So here we go again. We find ourselves caught up once more in a furor over rumors and allegations that a prominent figure — this time, comedian and cultural icon Bill Cosby — raped and sexually assaulted women over a long period of time.
According to Cosby’s accusers, he drugged them and then raped them. The charges are gravely serious.
The good news about the Cosby allegations is that they, like the charges leveled recently against CBC broadcaster Jian Ghomeshi, and the long drumbeat of accusations against other prominent men, force us to confront the epidemic of sexual violence against women in America and around the world.
Now the tricky part…
The bad news is that in the year 2014, men still have such a difficult time talking about this. It’s embarrassing, really, and shocking. In the last few months alone we’ve had a college president accuse women on his campus of trumping up rape charges against young men.
“We have, we had, on this campus last semester three cases of young women who after having done whatever they did with young men and then it didn’t turn out the way they wanted it to turn out, guess what they did,” said Lincoln University President Robert Jennings. “They went to Public Safety and said, ‘He raped me.'”
To make such a comment in the context of new research from the White House about the vulnerability and victimization of women on campuses is remarkable. This is exactly the kind of wink-nudge talk that enables violence against women.
And Jennings isn’t alone. We’ve also seen CNN anchor Don Lemon this week accuse one of Cosby’s alleged rape victims of not doing enough to fight him off, going so far as to suggest that she should have used her teeth to protect herself.
“As a victim myself I would never want to suggest that any victim could have prevented a rape,” Lemon said, as he scrambled to walk back his comments. “If my question struck anyone as insensitive, I’m sorry as that was not my intention.”
Insensitive? That’s not actually the word I’d use.
When a man gets mugged is it his fault? Should he face a culture of shame and suspicion?
And then there is BBC announcer Nick Conrad who this week defended a football player jailed after being convicted of raping women. In his comments, Conrad argued — in quite astonishing detail — that women who are raped and sexually assaulted by men are in some significant measure to blame for the violence done to them.
“I think women need to be more aware of a man’s sexual desire that when you’re in that position that you are about to engage in sexual activity there’s a huge amount of energy in the male body, there’s a huge amount of will and intent, and it’s very difficult for many men to say no when they are whipped up into a bit of a storm,” Conrad said, during a broadcast in which he suggested repeatedly that he was trying to speak carefully about the issue.
“It’s the old adage about if you yank a dog’s tail then don’t be surprised when it bites you.”
Right. That’s why men rape women, because women lead them on and get them all steamy. Ugh. It wouldn’t be so pathetic if this were 1964 rather than 2014.
How do we men keep getting this so wrong, even when we’re trying to get it right?
I want to make clear that in thinking about this dilemma — that is, the horrid, ignorant and dangerous $*#&# that men say when they talk about rape — I’m actually not talking about the crazies.
I’m not talking about those who believe that there is some form of “legitimate” rape, or those who think that womens’ bodies have secret, internal defense mechanisms against becoming pregnant after sexual violence.
I’m not talking about trolls like Rush Limbaugh who deliberately use questions about the validity of rape charges or female sexuality as a political weapon.
The part I’m talking about is the frightening number of men who are actually trying to talk sensibly about this. They think they’re making a real effort to join the conversation, and failing miserably.
A few tips for the guy who wants to avoid making an $&#&# of himself
So here are a few suggestions, man to man, for any of my brothers in maleness (or in the broadcast industry) who think it’s a good idea to chime in on this issue. (And you should. We need to have this conversation.)
First, it’s important to do a ton of listening first. You think you know what you’re talking about and you almost certainly don’t. So stop for a moment and ask yourself, just like you would on any other issue, “What kind of research have I done? Do I know the statistics? Do I actually know what rape is or how it works?”
Part of this research involves talking to actual women. So if there are women in the room (and there should be) ask a bunch of questions before chiming in with your own opinion. (Start with “Can we talk about this?” and go from there.)
Then ask yourself some tough questions. If you don’t think a person getting mugged or murdered is somehow a collaborator, or an instigator, why do you think a woman (or a man or a child) who has been raped is somehow complicit? What is it about your own conditioning that you think women who’ve been raped are suspect or didn’t fight hard enough or invited it?
Another important question involves politics. If you’re using “rape” and “feminism” in the same sentence, that’s a red flag.
Why is it that you think the issue of sexual violence against women is somehow tangled up in America’s culture war? What evidence do you have that women are somehow using rape as a weapon against men?
Finally, ask yourself why sexual violence — a horrific, shattering crime — is treated so differently in America compared with other types of other law-breaking. Why is there a statute of limitations on punishing men who have brutally attacked and raped other human beings?
Why do so many law enforcement agencies fail to process the rape kits, packed with physical evidence, gathered from women who’ve been assaulted?
Why does our society allow institutions — colleges, sports teams, clubs, churches — to “handle” accusations of rape and sexual violence internally and often secretly, without involving the police or prosecutors? If someone steals a bag of potato chips, we call the cops. If someone is accused of raping a woman, we convene a peer group.
Why does that happen?
Yes, we can do better. Let’s start by not sounding like idiots.
The bottom line is that our society is actually pretty good at preventing the kinds of crime we want to prevent. Murders and other forms of physical violence have been reduced sharply in recent decades. In many ways, America is a far safer country than ever before in our history.
But women (and to some extent, children) haven’t seen the benefits of this golden age of safety. One in six American women will be the victim of rape or attempted rape in their lifetimes often assaulted by a family member or by someone they know. In many parts of our nation, women live in fear. And it’s not because they dress wrong or don’t know how to use their teeth or are feminists or get men too excited.
It’s because we have lax laws, and crummy law enforcement, and far too many institutions that don’t take the proper steps to insure women’s safety. And, sadly, it’s also because of the stupid $*#*# that men keep saying.