It’s a rite-of-passage, seeing just how many girls you can have sex with by the end of senior year. The more girls you sleep with, the more of a man you are. The girls themselves don’t actually matter. They are just a means to an end. In 1999 this was called American Pie. In 2015, we learned that at St. Paul’s School it is called the “Senior Salute.”
In the spring of 2014, Owen Labrie, a senior at the prestigious St. Paul’s School, participated in the “Senior Salute .” Labrie invited his victim, a freshman girl, to the mechanic room with him. she consented to going to the room. She consented to kissing, to exploration. What she did not consent to was sex.
Labrie claims that sex did not occur, and that whatever did occur was consensual. In other words, “I did not have sex with that woman but if I did, she wanted it.” The jury listened to testimony mostly from the prosecution, very little testimony from the defense (Labrie was their only witness) and after two days of deliberation, came to a verdict, which was a compromise.
Labrie, according to the jury, did have sex with the young girl, but she did not make it clear enough that she did not want to have sex. So, basically, Labrie lied about whether or not he had sex with the victim but he was still deemed truthful enough to be believed that she really wanted it.
The New York Times‘ Jess Bidgood got it wrong. At its core, the Labrie rape case was not was not “about an intimate encounter last year between a 15-year-old girl and an 18-year-old acquaintance, and whether she consented as it escalated.” Instead, this case was about how our culture continues to excuse sexual violence. This was about how we continue to define consent as being what is most convenient for the sexual aggressor. With the defense’s line of questioning, and even the discussion on social media, it was a jarring reminder of what rape culture is, and just how young anyone can get initiated into it.
At Talking Points Memo, Amanda Marcotte writes that the defense team’s success is that it depended upon rape myths: first, “that women reclassify consensual sex as ‘rape’ in order to preserve their reputations” and second, “that rape victims always act traumatized and freak out at the mere sight of their rapist after the fact.” These myths have been prominently feed by recent prominent rape trials and by popular culture.
For example, for those of us old enough to remember the 90s’ Beverly Hills 90210, there was a character, Laura, who accused a core character, Steve, of date rape. Rather than tackling what consent meant, the show had queen bee Kelly Taylor, a central character who was a victim of date rape, publicly chastise Laura. Kelly told her that a girl cannot just change her mind later because she regrets a sexual experience and call it rape.
Yet, that was not enough. 90210 brought Laura back and established her as a neurotic college woman desperate for attention. After falsely accusing Steve of rape, she falsely accuses Brenda Walsh of sleeping her way into a lead stage role. Later, in true dramatic soap opera fashion, Laura tries to hang herself onstage for attention. The message was clear: women who claim they have been raped are often lying, damaged, and crazy.
As for the second myth noted by Marcotte, our culture often imagines rape victims as fragile, broken, virtuous women who collapse at the sight of their victimizer. This is simply an untruth. In some ways it is often impossible. Rapists are not always strangers or visitors to one’s life, some people must interact with their rapist daily. Moreover the responses one can have to the trauma of rape varies from person to person. Some people minimize what they experienced, others struggle to call it rape, and there are debates around whether one is a rape victim or survivor of rape. There is no one way to experience rape, and survivors cope in different ways.
Culturally we insist that victims of rape manifest their trauma physically. We want rape victims to publicly cry, to shake, for their voices to quiver. Even though we tell rape victims it is not their fault, we want to see them struggle with the pain. Because, if we see this, then we know, they are telling the truth–they lived through something horrific. Jurists are not exempt from holding cultural biases. Consequently, most jurors hold these beliefs, and it is they who decide the outcome of rape trials. And, rape trials, no matter how we intellectually maneuver around it, come down to: Do you believe her; does she seem like the type that in some way was asking it? The old, and tired, he said, she said debate.
Feminist cultural critic Soraya Chemaly pointed out on the HuffPost Live, how dangerous and problematic such framings are because people tend to have biases against believing women. Chemaly stated that jury studies show that when “a situation is complicated they tend not to believe girls and women; they give credibility to [boys] and men.” In other words, jurors tend to believe men (who are more likely to commit rape) more often than women (who are more likely to be victims of rape).
In truth, often when one is raped, what is not talked about are the odd negotiations one goes through in order to process and survive the trauma. Marcotte, pulling from RAINN’s website, writes that, “it’s not nuts for victims to think that if they just smile and play nice with their attacker, no one will ever find out and it will all be like it never happened.” It is also not “crazy” to realize that if you act a certain way, that if you interpret the event in a certain way then you are not a victim, that you are not one of those people.
On HuffPost Live’s coverage of the not guilty verdict, feminist cultural critic Soraya Chemaly stated that one of the problems we have in this country is that we don’t come from a position of affirmative consent: “A lot of the trial seemed to involve rape mythologies. The jurors, I think, [grappled] with what they think of is legitimate rape, what counts. We don’t have in this courtroom or in our laws a yes means yes approach.”
On the same broadcast, former Feministing.com editor Samhita Mukhopadyay adovacted for a culture of affirmative consent. Mukhopadyay stated that, “what affirmative consent really does, is it gives us an opportunity to really centralize women’s pleasure and to say ‘let’s have a conversation about what I want this experience to be, let me set the tone for what I want this experience to be.’ And, it allows for a level of communication. So it is not just the only signifier you have is when you cross the line and there are some guidelines for when you want to have sex. [The problem with this verdict] is that it doesn’t question that sense of entitlement or male ownership of sexuality. The lesson here is, ‘Oh check her ID next time.” We currently have the opposite of such a culture.
What we have is a culture that struggles with what consent means. We have a culture where consent and rape are defined mainly by those least likely to be victims of rape. What we have is a culture where rape, despite all claims to contrary, is acceptable and permissible.
#RapeCultureIsWhen a defense team can rest its entire case after calling only one witness, the accused.
#RapeCultureIsWhen an accused rapist’s word is deemed more believable than the victim’s who says she did not consent, his own friends’ testimonies that he bragged about having sex with the victim, and testimony from experts.
#RapeCultureIsWhen a jury is not allowed to hear from an expert about what consent is and its nuances.
#RapeCultureIsWhen a school has a history of turning a blind-eye to a tradition of young boys coercing young women into sex, so that they can establish their manhood and masculinity.
#RapeCultureIsWhen: We as a country act as if rape (as defined by men) laws (voted on/approved by men) are established to protect the victim (who is usually a woman) rather than the perpetrator (who is usually a man).
Rape culture is what we have created. Rape culture is what we nurture. And, rape culture is what we protect when men like Owen Labrie are able to successfully argue that she just should have said no more forcefully.