When I recently wrote a column about the two young men in Steubenville who were found guilty of raping an unconscious 16-year-old girl, I received a number of thank-you emails from readers - both male and female.
I also received a 1000-word diatribe from a reader, about how the girl in question was inebriated, drank way too much to handle herself, and shouldn't have been there at all. To make a long reply short, the reader basically felt the need to explain that she deserved what was coming.
He felt so justified, and so unapologetic about his explanation, that, not only did he sign the letter, he also left his professional credentials as a... life coach, should I feel the need to contact him again. After all, the way that girl drank herself into a stupor, what choice did those two boys have BUT to rape her?
I stared at that letter for a solid ten minutes. Having written an opinion column for the better part of seven years now, I'm used to the accolades and the anger. Few reactions faze me. But this reader's casual and flippant dismissal of the rape charges against these young men, his easy justification of a brutal and violent act, left me deeply troubled, and only served to reinforce what - deep down inside -- I already know.
That, despite what we tell ourselves, what we hear, what legislation has been enacted over the years, we still live in a world that prefers to justify rape - or at the very least, excuses it away, case by case.
The evidence in the Steubenville case was undeniable and was to be found - for all to see in horrifying detail - on social media, in texts and video footage shown in court.
These boys dragged her around like a rag doll, violated her repeatedly, and urinated on her as others watched on. They recorded themselves doing this, while all along laughing and yelling that she was"'deader than OJ's wife."
We're not talking about drunken high school shenanigans. We're talking about the unflinching, callous, and violent degradation of a young woman. A young woman their own age and running in their own circles, whom they should have protected, and yet chose to prod, poke, violate, and rape, like she was an inanimate object; a sex toy for their amusement and pleasure.
The way CNN and other major media outlets reacted to the verdicts (the way they bemoaned the fate of these "promising young men") was appalling and worthy of the public outcry it generated. The way Barbara Amiel justified it made me sick to my stomach.
And yet, despite the cringe-worthy video evidence, people still had the gall to question and publicly shame and blame the victim. Because, like I stated in my column, rape is still the only type of violence where the victim is questioned, doubted, and sneered at. The only type of violence where women's skirt hems are measured, alcohol consumption judged, past sexual history used against them and as a barometer of how much fault they should be assigned. Because, that one silent, accusatory question still continues to fester in many people's minds: she must have done something to bring this on, right?
Just like 17-year-old Halifax student Rehtaeh Parsons must have done something to bring on what happened to her, when she went to a friend's house 17 months ago (only 15 at the time) and was allegedly raped by four young boys. Four young boys who, not only violated her, but then decided it would be hysterically funny to take pictures of her and distribute them at her school and her community.
The victim-blaming culture that we live in, the fallout was inevitable. Rehtaeh was shunned, sneered at, mocked relentlessly. Depression, anger, and thoughts of suicide overtook her. Police were slow to investigate, and even slower to lay charges. Despite the pictures going viral, there was apparently "not enough evidence" to prosecute the four boys.
Last Thursday, Rehtaeh hanged herself in the bathroom. This past Sunday, her family took her off life support.
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We, as a society, recoil in horror at such tragedies, but fail to see the triggers that normalize violence against women. We shrug them off as unrelated. But they're not.
About a week ago, I read about rapper Rick Ross getting into hot water for his lyrics encouraging date rape, by extolling the hours of fun one can have with MDMA, also known as Molly.
"Put Molly all in her champagne, she ain't even know it. I took her home and I enjoyed that, she ain't even know it."
Aside from the atrocious grammar that Ross is guilty of, he's basically rapping about slipping a drug to an unsuspecting woman and then raping her without her knowledge. When women's groups reacted with outrage, Ross backtracked and issued the lamest non-apology you've ever heard of.
"I would never use the term 'rape'," he said, taking the opportunity to condescendingly refer to his female fans as "queens" and "sexy ladies". "Hip hop don't condone that."
Only thing is, hip hop does condone that. All the bloody time.
"See me I'm all up on your bitch means I'mma rape her/
All I got for these hoes is dick, duct tape and a stapler." -- Lloyd Banks featuring Akon and Eminem - "Celebrity"
And here's DMX rapping about raping a minor. No big deal. It's just music, right?
"Tryin' to send the bitch back to her maker/
And if you got a daughter older then 15, I'mma rape her"- DMX - "X Is Coming"
Most rappers have such heinously disrespectful lyrics, I have a hard time repeating them here, but one must confront the ugly, misogynistic truth if one is to discuss it. Out of all the songs whose lyrics I looked at, there was only one "romantic" song I found that Snoop had written. It's title? "I miss that bitch." I know; it brought a tear to my eye too.
We can say what we like, women's groups can make as much noise as they can, but the truth remains; we live in a culture that normalizes violence towards women, justifies its existence, seeks to blame the victim instead of the perpetrator. Especially if the perpetrator looks like a good kid from a good family with a good future ahead of him.
According to the American Medical Association, sexual violence, and rape in particular, is the most under-reported violent crime. Of every 100 incidents of sexual assault, only six are reported to the police. Six...
I think of the other 94 that remain in the dark, and I want to cry for them. My heart aches for the women who stay silent, keeping their shameful secret like a festering wound that never quite heals; potentially foregoing therapy and grappling with lifelong issues of sexual intimacy and trust, asking themselves time and time again what they could have done differently.
Is it any wonder that so many women choose not to report a rape, when one sees the public blaming and ruthless finger-pointing that takes place, the moment a woman finds the courage to expose her raw wounds for all to see?
When one sees the public sympathy expressed for the poor "promising" young men and the one silly mistake that took them and their "bright futures" down?
When one sees rappers, like Rick Ross who is paid by Reebok to be a paid sponsor by the way, get to backtrack and issue statements that reinforce and justify the rape mentality we're surrounded by?
If you've incapacitated a woman to the point that she doesn't even know where she is, and then you have sex with her, that's called rape, Rick. Even if you coyly don't refer to it as rape in your song, it's still rape. Just like you can call something an apology and have it be anything but an apology.
Words matter. Public reactions matter. Justifications matter. The reticence to investigate matters. Sometimes they speak louder than the legislation we have in place protecting us. Sometimes they tell us a story we don't want to hear.