Why the Nate Parker Case Matters Now

Over the weekend old news about Nate Parker surfaced. 17 years ago Parker and Jean McGianni Celestin, who he co-wrote The Birth of a Nation with, were involved in a rape case while they were roommates at Penn State in 1999. The victim said that she was raped by the two men after passing out in their room following a night of drinking while Parker and Celestin said that the sex was consensual. Parker, who had consensual sex with the victim on an earlier occasion was, somehow, acquitted and Celestin was convicted and then had it overturned in an appeal. The victim, whose name we don’t know, dropped out of Penn State, attempted suicide twice, and committed suicide in 2012 according to recent reports. Fast forward to 17 years later…

Parker is at the height of his career with his film The Birth of a Nation being talked about as an Oscar contender. But now his past has come back to haunt him and some discussions of it are inordinately focused on how it may affect his chances at an Oscar:

Fox Searchlight, Nate Parker Confront Old Sex Case That Could Tarnish ‘The Birth Of A Nation’

Nate Parker’s College Rape Trial Raises Questions for ‘The Birth of a Nation’ Release

Is This the First Controversy of the 2017 Awards Season?

The industry is concerned that they may not see a return on their investment and their rising star might fall. This feels kind of familiar to me, as familiar as a father who, during his child’s sentencing for raping an unconscious woman said, “That is a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action out of his 20 plus years of life.” Turner was convicted on three counts of felony sexual assault, sentenced to six months in jail, three years on probation, and will have to register as a sexual offender. His lenient sentence was attributed to his whiteness and privilege and his people’s desire to see him flourish after this hard time in his life. In many ways, Parker’s case reads the same.

There seems to be a need to protect men in power or on the brink of power in sexual assault cases. Parker is joining a line of men in Hollywood–and other men in power–with sexual assault cases on their personal resumes: Woody Allen, Roman Polanski, Bill Cosby, and the scores of others we don’t know about. I’m reminded of a story I pitched a year ago on Bill Cosby, rape culture, and Christian silence only to have a man in a position of power tell me that “outing” Cosby at the time–which was around the time of the South Carolina confederate flag debate–would be a distraction. As if we couldn’t address both. I was discouraged and felt like this man also shared a part in rape culture by keeping silent and trying to keep me silent–don’t worry, I did end up writing about Cosby, Christian Silence and Rape Culture on my personal blog. But this is just another example how men in power protect other men in power. (Want another example, check out this season of Orange is the New Black.) Hollywood’s interest is to protect these men because of the investment they made in them and Parker is just the latest. This isn’t an attack on him because he’s a black man on the come up, it’s par for the course for his position in the industry and for this day and age when talk of sexual violence is becoming commonplace. Given this, Parker’s PR has clearly been on their grind if his mealy-mouthed statements are any indication:

“I stand here, a 36-year-old man, 17 years removed from one of the most painful moments in my life. And I can imagine it was painful, for everyone. I was cleared of everything, of all charges. I’ve done a lot of living, and raised a lot of children. I’ve got five daughters and a lovely wife. My mom lives here with me; I brought her here. I’ve got four younger sisters.”

“The reality is, this is a serious issue, a very serious issue, and the fact that there is a dialogue going on right now around the country is paramount. It is critical. The fact we are making moves and taking action to protect women on campuses and off campuses, and educating men and persecuting them when things come up. … I want women to stand up, to speak out when they feel violated, in every degree, as I prepare to take my own daughter to college.”

Maybe “mealy-mouthed” isn’t a fair description of his statement, it’s more than a mealy-mouthed statement and yet it is still less than what is necessary at a time when narratives of sexual violence are still more determined by men than they are by the women who are most affected by it. Parker tries to pay general attention to those affected by sexual violence, but in his particular role in enacting violence he, nor Celestin, take explicit responsibly for their actions and that feels violent to me.

I have a problem with the fact that the discussions of this are being couched in terms of how this will affect The Birth of a Nation‘s chance at the Oscars or its general release. That ought not be the issue and Parker’s deflecting from the problem of that framing is disheartening. I get it, Parker wants to tell Nat Turner’s story and wants America to face the truth of its history. But this encounter with his own part in the history of sexual violence is also an opportunity for him and America, particularly American men, to face the truth of the role they play in normalizing sexual violence. Parker’s statement turns away from the gross reality of how sexual violence narratives are scripted for men in positions of power. They are swept under the rug and a “not guilty” sentence is interpreted as innocence while the victim suffers in silence. Their stories can be revised and edited in such a way as to make the men the victims and cancel the real victim out. In this case, the spotlight is on Parker and Celestin but they are using it to focus on the wrong thing, themselves, their project, and their families as some kind of scapegoat that absolves them from anyone ever thinking they could do harm. All of this is the result of failing to recognize how easy it is for sexual violence narratives to be minimized and how they–Parker and Celestin–are a part of the problem.

17 years later this still matters because the effects of sexual violence have no statute of limitations, not for the victim, not for the suspect, not for anyone involved. We need a different word from Parker and Celestin, one that doesn’t deflect to their project and who they’ve become before it takes a long, hard look at the effects of a crime they committed 17 years ago and how the stories we tell about rape always matter. An accusation of rape always matters. A rape case always matters. The victim of rape always matters and Parker and Celestin seem blithely unaware that, 17 years later, this still matters as if it happened yesterday because rape matters.

 

 

 

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Zack Anderson, the Statutory Rape Exception?

***TRIGGER WARNING**** The following may or may not trigger victims of sexual violence. The news story that follows is not meant to support sexual offenders as we know that, but to generate a conversation about the laws surrounding particular incidents involving sex.

zackandersonThis is Zack Anderson, a 19-year-old from Elkhart, Indiana who was recently placed on the Sex Offender Registry in Indiana and Michigan. Problem is, Anderson doesn’t belong on the sex offender list.

Anderson landed on this list after an encounter with a young woman he met on the dating app “Hot or Not.” The girl lived just across the state line in Michigan and posed as a 17-year-old. Anderson and the girl met and had consensual sex but afterwards it was discovered that the girl was 14-years-old which means that Anderson, unbeknownst to him in the moment, committed statutory rape. (Statutory rape laws in Michigan state that, “Third-degree criminal sexual conduct is sexual penetration with someone between age 13 and 16.” Statutory rape laws for Indiana state that, “Sexual misconduct with a minor if a person at least age 18 engages in sexual intercourse with a child between ages 14 and 16.”)

Now Anderson faces a 90-day jail sentence, five years probation and placed on both Indiana and Michigan’s sex offender registry for the next 25 years. The girl and her parents attended his court date and declared that he shouldn’t be punished for her wrongdoing but the law remains. To top it off, the judge expressed disdain for the fact that Anderson used the Internet to meet girls saying, “That seems to be part of our culture now. “Meet, have sex, hook up, sayonara. Totally inappropriate behavior. There is no excuse for this whatsoever.” Those of us who use the Internet to connect, platonic and romantically, know that there is more than an excuse, there is a reason for this method of communication and meeting, but that is neither here nor there at the moment and the judge probably could have withheld his opinion on that. The real issue at hand is what to do in a statutory rape case when your victim lies and she–or he–comes forward to confess that lie and there is evidence of that lie–in this case maybe there is evidence through archived webpages of her dating profile that show her misrepresenting herself and her age.

Lying about one’s age on a dating app is an occurrence as old as time. So what are the consequences for lying about one’s age in a situation that could do harm and damage to the other person’s life? (And really, though Anderson is the only one being explicitly punished, I’m willing to bet that the girl may endure another kind of punishment if only through guilt.)

Nevertheless, because of this young woman’s lie Anderson’s life will never be the same. He has the jail sentence, the probation, the sex offender registry, and he can’t live or go near his parent’s house because he has a 15-year-old brother all because of a lie. I’ve been wracking my brain to see how this might be justified but I just don’t see it. Even as I write this I’m thinking, “But what if this is all I setup? What if his parents paid hers to come forward and state that she lied?” On one hand I want to believe this young man’s account because I want to believe that not every young man is a factory of raging hormones looking for a release by any means necessary–a nod to a Camille Paglia. On the other hand I’m fully aware that with our culture, a culture where rape culture is persistent and men get away with all manner of evil while we either silence or shame the women involved, the alternative storyline that I’ve conjured in my mind could also be possible. But I want to look at this case considering the evidence we have before us which is, literally, the testimony of Anderson and the girl’s admission and apology.

Say we take Anderson’s account at face value as well as the confession of the girl.

Say all of it is true.

Should the statutory rape law be upheld? Why?

Should there be an exception to the law if the victim confesses to deceitful behavior?

Should the victim be punished? Why? How? 

I’m very curious to hear perspectives across the board.

In a few days I’d like to follow-up on a few other issues that I can’t yet cover in this post which will include results from the questions above as well as the poll attached and why I am actually against the sex offender list in general. Until then, I look forward to sharing dialogue with people on the present case.

#TheEmptyChair: The Numbers Behind NY Mag’s Cosby Accuser Cover

cosby-nymag-cover-1Last night the cover for New York magazine’s issue featuring the stories of 35 of the women raped by Bill Cosby dropped and it left many, myself included, shaken to our cores. The black & white cover, pictured below, features the 35 women and an empty chair symbolic of the women who have yet to come forward. I only read two of the accounts before turning away from it because it was just too heavy but I couldn’t escape it as #TheEmptyChair became a trending discussion on Twitter last night.

There are so many empty chairs. Not only the empty chairs in the Cosby situation but empty chairs in general for the countless number of women who have yet to come forward, report their rape, and share their story. To put some weight on an already heavy story I’d like to share some numbers that, once I saw them, I could not unsee them.

A Department of Justice report on rape indicates that for every white woman who reports her rape, five don’t and for every black woman who reports her rape, 15 don’t. Taking those numbers and applying them to this cover to determine the potential number of empty chairs we would end up with approximately 220 empty chairs. That’s 220 unreported incidents of sexual violence against women. 220 stories never told. 220 women still bound by their captors even though their captors have long left them. The trauma that women face after sexual violence remains with them long after their abusers have left the side of the bed, room, the dark alley, the bathroom, and every other domain where sexual violence occurs. Even a story told does not remove the memory and the trauma but for those who are brave enough to come forward it starts them on the process toward healing. But there are at least 220 empty chairs out there that may never be filled which means there are women who may never find any semblance of peace, healing, and wholeness. Though we can proclaim that they are not what happened to them it is what happened to them that is keeping them silent.

It is my hope that women who have yet to sit in the chair will be encouraged not only by the 34 women on this week’s cover but that they will also be encouraged by the scores of people, myself included, who believe and support them. Even though I don’t see you, I want you to know that you are seen. Even though you haven’t spoken, I hear you. Until then, I pray for peace in the midst of this storm and for your courage to come forward at the right time for you. Know that there is no statute of limitation on your freedom and recovery so whenever you do come forward–whether within the ridiculous limits of our legal system or not–freedom and wholeness are there for the taking. Also, until then:

And for those of you have who have come forward, particularly those who were courageous enough to come out on the cover, I will honor you and read your story. Thank you for your courage.

Defending “Descent”: On Cinematic Rape and Retribution

Disclaimer: One, SPOILER ALERT: The conclusion of Descent starring Rosario Dawson is given away here so if you’d prefer not to have this spoiler you may want look away now, but I encourage you stay for it is that conclusion which paves the way for my broader analysis. Two, TRIGGER ALERT: This post touches on the topic of rape which may be touchy subject for some because of their direct or indirect experience with this form of violence. I encourage you–if you can–to stay and read and add voice to this discussion so that it may be full and not lacking in perspective. Three, this post was from a year and a half ago but my perspective on the matter still remains, for the most part. Thank you for reading.

This weekend I watched a man get raped by another man and I couldn’t take my eyes off of it. It was in a film entitled Descent in which Rosario Dawson plays a college woman who gets raped by a man whom she thought was a potential suitor and exacts revenge by planning for the perpetrator to get raped by another man. I watched the film with a close male friend whom, during the rape scene between the two men, turned  to look at me a several times and each time my eyes were glued to the screen. He couldn’t draw my attention away from it. It was 10 minutes of violent thrusting, name-calling, and shaming and I could not be moved to either talk about how excessive it might have been or turn it off all together. After the film was over I sat on my couch in silence with my eyes still hooked on the television screen. My heart was beating quickly and my mind was running a million miles per minute. My friend commented on how excessive he thought the rape scene was and all I could remember saying is that it made sense. He repeated that he felt it was excessive for the film and still I repeated, “It makes sense.”

My logic throughout the 10 minute rape scene and in conversation with my friend was that for decades we have watched women get raped in film and on television. I watched Kristy Swanson’s character Kristen get raped in John Singleton’s college campus drama Higher Learning. In the second season of a Different World Freddie Brooks almost gets raped by her date Garth Parks. I watched Buffy almost get raped by Spike. In Gossip Girl I watched Chuck Bass attempt to rape two women in one episode. In For Colored Girls Only, Yasmine/Yellow gets raped by a man whom she thought was a potential suitor. There is the rape scene in Stanley Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange which is edited out in most versions. I also hear that there is a rape scene in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo in which the main female character gets raped through sodomy. When I saw each of these movies or television shows I didn’t anticipate having to sit through a rape scene, but alas I did. And sadly, these movies don’t add up to even half of the movies with rape scenes in them.

Countless are the movies and television shows in which women get raped or are in another way sexually assaulted. As a woman, I am almost too used seeing other women get defiled in the media either through the dramatic portrayal of rape, sexual assault, or through the popular coerced or voluntary objectification of women in music videos. But when I watched the rape revenge in Descent I felt something. Maybe it was redemption for all the years of women being raped in cinema and real life. To be clear, I don’t believe in this type of personal retributive justice, because in the end it most likely will not resolve anything. This is illustrated in Descent‘s final scene as Dawson turns toward the man raping her assailant and, with tears in her eyes, silently conveys that this is no revenge at all. One reviewer of the movie, called it a demagogic feminist exploitation revenge drama, but to do so is to misunderstand the project of feminism which is not employed well in this film. For it to be a true demagogic feminist exploitation revenge, the movie would not end with the man in power but would end with Dawson’s character reclaiming herself. I believe the true feminist revenge is to not let rape define and shape you into anything other than a woman who reclaims herself–but maybe I have just been reading too much Camille Paglia and the movie does indeed represent feminist revenge.

But, lest I get too far away from my original point, I do think watching that scene, unwilling to turn my eyes away from it, made me much more certain that personal retributive justice is not what I believe in. I derived no pleasure from the scene but in refusing to take my eyes off of it, even when my friend tried to divert me, was me implicitly saying, “Sit through this, get comfortable with it,” because I have gotten comfortable with rape over the years. And yes, I admit that is part of this, that I wanted a male to sit through a scene of another male getting raped without averting his gaze, I wanted him to be comfortable with it. The day after I asked my friend if his maleness affected his ability to accept the prolonged rape scene to which he said it didn’t, he just believes that it was excessive in film and not right in reality. We also had a conversation about the possibility of females being a little more open to watching it unhindered because it could serve as cinematic redemption to the pervasive rape culture. We have no answer to the aforementioned query.

So maybe my reaction was my own and not representative of what many women might find agreeable, but I am curious to know if there are any women or men out there who may find this type of revenge dramatically portrayed helpful or harmful to rape culture as we know it? If you have seen Descent what might you suggest as an alternative ending? If you are a feminist or a womanist–because I can’t neglect that a part of this film was the power dynamic between this white man and Dawson’s “ethnically ambiguous” self which he insulted during the rape–what is your response to this film? And, generally speaking, what do we make of the rape in cinema, its prevalence, its portrayal of the act, the power dynamic, etc?

Previously published on my mixed topic blog, The Intellectual Wallflower.