time I reached college, much less a high school freshman).  I was embarrassed to have to get on the bus and walk the quarter-mile home effectively commando with my underwear tucked in my bag.  I was surprised when my parents were irate when I told them what happened (especially from my father, who had always struck me as aloof at best when it came to bullying).  I was confused when the school principal and superintendent wanted to resolve the matter quietly.

The shame only set in when my peers started to quietly show sympathy and scorn for the kid “who got raped.”  This was high school, after all.  There was no such thing as quiet gossip in high school.  I wasn’t sure what had happened (I certainly didn’t agree I had been raped), but whatever it was, it clearly was bad, and that was something that no doubt contributed to the anti-social withdrawing and the faux-comedian shell I formed for many years afterward.

Nowadays, I know what it was, that I had been sexually assaulted, though comparatively tame to what normally happens.  It’s another part of the reason why I tend not to speak about it, as it really would come across as false equivalence to someone who suffered the full nine yards, I’m sure.  But the point really isn’t about the degree of assault, but the response to it from the “society” of the high school I attended.

“Silence is sometimes an argument of Consent.” (Thomas Hobbes – Leviathan, ii. xxvi. 138.)

When the general thrust of people hear the term “rape culture” and the claim that we all perpetuate it, the above line is what I think about.  Because to me, it represents one of the biggest cultural fallacies in Western society, something that stems from cowardice (Thomas Hobbes not wanting to speak out against the crown, but at the same time not support royal decrees), rather than any moral grounding.

It’s a problem because silence is not consent, and I would argue never is.  Anybody who has been a victim of sexual assault, abuse, or rape can tell you that.  Silence is a statement of fear.  Whether it is a coward of a philosopher afraid of punishment, a rape victim not wanting to report his/her assault, or a society not wanting to face uncomfortable truths until they have to… it is fear that is talking, not implied consent.

It’s also the biggest issue I have with the term “rape culture”, because I’m not sure it’s a particularly accurate term (at least on the surface, the academic definition is a much more robust term with a litany of descriptions that utilize much of what I’m about to say here).  When our society is forced to face the truth of sexual crimes, we come down hard on those responsible.  When there is absolutely no way to handwave it away, we destroy a rapist’s life, we destroy their reputation, we force them onto federal lists that they can never get removed from, make them announce their crimes to everyone in their neighborhood when they move in.

Even being a beloved celebrity (normally a near bulletproof shield for any number of misgivings), doesn’t necessarily save someone when sexual crimes are concerned.  Bill Cosby may have some high profile support, but outside of those talking heads, this once “wholesome” character is in a state best described as “eviscerated.”

I don’t think our culture supports and encourages rape even implicitly.  I think it’s more insidious than that.  We encourage ignorance.  The rape jokes that are meant as humor, the subtle pressure (for both men and women) to be silent when they are assaulted, I don’t think it’s so much to protect rapists as much as it is to protect people from having to confront the issue.

Deep down, we know it’s pervasive.  Deep down, we know anyone could have molested a child, ravished a friend or a spouse, taken advantage of an incapacitated peer… and we really don’t want to find out who.  We don’t want to think that Father Geniality sodomized his altar boy.  We don’t want to believe that anything other than playful exuberance occurred in Neverland Ranch.  We don’t want to confront the Super Bowl winning Quarterback about forcing himself onto women in a restroom.  We don’t want to even think that the voice of Fat Albert used his power and influence to take advantage of starstruck young ladies… but when we have to, by God will there be hell to pay.

Now, to those who have been victimized, it’s of little difference, just like how I was not at all impressed by my high school’s administrators insistently keeping the events and punishment for my assault quiet.  But at this point in my life, I do not believe that the school was trying to protect the students who attacked me.  I think they were trying to protect themselves and the school district from having a very disquieting dialogue; of having to face the truth that sexual assault isn’t a “small problem” or an “inner-city problem”, or even just a “woman’s problem”, but can happen anywhere and to anyone.

Instead of a “Rape Culture”, I’d argue it’s more a “Fear Culture.”  I also think that’s why people outside of feminist thought get so very defensive when the term is raised, because we as a society don’t support or protect rapists… at least not directly.  “I don’t support rapists!” they will shout, and I honestly think they believe that.  What they do support, however, is the silence that allows the crimes to continue and go unpunished.  They’re afraid of what they will find when they pull back the curtain, and that is a more subtle defense, because it’s something that can be more easily denied by individuals… because it’s a denial they earnestly mean with all their heart.

How do we fight that?  I don’t know.  I wish I did.  But much like Thomas Hobbes… it’s hard to take a stand, even if it’s something as simple as standing up for the victim of assault.  I’d also love to claim it’s getting better, but I’m not even sure I can say that much.

At least this new age of online socializing has given people who have been victimized a network of others and supporters that never existed before, at least not so readily.  Maybe the baby steps forward have to be enough.

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