TRIGGER WARNING: Discussions of rape and sexual assault
Rape should not be something that young women learn about from experience. It should not be a practical part of education. Yet, with the high rates of sexual assault for women, how many people can say that they do not have experience with rape, either personally or through a close friend?
Once upon a time, I was a young, naïve university student, fresh out of my mother’s house. Not only that, but I was of drinking age in my chosen province and was learning the ins and outs of alcohol as well as independent life. This is not a good recipe for avoiding difficult lessons. Unfortunately, we do little as a society to make these dual transitions easier for our youth and this is to their detriment. The system is such that our fledging adults learn lessons that reinforce rape culture rather than empower individuals to believe that they are free from such possibilities.
One night during my first year I had the brilliant idea that I should fulfil my promise to go out with several different people by getting them to all go out at once. They didn’t know one another, but I figured that since they were all agreeable, interesting people, we could all get along. At the time, the fact that two were women and one was a man did not strike me as problematic.
Faux Lesson #1: Be careful when inviting male friends into social situations with other women. After all, men cannot be trusted.
For the sake of ease of storytelling, let me call these three friends Alice, Brianna and Curt. We all met at a bar and started to drink. After Alice and I had finished about ¾ of our pitcher, we decided to go home. Brianna and Curt were not finished their beer (they each had a pitcher), nor were they ready to call it a night, so they decided to stay. We left them the remainder of our alcohol.
Faux Lesson #2: Do not leave your female friends with men that they do not know. Especially do not do this when a lot of alcohol is involved. In fact, do not leave your female friends alone with men and alcohol ever.
When Alice and I both got back to our residencies, I started frittering away the rest of my night on the internet. At around 2AM, there was a loud knocking on my door followed by a lot of riotous laughter. Brianna and Curt had finished up at the bar and had come to join me. There is when everything began to go wrong in a recognisable manner to me.
Faux Lesson #3: Do not bring strange men home. Ever.
Brianna was intoxicated almost to the point of unconsciousness. She and I spent a lot of time in the bathroom as she threw up. Curt was also quite drunk, however, he could form coherent sentences and walk in a straight line.
Faux Lesson #4: Women should never get drunk. It is dangerous.
When we were all gathered in Brianna’s room, Curt spent a lot of time trying to touch her. He wanted me to leave and spent a lot of time trying to physically get in between Brianna and me. During one of our trips to the washroom, Brianna started crying and telling me that she did not want to have sex with Curt. She had been pressured into sex when drunk before and really did not want that to happen again. She asked me to protect her, so I stayed.
Curt, however, became more aggressive. I continually had to physically remove his hands from Brianna and tell him to stop touching her. I said that he should watch the movie that was on, go to sleep, or go home. At one point, he dragged me to the other side of Brianna’s room, slammed me into the wall and held me pinned as he explained to me that he could not go home as his room was off-limits for the night so that his roommate could have sex. Curt also harshly told me to “not ruin a good thing for him ”. I tried to calmly explain that no, Brianna was not interested in having sex with him, I was not leaving, and he could stay if he just calmed down and acted nicely. In hindsight, I really wish that I had called security to have Curt kicked out of my residency. I wish that I had not given into his pleadings to stay and that I had recognised his bullshit for what it was.
Faux Lesson #5: Men are only after one thing and will do whatever it takes to get it. But you should be polite to them so that they do not lash out at you.
I got both Brianna and Curt to lie down and try to sleep. As soon as I turned off the light, however, Curt flipped over and pinned Brianna to the bed. I got Curt off of Brianna while screaming at him, grabbed Brianna and ran. I remember locking Brianna in my room as I looked for something to barricade my door with because I was scared that Curt was going to start trying to pound his way in. I remember sitting with Brianna, rubbing her back. Finally, I remember falling asleep on my tiny single bed with Brianna, my stuffed cat that I’ve had since infancy between us.
The next morning, we crept back to Brianna’s room. Fortunately, Curt was gone. He had left a note on Brianna’s computer saying that he was sorry for crashing in her room and for our disagreements. He also stated that he really wanted to be her friend regardless of the events of the previous night and that he hoped that they could hang out and keep in touch. We didn’t ever talk about what had happened that night again.
Faux Lessons #6 and 7: Rape is a very serious thing that only happens between strangers and women on their own. It is also not a topic of polite conversation.
It wasn’t until four years later that the wrongness of this entire situation really hit me. Until then, I had still been friends with Curt, though we had been drifting apart. However, the day that Curt was named Valedictorian, I wanted to explode. I suddenly realised that I would have to listen to him reminisce about the good times of university, knowing that he had hurt me, hurt my friend and would have raped a woman had no one been there to stop him. I was supposed to support someone who regarded the autonomy of a woman so insignificantly that he never even admitted to what he had done way back in first year. I had to clap for the man who had shoved me into a wall and held me pinned as he berated me for stopping him from raping a woman. I had to sit in an audience of people who had chosen this man as an exemplary peer. I was outraged.
I thought about all the faux lessons that I had learned about rape. For instance, how I had blamed myself for leaving Brianna with Curt. How I had never really questioned whether or not a male friend of mine could be dangerous before that night. How I blamed the night’s events on the excess of alcohol. How I had never really told anyone about that night, despite there being people I could have gone to, because I never really understood the fact that a friend of mine had attempted to rape another. I thought a lot about how I used to believe that “grey rape” wasn’t really rape rape and about how I became more and more scared to drink alcohol as bad events continued to happen involving men. I questioned myself about my choice to remain friends with Curt for so long. About what might have been going through Brianna’s head that night. I felt sick about the fact that she had told me that something similar had happened to her before. I thought about how I had bought into all the myths about rape for so long. I thought about how much I had changed.
At the end of all of these thoughts, I was angry with myself, with Curt and with society. I was so angry that I just wanted to scream the truth out in the middle of my graduation ceremony. Instead I went to grad, listened to Curt give his valediction to our class, and seethed. I finally understood what rape culture meant. I finally understood all of the feminist critiques of sexual assault that I had read. I finally understood the anger. And then I went to law school to change the world.
Why is this memory on my mind lately? My school recently had Jane Doe, a very active and famous anti-rape activist, speak to our entire first year class. Jane Doe was raped in Toronto by a serial rapist who broke into her apartment. He was known to the police at the time, but they did not issue a warning to the women of his targeted neighbourhood because they feared that the women would become “hysterical”. In fact, the police had identified potential victims and were using them as bait in order to catch this rapist. He acted before the police were ready and Jane Doe was the fifth woman assaulted by Paul Callow.
Jane Doe was not the police’s version of the perfect victim. She wanted to be involved in her sexual assault case, and when she found out about some of the egregious things that the Toronto police had done, she sued them for negligence and for violating her rights of equality and security of the person under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. After a lengthy court battle, Jane Doe won, setting a hugely important legal precedent. Then she wrote a book detailing her experiences.
Her talk centered on her experiences in the criminal justice system as a woman who was raped. She reconstructed the idea of rape in society, drawing heavily on theories of intersectionality. The most shocking thing for my class was that she framed rape as a problem for men. She challenged men to take a stand and to do something about rape in their lives and communities. She tore apart the idea of rape culture and victimhood. In short, it was an amazing speech!
The Jane Doe talk is an annual lecture that my school arranges because they value introducing mandatory sexual assault law training into their law school curriculum. This is a very progressive move that I greatly support. Unfortunately, there is not a lot of mandatory additional learning or support for students who are presented with these new and challenging views. As such, some very frustrating and harmful conversations occur. Some of the critiques offered by my fellow students are listed below:
- Jane Doe is a man basher.
- Jane Doe didn’t give us solutions to the problem of rape so that talk wasn’t helpful.
- Jane Doe isn’t doing anything to solve rape.
- Jane Doe wasn’t objective enough. She was just whining and complaining without doing anything helpful.
- Jane Doe wasn’t acting like a good victim and there were better ways of presenting her information without making herself look so self-centered.
- Jane Doe doesn’t care about gay men or other marginalised men.
- Jane Doe cared too much about low conviction rates for rape which means that the presumption of innocence is challenged and we can never do that or the entire criminal justice system will fall into disarray.
All of these critiques are part of rape culture. They avoid addressing the systemic issue of rape in lieu of attacking the victim, the advocate and the survivor. They look for fault in the attempted change rather than fault in the system. They show a complete lack of understanding and empathy for the individuals who are raped. These critiques come from students more interested in proving their own logical skills than utilising their privilege to enact social justice.
I left several of my classes feeling defeated after Jane Doe’s talk. What does it say about the criminal justice system if the people who work within the system cannot comprehend a significant area of criminal law and show no empathy or compassion for the people within the system? However, despite the despaired feelings I was having, I realised the importance of my voice and the voices of my feminist peers. We were actively fighting rape culture by challenging the myths and misinterpretations that were being bandied about so readily in our classes. As much as it was frustrating and as much as I know how much it must have cost some of my peers to say what they did, we were all being activists and standing up for a different interpretation of the world. The myths that surround rape are so powerful because alternative perspectives are never allowed to prevail. We learned them as young children and live them throughout the rest of our lives.
I learned about the dangers of rape culture when I delved into feminist literature and voices. Now I join all of the voices who came before me who have already spent their time, energy and limited resources fighting a battle that should not need to be fought. The faux lessons that I learned from my own rape education cannot be allowed to continue, and I have the privilege and strength to combat them and try to change the dialogue surrounding rape. I refuse to be silent because I can use my voice and I will be heard.
True Lessons about Rape
Rape is something that needs to be talked about, regardless of whether or not it disturbs people or makes them think about situations that bother them. Rape is a real problem and it dramatically affects millions of people all over the world. Rape is often blamed on the person who has been raped, but it is the result of a rapist making the choice to rape. Women and other marginalised individuals should have the right to walk down the street without fear of being raped. Rape should be something that every single individual should care about. In particular, men should be concerned about rape. Men should actively be working against rape culture. Privileged individuals should be working to stop the rape of marginalised individuals.
Rape is something that we as a society can stop; it is not inevitable. Human beings choose to rape because of the structures in our society that construct rape as something that simply occurs because of factors unchangeable by individual rapists. Rape, however, is a personal choice of a rapist to violate the bodily integrity of an individual. It is an act which claims that certain individuals have lesser value in society than others. We live in a world that cultivates rape and we must all refuse to stay quiet about it any longer.