by Sut Jhally & Jackson Katz 82
EDITOR'S NOTE: In the print edition of this faculty essay in the Winter 2001 issue, the headline refers to "the Campus Pond rapes" of 1999. As the text of the essay indicates, the incidents in question were reported attacks, and not all were reports of rape. We apologize for any confusion created by this reference.
The wave of reported crimes against women late in 1999 created a tense, fearful climate, especially for women students, faculty, and staff. Many were afraid to walk alone on campus during the day, not to mention the night. There were rallies, enhanced security measures, the organization of escort groups for women, and the distribution by the administration of thousands of alarm whistles. A few parents withdrew their daughters from school. Some of the local news coverage hewed to the classic journalistic narrative of a community coming together under siege.
But then it was reported that one of the victims a woman who claimed to have been assaulted during one of the rallies organized to protest the first two rapes had recanted her statement. Her admission that her wounds had been self-inflicted seemed to deflate any widespread willingness to see sexual violence as everyones problem, as an issue that demands a broader and more systemic response.
The campuss reaction to these events both the original reports and the later recanting tells us much about how we as a society still understand, and misunderstand, the phenomenon of sexual violence. Hence it provides us, at the beginning of the 21st century, with some insight into how better to address at UMass and all over the deeply rooted societal problem of mens violence against women.
Part of the misunderstanding flows from a distorted but still widely-held notion of how most rape happens. The rapes reported at the Campus Pond fit the prototypical, socially noncontroversial definition: The alleged assailant was a male stranger, springing out from the bushes and attacking female passersby. The sense of outrage and terror was heightened when a second woman reported having been assaulted not far from where the first rape took place.
While stranger-rapes occur with alarming frequency and can traumatize an entire populace, especially women, they constitute only about 10 percent of cases. Most perpetrators of sexual violence, on college campuses and elsewhere, are men who know their victims. This violence can be so deeply entwined with what is considered sexually normal in our society that the victims, while feeling deeply violated, are often not even sure a crime has taken place. Sensitizing people to these sexual dynamics has been a central goal of the date-rape prevention movement over the past two decades.
But this educational process has not been easy. Acknowledging the depths of the problem requires a great deal more introspection than we have yet been able to muster as a society. In particular, we need to look far more critically at the broader cultural context within which we raise and socialize boys and girls, men and women. This critical examination would call into question our very definitions of masculinity and femininity, sex and power. No wonder that as a culture we choose to avert our eyes.
Given what we know, objectively, about the reality of sexual assault in the lives of women, what is stopping us as a society from comprehending the enormity of the problem? The first obstacle is that, despite decades of rape-awareness programming on campuses and in the general population, the standard image of rape remains the classic stranger scenario. Another barrier is the inaccurate perception among many men that false allegations of rape are common especially those that take place in dating or other social situations. Though none of the UMass reports had anything to do with date rape, the recanting of the third report fed directly into this mythology, and confused the issue of the attacks in many minds.
Put the three things together the assumption that most rape is stranger rape, the relative infrequency of such rape, and the recanting and the campuss ability to forget what happened in late 1999 becomes more understandable. The far more frequent sexual assaults that can safely be assumed to continue in residence halls and off-campus housing most of which are never reported to law enforcement faded back into invisibility.
One of the central insights of the discipline of cultural studies is that questions of identity (Who am I?) and ideology (How does the world work and how do I fit into it?) are intimately connected to stories that circulate in the culture that give answers to these deeply human concerns. We understand ourselves in the stories that are told about us. As the cultural theorist Stuart Hall puts it:
In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, the mass media is the most significant institution of representation, and the most powerful teacher and transmitter of cultural values. Thus, if we are interested in why sexual violence seems to be such a common feature in the lives of young men and women today, one of the most important places to look is popular culture, within which young people especially understand and construct their identities.
When discussing the normalization of sexual violence, at least two important aspects of pop cultural representation require attention. The first is the representation of modern western femininity as innately connected with sexuality, but in contradictory and dangerous ways. Feminist scholars have pioneered our understanding of how girls and womens bodies have become a kind of war zone on which are played out all kinds of conflicts of identity. Our culture relentlessly assaults girls and women with the idea that femininity and sexuality are intertwined: that their bodies and sexual behavior are the only things that are valued and desired by heterosexual men. Young girls especially can internalize this story and become obsessed with appearance and (hetero)sexuality. Millions over the past few generations have responded to pressures to become sexual at younger and younger ages; hence the decline in the average age of first intercourse for girls.
Socially validated largely through mens response to their bodies, women may find it only a short logical leap to linking feminine identity with mens use of their bodies. As one young woman writes:
While the forced choice between virgin and whore has been around for a long time at least as far back as the Old Testament in the contemporary period a new twist has been added: Girls now have to be both virgin and whore. Along with the cultural imperative that sexuality is everything is the equally powerful message that good girls dont. In popular culture this contradiction is manifested in the figure of teenage pop star Britney Spears highly sexualized in everything from appearance to vocals but saving herself till marriage. While there is no culturally validated figure of virgin virginity being regarded as geeky by large majorities of both girls and boys there is the powerful negative icon of the slut which effectively functions in the same way.
Young women caught in this Catch-22 where social validation comes from sexuality, but the more sexual you act the more you may be despised are constantly negotiating an impossible balance between virgin and slut, constantly concerned that admiration may change to contempt. If girls are confused about their sexual identities and appropriate ways to behave, it is because the culture itself tells a contradictory story about female identity.
And heres the paradox: This very normality makes it harder to see just how pervasive the problem of sexual violence really is. If heterosexual men are routinely turned on by representations of women in which sexiness is indistinguishable from mistreatment, the equation becomes unremarkable if not part of sexuality itself. (Consider the way Marilyn Monroes vulnerability has been sexualized to this day, four decades after her sad life ended in self-destruction at age 36.) Sexualizing violence against women has the effect of blinding people to its seriousness. The focus shifts from the pain and trauma of a person to the eroticism of a portrayal.
Over the past several decades, a developing body of research in the social sciences has demonstrated that repeated exposure to depictions of sexualized violence can have the effect of desensitizing viewers especially males to the humanity of female victims. This desensitization begins early in life, and today, due to the proliferation of pornographic images on the Internet, cable TV, and increasingly in mainstream film and television, millions of boys and men are exposed to an unprecedented level of sexualized brutality against women.
This proliferation is not only dehumanizing but self-perpetuating. Repeated images and references to women as bitches and hos in rock and rap music and video, or sexually bullied on The Howard Stern Show and pro wrestling telecasts, make mens sexual domination of women seem normal, routine, expected, even humorous. In this light, the public assaults on female joggers in Central Park on Puerto Rican Day in June, 2000, and the rapes that took place at Woodstock 99, should be seen as part of a normative cultural pattern.
Nor should we underestimate the degree to which homophobia plays itself out on womens bodies. In male peer culture, homophobic insults (fag, pussy, bitch, etc.) operate as policing mechanisms to bully boys and men into narrow and dangerous conceptions of what it means to be a man. In this context, physically controlling women is one of the major ways in which men can act out dominant heterosexual notions of masculinity. Womens bodies literally become the stage on which this male performance is enacted, in some cases through public displays of keeping her in line.
Just before the first campus rape was reported a year ago last fall, university employee Jean Hosmer, having just extended a restraining order for her estranged husband, was killed by him in the middle of the day on a Northampton street. By all accounts, he was just a quiet, average guy. This is revealing. Mens violence toward women has become so much a cultural norm that perpetrators are generally indistinguishable from the rest of us. In this regard, it is significant that as the overall crime rate has dropped in the past decade, rates of sexual assault, rape and teenage relationship abuse have not. The cultural environment in which they occur, in fact, has become even more blatantly aggressive and misogynous.
Sexual violence thus needs to be understood in a cultural context. And to the extent that universities do not exist in a vacuum, whatever valuable work that takes place on campuses will have limited impact if it is not accompanied by broader efforts to transform what feminists for decades have described as a rape culture.
Men have a special responsibility to do this work. Those feminist organizations that actually have some resources to mount challenges to the present situation, such as the Everywomans Center on our campus, are easily dismissed as angry. (As if they shouldnt be!) This makes it all the more important that progressive men support these vital efforts.
This work can take place at many levels. Among them is the recognition that even in the midst of a cultural deluge linking maleness with control and intimidation and femininity with submission and acquiescence, real men and women are living very different, interdependent, and egalitarian lives largely as a result of the social transformations brought about by the modern multicultural womens movement. One way to reexamine the horrible statistics weve cited is to view them from the reverse perspective: the majority of women will not be victims of sexual violence; the majority of men are in fact non-violent.
Indeed, the reaction of hundreds of UMass men to last years assaults was to look to try and do something, anything, to make a difference. Yet lacking cultural resources beyond the traditional, chivalrous idea of protecting women, all that seemed to be possible was organizing escort services. What we have to do now is offer more resources to these men the majority in order to help them intervene in male culture in a productive fashion.
The silence of non-violent men in the face of other mens violence is a key factor that allows masculinity to be coded in narrow and destructive ways. We have now to engage in the hard educational work of providing boys and young men with the inspiration and tools to become, in the words of Pearl Jams Eddie Vedder, better men.