What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape

This week, as WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was taken into custody by Interpol on charges of sexual assault, and pundits right, left, and center got busy painting the accusations as frivolous and the accusers as lying, scheming sluts, I joined a small but dedicated chorus of feminist voices calling for a serious inquiry into the charges. We didn't do it because we support government secrecy or because we agree with the vicious international campaign to silence Assange. We didn't do it because we're masochists who like to get into fights on the Internet. We did it because once rape charges break into the news cycle, lives depend on what gets said about them.

I have no way of knowing whether Assange is guilty as charged. It's also obvious that the timing and ferocity of Interpol's prosecution of Assange is politically motivated. That Interpol should randomly build up such a head of steam about the violation of two women in Sweden, (which has the highest rape rates in Europe and a decreasing rate of convictions) strains credulity.

Had the backlash against Assange's arrest focused on Interpol's hypocrisy, my colleagues and I would have been free to join and strengthen that critique. But it didn't. Instead, Keith Olbermann used scare quotes around the word rape as though the charges themselves (which are that Assange held one woman down against her will, and in a separate incident raped another while she was sleeping) were silly, and everyone from Glenn Beck to Naomi Wolf rushed to belittle the accusers, along the way employing every victim-blaming, rape-denying, slut-shaming trope ever invented, from "they're just lashing out because they got their feelings hurt" (that's both Beck and purported feminist Wolf, paraphrased) to my personal non-favorite, popular blogger Robert Stacy McCain's suggestion that women who consent to any kind of sex are sluts who deserve whatever happens: "You buy the ticket, you take the ride."

Once those floodgates opened, in rushed the chatteratti by the thousands, dancing with glee at the announcement of their favorite spontaneous holiday: Rape Apology Day, on which every way you can imagine to blame or discredit a woman's allegations of sexual violence is not only fair game but celebrated.

Rape Apology Day happens whenever rape breaks through into the news cycle. The charges earlier this year against Al Gore launched a number of Rape Apology Days, as do each set of new charges against football player Ben Roethlisberger. Compared to the frequency with which sexual assault is committed (the U.S. Department of Justice puts that number around 250,000 each year in the U.S.), it's not that often. But given the role that Rape Apology Days play in keeping that number as high as it is, even one is too many.

Here's how it works: As soon as a rape accusation makes it into the news cycle (most often because the accused is famous), it's instantly held up against our collective subconscious idea about what Real Rape (or, as Whoopi Goldberg odiously called it, "rape-rape") looks like. Here's a quick primer on that ideal: The rapist is a scary stranger, with a weapon, even better if he's a poor man of color. The victim is a young, white, conventionally pretty, sober, innocent virgin. Also, there are witnesses and/or incontrovertible physical evidence, and the victim goes running to the authorities as soon as the assault is over.

But let's face it, actual rapes almost never match up to this ideal. Most rape victims know their attacker (estimates range from 75 percent to 89 percent), most rapists use alcohol or drugs to facilitate the assault (More than 80 percent, according to researcher David Lisak), not weapons, and most of the famous men whose accusers receive media attention aren't poor men of color. But once the accusation hits the news cycle, whatever pundit gets there first uses the non-ideal details of the alleged assault to argue that surely, we shouldn't take this seriously, and other pundits nod their head in agreement.

Piling on the accuser with victim-blaming language, or questioning why this account doesn't match what we think sexual assault should look like, doesn't happen in a vacuum. Millions of people are watching and listening as these rape myths are repeated ad nauseam. A 2008 study by Renee Franiuk, published in the journal Violence Against Women, revealed that these narratives make victims less likely to take their own experiences seriously and more afraid of reporting what's been done to them. Advocates echo these findings: "Media attention around cases such as Kobe [Bryant] and Duke [University], where victim blaming is intense and daily, makes our work even more challenging," says Stacy Malone, executive director of the Victim Rights Law Center. "It can cause victims to question themselves and silence them into not telling their experiences and not seeking services."

Anne Munch, an attorney who provided assistance to the team that prosecuted Bryant, reports that, due to the rape myths perpetuated in the media coverage of that case and two other high-profile rape cases that hit the news in 2003, reports of rape received by the campus police at one Colorado university dropped from 47 in 2002 to six in 2003, and calls to a Colorado rape crisis center fell off by a third, with callers expressing "a specific hesitancy to report to the police or to victims' assistance due to the fear of their case being made public."

It gets worse. Devaluing victims' accounts makes it easier for men to excuse or dismiss their own sexually assaulting behavior. It also makes it easier for cops, judges, prosecutors, and jurors to not take rape claims seriously if and when those victims decide to ask for help (a dynamic well illustrated by the story Amanda Hess broke in the Washington City Paper earlier this year of a young woman at Howard University who was denied both a rape kit and a prosecution all because she had been drunk at the time of the attack). Worst of all: Unreported and unpunished rapists are free to rape again. And the groundbreaking findings of researchers David Lisak and Paul Miller suggest they're likely to do just that, an average of five more times each. That's five new lives destroyed each time a rapist escapes justice because someone -- a victim, a judge, a cop -- was influenced by a rape myth, as millions of people are, every single time we declare a Rape Apology Day.

So the next time you hear me or one of my colleagues patiently (or impatiently) explaining the realities of consent, or why rape allegations aren't the same thing as a sex scandal, or whatever incredibly basic thing needs saying over and over again that day, you'll know why. Perhaps you'll even join in.

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