Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Rape? Not rape? Don't Ask Amy: Defaulting To "YES"

I'm not normally moved to write about something such as this in a public forum, but after stumbling across a link yesterday, one that detailed the story of an "Ask Amy" column in the Chicago Tribune which blamed the victim of a rape (yes, the college student was a victim, Amy said, first and foremost of her "own awful judgment" for daring to drink at a campus party)...I can't not write something about it. I could so so in my private blog, but everyone over there has already seen the shocked Twitter updates and so on. It's better to say it all here.

I think it was the somewhat frustrating conversation I had with my parents after reading all of this "Ask Amy" garbage that made me realize it wasn't a subject I could just shove aside and forget about. My mother and I have discussed similar things at length throughout my life; we've debated, argued, agreed, and most importantly have just talked about it. About rape. About power. About what is and isn't okay. We haven't always agreed on every point - hell, we've had some pretty bizarre arguments about what is "proper" for a young lady to do - but that's not what matters, from where I stand. She raised me to be able to discuss these things and be critical and careful in both theory and practice.

My father is a bit of a different story. It's not because he thinks differently than I do; he's quite possibly able to become even more angry at the thought of a man thinking he has inherent rights to a woman that he clearly does not. He's the kind of dad who - no word of a lie, here - used to park down the block from my date's house, thinking I wouldn't see his car, just in case. In case of what? I don't know. I'm not sure what he thought he could do from his car to help if my date decided to attack me mid-movie in the rec room. But damned if he didn't sit out there and read his book, believing himself to be in "stealth mode" (even though I always caught him when I'd be getting into my car to drive home), just in case his little girl found herself in danger at the hands of a guy he didn't know well enough to trust. (I sort of wonder if such a guy exists, actually. I'll have to ask him if there's ever been a guy I've dated that he truly trusted not to harm me in some way. Hmm.)

Did I mention that he was doing this stealth-driving act while I was in university? Yeah. Did I mention that my mother has always seemed quietly pleased that he did so? Yeah.

And, all in all, I can't say it ever made me angry for long. They weren't trying to ruin my fun or police my social life; they were trying, in their possibly insanely overprotective way, to make sure they were there if I needed them, because they both knew that bad things happen and that some guys can't be trusted.

The trouble we ran into during our conversation about the "Ask Amy" situation yesterday stemmed from a very organic place. My mother knows what I mean when I say, "I wish our society didn't just assume that a woman defaults to 'yes,' and that she has to kick, bite, and scream 'NO!' if she's going to avoid being touched or grabbed or spoken to inappropriately by men." (I should probably qualify that by saying that I do not think all men are inherently evil. For the purpose of this post, I'm discussing the men who do think they have these rights, and who don't feel they ought to take any responsibility in what happens if a woman's resistance isn't "strong enough" or...whatever.) During the conversation, I made reference to something that had angered me last year: "The Open-Source Boob Project". I'd break it down if I could, but you're probably better served if you go to the link and read up on it (this post in response, written by a friend of mine, is excellent, too; there's something of a "highlight reel" posted here, along with a link to the response essay entitled, "A Modest Proposal: Open Source Swift Kick to the Balls Project"). It did have that same feeling of "Women Default To YES!" to it, although it later came out that the whole situation had been poorly explained, and that the writer of the post is not an evil, woman-hating predator.

Even so, it just happened that this post and its ideals surfaced only days after I'd been sexually assaulted in my workplace. The "Project" would have riled me up no matter what, but the timing certainly made it worse. The man who assaulted me was very clear about the fact that he thought he had every right to put his hands all over me, and that, because I hadn't backhanded him yet, he could just keep going. Never mind that I was in shock, or that I was afraid it would only escalate further if I angered him; it was my perceived halfhearted refusals to let him go any further (he'd gone plenty far enough, thanks) that seemed to embolden him, as though I actually needed to knock his teeth down his throat for the word "NO" to mean anything to him. Telling him to stop, to let me go, making excuses so I could escape his grasp...none of it worked. I only got away from him when he, rather dementedly, interpreted my "NO" and "MY BOSS IS RIGHT UPSTAIRS" as "You'll have another shot at me tomorrow when we're alone, I promise!" In the end, I don't care what it was that allowed me to get my wrists free of his hands. I got free. And I was the one who went through hell for months afterward, being persecuted by the insensitive police officers who didn't seem all that interested in my case if it wasn't "real" rape or if I didn't feel strong enough to go to court right away. On top of that, after my employers had to change things around to accommodate me and my (apparently ridiculous?) security needs, I was fired from my job only three weeks later. Draw your own conclusions there. It might be telling, too, if I add that I was forbidden to tell any of my coworkers - all of whom were female and had to walk a good distance to their cars alone, in the dark, right outside the very building where this guy worked and where the assault had taken place. They didn't want to "cause a panic." Yes. Better to leave them totally blind and not know that there was a pervert with access to their office. We wouldn't want a panic.

Anyway. Tangent. Yes. My point, though, is that I'd told my mother all about the Open-Source Boob Project, and how much it bothered me that, even if the guys involved in the original post didn't feel "entitled" (even though discussing the fact that women who go to comic and sci-fi conventions dress provocatively for the men's viewing pleasure certainly smacks of it, doesn't it?), it was still a slap in the face to many of us who hadn't really thought about it before...but yes, our society does think that a woman's default is set to "YES." What we have to go through to prove that we mean "NO" is ridiculous.

I hadn't ever discussed that whole issue with my father. He was with me the night the police came to get my statement, and he did his best to comfort me when I cried about how I just couldn't understand how someone as strong and (apparently) intimidating as I am gave off the signals to this guy that it was okay for him to grope and kiss me in an empty stairwell. (See? Victim-blaming, done by the victim herself!) But he's not as tuned into pop culture as I am (and as my mother therefore is, as she's usually the one who gets to hear all of my ranting), and he doesn't have the front row seat that we do to just how pervasive the Yes Default really is.

For that reason, his immediate response to the "Ask Amy" situation was to go into Mr. Fix-It Mode, which seems to be common among the men I've known. He was full of solutions about how this particular fraternity should be handled, and what this victim needed to do, and so on. None of what he said was wrong, but it missed the broader point. We still live in a society that is completely permissive as far as things like this go. This girl went to a frat party, told this guy she would NOT be sleeping with him, had several drinks, still said no, took the guy at his word when he promised he wouldn't make a move on her and would just take her to lie down when she started feeling unwell from the alcohol...and when he raped her, she was still so unsure about whether or not it WAS rape - because, as she said, she wasn't physically strong enough to kick or punch him, and could only verbalize her rejection of his advances - that she wrote to an advice column to ask if she was really a "victim."

It's encouraging to see the amount of outrage directed at this Amy woman's response, because it hits the nail on the head. Some of the comments had me chuckling darkly.

"If you are a drunk man, it's not your fault that you rape someone; if you are a drunk woman, it's partly your fault if you are raped. LOGIC FAIL."

"Because rape isn't a choice or a deliberate action: it's a bodily function, like throwing up on someone because you drank too much. Which is also embarrassing, especially if you've 'done it before'."

How could Amy possibly live with herself after advising this girl to confront her rapist to clarify what actually happened that night in order to ascertain if it was, indeed, rape??? WHAT THE HELL KIND OF ANSWER IS THAT??? What woman, who already carries the shame of the attack (because it's rare, I've found, to come across a woman who's been assaulted and who doesn't at some point ask herself if she somehow did something to "deserve" it - myself included), would want to face her attacker and talk it over???

I don't know if men, even the most well-intentioned of them all, will ever really understand what it's like to have the very real concern constantly in the back of their minds that today will be the day that someone will violate them. On the subway. In the parking lot. At work. In their driveway. Women live with knowing that there are far too many people out there who believe that, unless you're walking around screaming "NO!" at the top of your lungs 24/7, you are somehow giving permission. The way you dress, the way you walk, the places you go, the oh, so absurd idea that maybe you want to go shopping alone on your way home from school or work. Newsflash, gentlemen: Women are even less "allowed" to do things the way they'd like to do them than men are in saying or doing sexual and demeaning things to those women. It happens to us every day to some degree. EVERY DAY. We - none of us - have the luxury of setting foot outside of our houses without thinking about the precautions we have to take. I tried to explain that to my father. He tried to understand, but he always ends up back in the same place: "The guys I've known my whole life have never thought they could say or do those things and have it be okay." Well, that's good to know. I like knowing there are lots of men out there who don't think women are their property. I'm certainly fortunate to have so many men in my family who have such respect and empathy for women; not many people are as lucky as I am. But just because you haven't heard it, or seen it, or been surrounded by Bad Guys, does not in any way mean that they aren't waiting for one of us outside the grocery store, or that otherwise "well adjusted" men don't suddenly think that a girl getting drunk at a college party equals permission to do whatever he wants to her. And my father knows this, too; why else would he be parking one block down to make sure I was safe when going on a date with a guy he hadn't met yet?

There is no logical conclusion to this post. I wish there was. I'm not a good enough writer to tie this up in a neat little bow. What I can do, though, is leave it off with a link to an essay that I came across while reading all of this "Ask Amy" crap, one that, maybe, if I read it to my Dad, would finally make things make sense. The fact that I've been on the unfortunate receiving end of two "Not Rape" situations (I won't discuss the other one publicly, because - as bizarre as I'm sure it would sound to most - I don't want to ruin the life of the guy involved, despite that experience being considerably more...well, it was rape, I've come to understand, but still... That one gets left alone) makes this essay that much more poignant.

Read it here: The "Not Rape" Epidemic. Pass it around. And I sincerely hope you know someone - anyone - who hasn't had at least one of the things described in Latoya's essay happen to her. I'm not sure I do. And that makes me want to cry.

[ETA: Amy has addressed her critics with the lamest non-retraction/apology ever. I sincerely hope the Tribune fires her sorry ass for this debacle.]


Maria said...

Thank you so much for talking about Amy's victimp-blaming advice in such a personal way. I just wanted to let you know about a petition over at, asking Amy to issue a full and retraction of her column or, if she refuses to do so, for her editors to issue one for her.

You can find it at: I hope that you'll share it with your friends and family and keep the pressure on Amy to apologize for her horrible advice.

Anonymous said...

Better late, than never.

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