Rape Culture, Race, and the Privileged Voices, Pt. 1

Disclaimer: I understand that by writing this many may interpret this work as me victim blaming and/or shaming, that isn’t my intention. My intention is to start a dialogue on an issue that has confused to me, namely how we define rape and nonconsensual sex in the midst of a society consumed by rape culture. My impetus for this discussion are two stories that I came across in recent weeks which made me question not only what I understand about rape and non-consensual sex but who is dominating those discussions and shifting perspectives on the matter. I will take up this discussion in two parts, the first of which is below and the second which will be published tomorrow–I promise.

**********TRIGGER WARNING**********

The first article entitled “Is It Possible That There Is Something in Between Consensual Sex and Rape…And That It Happens to Almost Every Girl Out There?” details a sexual encounter between two people who had spent a substantial amount of time drinking together. The young woman went home with the young man, in the morning she ended up in his bedroom where they had a heart-to-heart discussion, and then things went seemingly downhill from there. While they were talking the young man said, “I feel like you want me to make a move, just so you can turn me down.” And following those words they began to make out and making out escalated into sex. Here is how she describes it,

Before I even had a chance to decide if he was right, we were making out. In my state of extreme intoxication, my mind was racing in search of a decision. This was exciting. This was fun. But this was also really, really weird, and ultimately, not a road I wanted to go down. I couldn’t decide if the excitement and lust in the air would win over the pit in my stomach. It wasn’t until he grabbed a condom that I really knew how I felt. I was not okay with this. I did not want to have sex with him.

But I did.

She goes on to describe the internal conflict she had throughout the entire encounter, wrestling with the fact that she was uncomfortable with the situation but conceding to it. She says,

It was easier to just do it. Besides, we were already in bed, and this is what people in bed do. I felt an obligation, a duty to go through with it. I felt guilty for not wanting to. I wasn’t a virgin. I’d done this before. It shouldn’t have been a big deal–it’s just sex–so I didn’t want to make it one.

It is in retrospect that she realizes that what happened to her may have been a violation to her. She struggled with this because there are no clear words for what happened, it wasn’t rape but it wasn’t consensual sex either and thus it is complicated. She is telling her story to shed light on something that she believes happens all the time to women and as she states in the article, many women replied in the affirmative that they had similar experiences with men. Thus she concludes with this,

It happens to us with consistent hookups, first dates, boyfriends, and one-night stands alike. We have sex with guys, because sometimes it’s just easier to do it than to have the argument about not doing it. But no one talks about it. Talking about it makes it a big deal. It makes us feel like we’re whining. It makes us feel like we’re being dramatic. And we don’t want it to be dramatic. We don’t feel entirely violated. It doesn’t affect us forever. We just feel like we got the short end of the stick, and that sometimes, we have to do something we don’t want to do, out of politeness or social obligation. So why bring it up? Why risk wrongfully tagging a guy with a serious, heavy label he doesn’t deserve? And more importantly, why risk being wrongfully tagged as “the girl who cried rape,” when we’re not trying to say it was rape at all? We’re saying we don’t know what it was. We just didn’t like it. But by refusing to acknowledge the existence of these rape-ish situations, we’re continuing to subject ourselves to them indefinitely.

Having read this article several times I remain confounded by it and its implications for women and men. To establish this space between rape and consensual sex is confusing to me. What does this continuous expansion of the definition of rape and nonconsensual sex mean in the long run? Who is given the authority to expand definitions of rape and consensual sex? Who are the women and men who are allowed to talk about their experiences most widely in a way that has impact on the general perspectives of this issue? What is the cultural impact of these discussions? The latter question is based on my reading and interpretation of this as a black woman who has observed rape culture and nonconsensual sex discourse as one that is dominated, primarily, by white people–particularly in the public spotlight and spaces.

I thought about if I were in this woman’s shoes and wondered what my friends, most of whom are black women, would say. Having talked to a few of them and explained this article in detail they all believed that it wasn’t rape and it wasn’t non-consensual sex, it was a woman making a mistake and expressing regret. Given this, it seemed to me that interpretation and response may vary based on culture and certainly there is a longstanding tradition that exists. For so long I have watched society set white women up as vestal virgins and blameless persons whose sexuality must be protected while women of color have constantly fought to protect their bodies and their sexuality while being labeled as hypersexual and animalistic by those same protectors of white womanhood. I’ve not had the good fortune of being a part of a race where it is assumed that I am good and pure even as a black Christian woman. I am a part of those darker women who, when their bodies are thrown off an overpass and it is discovered that they were strippers the stories goes, largely, untold. Meanwhile the white sex workers who face a similar fate have their stories plastered everywhere. I see the many ways in which white bodies are protected or how, within their narratives, there is an implicit expectation that someone should protect their bodies for them and thus they give up agency while my sisters and I must always protect ourselves. To be clear, I’m not arguing for the chance to give up agency or claim victimhood, I’m sharing an observation about the highly politicized nature of the black body versus the highly praised white body and how either is protected or not. This leads me to a brief point about perceived lazy womanhood and taking up agency.

The young woman in the aforementioned story embodied what I call a “lazy womanhood” indicated by her giving up agency in favor of surrendering to a man’s needs, particularly in a situation that seemed ripe for her use of agency. Her account suggests that there was room for her to voice her concerns during the encounter but out of fear of disappointing the man she chose not to. Furthermore, when she points out that many other young women had similar experiences it further perpetuates this notion of placing male desire and lust above female need and security. But this can’t be our womanhood.

We should always feel we have the right to say “No” in a sexual encounter, based on what we need and never based things on disappointing someone else. In campus sexual assault situations that are growing more ambiguous than they are obvious it is important for women to believe and know that they still have an upper hand in the situation. Sex is not something that just happens to women, we are not a refuse or mere pleasure hole for men’s pleasure-seeking missiles, we are full-bodied people who should often and always speak up and say “No.” I reiterate this especially in the wake of these beginning gray areas between rape and non-consensual sex. There must be some recourse for women and it cannot be that anytime we enter into a sexual encounter our defenses are down and we become victims before we learn to be conquerors. Especially in these newly exposed gray areas, women need to be as vigilant and outspoken as ever for it seems that this might actually be a case where, more often than not, they could stop an uncomfortable encounter before it starts. Again, I don’t want to be interpreted as shaming or blaming this young women or women like her, I do want us to take a more critical eye toward what we are claiming when it comes to discussions of rape and non-consensual sex and who we are allowing to dominate these discussions.

The story that has grounded this post came from a young white woman and it is also indicative of a trend–or maybe the norm–of these being the stories that dominate discussions on rape and nonconsensual sex. I’m concerned about the influx of these narratives and the way in which they are privileged, shape definitions, perspectives and even policies, all the while coming from white women. Women waving the feminist banner but not evolving beyond the age-old feminist practice of neglecting race and class in their struggle for gender equality. Herein lies the segue for the second article…

Tomorrow I will continue this discussion with the second article in question which further proves the “privileging of white female voices in sexual assault narratives” argument, will highlight work being done among black feminists to give capital to black women’s sexual assault narratives, and finally I will offer a third way of fostering dialogue.

Playing the THOT: A Reflection on a Moment of Dress-Up

Last weekend, over the Labor Day holiday, I was in Miami for my best friend’s bachelorette proceedings. There was plenty of indulgent eating, drinking, partying, and of course a bit of scantily clad dressing because that is de rigueur in Miami. But there was one night that would raise the eyebrows of many, a themed night called, “So You Think You Can Dress…Like a THOT.” To quickly fill you in, THOT stands for “That Hoe Over/Out There” and has swept the nation for the last year or so. You can pretty much consider “THOT” the millennial slut. She is classified as such by her questionable and high quantities of men, “ratchet” behavior, too revealing and tight clothing, and even her teeth. I decided that since my bride-to-be best friend loves dressing up–she met her soon-to-be husband at a Halloween party and she loves dressing up for galas, parties, etc–it would be fun to have the group compete in a THOT dress-up contest complete with prizes for “Most THOTful outfit. I also figured that the act of dressing up  this way would be ripe for social commentary and ethical reflection. What can I say, I love a good social experiment and I’m a slave to my research interests.

I was hesitant about this idea at first because I didn’t know if it would offend the sensibilities of a group of young, professional black women. Surely we have enough odds stacked against us that donning our THOT apparel may not help us. But, much to my surprise, the group was for it. The original plan was to dress up the night we went to Miami’s–and possibly the nation’s largest strip club, King of Diamonds, but a last-minute change of plans resulted in us modeling our outfits for an impromptu photo shoot in the lobby of our hotel. Alas my social experiment was axed but it still left me with something to think about.

Days before this themed night I spoke with a close friend about it and asked her what she thought about my posting the pictures on Instagram. Immediately she told me that it would be a bad idea because it would be a conflict of interest with my professional life. She suggested that the photo might fall into the wrong hands and I may be judged harshly for it. A few days after it was all said and done, I told another close friend that I wanted to post one of the pictures on Facebook to which he said, “I don’t think that would be a good idea.” He suggested that someone from work might see it and I might get in trouble. To the latter friend I responded that I wish I would get in trouble for posting a picture of myself in a revealing outfit when they know who I am as a person. I am confounded that this would even be an issue and that, once again, what a woman does with her body–independent of harming anyone else–would subject her to judgement.

We all know that the advent of social media makes it more possible to get in trouble for the things we do in our private time. We also know that photos of women in revealing clothing subjects them to harsher judgement than their male peers regardless of what is known about them personally. And of course, over the last few weeks, we have come to know that at this time people’s computers can be hacked and nude photos released for public consumption without permission. So the reality is, women are damned if they don’t and damned if they do. Our reputation can be put on the line for having scantily clad fun–or for being fully dressed because that’s what fashion critics do–or it can be put on the line during the involuntary release of photos of ourselves. We have no control over whose hands photos fall into and what people will think about those photos when they receive them. Right now it is my prerogative to release a photograph of myself in revealing clothing worn for fun. Conversely, it is another woman’s prerogative to release pictures of herself in revealing clothes that she wears because that is what she likes wearing. Neither of us deserve what could be coming to us in the way of condemnation, judgement, termination from jobs, lascivious attention, rape etc. I had to throw in the latter because before the themed night someone also suggested that we will get unwelcome attention from men and it may be dangerous for us to dress like this. I am personally tired of policing myself based on men’s lack of impulse control–thank you Daily Show’s Jessica Williams for that word. It is rarely other women we have to deal with but men who think they are entitled to certain behavioral outcomes because of the way a woman dresses or men who determine what is respectable and what isn’t. And this leads me to my concluding point, the politics of respectability.

At the end of the day politics of respectability is what this all boils down to. A woman perceived as a THOT or a woman in THOT clothing is not seen as respectable because she doesn’t conform herself to society’s–better yet, the patriarchy’s standard for women–and therefore it is assumed that she doesn’t deserve our respect. But this disregards the humanity of women and their right to choose for themselves whom they will be or in the case of this discussion, what they will look like, and still maintain full integrity of their being. Is a woman not more than the clothes she chooses to puts on her back? Or is she not more than what she chooses to do for money? I am well aware that I speak with a certain privilege because I wore my outfit for entertainment purposes only and I have a certain reputation established, but most of the women we categorize as THOTs don’t have that luxury. And to take it one step further, the term “THOT” was contrived in the minds of men so isn’t it about time the women destroy it somehow? I’m with Madame Noir writer Veronica Well who said,

…as you may imagine the term was originally used to describe sexually promiscuous women. Of course that’s problematic and misogynistic because, once again, women are being punished for being sexually expressive while men, who behave similarly, are given a pass and a pat on the back.

I want to argue for a woman retaining her power regardless of how she chooses to dress. That we all owe women and girls that respect and I say this as a lesson I am teaching myself because I will not act like I haven’t seen a women questionably dressed and not judged her. Hell, I saw plenty of questionably dressed women in Miami, I’ve been appalled by Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda,” I’ve stared in disbelief as women got paid to dance on top of bars in little to nothing or pole danced…I’ve questioned the content of many a woman’s character for how they dressed or acted. Many are the judgements I’ve waged against those women and the pity I’ve had for them, but these women chose that for themselves with the assumption that they would still be treated with respect, just as much respect as the women who came out of the house or the hotel with respectable clothing on, and I get it. I get it. A few minutes of one night that I chose to dress as a so-called THOT, I expected to be respected and taken seriously because I know who I am at my core. This is what all women expect and are entitled to regardless of how much or how little clothing they are wearing because they too know who they are at their core.

picstitch

Same woman, different clothes, respect regardless.