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Rape Culture and “Twenty Minutes of Action”

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Rape culture is a term coined by feminists in the 1970s which designates not only how females are vulnerable to sexual violence at the hands of males, but which speaks to the depth at which such violence is normalised. Quite often this term is met with ridicule in social media because for many, bitching about inequality is just part of the mantra of those women who refuse to be complicit, who refuse to STFU (shut the fuck up) and die in a fire as we are so often told to do on Twitter when we are not complicit subjects in the social use and production of our bodies and lives.

The actions of Brock Allen Turner epitomise the reality of assault by stranger which has recently been used to mock women online in social media and news comment section debates over the bathroom issue in the United States, as if the lower rate of stranger rape indicates that women should be unconcerned about the potential threat to their bodies at the hands of males. While sexual assault by stranger is the sort of scenario that most people still uniquely conceptualise as rape, this sort of assault is not uncommon accounting for 18% of all rapes. Still the problem of rape and how it is conceptualised, and more prevalently not conceptualised, within society as a major force of violence against women is rooted in its origins.

One of the best and first known rapes in Greek mythology is the rape of Chrysippus by Laius as he was first kidnapped and then sexually assaulted within that story. In fact, historically within Roman law, rape (raptus) was primarily conceptualised as kidnapping or abduction whereby the sexual violence was either secondary or presumed. Over time the notion of rape as an act in and of itself (stuprum) was legally distinguished in the late Roman Republic and then recorded into law (3 CE). This was the first shift from the implication of sequestering to the bodily and sexual violation of “boy, woman, or anyone.” However, rape at this stage was still conceived as a violation of the head of family, the paterfamilias, in that it was his consent that was needed, not that of the female who had little say in the possible arrangements of a forced marriage. Still, rape in this period was viewed as a crime against the citizen’s body and liberty. With the rise of Christianity, the framing of rape shifted from the larger political context of a crime against the individual, private body to a public offence. Together with Augustine’s interpretation of Lucretia’s suicide which is spins this as a sign that she might have encouraged her own rape, there was a violent shift in the discursive and legal constructions of rape from this time forward. Indeed, the rape of Lucretia was utilised as a political tool to foment male political power from Charlemagne to Louise XIV, with her inscription in the writings of Rousseau and Voltaire serving to bolster the French Republic. The notion that a female is in responsible for what happens to her body became a convenient political tool of empire where the actual violence of rape was paved over with other meta-discourses of male desire, male needs, male supremacy, and even the needs of the monarchy. The re-inscription of male subjectivity and power was as central to rape as the body of the female was incidental to this act of violence.

Turn to today, the reality is that Brock Turner is as much as residual of this historical legacy as is his victim. While his victim’s letter has received the attention of media, what is most confounding are the letters submitted to the court by various family members, friends, and coaches. Most shocking of all is the letter penned by his father, Dan A. Turner:

As it stands now, Brock’s life has been deeply altered forever by the events of Jan 17th and 18th. He will never be his happy go lucky self with that easy going personality and welcoming smile. His every waking minute is consumed with worry, anxiety, fear and depression. You can see this in his face, the way he walks, his weakened voice, his lack of appetite. Brock always enjoyed certain types of food and is a very good cook himself. I was always excited to buy him a big ribeye steak to grill or to get his favorite snack for him. I had to make sure to hide some of my favorite pretzels or chips because I knew they wouldn’t be around long after Brock walked in from a long swim practice. Now he barely consumes any food and eats only to exist. These verdicts have broken and shattered him and our family in so many ways. His life will never be the one he dreamed about and worked so hard to achieve. That is a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action out of his 20 plus years of life.

Aside from the obvious reversal of guilt and innocence blatantly on display here, a tactic not new in rape trials, what Dan Turner misses about rape culture is constituent of the larger social misunderstanding of what it really is: rape culture not only implicates the millions of male rapists around the planet, rather it is the larger discursive framework which allows the individual rapist or rapist apologist, to take the sexual violation of a woman and parenthetically extricate these “twenty minutes of action” as somehow anathema to that male subject’s essentially good nature. You know, the other 23 hours and 40 minutes of that particular day. It is as if we must uniquely defer to what the male subject does when he is not “out of character” raping women to constitute his holistic “happy go lucky self” who can get back to his eating his ribeye steak.

And herein lies the punctum of rape culture: that the violation of women is conceived as the rupture in behaviour and “good boy” normalcy that constitutes the civil subject. Male as always good natured (except when he is not), male as in control (except when he is not), male as well meaning (except when he is not), and woman as collateral damage for the except when he is not for the “twenty minutes of action.” To anyone contemplating rape in terms of time management, one could vulgarly frame rape within a larger temporal structure to minimise these minutes such that one might rationalise the act of violation in this manner: “She needs to get over it. After all, it only lasted a few minutes.” Indeed, women are constantly reminded to move on and focus on those events that are really worthy of their attention, as if victims of violence evaluate must forgive the date rapist because she knew him and might have, like Lucretia, encouraged him. Women are told to put a line under what was only a few minutes of a long happy future (if only she could put it behind her).

Rape culture epitomises the presumption that women are perpetually willing victims in their own rape, not because in 2016 it is assumed that she wants to be raped, that she was in the wrong part of town, too drunk for her own good, or that she was wearing tight jeans, as the historical clichés go (clichés which are not at all fantastical, but very much based on historical and juridical fact). But because it is assumed that her body is still, in the eyes of the right a private possession, and of the left a public commodity. Because a woman’s cultural value is still pinned upon her ability to concede—to concede her vulnerability in the current bathroom wars, to concede the most minuscule doubt that perhaps she shouldn’t have taken that route home, and even concede that she should not have been drinking. She is even expected to consider the facts leading up to those “twenty minutes of action,” assumed to actively participate in the casting of doubt and aspersions on her possible willingness to have taken part in her own sexual assault. Dan Turner’s perverse reversal of victim and victimiser whereby his son is bizarrely cast as a victim, is all too common today and demands of the rape victim that she have sympathy with her victimiser, that she ally herself with her aggressor, because such is the task of the contemporary female to be perpetually linked to her symbolic paterfamilias as she strays from the perceived safety of the home. Nary a word about how many political actors of the left still regard rape as an unfortunate price to pay for freedom, rather than an extenuating symptom of male violence.

 The specific language of “twenty minutes of action,” is a sad indicator of the cultural temperature for reading violence against women today. When rape is regarded as an action, likened to swimming or any other sport or activity one is forced to extricate morality and violence from what is really just an activity like any other. That this action involved the penetration of an unconscious woman is incidental to Dan Turner and his son. In fact, such a letter indicates the familiar and social heritage of rape within the world. That indeed if it is possible for one person to commit this “action,” then it is even more probable that this actor is surrounded by other like-minded actors who have set the scenario, costumes, stage props, and lighting such that everyone but the victim is acclimatised to the leap of faith necessary to suspend disbelief in this his reality. Rape culture is a permanent state of this suspension of disbelief, from the perpetrator, to his father, and friends and anyone who prefers to view the staging of this tragedy as a romantic comedy, as rapist with a heart of gold, or as the potential professional swimmer who made bad judgment call. When it is time to invoke readings of male subjectivity, every effort is extended to the rapist and his clan to explain why he rapes and astonishingly, Dan Turner’s letter was only one of a pile of letters Judge Persky received.

Here is an excerpt of the letter from Turner’s childhood friend, Leslie Rasmussen:

I don’t think it’s fair to base the fate of the next ten + years of his life on the decision of a girl who doesn’t remember anything but the amount she drank to press charges against him. I am not blaming her directly for this, because that isn’t right. But where do we draw the line and stop worrying about being politically correct every second of the day and see that rape on campuses isn’t always because people are rapists.

Rasmussen, who is now bemoaning the fact that her band has recently had many gigs canceled from various events in New York is incredulous that people take issue with her having minimised a sexual assault because the victim lay unconscious while “not blaming her directly,” of course. But Rasmussen does ask a pertinent question that needs to be turned inside-out to speak to the inconsequence of rape culture in her world view since it is due to her support and the many other letters of support which enact the rationale of political correctness. Since political correctness today is commonly understood as the political discourse of policing language and policies so as not to offend or disadvantage a particular demographic, it is clear that every single letter handed to the judge in support of Brock Turner, to include that of Rasmussen, functions precisely to police the legal interpretation of what Turner committed: sexual assault. Or if we are to believe Rasmussen, “These are idiot boys and girls having too much to drink and not being aware of their surroundings and having clouded judgement.” When rape is tantamount to getting drunk and surroundings are a proxy for penises, fingers and vaginas, the stage setting of rape is really as good as the narrative spun by the accused and friends. That is, if they really believe it.

Justice for Brock Turner’s victim, however, is turning into the “gift” that keeps on giving as we now learn that Brock Turner’s sentence has already been reduced to three months due to good behaviour credits applied ahead of time because—sit down for this one—“it was assessed that he was unlikely to misbehave behind bars.” So not only are women like Turner’s victim up against Brock Turners of the present, but we have the luxury to fight against their future persona’s constructed by the generous court system which deems the sexual assailant as benevolent. Sexual offenders are de facto assumed to be “unlikely” to misbehave while paradoxically behind bars for a brief stint because they sort of have—emphasis on the “sort of.” Together with an entourage of people who explain “twenty minutes of action” as a result of “clouded judgment” due to alcohol consumption and who blame Turner’s assault on “sexual promiscuity,” we are being told, effectively, that rapists are just men who rape women. Unpacked, this means that rapists are men who by the sheer number of the world’s population have come into social contact with other humans and who, because of this fact (plus memories), are able to procure letters of support simply because they did not rape every other of these other humans in their inner circle. Unpacked once again: rapists are really not rapists because they did not rape me.

Julian Vigo is a scholar, film-maker and human rights consultant. Her latest book is Earthquake in Haiti: The Pornography of Poverty and the Politics of Development (2015). She can be reached at: julian.vigo@gmail.com

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