Wednesday, September 04, 2013

The New Washington Post And Rape Apologists


The Washington Post has a new owner, Jeffrey Bezos, and he's going to create a new golden age for the newspaper!

I don't know if two recent opinion  pieces in the WaPo are part of this gold-seeking.  But they were published within just a few days.  Let's have a look at what they say.

The earlier opinion piece, by Betsy Kurasik  is a plea for the decriminalization of statutory rape of students by teachers, if I understand it correctly.

It argues that the sex can be consensual.  It doesn't talk about the problems that would follow decriminalization.  The teachers are in a position of authority over the students,  the teachers have power over the students' grade, the students are still taught to look up to the teachers and in many places to obey them.  That makes student's consent a concept fraught with difficulties (if the legally minor status of many students in such relationship wouldn't already cause sufficient problems).

What makes the piece unpleasant (to put it very mildly)  is its hook (journalese for what grabs someone's attention long enough to get the reader start on the article), which is rape and the rape victim's suicide:

There is a painfully uncomfortable episode of “Louie” in which the comedian Louis C.K. muses that maybe child molesters wouldn’t kill their victims if the penalty weren’t so severe. Everyone I know who watches the show vividly recalls that scene from 2010 because it conjures such a witches’ cauldron of taboo, disgust and moral outrage, all wrapped around a disturbing kernel of truth. I have similar ambivalence about the case involving former Montana high school teacher Stacey Dean Rambold. Louie concluded his riff with a comment to the effect of “I don’t know what to do with that information.” That may be the case for many of us, but with our legal and moral codes failing us, our society needs to have an uncensored dialogue about the reality of sex in schools. 
As protesters decry the leniency of Rambold’s sentence — he will spend 30 days in prison after pleading guilty to raping 14-year-old Cherice Morales, who committed suicide at age 16 — I find myself troubled for the opposite reason. I don’t believe that all sexual conduct between underage students and teachers should necessarily be classified as rape, and I believe that absent extenuating circumstances, consensual sexual activity between teachers and students should not be criminalized. While I am not defending Judge G. Todd Baugh’s comments about Morales being “as much in control of the situation” — for which he has appropriately apologized — tarring and feathering him for attempting to articulate the context that informed his sentence will not advance this much-needed dialogue.

I'm tempted to conclude that Kurasik would decriminalize child molestation, too.  After all, that might reduce the number of molested children who are killed.  While we are at it, let's decriminalize all crimes short of murder, because doing so will reduce the likelihood that, say, armed robbers will kill the people they are robbing.

I'm tempted but not really going there, even though Kurasik almost did.

The second and later piece, by Richard Cohen,  links twerking, Miley Cyrus and the Steubenville rape case.  It's one of those "old man yells at the clouds" piece in some ways, in other ways it's an apologia for the sexual exploitation of young girls, which Cohen sees as perhaps caused by Miley Cyrus:
So now back to Miley Cyrus and her twerking. I run the risk of old-fogeyness for suggesting the girl’s a tasteless twit — especially that bit with the foam finger. (Look it up, if you must.) But let me also suggest that acts such as hers not only objectify women but debase them. They encourage a teenage culture that has set the women’s movement back on its heels. What is being celebrated is not sexuality but sexual exploitation, a mean casualness that deprives intimacy of all intimacy. Cyrus taught me a word. Now let me teach her one: She’s a twerk.
It's hard not to read that in any other way but as implying that women are at fault if they are sexually exploited, that there's no causal link from popular culture and pornography which demand certain behaviors from female performers, that peer pressure is irrelevant, that young men are helpless victims of stupid young women and so on.   It's also worth pointing out that the song Cyrus twerked about, the song she was interpreting on stage*, that song was sung by Robin Thicke, the guy who was standing there fully clad, singing about tearing someone's ass into two and so on.  But for Cohen he doesn't exist at all, it isn't his song that all the shit was about.

My goal is not to argue that all young women are completely blameless or that they wouldn't often participate in their own debasement, for many and complicated reasons, including the fact that the markets want it (for performers)  and that their peer groups want it (for teenagers).  But to erase so much of the picture!  How does Cohen do that?

What did Cohen return from when he began that quote I give you above?  He returned from explaining to us why the Steubenville rape case was not rape at all!  Here's why:

The first thing you should know about the so-called Steubenville Rape is that this was not a rape involving intercourse. The next thing you should know is that there weren’t many young men involved — just two were convicted. The next thing you should know is that just about everything you do know about the case from TV and the Internet was wrong. One medium fed the other, a vicious circle of rumor, innuendo and just plain lies. It made for marvelous television.

So now you know.  Except that I followed the case and knew the details.  According to Wikipedia (warning: this is Wikipedia, not a peer-reviewed publication, but what I read there matches my memory):

According to trial transcripts, at approximately midnight, the intoxicated victim left a drinking party with four football players over the protests of her friends. They went to a second party where the victim vomited and appeared "out of it". The same group left after about twenty minutes heading to the unsupervised home of one of the witnesses.
While in the backseat of the car during the fifteen minutes en route, her shirt was removed and Mays violated the semi-nude victim with his fingers and exposed her breasts while his friends filmed and photographed her. In the basement of the house, Mays attempted to make her perform oral sex on him. Now unconscious, she was stripped naked and the second accused, Malik, also vaginally violated her with his fingers. She was again photographed. Three witnesses took the photos back to the second party and shared them with friends. [3]
On March 17, 2013, Mays and Malik were convicted of rape after the trial judge found they had used their fingers to penetrate her vagina and that it was impossible for the impaired girl to have given consent.[2]
The victim testified in court that she had no memory of the six-hour period in which the rapes occurred, except for a brief time at the second location in which she was vomiting on the street. She said she woke up the next morning naked in a basement living room with Mays, Richmond and another teenage boy, missing her underwear, flip-flops, phone and earrings.[2]
The evidence presented in court mainly consisted of hundreds of text messages and cellphone pictures that had been taken by more than a dozen people at the parties and afterwards traded with other students and posted to social media sites such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, and which were described by the judge as "profane and ugly."[2]
In a photograph posted on Instagram by a Steubenville High football player, the victim was shown looking unresponsive, being carried by two teenage boys by her wrists and ankles. Former Steubenville baseball player Michael Nodianos, responding to hearsay of the event, tweeted "Song of the night is definitely Rape Me by Nirvana" and "Some people deserve to be peed on," which was reshared later by several people, including Mays. In a 12-minute video later posted to YouTube, Nodianos and others talk about the rapes, with Nodianos joking that "they raped her quicker than Mike Tyson raped that one girl" and "They peed on her. That's how you know she's dead, because someone pissed on her."[4] In one text, Mays described the victim as "like a dead body" and in another he told the victim that a photo of her lying naked in a basement with semen on her body had been taken by him, and that the semen was his. In a text message to a friend afterwards, he said "I shoulda raped her now that everybody thinks I did," but "she wasn't awake enough."[5]
In the days following the rapes, according to the New York Times, Mays "seemed to try to orchestrate a cover-up, telling a friend, "Just say she came to your house and passed out," and pleading with the victim not to press charges.[2]
Bolds are mine.

Hmm.  So the two defendants were convicted of rape.   Perhaps Cohen doesn't know the definition of rape or prefers the definition of forced insertion of the penis  into the vagina (excluding the insertion of fingers or the attempted insertion of penis in her mouth from his definition)?

The question of how many individuals were involved in the events depends on what one means by involvement, I guess.  But certainly a large number were aware of what was happening (I watched all the YouTube videos that fall and saw lots of people in the room where the then-happening events were discussed), and more than one of them took pictures of the victim.  So is one involved when one comments on sexual molestation while it happens but does not try to help the victim or seek help?   Or when one gets a kick out of photographing her body?

Enough on all that.  These two pieces are opinions.  That the Post published them within a short time interval may not tell us that we are going to see one of these every few days.   But something smells off to me, because neither piece is especially well researched or argued.  Indeed, both take an exaggerated position when it comes to rape:  That of an apologist.

I'm not opposed to the kinds of discussions these pieces try to elicit.  I'm opposed to the way they are written and to the lack of careful thought behind them.  I also can't help noticing that both pieces are in some ways about the agency of the victims and about the presumed lack of agency on behalf of the accused.  Hence the title of this post. 
*For a different angle to the whole Miley Cyrus performance and its relationship to the intersection of race and gender, read this.