Rape-Apology Rhetoric Used to Attack Children

This is a guest post by Laurie and Debbie. Debbie Notkin is a body image activist, a feminist science fiction advocate, and a publishing professional. She is chair of the motherboard of the Tiptree Award and will be one of the two guests of honor at the next WisCon in May 2012. Laurie is a photographer whose photos make up the books Women En Large: Images of Fat Nudes (edited and text by Debbie Notkin) and Familiar Men: A Book of Nudes (edited by Debbie Notkin, text by Debbie Notkin and Richard F. Dutcher). Her photographs have been exhibited in many cities, including New York, Tokyo, Kyoto, Toronto, Boston, London, Shanghai and San Francisco. Her solo exhibition “Meditations on the Body” at the National Museum of Art in Osaka featured 100 photographs. Her most recent project is Women of Japan, clothed portraits of women from many cultures and backgrounds. Laurie and Debbie blog together at Body Impolitic, talking about body image, photography, art and related issues. This post originally appeared on Body Impolitic.

Laurie and Debbie say:

Last week, a defense attorney in Cleveland, Texas, described an 11-year-old girl who was gang-raped by as many as 18 men as a “spider” luring men into her web:

Like the spider and the fly. Wasn’t she saying, ‘Come into my parlor, said the spider to the fly?’ ” Taylor asked.

At roughly the same time, the Moraga school district in the San Francisco Bay Area, was faced with enough pressure to make them step back from their outrageous allegation that Kristen Cunnane, who was sexually abused in that school when she was 12, was responsible for the abuse:

Plaintiff was herself careless and negligent in and about the matters alleged in the complaint, and that said carelessness and negligence on said Plaintiff’s part proximately contributed to the happenings of the incident and to the injuries, loss and damages complained of, if any there were

Although the Moraga school district has apologized, this can’t affect the impact of what their lawyers said on their behalf. Cunnane’s response was:

“It is beyond devastating that the District would blame me for the years of horrific sexual abuse I was subjected to when I was just a child. There is a critical need for a culture shift in Moraga and elsewhere when it comes to tolerance of child abuse in schools, and this just underscores that we have further to go than I even thought. I can only hope that this lawsuit will move us one step closer to zero tolerance, while also going some way to compensate me for the years of abuse I suffered.”

Accusing pre-pubescent girls of being guilty temptresses has been around forever. Sigmund Freud built it into his theory of psychosexual development. Since the testimony of survivors in the 1970s and 1980s revealed the enormity of child abuse in our society, it had largely fallen out of American public discourse. Women’s and children’s allegations have been taken more seriously, and some of the old standard men’s defenses (“she had sex with other people, so I can’t have raped her”) have been taken less seriously. The concepts persisted in people’s minds, but became far less acceptable to say in public or use in court. Just last year, the United States FBI redefined “rape” in much more appropriate way (so, much more sympathetic to rape victims).

Now this rhetoric is clearly back, and the Republican rape apologists (such as Todd Akin, Richard Mourdock, and their ilk) carry part of the guilt. By bringing myths about rape, victim-blaming, and outright misogynist lies into the mainstream discourse, these men and the people who support them are giving permission to other people everywhere to say the same things out loud. Yes, the prominent ones running for office all lost their elections, but while they were doing so, they pushed the envelope in the wrong direction. Every time someone with any kind of power or authority says “some girls rape easy” in public, millions of people see and hear it, and permission to blame the victim is reinforced.

In fact, just calling women “girls” makes it easier to forget that an 11-year-old or 12-year-old girl has a different kind of agency, sexuality, and ability to protect herself than a 25-year-old (or 50-year-old) “girl,” and easier to conflate them all into a group that deserves no protection.

The way we talk about victims and rapists after the fact percolates back to how we fail to protect people in the first place.


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28 Responses to Rape-Apology Rhetoric Used to Attack Children

  1. may says:

    And in the NY Times article:

    “The case has rocked this East Texas community to its core and left many residents in the working-class neighborhood where the attack took place with unanswered questions. Among them is, if the allegations are proved, how could their young men have been drawn into such an act?”

    “Drawn into” the crime of rape? It was already in the language a year ago.

    Inhuman!

    • amblingalong says:

      Several of the attackers were over 25 and some were still in 6th grade. So in a case where very young children (as young as the victim) participated in a sexual assault with adults, I think it’s reasonable to ask who really had agency. I realize this will draw some flak, but when a young child is led/coerced/encouraged/whatever to participate in a sexual assault of another child, I’m inclined to think of both children as victims, and I think it’s totally reasonable to ask how a 11- or 12- year old was ‘drawn in’ to being part of a sexual assault alongside a 27 year old man.

      I remember the controversy around that NYTimes article when it was written, and while I understand the complaints, I never saw a point at which the reporter endorsed the victim-blaming or misplaced priorities of the people he interviewed. He reported it without comment, which is pretty much his job. Being angry at reporters for what people they talk to say doesn’t feel productive.

      • EG says:

        Except a 6th-grader isn’t a “young man.” If we’re talking about how “young men” could have “been drawn into” such an act, we’re talking about adults.

        I would agree, except that the reporter didn’t put “been drawn into” in quotation marks, indicating that he/she was reporting what people were saying. If it was a paraphrase, he/she could easily have gone with “participated” instead, which puts the agency squarely on the adults–the “young men”–involved.

      • amblingalong says:

        Ok, I read it differently, but I understand your point.

      • Jadey says:

        I would hope that your interpretation is correct, EG, but I have heard often heard the phrase “young man” (or “young woman”) to refer to children of any age, all the way down to toddlers, so I also feel amblingalong’s point very strongly as well.

      • EG says:

        I”ve heard it in slang, and when people are speaking to kids, particularly when those kids are in trouble, but I would expect a higher degree of specificity/accuracy from a Times article.

        It just goes to underscore, I think, the point made at the end of the OP about what it means when we use adult and child terms interchangeably.

      • Amblingalong, as one of the two OPs, I completely agree that the boys/youngest men in the group are victims, and I know Laurie would as well. But (and I imagine you would agree here) they are not victims of the girl; they are victims of the culture, and of the men in the group.

  2. As Jeffrey Masson relates in The Assault on Truth, Sigmund Freud initially stated that when children stated they were being sexually abused they were telling the truth, but he was faced with so much hostility from his peers (and abusers?) that he changed what he was saying to the more familiar view.

    I’d much rather see 11-12 year old girls be referred to as that than as “young women”, because in a debate with English Defence League founder Tommy Robinson, a Muslim advocate of very young females being married (ie raped) used this term to disguise what you describe as their “different kind of agency, sexuality, and ability to protect” themselves.

    • William says:

      Its also worth noting that the psychoanalytic community (lead in no small part by female analysts in England) was already questioning that piece of Freud’s theory before his death. I can say I haven’t personally encountered anyone in the analytic community today who questions the scope, effects, or who to blame when it comes to sexual abuse.

  3. rox says:

    You know I have been sexually abused and raped by a number of different men and I feel like when men (who have this ideology in place) find out that you’ve ever experienced assault they think it’s because you were too easy— and also see an opportunity for themselves and then they start behaving in a predatory manner as well. I NEVER disclose abuse history to people I know, but because I have children and no men involved and am never married, many men feel that says things about me that influence how I should be treated. What’s more since I have mental health history, this is also information that if a man gets a hold of might let him feel like he can get away with doing things to me because after all, how can my word be trustwothy and rape accusation can often only be tried based on a woman’s word and character being able to be upheld in court. A woman with a mental health history and a history of being abused does not get many brownie points in the court system. In general women who have been abused and struggle with the aftermath are often simply labelled head cases and ostrasized/avoided/demeaned by a majority of people who don’t like such “drama” as the mental health effects of rape, trauma, and child abuse. Rape andsexualabuse are such cruel crimes because often they alter the victim in a way that impairs their ability to function and feel ok in the world and their bodies and then they lose friends and community support as they struggle just to exist in the world.

    I was raped by a guy who wound up dating a friend of mine a few months ago. She met him totally unrelated to my meeting him. I told her not to trust him because of what he had done and she said, “Oh… well I don’t know… he seemed really nice… I just don’t know. I got drunk with him and he didn’t do anything like that to me”

    I could tell she wound up taking the “maybe it was a miscommunication or is made up” approach. (So I had bruises all over me in some sort of “miscommunication”? I missed that being held down was just a normal part of mutually consenting sex?) I understand why people would hesitate to treat someone they trust as a predator without evidence, but her response still pretty much sealed my interest in being friends with her.

    But I still do wonder, what was going on in this guys head? Why did he think it was ok to do that to me and not her? I mean, what makes these guys think “THIS chick should be raped”? I don’t understand.

    But I DO know that the men most likely to rape are statistically more likely to uphold rape myths like these asshole republicans are supporting so I literally wonder if this will literally empower men who want to sexually abuse to actually do some of those things because of how “those women are just asking for it”.

    No woman, regardless of her cowardice, regardless ofa submissive nature, regardless of being flirtatious or sexual, regardless of being aroused or interested, regardless of being romantically interested, regardless of having issues or self esteem problems, regardless of even having rape fantasy or arousal around the concept of force or rape–

    No woman is asking to be raped. It is literally not possible because rape is nonconsensual and if a woman ASKS to have sex with a man it is not rape. A man mind reading implied consent does NOT count as a woman “asking” for sex or to be forced into sex. There is no class of women who simply “ask” to be raped. There are women who like sex, women with self esteem issues, women who are easy to bully and coerce. None of these women deserve abuse or rape.

    A woman being interested in a man and hanging out with him. or dating, or flirting with him, is not a license for him to force sex on her. Nor is it an agreement or implied agreement that she “ought” to put out. Usually before having sex many people like to get to know each other, flirt or maybeeven make out or be intimate in order to get to know each other and to decide when… or IF they want to have sex. There is no point at which hanging out, being alone with each other, or flirting or being intimate gives one person license to force or pressure the other into sex they don’t want.

    • A4 says:

      You are amazing for synthesizing these terrible experience into great and strong insights and sharing them with this community. Thank you.

  4. mxe354 says:

    “Like the spider and the fly. Wasn’t she saying, ‘Come into my parlor, said the spider to the fly?’ ” Taylor asked.”

    I feel sick.

    • No shit, right? This whole thing has physically nauseated me from moment one.

      Fuck, I wish I knew that kid’s name so i could send her a note of “hey, I believe you, I want you to know you’re not alone.” Of course, that would be a breach of her privacy. …Couldn’t someone set up a tumblr or something to that effect for it?

    • William says:

      Some days its all I can do to not feel rage.

  5. E. says:

    I’ve read that in the US, one in four women and one in six men are survivors of childhood sexual abuse (http://www.apa.org/pi/families/resources/child-sexual-abuse.aspx).

    I heard a lecture where the speaker said that if one in four young girls were walking around with casts on their arms, someone would notice..

    Ugh.

    • Noadi says:

      1 in 4 and 1 in 6 are the statistics are worldwide by the way. Some places it’s higher and some lower, unsurprisingly poverty and status of women and children in the society strongly correlate to abuse. Really sickening and sad.

      • To me, it’s always important to remember that while poverty and status of women and children are statistically important factors, no one is immune. Affluence will not protect you.

  6. Philip Finn says:

    “The concepts persisted in people’s minds, but became far less acceptable to say in public or use in court.”
    At issue, I believe, is what institutions, practices, or mores are responsible for sustaining “the concepts” in people’s minds while these “concepts” ride out their period of being “less acceptable”, and whether we will finally root out and destroy them, or continue to accept the price paid by “1 in 4 girls, 1 in 6 boys” as equitable for the luxury of having a particular religion, political party, or way of life in our society.

  7. Angie unduplicated says:

    I endured these accusations in childhood. Fact: being friendly and courteous to adult male family members while in possession of a birthmark which looks like a hickey is NOT “leading men on”. Outing men who rationalize possession of said hickey as sexual consent by a prepubescent girl is NOT false accusation.
    Re: Sendak interview–Refusing social contact with the maladjusted is a wonderful thing.

    • Partial Human says:

      My mother has the same sort of birthmark, and was sexually harassed from childhood, traumatic as fuck considering she’d already been molested.

  8. Partial Human says:

    I hate. the world. Hate it.

    There’s a case in New York right now, where a girl was repeatedly raped from the age of 12. Her entire community are standing behind her rapist, saying that she can’t be trusted, that she has a history of “troubled behaviour”.

    They’ve been caught photographing her on the stand and tweeting her picture. Her husband’s business has been destroyed, even her family are against her for informing the authorities.

    She turned 18 this week. EIGHTEEN. Her birthday? In court, listening as rapist, and rapist-protecting filth, said how. corrupt she was, how blameless and righteous her rapist is. Hearing the community leader describe her as “A nuclear weapon, sent to destroy our community”.

    I have cried for this girl. Raged at the disgusting, corrupt systems that sanction such abuse. Felt sick with helplessness, knowing she’s the tiny white tip of a colossal iceberg of terrified child victims (past, present, future) who will never tell. Who can never tell. Who, if they speak up, will be exiled to a world, culture and people that they don’t know, that they’re terrified of.

    Knowing all the rapists and abusers protected by that system, moved around once rumours start, knowing that they not only feel safe, but entitled to do as they want, I want to rip the world apart.

    But, she was immoral, her soul was always at risk, she was a twelve year old seductress. After all, her tights were not completely opaque. Slut.

    Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to howl into a pillow at the fucking futility of it all.

    • Asia says:

      I read about this story to. Its just horrible and a example of what happens when a community gives one person so much power that other people literally excuse horrible actions. There is a quote where someone told her husband that even if its true they still shouldn’t go the police. It makes me wander if the abuser was hurting anymore girls in the community. They certainly won’t come forward.

      The the main victim how and where is she going to live after this. She has lost her home. And from how insulted the community seems, I doubt she was ever taught how to survive in the real world.

      • Partial Human says:

        It’s a widespread problem in the community, this case is the tip of the iceberg. Nobody dares inform, or their life will be destroyed.

        Like you say, they have no knowledge of the greater world, deep fear of the people in it, and would be cut off from everyone and everything they’ve ever known and loved.

        I know someone who lived in a similar community here in the UK.

        She went to the police on behalf of a friend, just to enquire about what could be done. Her siblings (all eleven) were thrown out of school, her mum (sole breadwinner, per tradition) was sacked, and she was essentially booted out of her own life.

        Her English was poor, she was terrified that people from outside the community would hurt or kill her, because she’d been told they/we were all like that. She couldn’t get the food she was used to, continue her studies, talk to her friends. Her arranged marriage was called off, something which broke her heart. She was a living ghost, and a warning to others to keep their mouths shut.

        She was devastated first by the brutal ejection from her entire community, then by realising everything she’d ever been taught was a lie. She ended up working for local social services as a translator and outreach worker, for the English kids who spoke it as their third language, who thought the police would lock them up, and to show that the outside world is not a dark, murderous place.

      • Philip Finn says:

        Hard not to believe, under such conditions, that religion exists to enable and support rape and abuse…but there you have it.

        I mean, consider it for a moment…what other function does it seem to serve? If there is an injustice, an inequity, an untruth in the world, does any religion react like a well-oiled rattrap as its members respond so swiftly and mindlessly to dubiously “correct” the situation in favor of gender and status? No, of course not. Only in response to molestation.
        Such a cultural organism would have needed thousands of years to evolve which such focused purpose. We may, indeed, be looking at the true origins of religion.

    • mxe354 says:

      If she wanted it, I would give this girl the longest hug ever. What a nightmarish ordeal.

  9. Michelle says:

    oh my god, that ny times article was hard to read.

    “It’s just destroyed our community,” said Sheila Harrison, 48, a hospital worker who says she knows several of the defendants. “These boys have to live with this the rest of their lives.”

    “Where was her mother? What was her mother thinking?” said Ms. Harrison, one of a handful of neighbors who would speak on the record. “How can you have an 11-year-old child missing down in the Quarters?”

    yes, those poor rapists will have to be labeled as rapists now. poor community. also let’s blame the mother.

    am i misinterpreting this harrison woman? is she out of her goddamn mind? am i out of my goddamn mind?

  10. Alara Rogers says:

    You know what I don’t get is why anyone thinks group sex with a massively skewed gender imbalance *isn’t* automatically more likely to be rape, unless the woman who more than four men had sex with during a single incident stands up and says “Hell no, I wanted it.”

    I mean, what is the more reasonable presumption, given human nature: that a woman, sober and in her right mind, would consent to being the object of penetrative intercourse by four men or more, or that a group of four men or more gang-raped a woman? It’s *possible* for a woman to enthusiastically consent to being the center of a gang-bang, but it’s a lot rarer than the number of women who are non-consensually forced to participate. So, if a woman actually says, “it was rape, I didn’t want it”, wouldn’t the men arguing that yes she did be kind of like if a guy was beaten up badly and the guys he accused of beating him claimed that he asked them to hold him down and hit him? Yeah, it’s *possible* that someone might ask for that, but come on, what’s more likely?

    I continue to be appalled by the number of people, including women, who seem to assume that it is more likely for a woman to volunteer to have sex with multiple strangers than for her to be raped by those strangers. Or that if a woman volunteered to have sex with one man, it stands to reason that she also volunteered to have sex with all of his buddies. I think pretty much the only evidence you need to prove that a man participated in a gang-rape is: does he admit (without being tortured or coerced into the admission) to being there and having sex (or DNA or video evidence demonstrates this), and does the woman say it was rape? Because seriously, why the fuck would someone who enjoys being the center of a gang-bang claim that it was rape? Why is that more likely than the idea that it *was* rape, given how we know that men in groups do frequently commit acts, including rape, that most of them wouldn’t have if they were alone?

    It’s perfectly reasonable to imagine that two people consented to have sex together, so I can understand some of the difficulty people have in figuring out whether a sex act between two people was rape or consensual. But for gods’ sake, women who like and want to be gang-banged are *rare*. Much, much rarer than gang-rapists. The normal presumption ought to be that if it was multiple men having sex with one woman (so they outnumbered her and could threaten or intimidate her by sheer numbers even if they don’t physically restrain her), and she says it was rape, the logical presumption must be that yeah, it was rape, because that’s much more likely than the alternative. Kinksters who enjoy group sex are a, more likely to have controls in place to protect themselves (like having trusted friends present during the orgy so it doesn’t get out of control), and b, not likely to claim they were raped when they consented, because if that’s the kind of sex they enjoy and then they maliciously claim to have been raped, no one’s going to gang-bang them again in the future. Also, because kinksters are no more likely to be lying malicious shitheads than any other woman, and women are no more likely to be lying malicious shitheads than any other person who is *accusing* a crime and not being accused of it.

    • Philip Finn says:

      “I continue to be appalled by the number of people, including women, who seem to assume that it is more likely for a woman to volunteer to have sex with multiple strangers than for her to be raped by those strangers.”

      I am, but it doesn’t amaze me. It shows how pathological our response – and therefore, for deeply ingrained – is culturally, and how old that response must be, and where it must come from, as I posted above…

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