Over the last couple of months, news outlets have been rocked with the story of the rape of an unconscious 16 year-old girl named Jada.Her attacker and his accomplices photographed the rape, and then exploited the photos on social media as a way to silence, humiliate and extend the rape incident for the victim. Sounds sick? It was.
What was worse was that in the midst of this dehumanizing and violent crime, the victim was “re-raped” by social media trolls who took to “slut shaming” as she lay limp and unable to give consent by any stretch of the imagination. The story broke on the heels of mass scrutiny of many of our nation’s most prestigious higher education institutions and their handling of sexual violence on campuses. For the first time in my career, I am constantly having conversations about gender inequality, sexual violence among the middle class, and how to reverse rape culture and redirect how Americans understand sex and consent in modern society.
It’s been challenging to watch our culture’s evolving definitions of sexual violence and seeming attempts to blur the language as we began to acknowledge that every rape doesn’t happen in a dark alley with a hooded stranger. It took me a good long while to understand that “sexual assault” was sometimes substituted for the word rape. In fact, when YWCA NYC Summer Fellows recently reviewed a sex education curriculum offered in New York State they discovered a topic titled, “How to avoid unwanted sex”…guess what folks? Unwanted sex is rape.
In my view, terms like “date rape” were introduced to lessen the impact of the word rape, and to suggest that rape which occurred on dates and/or by a known attacker, was open to interpretation. What’s the difference between “date rape” and “stranger in a parking lot rape”? Absolutely nothing. Either way the survivor bears no responsibility for the attack.
Language has power. Every phrase is born out of intention. When I was growing up, our popular culture often depicted scenes where words like “seduction” and “passionate desire” were used in place of “manipulation,” “ferocity,” and “overpowering”. Sex, when consent seemed questionable, was always on the menu if a man could turn the “right” phrase, touch a woman in the “right” way, or simply violate her then convince her that it was an amazing experience born out of her own attractiveness and his unbridled love.
As a young woman, I received a steady diet of sex as the primary domain of men to initiate and control. Women were supposed to be desirable, but have no desires of their own. Any act of sexual desire or pleasure expressed by a young woman was cause to label her as promiscuous and loose. Conversely, every awkward pimple-faced boy was supposed to master the art of conniving girls into sex, or be subject to intense questioning and ridicule of his sexuality. Virginity in a girl was a prize boys sought to own. Virginity in a boy was a reflection of a lack of masculine identity. And, I saw these scenarios played out over and over in film, through music, on television, and in real life.
But, let’s be clear, generations of young men and women have successfully navigated their way through the complexities of American notions of sexuality without committing rape. Generations of girls and boys have had the heart to say yes or no to sexual involvement relatively unscathed.
Let me go one step further even: lots of young men and women drink excessively, experiment with other substances, and don’t rape anyone. Alcohol and drugs are not an excuse. Rapists rape because that’s what they do, and that is who they are. They rape because they are violent. They rape because they lack empathy and the ability to connect with others in respectful, meaningful ways. Rape is not a romantic crime between two people who got their timing and signals crossed. Rape is about violence. It is about violence whether it happens at a house party in a working class neighborhood, or in the dorms of an esteemed institution of higher learning. This fight against rape culture is not a fight reserved for lower class neighborhoods. In fact, when we succumb to that fallacy we silence women from higher SES’s, and halt their capacity to tell their truths and get the post-trauma support and affirmation that they deserve. We have to be clear that rape occurs in all communities, and that there should never be an excuse or an explanation that protects the rapist and blocks a survivor’s access to appropriate justice.
Rape is about dehumanizing the survivor. It’s about taking away someone else’s physical power – and delighting in one’s ability to do so. Rape intentionally breaks the body in the most private places and leaves an indelible scar on the psyche of the survivor. Rape can erode the survivor’s ability to own his or her sexuality for years after the attack. It causes lifelong emotional and spiritual trauma. It erodes trust. It corrodes wellness. And, these realities are what make Jada so remarkable.
At the risk of further ridicule, exposure, scrutiny, and humiliation, she came boldly forward and reclaimed her power. By coming forward and standing strong, she has refused to be re-raped and taken back the control she lost. As the mother of a soon-to-be first year college student, I am inspired and only pray my daughter is equally as emboldened by Jada’s action in the face of darkness.
It is our job to stand boldly in the gap for this courageous young woman, and to rethink how we engage, educate, and nurture authentic conversations among young people about sex, consent, and the pursuit of respect, kindness, safety, and well-being in all of their relationships.
I want girls to #stopbeingpolite, and reclaim their right to say with whom, to say when, and to say where they engage in sexual activity. Girls don’t need to be polite. If a space or situation doesn’t feel right, put safety first. When girls say no, that no must be heard. When girls say yes, they don’t need to do so shamefully. They deserve to be safe at work, at home, and in our communities.
And, I want boys to #knowconsent, #knowrespect and to collectively reject versions of masculinity that are undergirded by notions of gender oppression. I want boys to hold each other accountable for sexism and to join with girls to uplift messages of gender equality. In the meantime, we should all continue supporting and uplifting Jada through our own social media and through activism in our own communities. Don’t let Jada’s sacrifice be in vain.