steubenville

You’re STILL Telling Me Rape Culture Doesn’t Exist?

TRIGGER WARNING:

The following includes discussions that may serve as a trigger for victims of sexual violence.
Please be advised. 

If you came here expecting some kind of calm, patient, even-keeled commentary, you should probably leave now.

I am PISSED. IRATE. ENRAGED. LIVID.

I am angry because just a few weeks after the Steubenville boys were sentenced, I had to read this:

And so, when the Twitter posts brought national condemnation to this old mill town, the principal of Torrington High School decided it was time to appeal to her students’ better natures.

In her note on March 22, the principal, Joanne R. Creedon, urged the students to “get that spotlight on the good.” Among other student-sponsored good deeds, she wrote, the Interact Club was holding a dodgeball tournament for charity that Friday. “Come out for one of these events, have fun, and show everyone what T.H.S. is really about,” she wrote.

The dodgeball tournament seemed to go off without a hitch. But the next Monday, the winning team appeared in a picture on the front page of The Register Citizen, the local newspaper — grinning, and extending their fingers in 2’s and 1’s, for the “21” on the football jersey of one of the accused players, Edgar Gonzalez, who remains in jail.

The paper had found the photo on Instagram. Someone had posted it with a label: #FreeEdgar.

Think I’m kidding? This is the picture in question:

#freeedgar3

You need to read the full original piece in The Register Citizen by Jessica Glenza.

You still want to tell me we don’t have a problem with rape culture?

#freeedgar tweets

You really want to tell me we don’t have a problem with rape culture?

#freeedgar2

No? Still not convinced? Here’s a bunch from the original article:

#freeedgar originals #freeedgar10 #freeedgar9 #freeedgar8 #freeedgar7 #freeedgar6

THESE ARE CHILDREN.
THEY LEARNED THIS FROM SOMEWHERE.
THEY WERE NOT BORN THINKING IT’S OK TO HATE AND JUDGE AND BLAME A 13 YEAR OLD GIRL FOR HER OWN SEXUAL ASSAULT.

AND IN CASE YOU WERE WONDERING –

YES, THIS IS WHAT RAPE CULTURE LOOKS LIKE.

Maybe they learned it from rappers who think it’s ok to sing in jest about date rape and then “apologize” by saying he didn’t say the word rape.

Maybe they learned it from college professors who think it’s cool to lecture on how rape is probably ok if she doesn’t remember it.

Maybe they learned it from the military, which thinks it’s alright to overturn the findings of a judicial procedure with no requirement for legal basis, and keep someone convicted of rape on the payroll.

Maybe they learned it because parents are not having the conversations they need should with their kids. 

Don’t tell me, “but it’s not my kid.” Because odds are, it is. Maybe they aren’t cracking rape jokes, but they aren’t standing up to them either, and that’s where the change begins. Then again, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe your kid is a shining example for everyone else. Either way, have the conversation, because I doubt the parents in Torrington or Steubenville thought their kids were participating in this crap, either.

So yeah, I’m angry. And you should be, too. Start talking.

Confronting Rape Culture in Our Own Backyard

TRIGGER WARNING:

The following includes commentary that may serve as a trigger for victims of sexual violence.
Please be advised. 

This has been one of the most difficult things I have ever written, but it’s important.

I want to start by thanking everyone who has read and shared the pieces I’ve written this week on rape culture, and, in particular, commend those who have taken part in the grander conversation. The important part is not the initial post. All I did was make a list. The important part is that we’re engaging in discourse, and working to try to find solutions.

I do want to apologize. I haven’t been on top of moderating the comments during the last half of today. As I type, the comment count awaiting approval on my sidebar is 211. I just… haven’t been able to bring myself to touch them.

My entire world has been turned upside down in the past four days. Since the original rape culture post went up, my inbox and social networks have exploded with advocates intent on taking a stand, victims courageously sharing their stories, and average folks who are realizing for the first time just how bad things have gotten. It has been overwhelming (and I apologize for not getting back to some of you as quickly as I would like), but mostly inspiring.

You inspire me. Each and every one of you.

I had no way of knowing this at the outset, but I would need your inspiration this week more than ever. Yesterday morning, one of my former debate students contacted me, providing a link to a news story. She was distraught, angry, and hurt. I waited for the link to load, but my internet connection was glitching. All I could see from the link text was that a teacher at my former high school had been charged with having sex with a minor. I told my student it wasn’t pulling up, and asked to whom it referred.

“Lauren,” she said. “It’s Klemm.”

——————————

In high school, I was the definition of a nerd. I collected activities like badges of honor, but the Speech Team was, without a doubt, my passion. My forte was limited preparation speaking – particularly an event called Impromptu Speaking. Students could be given a random prompt, have two minutes to think about what the prompt meant, and then be asked to give a 6 minute speech supporting their conclusions. It was Jedi training for bullshit delivery.

But real talk? Participation in speech and debate was the single most valuable experience of my life. It taught me to research, contextualize information, form cohesive arguments, write persuasively, adapt my presentation to my audience, and speak with ease in front of a crowd. As academically enriching as the activity is, its social and emotional benefits are incalculable. In Speech, your team is your family. My teammates taught me about passion, patience, understanding, laughter, loss, and – most importantly – love. I will never be able to thank them enough for that.

Klemm was my coach and my teacher. But he was also a mentor and a friend. I was an actress by trade, and really good at hiding pain. In the midst of some major struggles, Klemm was there for me in a big way. He helped me feel safe, and worthy, and strong. We were certainly close, but never in an inappropriate sense. When I won my national title at the end of senior year, we both cried like fools.

We stayed in touch as I competed in college and ventured into the grand land of debate. I would come back to visit the team, and he would show me off to his students, boasting about his “star.” I always laughed when he said that. He would beg for me to come back and coach. It was my destiny, he said. It’s what I was born to do.

When I eventually moved back to Chicago, I did coach at the school for a brief time. I worked with the Impromptu students, and joined Klemm in his attempt to establish a debate team. Working with those kids was so tremendously rewarding. They were hungry, on fire, alive. They wanted to know everything and they wanted to know it now. They reacted to hatred and injustice in the world with a sense of wide-eyed indignation.

It made me want to do more, be more. The way the students looked at me made me feel a sense of responsibility to them. I owed it to them to be the best person I could. I would not let them down.

Unfortunately, in an era of budget cuts, the funding for the debate team was simply not there. As new professional opportunities dotted the horizon, I bowed out of the Wheaton North Speech Team. But here’s the thing you gotta know about Speech – it doesn’t matter how long you’re out. You never really leave.

——————————

I stared at the blinking cursor on my screen and reread the words of my student through tear-blurred eyes.

“No,” I typed. “No. No. No. No. No.”

It was a couple of minutes before I realized I’d begun to say it out loud. The article finally loaded, and there, floating before my eyes, was the face of a man I had trusted and admired for 12 years. It was Klemm. My Klemm. The only thing jarring me back to reality was the bright orange jumpsuit.

The details were lurid. She was 16. They had sex in parking garages and classrooms and his home. The affair lasted for months. The event came to light after a love letter from Klemm to the student was discovered by her parents. News reports indicate he has admitted to the relationship.

She was a speech student.

I felt the bile creeping up in my throat and the tears smarting my eyes and before I knew what was happening I was screaming. I was screaming at his mug shot. I was screaming for the young girl whose schoolgirl romance was a tawdry backseat fling with someone who should have known better. I was screaming for the students in his classes whose world would no longer make sense. I was screaming for alumni whose fond memories were now riddled with the guilt that accompanies knowledge of such crime. I was screaming for a Speech Team that provided so much value to its students and would possibly be put in jeopardy as a result. I was screaming for my youth as my heart broke into a million pieces, because words have no use in the vortex of shattered trust.

——————————

The rest of the day was a daze. Within five minutes of learning the news, my phone started ringing and never stopped. Ten different chat windows popped up along the bottom of my computer screen. I’m not sure what people were hoping. I certainly did not have the answers they were seeking. The truth was, no one did.

My Facebook feed exploded with comments from former students about the case. It didn’t matter how far I scrolled down; Klemm’s face was everywhere. The commentary varied. Some expressed outrage. Others went the “I-told-you-so” route. Others still – particularly those who had interacted with him in Speech – conveyed disbelief, sadness, and pain. We were broken. All of us.

But of course, there were other comments. Some demanded the identity of the female student. Others called her a whore and slut, and blamed her for bringing down a much beloved teacher. There were those that called the whole thing “bullshit” because she had been a willing participant.

Surveying the comments, my brain began to short-circuit. It was rape culture. It was slut shaming and blaming the victim and rape apologia. It was in my backyard. My school. My team. My friends.

And to my absolute horror, before my mind could fully process some of these comments, I felt myself identifying with their sentiment – primarily with those comments based in apologia. It would be just for a moment – just one split second – before self-loathing and shame would hit me like a wave. How could I possibly encourage others to reject rape culture, while participating myself with a seemingly instinctual reaction?

It struck me as the day went on that we were talking about a lot of terrible impacts. We talked about Klemm’s young daughter, and the students who admired him. But we weren’t talking about the victim. And let me be clear – she was a victim. She was 16 years old. She was a minor. She was incapable of consent. He was in a position of power. He abused that position. The prosecutors on the case are confident. Yet here we were, so busy weighing our own reactions that her experience had been entirely lost in the shuffle.

I buried myself in work, yearning for distraction from a cognitive dissonance so fierce it had me shaking. Luckily, there was plenty to be done. Views on the rape culture post had not died off, and comments were rolling in at lightning speed. The minute I caught up on comments, my inbox was full again. Once my inbox had been cleared and I went back to my day job, the comments had backed up once more. I cycled between tasks on autopilot and tried not to think about it.

And I couldn’t help but wonder if the victim was doing the same for very different reasons.

——————————

I didn’t want any more details. I stopped reading articles. I stopped going on Facebook. I mostly ignored the steady stream of text messages. I’d pick up the phone for a handful of people – folks from Speech who I knew were hurting just as much as me. The conversations could have been carbon copied. Shock. Anger. More Shock. Rage. Utter sadness and despair. The details were gory, but repetition brought a twisted sense of comfort. At least there, I wouldn’t have to face my cowardice in addressing rape culture at home.

I felt like a fraud. Why should I get to rail against rape culture when I stood by and watched it happen on comment threads? What right did I have to bemoan discussions that detract from the victim’s experience when I had all but discounted the same in a young girl right before me? Where did I get off, demanding that we not apologize for rapists, when I wanted more than anything to find a way to forgive the man who had played such a tremendous role in my life?

I had this acute sense of being watched. It seemed like – given my recent comments on rape culture, and the depravity boiling to the surface in my hometown – people were waiting for me to say something, do something. And I had never felt so ill-equipped to rise to the challenge in my life.

Rape culture had been made manifest in my town. More jarring, rape culture had been made manifest with an activity that I held sacred. I knew, deep down, that I couldn’t sit on the sidelines for this, but the juxtaposition of my advocacy efforts, my struggle to “walk the talk”, the direct connection I had to the story, and the many layers of  rape culture involved made finding a starting point impossible. I’d already started rationalizing reasons to delay posting about it. It was too personal. It would make people angry. It would make a bad situation worse. The excuses abounded.

I sat at the computer at 2 AM, feeling stuck, and started chatting with a former classmate. He knew Klemm as well; he was just as mortified. But as we discussed the details of the case, he revealed that some of the more loathsome aspects of this story were echoes of crimes gone by. He talked about sexual attacks on other students, about police indifference, about administrator self-preservation tactics. My rage was palpable, but he stopped me before I could begin.

“You have a choice,” he said. “Live in sheer disgust, anger, loathing; or pity, a desire for retribution, closure, and a genuine want of truth to be exposed to protect innocent men, women, and children by perpetuating a cycle of love. Not faux love, but actual, nurturing, gracious love. Your anger will never be slaked – not in one hundred years. The pain will never recede. But in my opinion, it can and will be dulled, or conformed into a positive directional force of energy that empowers young women and men to create a better world for our children.”

Damn, I thought to myself. He’s just right. 

And I started to type.

——————————

Klemm was a teacher and coach. Assuming reports of his admission are correct, he knowingly and willfully sexually approached a 16 year old student. He then engaged in an inappropriate emotional and sexual relationship with the girl, abusing his authority over her, and exploiting her youth and inexperience. The relationship lasted from February 2011 to December 2011, when the student called off the relationship.

If I see one more comment about the fact that it was “mutual”, I might have to scream. It does not matter that a 16 year old girl thought it was a good idea to sleep with her 41 year old teacher. Klemm was the adult. He knew it was wrong. This was not a “mistake”; it was an ongoing criminal affair. He took advantage of her. He has admitted to it. This is statutory rape. To excuse it because we knew him or cared for him is rape apologia. Period.

But there’s an element to this story that is not getting enough attention.

There have been a lot of comments about how odd it was for this case to come now. After all, the relationship had taken place in 2011, and the student had since gone off to college. The bulk of these idle questions were about questioning the accusations, but as it turned out, they were questioning the wrong people.

Multiple reports have indicated that students close to the two knew what was going on. Some students have stated that they saw the two out together. Others claimed the two were pretty open about the interactions. What we do know is that, upon resigning from the Speech Team as a coach, Klemm told kids that it was because he had gotten “too close” to one of the other students. He informed students that he had been asked to resign. Students have stated that the reasons for resignation were known by most, including the Principal, Jill Bullo.

Why does that matter? It means people knew, and said nothing. It means Klemm admitted to an inappropriate relationship with a student – albeit vaguely – and nobody informed the authorities. But, most importantly, it means that administrators in the building were aware of the allegations, and did not report them to the police.

Authorities are investigating the situation, but should additional charges be brought forward for failure to satisfy mandatory reporting requirements, this is disturbing on so many levels. Allegations of this nature must be reported to the authorities by law. While some could question whether the accounting of events at the time provided sufficient warrant for a report, the fact that he was asked to resign is indicative of the fact that it was not a baseless allegation.  And if the reports are true, they swept it under the rug instead of following protocol. And if the stories I heard yesterday are of any merit, it wasn’t the first time the District has protected one of its own over the interests of a student.

This is rape culture. This is a culture that prioritizes community stability over justice. This is a culture that makes excuses for violence because the alternative – identifying a person we cared about as a sex offender – is just too terrible to think about. That’s why I’m sharing this here. Because while I may not have the answers to the questions raised by these accounts, somebody needs to start asking for them now.

——————————

I want to make something abundantly clear.

This post is not about determining Klemm’s guilt; that is for a jury. This post is not about evaluating the charges; that is for a judge. This post is not about telling those close to the situation how they should be feeling right now; that is theirs alone to own.

This post is about the CULTURE surrounding the situation. That culture has included silence in the face of widely known allegations, and a failure on behalf of administrators to take immediate action. That culture has resulted in heinous, sexist attacks on a victim brave enough to file a report. That culture has resulted in a series of comments excusing the crime as “no big deal.” That CULTURE discourages victims from coming forward, and trivializes sexual violence by placing sympathy for the accused above that for the victim. 

This post is about recognizing that rape culture is everywhere –
even the places you’d hope you’d never see it. 

It’s about saying that rape culture is never, ever acceptable. 

——————————

Wheaton is a small, conservative town that passes down privilege from generation to generation. Even absent this tragic case, Wheaton has a problem. The “jokes” Wheaton North students and alum made pervasive in social media echoed the callousness of spectators in Steubenville. The very idea of attacking a victim because a favored teacher has been fired speaks volumes to our community priorities, and brings to memory those who called Steubenville’s Jane Doe a liar or slut.

We can sit here and say rape culture isn’t real. We can pretend it’s not in our backyard. But when it comes to rape culture, we all live in Wheaton.

So what are we going to do about it? Awareness is good, but solutions are better. And if the past couple of days have demonstrated anything, it’s that this is not an easy fight, whether you’re talking about broad or individual change. I will not pretend to have all the answers, but given the amount of “what can I do to help?” questions in my inbox, and given my own struggles since yesterday, let’s look at some of the options for fighting back against a culture that trivializes rape.

Personal

Acknowledge Rape Culture Exists.

For some people, this one’s difficult. Maybe it’s because they mistakenly equate rape culture with assuming all men are rapists, or maybe it’s because they’re so uncomfortable with the thought of it being real, but the  first step towards recovery is admitting you have a problem. And I mean this quite genuinely – if you’re having trouble understanding what rape culture means, and you don’t want to raise questions in the comments section, email me. Let’s talk it through.

Learn How Rape Culture Manifests.

Part of the problem with fighting rape culture is that, sometimes, it’s not obvious. Sometimes it’s as blatant as a rape joke. Sometimes it’s as complex and dangerous as the honor board system in your universities. Sometimes it’s as simple as unnecessarily identifying characteristics of the victim that can be used to try to forgive the rapist. Read and learn and grow.

Speak up.

If someone is actively perpetuating rape culture, call them out. It sounds simple, but it’s not always easy. It takes guts, but it matters. Could you piss someone off with your statements? Absolutely. But think about it this way – there was a time in our country where jokes about beating men senseless because of the color of their skin would have been considered acceptable. Eventually, advocacy on the subject relegated the obscene humor to social Siberia. Willingness to stand up for right may not eradicate wrong, but it does help fight it back.

Get informed about your rights.

Every state has different laws about age of consent, definitions of rape, and any associated penalties for the crimes. Find out what that means in your state. Contributing to a culture where rape goes unreported is the fact that many of us just aren’t aware  of our options, and ways in which we can help secure justice following attack. Get familiar with your state’s statutes. And then help other people familiarize themselves, as well. Knowledge is power.

Talk with your wallet.

Consumer advocacy works. Perhaps the best example can be found within the LGBTQ movement:

In 2010, Target was called out for making political contributions to candidates with vehemently anti-gay rights positions. […] outrage ensued. It was not an overnight turnaround, but Target today has ceased said contributions, and launched a series of initiatives aimed at promoting equality, be they fundraising projects or simple inclusion of the community in their service offerings- like wedding registries for same-sex couples.

How do you leverage the same tools here? Consume responsibly. Don’t give your hard earned dollars to brands that use images inclusive of violent or degrading behavior towards women (or men, for that matter). Don’t support companies or individuals that use sexual violence humor to promote themselves. Don’t bolster the market share of shows which trivialize rape by tuning in. Be a conscious consumer.

Talk with your vote.

I know we just got done with an election, and many of you (particularly those subjected to my Facebook rants at the time) are still recovering from the political hangover. However, local elections happen at scattered intervals, and technically, the midterms are 19 months away. PAY ATTENTION. If a politician trivializes sexual violence  in policy or rhetoric, take a stand in the voting booth and show them you won’t support rape culture.

These solutions are important for three reasons. To begin, it really is a matter of personal integrity. We are often called to “be the change” we wish to see in the world. This is one of those instances. Second, it’s about changing hearts and minds. The struggle with any culturally based problem is that policy cannot eradicate prejudice, misconception, bias, or hatred (though policy does have a place, we’ll get to that in a minute). Thoughtful discourse and personal advocacy, on the other hand, CAN AND DOES MAKE A DIFFERENCE. I’ve already received countless emails from people saying that, after engaging in the discussion here, they now understand that rape culture is real. Finally, it’s about setting an example for those who look up to us – be they our children, siblings, friends, lovers, partners, colleagues or otherwise. When we lead by example, we lead in love, and I really can’t think of anything better than that.

Policy Solutions

While personal solutions make a lot of sense for adults, there are policy solutions worth considering for our schools. They say that the children are our future, and in terms of combating rape culture, this sentiment is particularly true. If we want to break a culture, we have to stop the cycle before it begins.

Incorporate Sexual Violence Education into Broader Sex Ed

Part of the problem is that we, as communities, are pretty terrible about talking to our kids about sexual violence. Think about it – When was the first time someone explained consent to you? When was the first time you learned of the steps to  take in the event of a sexual attack? When was the first time someone articulated the sentences and/or consequences associated with various sexually based offense charges?

If you’re like me, it was probably Law & Order SVU… assuming you watched it. But in a classroom? Never. Sexual violence is an uncomfortable subject, but by conveying the information in age-appropriate intervals, we can, early on, make it clear that sexual violence is never acceptable, and carries grave consequences.

Think this is way too young to be teaching kids about sexual violence? Consider the kind of trivialization grade schoolers exhibited in Minnesota:

Disturbing, to say the least. But there is another, more terrifying reason to arm our children with information: they are far more likely to be sexually attacked.

Individuals under the age of 18  face disproportionally high rates of attack.  The CDC’s most recent National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey found:

More than three-quarters of female victims of completed rape (79.6%) were first raped before their 25th birthday, with 42.2% experiencing their first completed rape before the age of 18 (29.9% between 11-17 years old and 12.3% at or before age 10). More than one-quarter of male victims of completed rape (27.8%) were first raped when they were 10 years old or younger.

Let that really sink in for a minute.

Frighteningly, these are not just high schoolers, either; victims and assailants are growing younger and younger. Stop it Now! – a non-profit organization dedicated to stopping sexual violence against children – reports on their website that up to 50% of those who abuse children are actually under the age of 18 themselves.

Unfortunately, these statistics pale in comparison when we consider the second problem: the lack of sexual violence reporting among children. While this phenomenon is not unique to youth sexual violence victims, it is a far larger issue in this age group than any other. The Winter 2007 issue of the psychiatric journal Adolescence found that teenagers and adolescents were the individuals least likely to report the crimes committed against them. Given that the California Women’s Law Center found 91% of undetected [read: unreported] rapists will rape again, this is pretty terrifying. This makes the problem of sexual violence in this age group particularly disturbing; we’re not just creating victims, but future assailants as well.

Despite these overwhelming problems, there is a lack of formal education for individuals under the age of 18 on the issues of sexual assault and rape. A personally conducted survey in July of 2008 of the Departments of Education in all 50 states revealed that not one state required any kind of sexual assault or rape education. The vast majority of states encourage some mention of the issue, and while respondents believed that structured programs would be a good idea, no one provided any resources with which to form formal presentations. Since the survey, some states (like Illinois – woot!) have passed laws requiring sexual violence education for younger students, but there still aren’t enough programs out there.

To give credit where credit is due, the Obama Administration did take a step in the right direction by declaring February 2013 National Teen Dating Violence Awareness and Prevention Month. The problem was that the entire initiative centered on educating members of the community on warning signs of sexual abuse. That is certainly admirable, but until we start engaging the children on the subject, we won’t be able to break the cycle, and they still will be without compass. What exactly do I mean?

To be honest, this idea was initially proposed in a speech during my competition days as a result of a personal interview with a 17 year old rape victim. She revealed that she hadn’t reported her classmate attacker because she didn’t know what she was supposed to do; no one had ever talked about it. In retrospect, she regretted it, because she later found out that she was one in a string of attacks the young man had executed. She cried as she asked, “How many more have there been? How many could I have stopped?”

She’s not alone. Your responses have made that very, very clear. It’s high time we started engaging with local schools to ensure our kids are well-informed.

Make contact with your local school board. They dictate the curriculum for the local school district. Most have a budget for “health speakers”; discuss using some of those funds to bring in speakers to discuss sexual violence issues with youth, like SAFEHOME in Kansas, or Darkness to Light in South Carolina.

Additionally, institutions of higher learning are an invaluable resource. With most assault education already taking place in the collegiate world, these professionals are uniquely equipped to cooperate with school boards and districts in developing age-appropriate sexual violence educational programs. Indiana State University, for instance, had an initiative where University personnel with expert training in sexual violence education would go in to train local teachers on how to cover these very sensitive issues. Get in contact with your own institution or those in your area to see what help they can offer, and advocate similar cooperation with the school board near you.

Train Athletics Programs to Address Sexual Violence

Before anyone starts freaking out about me calling all athletes rapists, I’m not. All athletes are not sexual aggressors. All athletic programs do not facilitate expressions of rape culture. That is not what I’m saying. What I’m saying is that data suggests that both sexually based attacks AND cover-ups occur more frequently in athletic communities. While there are numerous studies on this note, perhaps one of the more notable was the Benedict Cross Study, cited by the NCAA in saying:

Male student-athletes commit one in five college sexual assaults.

Do I have your attention yet?

This statistic comes from the Benedict-Crosset Study, a review of 107 cases of sexual assault reported at 30 Division I schools between 1991 and 1993. The study found that although male student-athletes make up only 3.3 percent of the collegiate population, they represented 19 percent of sexual assault perpetrators and 35 percent of domestic violence perpetrators. The researchers’ conclusion — “male college student-athletes, compared to the rest of the male population, are responsible for a significantly higher percentage of sexual assaults reported to judicial affairs on the campuses of Division I institutions.”

Although this study is 10 years old, any argument that it is no longer representative of the current situation is illusory. In addition to the numerous incidents of violence reported in the past year, more recent studies have corroborated the Benedict-Crosset findings.

Again, let me be exceedingly clear: All athletes are not sexual aggressors. All athletic programs do not facilitate expressions of rape culture. That is not what I’m saying. What I’m saying is that data suggests that both sexually based attacks AND cover-ups occur more frequently in athlete communities.

This data does provide cause for concern. With evidence of a coach-led cover-up in Steubenville, and cases like Penn State still very much fresh in our minds, it is fair to say that we might want to spend some time talking with coaches about speaking with athletes about sexual violence. That sounds pretty vague, doesn’t it? Luckily, there is this absolutely amazing initiative being petitioned for on Change.org. The petitioners state:

As a nation, we have a history of overlooking assault when it’s committed by athletes, from the high school level to university programs to professional sports. But most athletes and coaches, like most men and most people, think sexual assault and other forms of sexual violence need to stop. Empowering coaches, who are mentors to young men, to begin difficult and complex conversations about sexual violence could create long-lasting change in communities across the nation and lead to curbing, and even ending, sexual violence. Behavior and attitudes change when important information on the topic comes from a trusted source. Students are willing (and often eager) to listen, but often only to people they respect.

We are asking the National Federation of High School Associations, which offers annual required trainings for coaches in order for them to remain accredited, to partner with nationally recognized activist organizations to develop a course on sexual violence prevention for high school coaches. Coaches must be provided with the opportunity to learn how to foster a violence-free culture among their athletes in the locker room, on the playing fields and also in school hallways and weekend parties. As local “heroes” and role models, we need athletes to lead their communities toward a rape-free climate, and we expect coaches to be prepared to initiate and foster dialogue with their athletes around issues of sexual violence that are productive and educational. The role coaches play in the lives of athletes – as role models, mentors, and thought leaders to a large portion of the youth community – is invaluable. By training coaches to understand how to address this issue with young male athletes, we can make valuable steps toward safer communities across the United States.

I have to say – pretty hard to find fault with that idea. I’m going to link to it again here in case you accidentally didn’t click it before the quote. 

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I am angry. And sad. And hurt. And confused. I feel betrayed. I feel like a fool. I feel helpless. I feel like I am not doing enough to combat rape culture. But if I can take that emotion and channel it into something important, maybe we can see positive changes made.

I am human, and there are times where I’m going to be an imperfect example of standing up to rape culture. Yesterday was a perfect example of that. I hope that the fact that I caught myself feeling sympathetic towards rape culture elements in real-time means something. I hope that it signifies I am capable of growth and change. I hope that, in sharing this story, and demonstrating that the most vocal of advocates can still falter, we can realize that none of us are perfect, and this is hard work… but we still have to try.

There are a lot of concerned people watching this blog right now. To not discuss this situation at all would have been disingenuous at best, and a product of rape culture at worst, as I attacked its perpetuation everywhere but the home front.  It was important to recognize that fighting back rape culture is difficult, and a process. It was important that I try to show a fragment of the same courage as all of you who have reached out to share your own stories. It was important that, if I really wanted to make the world a better place for my daughter and the rest of us, I speak up about what is at stake in Wheaton, and how that translates for everyone else.

Rape culture can be a daunting issue to tackle. It can be hard to conceptualize as part of a trend, and it can be even harder to acknowledge in your own interpersonal interactions. But it is people like you – the intelligent, compassionate, thoughtful souls who have been liking, sharing, commenting, preaching – that are making a difference right now.

Nelson Mandela once said, “We owe our children, the most vulnerable citizens in our society, a life free of violence and fear.”

Hear, hear. Keep fighting the good fight, everyone.

Why I Won’t Publish Your Comments About False Rape Accusations

TRIGGER WARNING:

The following includes commentary that may serve as a trigger for victims of sexual violence.
Please be advised. 

In the wake of my post yesterday on the pervasiveness of rape culture, several people attempted to argue in the comment section that the piece was not complete without acknowledging the important idea of false rape accusations.

I attempted to explain that their argument had been intentionally excluded, as it is 1) not supported by data as a significant problem, and 2) the kind of apologism that made women fear disbelief should they come forward. The second part, I argued, was a perpetuation of rape culture, and I would not give them a platform for it. They argued. I presented data. They presented none, and tried to comment again and again.

And I decided I would no longer publish any comments which attempted to caveat rape culture with the excuse of false accusations. Because I am typically very tolerant (sometimes too much so) about comment content, I felt I owed an explanation.

First off, the idea that false accusations are a significant problem in rape is patently untrue. For this point, we turn to data.

Some of the more virulent proselytizers of false rape accusations point to studies identifying false reporting rates of 41% or more. That would be pretty terrible, wouldn’t it? In fact, there are a series of reports out there which point to tragically high rates of false rape allegations. Unfortunately, these reports are laughable. Why?

  • The sample sizes are painfully small. 1,300 participants is on the high end, while some had as few as 18. Not exactly representative.
  • The data is inconsistent. Even when it’s the FBI analyzing larger pools of data on crimes committed, false accusations are largely measured according to police report labels such as “no crime” or “unfounded.” The problem with these labels is that they do not translate into a false accusation. Forensic Examiner explains :

    That is, a report of rape might be classified as unfounded (rather than as forcible rape) if the alleged victim did not try to fight off the suspect, if the alleged perpetrator did not use physical force or a weapon of some sort, if the alleged victim did not sustain any physical injuries, or if the alleged victim and the accused had a prior sexual relationship. Similarly, a report might be deemed unfounded if there is no physical evidence or too many inconsistencies between the accuser’s statement and what evidence does exist. As such, although some unfounded cases of rape may be false or fabricated, not all unfounded cases are false.

    That means that the data is not reflective of recanted or disproven statements; just that the case, for whatever reason, didn’t move forward. Even when it does reflect a recanted statement, there is absolutely no data on what proportion of those occurred – not because the allegation was false – but because of rape culture influences, psychological pressure from the attacker (particularly true of date rape and intimate partner rape), or other extenuating circumstances.

  • The data is also only reflective of reports of a man raping a vagina with his penis. Until early 2012, the federal definition of rape excluded such crimes as female rape of male, same sex rape, digital rape, anal rape, oral rape or rape with a foreign object (they also exclude incest for some reason). The most recent data you’ll find is 2011. That means the available data on reported cases is so far from complete, it’s not even funny.
  • The data is plagued by rape culture. The studies most frequently cited by those stumping on behalf of the falsely accused have been the subject of criticism in subsequent studies for failing to qualitatively evaluate the methodologies of the case categorizations. Many found that police officers frequently used subjective judgment calls in dismissing cases as unfounded. Other studies found direct evidence of bias in such dismissals when studied in the field.
  • In studies where data was not provided but gathered in the field, the methodologies used for determining a false report were suspect (and that’s putting it nicely – they would classify a report as false if the victim did not appear “disheveled”).

Knowing from the get go that our data is pretty poor, other studies have found that experts tend to agree on a range of 2-8% for false accusations. The FBI has maintained, with fair consistency, a false accusation estimate of 8% in rape cases. We’ll start there.

So 8% of reported rapes are false accusations. That looks like this.

chart1

If that’s true, then yes, we have a major issue we need to address. Here’s the next problem though – that’s only about reported rapes. In order for false accusations to be the pervasive counter-cultural revolution some claim, it would have to be a significant portion of all instances of rape. After all, if we’re looking to measure misery, we should make sure we have context.

What does that mean for our numbers? Well, the FBI believes that only 37% of rapes get reported. That looks like this.

So then, if 8% of reported rape allegations are “false”, how much of the big picture do they make up?

2

Just under 3%. Still not fantastic, I’ll admit, but far from justifiable as an interruption to important discourse. Still, I’m not satisfied with leaving it at that. Let’s talk hypothetically.

  • Let’s give the police the benefit of the doubt, and assume that their frequency of subjective dismissal justifies an adjustment down in the false reporting rate to 7%. There’s enough out there to justify a stronger cut, but we’ll be conservative.
  • And let’s say that, with only 37% of rapes being reported and sexual violence education woefully lacking, the amount of “unfounded” cases labeled as such due to lack of evidence to take it to trial –  as women shower, dispose of clothing, and so forth post attack – brings false accusation rate down again to 6%.
  • And lets assume – given that only 9% of cases ever go to trial and only 3% of rapists will ever spend a day in jail – that rape culture factors such as dress, former sexual encounters, use of alcohol, and so forth, account for enough perceived potential for reasonable doubt to derail an additional portion of those “unfounded” cases bringing down the rate once more to 4% (and that’s being generous).

I know this is all conjecture. It’s an exercise. Stay with me.

So if the percentage of reported cases with false accusations is measured at 4%, how does this egregious harm compare to the big picture?

3

Just under 1.5%. For the record, 2% is the average false criminal accusation rate per the FBI. This is certainly not scientific, and it can’t be. Too much of this analysis rests on the unknowable – that which is never calculated or tabbed. The point of the exercise is to show the potential impact of conservative impact expectations. The point is to show that the data used to justify these positions doesn’t do what you want it to do.

But wait, wait, wait! You might say. What about that one report with the DNA thing? 

Oh, you’re talking about that adorable Fox News article with about as much merit as their “fair and balanced” mantra? Let me break it down:

  • This article is old. Like, 1996 old. Like, operating on data from way before that. You’ll have to forgive me if I prefer more recent data.
  • The author points out the differences in false rape accusation rates among studies and calls them irreconcilable. That’s pretty lazy. A couple of hours of reading and the ability to think critically got me there just fine (see above). But again, this is old, and other studies have come out since it was published.
  • Just because DNA exonerated someone does not mean that they were falsely accused by the rape victim. There are times where the victim has no memory of the attack, but other pieces of evidence are used to make the case. Splitting hairs? Maybe, but in terms of tackling rape culture, it’s an important clarification – this is not necessarily reflective of malicious accusations. To be fair, the article acknowledges that as well, but I want to drive that point home.
  • The study looked at percentage of convictions where DNA exonerated the accused. But it was also only based on the cases referred to the FBI. Given the reasons for referring cases all the way to the FBI, extrapolating the data to apply to the entirety of the incarcerated rapist population makes approximately zero sense. Further, if we remember that only 3% of rapists ever spend a day in jail, that means that false accusations were verified in the study in 0.6% of all projected rape cases. At best. Context.

All this means that people who tout false rape accusations as a critical element of establishing balance in rape culture discussions are equating the suffering of a statistically minuscule portion of the population to a (probably understated) massive population of rape victims.

Guess what? THAT IS RAPE CULTURE.

The idea that we must pepper discourse on the suffering of the marginalized by bemoaning comparatively insignificant harms suffered by the group that has historically had a cultural and institutional advantage in the legal system reeks of privilege.

The very notion that by focusing on the suffering of the majority without excusing the suffering of a minority is a form of discrimination is nonsensical.

The fact that false accusations are perpetually injected into accounts of substantial grief as an equal comparison is a distraction at best, and offensive more often. It is the equivalent of saying, “Rape is terrible, but…”

No – there is no “but.” Rape is terrible, and that statement needs no caveat.

While that is the righteously indignant response that comes to mind when I look at this data, when the temper has cooled  and I attempt to be objective, I’m not entirely comfortable with this line of reasoning. I would not want to silence the voice of a victim of admittedly rare female-on-male rape just because they were representative of a very small proportion of the sexual violence victim population, and I don’t like the idea of doing that to other people who have suffered an injustice, either.

So while I feel like the comparison of false rape accusations to the extensive harms of rape culture is a bad one, that’s not why I’m refusing to publish comments bringing it up.

The reason is that this comparison has struck fear into the hearts of sexual violence victims for decades. It makes victims feel as though they won’t be believed if they do come forward. It gives rape culture perpetrators the “backing” to say a victim “wanted” it, or changed their mind because they were embarrassed. It gives the most vile of commenters their “grounds” for claiming a victim was “obviously” lying because so-and-so could have “anyone they wanted.”

That doesn’t help rape culture, but more importantly, that doesn’t help the victims. Coming forward can be important to receiving proper medical treatment, counseling and – should they choose to press charges – justice. And it can be the difference between putting a rapist behind bars, or allowing them to rape again. I don’t want to be a part of a culture that does that.

The reason is that – for better or worse – those concerned about false rape accusations have a heavyweight ally in their corner already: rape culture itself. The culture hand-delivers skepticism for any allegation that might be made. Victims, on the other hand, have no such ally in their corner. I’m not worried about giving those concerned about false rape accusations a platform, particularly if it’s going to continue to skew the odds against sexual violence victims by perpetuating rape culture overall.

Finally, it’s about creating a safe space. When I published the post yesterday, I had no idea the level of reaction it would generate. As I am typing this, it has been viewed over 87,000 times, shared on Facebook over 10,000 times, and tweeted over 400 times. There are more than 100 comments. I have received a flood of messages both publicly and privately, thanking me for the post. I’ve also heard from dozens of rape survivors who wanted to share their story with me. I’ve been blown away by their courage and grace. Words truly fail.

Until late last night, the comment thread had been fairly thoughtful. Many expressed dismay at the information about the Steubenville case. Others lauded the broader examples of rape culture. Comments that were not purely supportive or the story of an attack were still respectful and solution-oriented (except for a troll or two that I let through… only because I enjoy putting them in their place). When comments furthering the false rape accusation caveat started coming through, I responded by saying I wasn’t going to stand for them, along with articulated [albeit truncated compared to this] reasoning as to why. The reaction? Anger over bias, and accusation of somehow worsening rape culture.

I warned them I wouldn’t stand for it. As I surveyed their condescending comments, the tone reminded me of the slut shaming surrounding the Steubenville case – all of those tweets saying she was a lying whore. And as I scrolled through the tremendously courageous stories being shared by the victims in that thread, I knew I didn’t want to be responsible for making another victim feel that way by splicing measured vulnerability with menacing rhetoric. The post had made people feel safe. I was not going to take that away.

To be clear, I don’t believe the commenters were intending to foster a hostile environment for discourse. I believe they were trying to make an argument, and either were unaware of the what their statements did in context, or don’t understand the gravity of the rape culture problem. In any case, my decision is made.

If you want to comment about false rape accusations, it won’t be on this blog.

FURTHER READING: (Not filtered for quality)

  • Theilade and Thomsen (1986)
  • New York Rape Squad (1974)
  • Hursch and Selkin (1974)
  • Kelly et al. (2005)
  • Geis (1978)
  • Smith (1989)
  • U.S. Department of Justice (1997)
  • Clark and Lewis (1977)
  • Harris and Grace (1999)
  • Lea et al. (2003)
  • HMCPSI/HMIC (2002)
  • McCahill et al. (1979)
  • Philadelphia police study (1968)
  • Chambers and Millar (1983)
  • Grace et al. (1992)
  • Jordan (2004)
  • Kanin (1994)
  • Gregory and Lees (1996)
  • Maclean (1979)
  • Stewart (1981)