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Date Rape Drug Lipstick, Activism, and Quixotic Quests

A feminist commentary on the new date rape-preventing lipstick has been making the rounds. I’ve been hearing a lot of befuddlement on the part of many friends of mine. I think this is a perfect example of the complexities of activism and why in this social media age it’s so important to be very clear and unambiguous.

For reference, here’s the original image.

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Now, let’s step back a second. Why would someone write something like this?

In activism, one thing we often find is that people use the beginnings of improvements as an excuse to slow down rather than build momentum. In fact, anyone who’s ever worked motivating people knows that it can be hard to maintain momentum through successes. We have a natural instinct to congratulate ourselves and reduce our energy output.

Creating a device that helps women detect date rape drugs is really a massive improvement. It makes women feel safer in bars and public places again. It’s a smart and innovative investment. It’s also a deterrent to potential date rapists, knowing that some portion of their marks may be caught.

I think that this particular activist didn’t realize that for many people her concession that “These devices are helpful insofar as they help women feel safe and in control” would be viewed as a brief aside and would in fact not be noticed. Moreover, that statement is actually false. These devices don’t just help women feel safe and in control. They actually increase the amount of control and safety women have. This is fairly inarguable.

Moreover, opening with an analogy to chastity belts and anti-rape tampons, while an interesting point, is unfortunately actually a false analogy in this instance. A chastity belt protects you when you are in the process of being assaulted. A date rape detection kit protects you before it even gets there. A date rape drug testing kit can thus be more properly compared to pepper spray, stunguns, or a gun.

But this activist, quite understandably, wanted to center on what she feels (and I concur) are the real issues. Rape isn’t just about men being pigs, and it’s just not a safety issue. It’s also a humanity issue. It’s an empathy issue.

Anyone who has done any work with victims of rape, as I have done, or who has been involved at all with any kind of mental health work or feminist action, knows the stigma that can come from any kind of mental illness or trauma. People who are victimized aren’t just victimized by their attackers. They often feel that their entire family and social network participate in it. They feel that nurses, police, attorneys, and others repeat the trauma with insensitivity. Unfortunately, I have come to find in life that an astonishingly high number of people don’t have the basic sensitivity and empathy to treat a fast food worker like a human, let alone know how to be kind and sensitive to a victim of trauma.

I myself have often labored with the fear, as small as it was given my extremely high self-esteem, that I carried hidden wounds from my many difficult interactions with women (especially victims) and my efforts to help others. I have labored under the fear Oliver Queen expressed in Arrow that people would view me as different if I admitted how much it hurt: As damaged. As weak. I didn’t want the people who looked at me as if I was an aspirational figure to stop admiring me because I had been injured in the fight.

If I can feel that from vicarious trauma and good-spirited (and I hope heroic) efforts to help people, what could someone feel from an action so awful it has been called “soul murder”?

When a victim wakes screaming in the night from flashbacks that haunt her dreams just as they haunt her waking life, how can she (or he) come to expect that she will ever be treated by others as normal? Can’t they view themselves as fundamentally broken, and therefore below love? Perhaps even toxic to any good people in their life who are innocent?

“Rape culture” is not a feminist piece of dogma and it’s not an abstract concept. It’s the network of ways our society often trivializes rape, refuses to seek the hidden victims in their silent screaming and self-enforced cages, doesn’t provide assistance to women, and even often views assaults as the fault of women. It’s the way that many men, even if they do not engage in sexual assault themselves, routinely behave in ways that dehumanize, terrorize or dismiss the needs and rights of women.

I’ve seen it. I’ve seen how men refer to “pussy”, as Louis CK put it, as an element of the universe. Not connected to a real living, breathing person. Not part of a body that contains a soul with feelings and desires and aspirations.

If we can view women as disposable objects for sex (and if many women can in fact view men similarly), then can’t we admit that the bridge to abusing them is short indeed?

All this is to say that this activist strategy has a lot of justification to it. It’s a way of trying to have this particular dialog, a back-and-forth dialectic that is exceedingly common in life:

“Yes, this is an improvement. But we need more improvement, and different kinds of improvement”.

Bono has had to make this point when he talks about real efforts to reduce poverty. He points out that people could cut back on efforts based on the successes in poverty reduction, and therefore slow the rate of progress, or push forward with increased momentum. The same is true when you’re trying to stop a war, or just help a friend conquer an addiction or a personal problem.

Expressing this tension skillfully is hard. If you emphasize too much how much progress has been made, you defeat the whole purpose. If you don’t, then you trivialize real work.

I am sure that the people who made this lipstick had the best of intentions. Many were likely even feminists.

However, it is true that anti-rape devices like this get a lot of attention. There’s an unfortunate trajectory for people to implicitly believe or explicitly say, “See? Now women can be safe! We don’t have to do any of the hard work to change our gender norms”.

So this activist wasn’t dismissing rape lipstick, and she wasn’t up in arms about it. She wasn’t saying it was a bad thing. Ms. Green was just saying that we need to do more work, and work in a different arena, if we want to hedge back on rape and mitigate its negative effects when it occurs. It’s important to recognize as she points out that the vast majority of rapes involve no drugs, and just involve the standard and immemorial techniques: Plying someone with the date rape drug called “alcohol”, coercion, threats, blackmail, or actual force and violence. In fact, of all of the victims I’ve worked with, I cannot recall one who was drugged. Most were simply threatened or actually beaten into submission, often brutally.

Unfortunately, there’s some complicated issues we have to get into as well for this particular post.

We have to recognize an ethic of dual responsibility. This, like my eventual post on homosexuality and choice, is one of the articles I am looking forward least to writing.

If I’m mugged because I was walking in a dangerous area at night, was that my “fault”?

It depends on what we mean by “fault”.

Might different, wiser actions have avoided that event? Yes.

But the mugger shouldn’t be mugging anyone anywhere. Moreover, I could be victimized anywhere potentially.

Can women increase their safety against all sorts of potential threats, not just rape but also robbery and carjacking and so forth, by traveling in groups, being trained in martial arts, carrying tools like pepper spray, telling a friend when they’ll check in, etc.?

Yes. This is just prudent behavior.

But rapists shouldn’t rape. There is no excuse, there is no justification. No one should ever pin someone else down and have their way with them.

I have a ravishment fantasy. I have often fantasized about taking a woman against her will. But the actual thought of doing it for real, especially with my experiences now, sickens me. It shakes me to the core. I have never once come close to assaulting a woman. I have never been remotely tempted. I can’t even imagine the damage one has to have to one’s soul to be able to look at someone who is not having a good time, not laughing or moaning in pleasure, and keep on pushing for one’s own sexual release anyways. If I see that my partner is even a little bit uncomfortable, I instantly feel bad and want to improve the situation. And I’m far from alone. Virtually every man I am privileged to call my friend is very, very concerned about being attentive, good lovers.

We have to find a way when discussing situations like this to give people tools to protect themselves while never losing sight of the fact that there is no excuse, no justification, no defense that can be made for evil actions.

Walking home alone at night in a dark area may be unwise, even foolish. Raping someone is evil. The distinction must be hammered home.

This distinction is actually especially vital because, in fact, many people who are assaulted repeatedly put themselves into the places where they can be attacked.

One of the most hideous secrets of trauma is this: People tend to keep falling back into the patterns that create trauma.

I’ve talked about this elsewhere, and will write an extensive post about it at some point, but suffice it to say: Women who have been assaulted routinely find themselves with abusive men later who will beat them or rape them again. They feel that that’s what sex is. They think that’s what they deserve. They can’t imagine anything better, and when they do see something better they can’t believe it.

This isn’t, again, to say it’s their “fault”. They never should have been attacked or molested, not the first time, not the second, not the fifth. But it is to say that people need to be accountable to protecting themselves. We need to find out why we don’t love ourselves enough to be safe and prudent.

There’s another final aspect that has to be discussed.

Men are not naturally predatory, it’s true. Not as a category.

But the fact is, crime is an outcome to some extent of human nature. Perhaps truly amazing sociological changes, new institutions that I strive to achieve for society, better culture, and technology will abolish crime. But we can’t expect that will happen in our lifetimes or in the lifetimes of our great-grandchildren.

Some people will always fall through the cracks. Some people will always be angry, violent, or hurtful. Both men and women rape or sexually abuse others for a variety of reasons.

No matter what work we do against “rape culture”, there will always be some people who sexually victimize and exploit others, and there will always be people who will have so little self-love that they let it happen.

This is hard to say. It’s good sociology. In point of fact, rape has numerous sociological causes, like any other crime, and like any other crime it can be hard to get a hold of all of them. We as Americans often come to believe that we can solve any problem. But rape has been a part of human society since, near as we can tell, the dawn of man. It may not be extinguishable.

But we can reduce the numbers. We can make it so those few people left who do victimize others are properly punished and rehabilitated, and we can make it so those few people left who are victimized

I think we could see a reduction of rape and sexual assault by fourfold in our lifetimes. Improvements not just in the way that we treat women and value them but also in rape prevention, male allydom practices (e.g. standing up for a female friend long before they’re in a situation where they can be attacked or standing up to our male friends when they are being dehumanizing or abusive), and better policing tools with more sensitivity to victim experiences could increase the likelihood that victims speak up and pursue charges against their attackers. If 90% of women reported their attacks instead of something more like 25%, and successful prosecution was more likely, people would be less likely to do so.

More importantly, what we can do is we can make the quixotic quest for a world free of sexual assault just as a world free of crime.

We can’t always get everything. We may never see a world truly free of war. We may always struggle with balancing our ecology. We may always struggle with balancing the collective versus the individual, giving people opportunities and power while not letting them exceed their rights.

But we can try. And a world free of rape is a goal worth everyone fighting for, in their communities, in their neighborhoods and homes and in the streets and with politicians and police chiefs, right now.

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