Asking for It: Male Violence, Misogyny and the Prospects for Justice

Sometimes, it’s good to just vent.

With that in mind, and before proceeding with a deeper and hopefully more constructive commentary about male violence and misogyny, perhaps it would do me well to release my first, instinctual thoughts about the guilty verdicts recently secured against two members of the Steubenville (OH) High School football team, who raped a young woman last year after a night of heavy drinking. Not because these are thoughts about which I am proud, or even the least bit satisfied — as we’ll see below — but because they are necessary perhaps, or at least pure, and human, and suggestive that beyond political and philosophical posturing, even we who make our living with rational argument are yet capable of feeling, and anger, when called for.

And so here they are.

First, good.

Go directly to jail.

Do not pass go.

Do not pick up your trophies or your letterman jackets. You will neither need nor be allowed them where you’re going.

No more pep rallies.

No more adulation from the cheerleaders or the jock-besotted fans of your community, so many of whose members still apparently believe that high school football is actually important.

Your loss to the juvenile justice system, in which you will now be firmly ensconced for so long as it takes to reach your 21st birthdays will be no loss whatsoever to the rest of us. Honestly, and despite all the crocodile tears shed on CNN, amid lamentations that your futures looked so bright, I have to wonder, did they really? I mean really? Somehow, I rather doubt it. In all likelihood, neither of you were headed for anything much greater than a barstool, right there in Steubenville, where you would eventually have managed to attain middle age, all the while (and every Saturday) regaling your fellow losers with stories about that time you threw the winning touchdown, or caught the same in the face of two defenders, thereby securing the state championship for your little band of brothers. For people like yourselves, high school more often than not proves to be the pinnacle of your lives, from which lofty perch everything else is almost ineluctably downhill.

But now, you won’t even get to play in that last game, or be hoisted upon the shoulders of your teammates and carried off the field to the screams of the Friday Night crowd-gasms upon which you had staked your entire pathetic existence.

And once again, good. Double good in fact. You digitally violated (or as you and your boys likely prefer to exclaim amid appropriately bro-worthy high fives, finger-banged) a young woman who you knew full well, given her inebriation, was incapable of consenting to any form of sex act. That is rape, first by law, and then, according to any decently calibrated notion of morality, the latter of which concept I realize remains horribly perplexing to you. And if you didn’t know that such behavior constituted a crime before that night, well that’s too bad. You sure as shit do now. And if, as I suspect, your parents weren’t competent enough or informed enough or concerned enough to share such minor details with you before your hormones and general disregard for women kicked in, lubricated as they were by all that alcohol, well too bad for them too. You wouldn’t be the first kids with crappy parents, and I am quite certain you won’t be the last.

But in addition to your ethical depravity, your stupidity in texting about your crime, and having people take pictures, and more or less bragging about getting hand jobs from a drunk girl, all suggest that you really are the kind of people who deserve more than most to be locked up. And if there were cells nearby sufficient to hold those among your fetid classmates, who thought those pictures and your texts were funny — like former Steubenville student, Michael Nodianos whose video joking about the rape went viral, or like the ones who have been publicly threatening the victim on Twitter (because they have no real employment or college futures, the likes of which they would need to worry about jeopardizing with public displays of dumbshittery) — then I’d gladly secure them away with you. The world, and surely the mostly good people of Steubenville, would fare better without any of you around.

Those are my first thoughts, and understandably so, not only as the father of daughters, but as a person who thinks of rape and sexual assault as the most thoroughly evil of violations, and will offer no forbearance to the rationalizations — whether by media mouthpieces, politicians, priests, or frat boys who have too much to drink at their kegger — that continually and in every generation seem to surface whenever an event such as this happens, yet again.

But that — and now that I’ve gotten it off my chest, I can acknowledge it — is the easy part. It’s way too easy in fact, and wholly unsatisfying, for just as with any rage directed at a criminal perpetrator, it falls short of actually doing anything to change the culture in which criminal violence so often transpires. In the instant case, our anger — whether mine or yours — will do nothing to move by even a millimeter, the society in which those young men and the woman they violated were raised. Which is to say, that anger cannot and will not make my own daughters one bit safer. And if something like this were ever to happen to either of them, God forbid, they wouldn’t likely take much solace in the fact that their dad was on record, officially, as standing foursquare against rapists, so utterly un-brave is such a stance. So let us dig deeper now.

For the real problems, the real issues, are far harder to excavate than simply this. They go well beyond the matter of “no means no,” and standards of consent, and legal boundaries; well beyond images of lecherous men and their victims; well beyond questions of self-defense, and athletic hero-worship, to questions regarding the broader culture we share, well beyond the confines of this one Ohio town.

At the heart of our national dialogue on rape — to the extent we can even be said to have one, in the true sense of what dialogue implies — stands a persistent and rather transparent contempt for women, indeed a hatred so complete as to call into question just how many of us actually accept the idea that women are full human beings at all.

When those who seek, again and again, to minimize the crime of rape, can — and they do — come up with the same rationalizations, the same deflections, the same blame-shifting bullshit, over and over, you know you’re dealing with more than merely an individual pathology; rather, it is at that point that one must confront the possibility, indeed likelihood, that the sickness is cultural; that perhaps one is staring at the rank detritus of a society that inculcates as a matter of course — as part of its normal operating procedures — misogyny. That you are living in a rape culture, plain and simple.*

For how else can we understand, except as a thoroughly entrenched remnant of woman-hating, the persistent cries of so many that those who are sexually violated by men are somehow responsible for those violations? That either their clothes, or how many drinks they had, or their penchant for flirting somehow can make acceptable whatever a man might wish to do to them for the sake of his own gratification? After all, we don’t apply this same solipsistic illogic to other situations in which, one supposes, it might be available to us. So, for instance, we wouldn’t say that the wealthy arts patron who exits the symphony only to be mugged at gunpoint and relieved of her jewelry was somehow asking for it by virtue of having donned such shiny objects, or merely for having partaken in such bourgeois entertainment pleasantries. We wouldn’t, I hope, decide that a carjacker might in some sense be blameless for his crimes, at least so long as he plied his trade only against persons driving really nice, expensive cars, the fanciness of which naturally rendered said carjacker incapable of controlling his urges to punch the drivers in the face, throw them from their vehicles, and speed away.

No, victim blaming is something we reserve, when it comes to acts of violence, almost exclusively for women who are sexually assaulted. Or perhaps also LGBT folks, attacked for their sexuality, but then too by men whose masculinity is so insecure — another symptom of and contributor to misogyny — as to be enraged by the sight of two men together, or two women needing only each other, or a trans man or woman whose sexuality the misogynist and straight/cis supremacist finds too confusing to fit within the bigoted confines of their own desiccated brains. Even then, there is a hatred of women — or in the case of gay men a hatred of men perceived as less than men, which is to say, as women — operating here.

In short, the problem with rape and sexual violence is not women or the behaviors of women. The problem is men, and the broken notions of masculinity that define our culture, and have been (for too long) allowed to predominate throughout the modern world.

This is not to say, and please make a note of it, that women should simply and without thinking not concern themselves with their personal behaviors when around men. No doubt it would be best if all women were extraordinarily cautious as to the ways in which they interact with men, especially when alcohol is present. I am quite confident that my wife and I will have these conversations with our girls, and that they will be very well versed as to that part of sexuality over which they have some control; namely, their own presentation. But what they will also surely understand is this: regardless of what outfit they wear for the night, regardless of whether they make eyes at some boy, giggle a bit too long at a joke that really wasn’t funny, or even agree to make out, that none of those are invitations to sex.

And if the parents of boys out there are not making that clear to their children, well that is on them. It is not going to be my daughter’s — or anyone’s daughter’s — fault, when the boys they failed, the boys they raised to be stunted men, turn their damage upon a woman just because they think they can.

But now here’s the irony: To not understand this — and it is painfully obvious that millions don’t understand it in the least — is to not only denigrate the agency of women, it is to actually operate from the implicit assumption that men have no human agency at all. Which is to say, it is an attitude that is not only misogynistic but oddly enough, evidence of misandry as well. In short, to suggest, as rape culture and its enablers do, that men just can’t help ourselves in the presence of a woman showing cleavage (or any woman, no matter how she’s dressed or how old she is, since rape has little to do with merely trying to get laid and everything to do with domination and subordination), is to render men little more than involuntarily manipulable vertebrates, utterly devoid of the ability to make moral decisions. That such a verdict, were it true of such a powerful and dangerous group as this, would justify quarantining the lot of us until individually we managed to demonstrate that we had broken with our lower-order brothers, should be apparent. That rape culture not only violates women by definition, but by holding men to such a low standard of expectation, violates us as well, may be less obvious, but is no less true.

It is no different than the way male sexist behavior always denigrates the practitioner, even as its target remains located elsewhere. When men exchange chauvinistic pleasantries with their buddies (or for that matter perfect strangers with whom they feel oddly and almost uniformly comfortable engaging in such banter), they are, in effect, presuming that all men are assholes of a similar size and shape as themselves. They are suggesting with their words, or jokes, or catcalls or whatever, that when it comes to guys, “we’re all pigs here, right fellas?” That so many men — and probably all of us at least occasionally — have ratified this intrinsically offensive and even self-hating notion at some point (or many points) in our lives is tragic, but no less true for the designation. Much as white folks so often remain silent in the face of racist humor, even when it troubles us to the core of our beings, so too have men decided in far too many cases to go along to get along, and in the process we demean not only our mothers, our wives, our girlfriends, our sisters and our daughters. We diminish ourselves as well.

And it needs to stop.

But it won’t stop, and we won’t abolish once and for all the mentality of human disposability that animates misogyny (and all hatreds) by way of our criminal justice system, at least not alone. Though one can perhaps envision such a system capable of restoring violent offenders to a better and more contributory place, let us acknowledge that this is not the system we have at present. Ours, rather, is one predicated on punishment as an end in itself, on retribution, on the infliction of pain. Not because pain or retribution have any positive correlation with reducing future violence — if anything they enhance the likelihood of repeat offending, since most of those to whom we direct our retributive instincts will one day walk free, angrier and even less whole than they were on their first day of incarceration — but because it makes us feel better. Because it allows us to preen about as moral superiors, to remind ourselves of how good we are, precisely because we can point to others and affix to them the permanent mark of “bad.”

Yet, if we remain satisfied with this, remain sanguine about a system that gives little thought to what comes next, no one is safe. Not me, not you, not any woman from the predations of a rapist. No one. And in the case of Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond, the fact is (and this is true no matter how one may feel about it), these two young men will be released in just a few years, tops, into a world that will not have changed much since the time of their trial. It will be the same culture, with the same proximate views of women, all of which they will once again be free to imbibe unless the rest of us demand something more from them. Something that is predicated not on punishment and pain, but on restoration, redemption and accountability. For just as certain as I was above about the likelihood that these two men were headed nowhere fast prior to their crimes, I am equally confident that if we demand it, and make room for it, they might now — and precisely because of their crime and the punishment they will be expected to serve — come out the other end capable of taking the kinds of actions, in line with restorative justice, that will not only allow them to change, but will go further than any other possible punishment in terms of healing the community from which they came, and importantly, the victim and her family.

Restorative justice is the only hope we have as a society. It need not foreclose the possibility of incapacitation and incarceration, but it has to be considered superior to those options, or else we are to be forever trapped in a cycle of action and reaction, crime and punishment, and crime again. To simply dispose of them, as many would like to do — and as I too initially countenanced without much compunction — would only ratify the mentality of human disposability that animated, at least in part, their crimes to begin with.

And so we need to expect more from them than to simply go away, to be disappeared into a justice system, juvenile or otherwise, from behind which edifice we may merely put them out of sight, out of mind. We must demand of them that they, beginning now, step up and become peacemakers by challenging other men like themselves, be they jocks or not, about rape and their own fractured understanding of the humanity of women and men alike. They should be expected to spend time not only being counseled on these matters, but then counseling others, to serve as living examples of both the terror of sexual violence, but also the possibility of human redemption. They should be expected, right now, to tell their peers in Steubenville to cease with their blaming of the victim in this case. To apologize in court is not enough. Now they must take the lead in demanding a change of thinking in the culture that nurtured them, or rather, perhaps, failed to. None of this will erase the damage they have done. None of it is intended to make it okay. But unless we expect this, and more, from them, nothing will change.

Additionally, there is more we should expect, and in keeping with the notion of restoration, should demand. As diarist/blogger UnaSpenser noted on dailyKos, among other things:

The parents of the boys could meet with the parents of the girl and ask them how they can support them. They could meet in private and discuss ways in which the families could support each other, but particularly what can be done to help the girl heal, gain emotional strength and a sense of safety in the world.

The coaches of Steubenville — all of them — could be required to get training about how to guide students regarding a culture of consent. Since what appears to be so important to everyone in Steubenville was that these boys were football players, it seems that the sports teams are accorded a higher status in Steubenville than other citizens…So, the first place to instill a culture of consent is at the top…The coaches need to be trained and need to adopt a culture of consent. It needs to be a part of their required coaching curriculum to instill this culture in their athletes.

The town could inject a “culture of consent” curriculum into their entire school system. From teaching toddlers not to hit people, to teaching elementary children not to mock each other or take lunch money, to teaching middle- and high-schoolers that sex without consent is assault.

The town could offer parenting courses on how to model a culture of consent at home and teach the principles of consent to their children. Parents of Steubenville could start a foundation to support rape victims and restorative justice. Victims could receive counseling, college scholarships, or whatever they find that they need. Those who have committed rapes could receive counseling, be given community service to perform and be guided through a process of apologizing and offering restitution to their victims.

The bottom line is this: women will never be safe, so long as we continue to treat them as the inevitable victims of men who not only cannot control their sexual urges and desires for domination, but who also cannot change or be changed, and so must simply be locked away and perhaps brutalized themselves. That isn’t to say that no one should ever be incarcerated. I am certain there are some for whom separation from society, and for very long periods of time, may be the only way to protect the rest of us from their predatory behaviors. But I am just as sure that such a system — for it is the one we live with now, as incarceration continues to spiral out of control and as we continue to lock up more people than any nation on Earth — is not, on the whole, working. And so we have to think bigger.

Revenge, though it is an absolutely normal human instinct — and though the desire for it has its place I suppose — is unsustainable as a motivator for human thought and action. It is a recipe for constant violence and endangerment. So while the victims of violent crime have every right and reason to desire it — I get it, I really do — the state, and we the people as represented by it, must at long last demand something more. Because when we allow the state to operate on the basis of the same enraged human emotions as victims at their darkest and most pained moments, we set in place the instrumentality of torture, of cruelty, of war without ceasing, of mass death and destruction.

Revenge has no place as a motivator for public policy. And this is especially true when it comes to correcting and altering the actions of misogynists, racists and other haters of all stripes. After all, many a misogynist himself operates from a place where he believes he is somehow avenging a slight at the hands of a woman, perhaps his mother, perhaps a lover who spurned him, or whomever. That his anger, his understanding of his real injury, and his vengeance are all psychotically misplaced is, of course, self-evident. But that anger and vengeance almost always are misplaced, even if not psychotic, remains less so to most of us.

Let us learn it, and fast, before it swallows us whole.

*Note, when I call this culture a rape culture, I do not intend to suggest that it is uniquely so, or even more so than others, in other nations around the world. Sadly, misogyny and rape are global problems, and rape culture is all too ubiquitous. But the fact that there are other rape cultures as well, neither should allow us to accept such a thing as normal and natural — and thus incapable of change — nor encourage us to duck our responsibility for challenging ours, here in the U.S. The fact that others are guilty of the same horrors as we, should provide no solace here.

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