October 21, 2014

Alt Lit and Rape Culture - Suffering the Inheritance of Cultural Narratives - Andrea Baker

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

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:
In the Steubenville case the Internet first provided a platform for the perpetrators to further traumatize their victim, then it provided a platform for individuals to bring attention to a crime that they believed would be minimized if not scrutinized by the public eye. Then, it provided a platform for outrage over the mainstream media’s handling of the news to be aired. Overall, though, Steubenville’s players were fairly stereotypical—the jocks were exposed as, to say the least, insensitive and unreflective. Ditto for the mainstream news.

Social media, however, also provides platforms for the online persona that is sensitive, nerdy, and socially conscious. Such a community exists on YouTube...
...around Don’t Forget to Be Awesome Records (DFTBA). YouTube, with its user generated content offers an implicit promise of equality. Everyone is invited; everyone participates on equal footing, and unlike in the offline world, creators and users may also easily interact with one another.

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...
...was convicted of soliciting explicit photos from an underage fan, a crime for which he received a five-year prison sentence. 

In 2014, a teenage girl used Tumblr to expose Tim Milsom.
He had entered into a “relationship” with her when he was 22 and she was 15. During this time he was abusive and sexually coercive.

Then, within days of the revelation about Milsom, a third DFTBA musician, Alex Day...
...volunteered that he didn’t know what consent was, implying that he had behaved abusively, or, at least coercively, toward sexual partners.

 All three men were dropped by DFTBA and label co-founder, Hank Green quickly posted a video...
...in which he ultimately compares contemporary American culture’s relationship to sex with that of predator and prey, which he then attempted to make cute by comparing male sexual advances to the work of cruise missiles, and female attempts to dodge the cruise missiles as the work of scared kittens.
Though DFTBA did respond, and respond quickly, depiction here never transcends the realm of quirk. Green’s only reflection on how this cluster of abuse may have been enabled was that, “When we are set up to assume that the kitten is going to run, whether the kitten wants the cruise missile or not, that enables abuse.”

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

Andrea Baker is a poet and writer. She has two books forthcoming in 2015: Famous Rapes from Water Street Press and Each Thing Unblurred is Broken from Omnidawn. She is also the author of Like Wind Loves a Window (Slope Editions, 2005) and the chapbook gilda (Poetry Society of America, 2004). Visit her on the web at andreabaker.us.

No comments: