A White House Task Force And Its Rape Culture Enemy
By Christopher Peck, NCCJ Contributor
President Obama addressed the nation in his weekly video on Saturday to talk about his new initiative—The White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault. His initiative started over a year ago when he gave the Pentagon a mandate to reduce the astronomical number of rapes occurring in the military. After he wasn’t satisfied with their progress (16,500 rapes were reported last year), he gathered his cabinet members and senior advisers to discuss what measures had been already taken and should be undertaken to address sexual assaults in society at-large, with a renewed focus on another vulnerable community: women attending college.
I imagine other men and women have many thoughts on this issue, especially those prospective college students or those already enrolled. I imagine they are readily aware of the imminent threat of sexual assault on campuses nationwide. As someone who graduated with my undergraduate degree less than a year ago, and as someone who attended a college that received recent public scrutiny for its negligence in aiding one of their own assaulted students, I am encouraged by this renewed effort, but incensed it has taken so long for this epidemic of sexual violence to become visible to those in power.
The president cited a statistic that 1 in 5 women are sexually assaulted in college, yet only 12% are reported. Let’s clear something up right now, this doesn’t mean these women “changed their minds” or “retracted their stories.” The fact that two-fifths of sexual assaults go unreported is a reflection of the failure of the institutions to do their part in bringing perpetrators to justice.
When 97% of the rapists in this country are never incarcerated, what would you do? How would you ever feel safe? When your fellow college students believe that half the time (according to an educational research survey) you are just making it up, what’s the point? One of the greatest weapons at an oppressor’s disposal is the silence of the oppressed. For example, if rape victims in Detroit do speak up and are brave enough to endure the process of a rape kit (the medical process for gathering evidence of a rape) and 11,300 of their kits are left untested, have they even made a sound? Or have these women been made silent and alone like a tree that falls in the forest with no one there to witness it?
And while we can certainly point fingers at university administrators, law enforcement officials and politicians, the finger needs to be pointed directly at this country’s “rape culture” and the men who embody its message. What do I mean by “culture?” I mean the culture that on a regular basis glorifies the conquering of women’s bodies while silencing the voices that belong to them.
Just last night, I saw an uncomfortable display of this brand of masculinity at the Grammy Awards when Jamie Foxx, supposed to be presenting an award, began talking about how “fine” Beyonce was during her performance. He remarked, “Damn, Blue Ivy’s (her and Jay-Z’s daughter) mom is hot!” First, the obvious. Why is Mr. Foxx taking up airtime to praise Beyonce’s appearance instead of her actual artistic skill? And second of all, why is he referring to her as the mother of a child and not as her own person? Then, he apologized to Jay-Z for “talking about his woman.” Why isn’t he apologizing to her?
He blatantly objectified an award-winning performer, reducing her to a compilation of body parts on national television, but he’s worried about offending Jay-Z? Just because he “put a ring on it,” does not mean he speaks for her, controls her, or owns her like property. But Queen B just sat there, because this, like many forms of degradation, is a common occurrence. A woman’s sexuality and body is the object of a man’s desire before she is ever considered a subject with her own desires (sexual or otherwise).
And if a woman’s body is not her own and “belongs” to a man, then what need is there for consent? Disregard for a woman’s agency is written in the subtext (and sometimes the outright text) of most of our media. For a brief explanation of how objectification manifests in the images we see and the language we use when talking about women’s bodies, check out the link below.
Another aspect of our culture that further encourages violence against women is victim-blaming. I’m sure some of you have heard of the “skirt defense.” Basically, in cases of rape, there has been a historical legal precedent that says if a woman is dressed “provocatively” that she is provoking her attacker into having sex. Besides being an outrageous injustice toward women, it is also a damaging portrayal of men. Evidently men are so primal and bestial, without a moral conscience or the ability to control his hormonal urges, that if a woman bares enough skin to excite a man, then she is to blame if he rapes her? Sounds absurd, right? Not according to many juries and judges. It’s a perfectly good reason to acquit a man of all criminal charges. It takes the responsibility from those who are to blame and puts in on the victim. If you want to talk about rape prevention, it starts and ends with men NOT RAPING.
If you want further evidence of victim-blaming, there are many places you can look. How about the Steubenville trial? In short, two high school football players were convicted of raping a girl at a party (other partygoers took video and posted it on social media), but the outrage among members of the community and those reporting on the case was directed at her for “ruining their futures.” Supposedly, these guys were very good at football, and could have played at the college level. But this pesky girl just had to go and report her rape to the police. I’m sorry, what?! So, this teenage girl is brave enough to share her traumatic story with the nationand instead of the support of fellow Americans she is shamed and even threatened for sending two boys to prison.
Violence against women is never the fault of the men who rape them, according to our culture. We’re told whether subtly or blatantly that women are supposed to have sex with men whenever they want because of what they are wearing, because men are uncontrollable animals and because men’s needs—sexual gratification and power—supersedes the security of women.
It will remain to be seen what actual difference this task force makes in the lives of women, whether we’ll see a statistical difference in the vastness of sexual violence. But if President Obama and his administration has done one thing right already, it’s slightly shifting the culture. No longer is it manly to have sex with a woman regardless of whether she is willing or conscious. Vice President Joe Biden said, “The measure of manhood is willingness to speak up and speak out, and begin to change the culture.” Unfortunately, that’s a revolutionary decree. Because the laws and the institutions that enforce them haven’t supported that sentiment so far.
About the National Conference for Community and Justice
Formed 1927, NCCJ is a nonprofit human relations organization that promotes inclusion and acceptance by providing education and advocacy while building communities that are respectful and just for all. Celebrating the diversity of races, religions, cultures, genders, abilities, and sexual orientations.
The opinions and information expressed through News Views posts are solely those of the individual authors and not representative of NCCJ’s overall stance on related issues unless specified. Any information presented as fact could entail inaccuracies or be incomplete. We encourage open discussion through our blog, and welcome respectful responses from everyone.
For more information on NCCJ’s variety of social justice educational programs, click here.