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Friday, February 04, 2011

Community Conversations

Two distinct rape culture events seemed to happen this week, and even if they aren't related technically, they seem related in my head. Apologies if the linkages between them seem stretched. The first is good news, everyone - the language in H.R. 3 to redefine rape for the purposes of federal abortion funding has been removed. This is a very, very good thing. Even for folks who are figuring out their stance on abortion in general, this redefinition would have had serious shockwaves around the legal system if it had passed. We don't have a definition for 'forcible' rape, and this would have required creating one. That might have filtered down into other facets of the justice system. It would have been very, very bad (I'll get back to this in a minute).

The second event was the long-over due quasi-apology from the Penny Arcade guys about a comic they published last year. For those of you who aren't big gamers or don't spend a lot of time in nerd/gamer circles, this might be new stuff. Here's a basic overview of what happened.

Rape is different than other types of violent crime. In my mind, rape is a lot like a hate crime, targeted at a particular group in order to scare and intimidate them. The reason we punish hate crimes differently than other crimes is because they affect the behavior of more than one person. An assault is always bad; we don't, as a society, condone assault (at least I hope we don't). But an assault perpetrated against a member of a particular community, let's say, or against a person of a particular ethnic background and infused with the intent to intimidate and scare everyone else who shares that background causes a lot more ripples than an assault that doesn't have that motivation. I can be scared of crime when I leave my house, but I'm not afraid that someone will specifically target me because of my gender or race. I don't have to worry that someone, seeking to work out their own misogyny or racism will choose to do violence on my body to satisfy their own issues. If I did, you'd better bet that it would change my behavior. I'd be a whole hell of a lot more careful about what I said, where I went, and how I acted.

We know about the attitudes of perpetrators (.PDF; quote is from page 7). We know this is basically what they want to do. It's not hidden:

Sexually aggressive behavior is typically part of a belief system that views women as sexual objects to be conquered, coerced and used for self-gratification. Undetected rapists are much more likely to hold stereotyped beliefs about the "proper" roles for women and men in society, and to rigidly adhere to those beliefs. They adhere to "rape myths" that both justify their aggressive acts and foster them. Their adherence to rape myths and rigid stereotypes frequently allows them to distort their perceptions of their victims' behavior. For example, because they tell themselves that "women say no to sex even when they really want it," they can disregard their victims' obvious signs of terror and resistance. emphasis mine

See, here's how I look at the work that BARCC does, or at least the work I get to do at BARCC: We're trying to find all the ways we can to make the scary perpetrator in the room more obvious, more glaring, to everyone else. We want to make that perpetrator look like an easily identifiable criminal and not like, say, the common dude. On Wednesday, Tycho said, "The only people who are pro-rape are rapists." I would love it if that were true, because then I wouldn't have a whole lot to do with BARCC. But it isn't true. If you've got the guts for it, look through this and tell me if you can tell the guys who hold "stereotyped beliefs about women" and "adhere to rape myths" like Lisask's research mentions below apart from the guys who are just being assholes (trigger warning, yo). Can you? Is it easy? If you were trying to figure out what someone who WAS a perpetrator would say about women, would it sound like these things? How would you act around guys who say stuff like that? Imagine that these are the things that every guy is saying. How would you tell the potential perpetrators from those who aren't?

BARCC stresses, over and over and over again, the role that bystanders play in perpetuating rape culture. Using a community like the gaming community as an example, how quickly would the misogynist language stop if it didn't have the weight of community support behind it? How quickly could we make those dudes who hold the severely anti-woman, domination-based mindsets that perpetrators often have super-visible if they didn't sound like everyone else in the community? What if it was obvious that their perspective was not shared by the greater mass of people with whom they associated?

Here's a (surprise!) metaphor I keep in my head to get a sense of how this looks in the real world: have you ever been to a party where it was clear that one person didn't know ANYONE else? They sort of wandered around and didn't know who to talk to or what to talk about? Or if you're a sports fan: have you ever watched a game with a bunch of other fans, and one person who isn't a fan? How clear was it that this person didn't get the standards and norms of the community? How easy was it to notice them? To make this set of metaphor more related to the Penny Arcade situation and relatable perhaps to my fellow gamers: have you ever been in an RPG group or, say, a gaming convention with someone who didn't really play these types of games? How quickly could you point them out? How many Dr. Who references did they need to miss before it became clear that this person did not share your background or community values? This is my beef with what happened at Penny Arcade: this is a community that drips with confusion and bystanders allowing perpetrators to shroud themselves; we had the opportunity, as a community, to have a more productive discussion about ways not to do that anymore, and we dropped the ball. At least there was an apology and the eventual attempt to have a conversation, though.

Now, back to H.R. 3, and its relevance here. Let's take the conversation we just had about Penny Arcade and the nerd/gamer community, and expand it big-time, to the entirety of the country. What kinds of discussions are we going to have such that the perpetrators in all of our communities are easier to spot? How are we going to frame our debate about rape so that the perpetrators of a felony offense are easier to find and deter?

Apparently, according to the supporters of H.R. 3, we're not. We're going to actually muddy the water some more, because we're already targeting too much behavior. Ignore what we know about perpetrators of rape and sexual assault - that they commit a huge number of other violent offenses including domestic violence and assault (see Lisak's pdf above) and that making them more visible would help reduce not only rape but a whole host of other seriously destabilizing crimes - and instead, let's focus on making sure that women know exactly who the government supports. Let's be clear here - this was a bill that very clearly told women that they would not qualify for governmental assistance - medical assistance - if they didn't get raped the "right" way. It also told men - a whole lot of scary dudes - that a substantial chunk of their government doesn't have a problem with them continuing rape culture. The government (well, a chunk of it, anyway) just told rapists that they're cool with everything short of jumping out of the bushes and attacking people. Congress just told a bunch of perpetrators, who already have this mindset, that it's OK! The US FEDERAL GOVERNMENT AGREES WITH YOU.

Fighting H.R. 3 was the heroic work of a lot of different groups. I joined Tiger Beatdown's #DearJohn campaign, and tried my best to get the word out to all of my networks about the resolution to encourage people to challenge it. I wrote to Vice-President Biden, mostly to make myself feel better but also because of his role in helping to pass the Violence Against Women Act. I saw the political and social work of a lot of formal and informal activists coming together to prevent this bill from getting passed in its original state, and it was encouraging that at least when Congress directly threatens rape victims, there's a community response. We need that to fight against rape culture, and we need to keep working to create community standards that push rapists away.
Posted by Dave on 02/04 at 03:24 PM

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