The history of rape, unsurprisingly, is as old as humanity. Andrea Baker explores that history in her forthcoming book Famous Rapes. In this excerpt, she looks at the string of assault charges that tore through the internet community surrounding Don't Forget to Be Awesome records this past year and the 2012 Steubenville, Ohio rape case. She argues that one problem we encounter when discussing high-profile (and low-profile) rape cases is our impulse to flatten the men concerned into an easy binary of "good" and "bad." And that division excuses us from looking at the larger cultural phenomena that keep rape culture humming along. –SBB
Suffering the Inheritance of Cultural Narratives
Suffering the Inheritance of Cultural Narratives
I was born in 1976 and grew up believing that history was contained by a thing called the past. Like many young people, I also held the belief that my choices and behaviors existed in the vacuum of my own being. It wasn’t until my life came crashing down around me that I came to understand that my boundaries were poorly constructed, that my mind was less in charge than I thought it was, and that I was suffering the inheritance of both a personal and a cultural narrative.
Now, I don’t think there is anything unique about me. And I don’t think there’s anything unique about anyone else either, regardless of whether they find themselves in the role of victimizer or victimized. While I am not suggesting that individuals are not culpable for their choices, I am suggesting that beyond the realm of the individual something is going on and that it is in everyone’s best interest to try and understand that something.
From an energy that I can only term what-the-hell-just-happened, I wrote a book, Famous Rapes. I learned that, in order to preserve her honor, in 510 BCE Lucretia stabbed herself after being assaulted by Sextus Tarquinius, the son of the ruling tyrant. And I learned that attitudes hadn’t changed much by the time the D.W. Griffith made his 1915 film, Birth of a Nation. In the film, a young woman throws herself off a cliff because she is being chased by a man whose affection she does not desire. As she dies, a title card tells us that, “For her who learned the stern lesson of honor we should not grieve that she found sweeter the opal gates of death.”
On a conscious level, feminism has rewritten our assumptions. If we look, though, at phenomena we see evidence of beliefs we didn’t know we held bubbling up and manifesting all over our collective behavior. The recent alt.lit transgressions are but a single example. Last year an almost identical set of incidents shook another Internet-based community, the fans and content creators of Don’t Forget to Be Awesome [DFTBA] records. When I was finishing up my book I looked at the DFTBA incidents within the context of the now infamous 2012 Steubenville, Ohio rape case. The parallels were interesting because the Internet figured prominently there, too. The Steubenville case, though, allowed a sort of splitting where the bad behavior was easily pushed into the realm of other—the jocks, the coach, the small town...
The following excerpt from my book Famous Rapes delves into these parallels.
From Famous Rapes:
Social media, however, also provides platforms for the online persona that is sensitive, nerdy, and socially conscious. Such a community exists on YouTube...
However, most of the musicians of DFTBA are young men in their 20’s, and most of their fans are teenage girls. Men and girls are not equal. And a disturbing number of these cool, quirky men in T-shirts have recently been implicated in a cluster of crimes known as the DFTBA Sexual Abuse Scandal.
In 2012, Mike Lombardo...
In 2014, a teenage girl used Tumblr to expose Tim Milsom.
Then, within days of the revelation about Milsom, a third DFTBA musician, Alex Day...
All three men were dropped by DFTBA and label co-founder, Hank Green quickly posted a video...
The issue of adults and teenagers mixing freely, as if the two were in any way equals, remains unaddressed. Green’s response does, however, represent a radical departure from the past.
More Complicated Than Good or Bad
Though no one from alt.lit has gone to prison, the details of behavior within the two cultures are eerily resonant. The smart people, the clever, the nerds, we have the same cultural inheritance as everyone else. We aren’t unique. And we aren’t always aware of the cultural dynamics influencing our behavior. I assume that before these recent wake-up calls most of the individuals within both cultures believed that sexual assault and sexual coercion didn’t really happened within their set. In fact, I bet that a good number of individuals within both cultures held the conscious belief that sexual assault and sexual coercion didn’t really happen within their set while also participating in behavior counter to that belief.
This is where Steubenville remains an interesting point of reflection, not only because it shows us other incidents of the Internet effecting culture, but also because it so eloquently serves up the jocks as bad guys, affording us the opportunity to believe that the bad and the good inhabit discreet domains. We need to see ourselves holding that belief, we need to see that the belief we hold is not true, then we need to notice that in place of moving toward understanding, we have developed a sort of two-party system of the mind.
When it comes to the alt.lit men, much of the behavior that has come to light is criminal, and perhaps they should be held legally accountable for their crimes. Individuals can and do make decisions, and those who violate legal and ethical obligations are responsible for their actions. But, as bystanders, we will not progress when we spend our energy dividing good guys from bad. Understanding of where we are on the ribbon of time’s progress is what is needed.
Those of us born after both the first and second wave feminists impacted the status quo were born into a world that, we were told, had solved the former problem of gender inequality. But the present does not reside in a vacuum any more than then an individual resides in a vacuum. The past is at work now.
We ought use this opportunity to reflect on how relatively recent it is that society has even granted women ownership of their own bodies; how recent it is to consider surviving an assault an unquestionably good thing. And how it is still, emergently, healing for us all to hear from those who chose to speak to their own experiences. The alt.lit transgressions have generated a fresh round of energy and outrage. Focusing on our cultural inheritance instead of focusing on the offenders does not mean that we approve of or excuse what these men have done; it does mean that we recognize that we aren’t going to get anywhere if we attempt to use these individual offenders as easy containers for a bad that is, at time, ambiguous and cannot so easily be contained.
Have something to say? Email comments, questions, responses, links to relevant articles elsewhere, and submissions to: rapeculture.and.altlit [at] gmail [dot] com. For the original call for submissions, see here. To read all the essays in the series, click here.