Sexual assault cases don’t occur in a vacuum, even when they are so egregious that they defy the imagination. For example: the recent Cleveland story involving the long-term imprisonment and rape of three local women by an alleged perpetrator who comes across as a complete sadist. Coverage of this story has been rife with speculation, yet there are few answers available — partly due to the survivors’ understandable desire for privacy.
We can’t examine the details yet, obsessing as we so often do. But we can examine ourselves.
As I noted when I wrote about sexual assault in the military (a scandal which continues to evolve), these kinds of crimes occur in a rape culture. Rape culture doesn’t mean only that there’s a high incidence of sexual assault, but also that sex is treated as a commodity, one for women to withhold and men to take, a commodity that also comes to represent women’s entire value and worth. Pure or defiled. Virginal or slutty — so slutty that consent is implied, not sought.
Recently I’ve seen a lot of interesting thinking about the Cleveland kidnapping case and how it relates to larger social issues, from domestic violence to policing to rape culture. Some have noted that Charles Ramsey helped one of the victims even when he thought her plight was a “domestic violence dispute” (and even when having a record himself), indicating that campaigns to raise awareness about domestic violence as a crime, not a private matter, have had some success.
But perhaps the most potent insights into the story came before it even broke — from the lips of escaped kidnapping victim Elizabeth Smart. She recently spoke in public about her own rape and kidnapping. Smart explained one of the most paralyzing feelings she experienced during her captivity. This feeling came not from her perpetrator but from her previous exposure to a culture that valued women’s so-called purity above all else, in particular the abstinence education that told her she was a chewed-up piece of gum:
That is what it was for me the first time I was raped. I was raised in a very religious household, one that taught that sex was something special that only happened between a husband and a wife who loved each other… After that first rape, I felt crushed. Who could want me now? I felt so dirty and so filthy. I understand so easily all too well why someone wouldn’t run because of that alone.”
Rape culture gives criminals an arsenal of shame and control over their victims beyond just physical intimidation.
Jill Filipovic, writing about this case in the Guardian noted that Smart isn’t just critiquing the abstinence-only, no-sex-until marriage Mormon culture in which she was brought up, but also an entire system of thinking that, until very recently, was the norm and still helps inform and create today’s standards.
A cultural emphasis on sexual purity leads to the kind of judgment that Smart internalized. Surely, purity advocates would say that they don’t intend to hurt victims — that rape isn’t a woman’s fault, that she can still be pure of heart after the assault. But that, too, speaks to the fundamental misogyny of purity culture: a woman who has sex forced upon her may still be “good,” even if her stock has decreased. Women who act on perfectly natural sexual desire, on the other hand, are tainted physically and morally.
This pervasive idea is what leads us to often ask unintentionally victim-blaming questions when a story like the one in Cleveland — and Smart’s in 2004 — breaks. We wonder “Why didn’t she try to run away?” rather than “What kind of message was sent to the man who held her prisoner that he could do this?” or “What as a society are we doing wrong that causes women like Elizabeth Smart to feel worthless when wrong is done to them without their consent?”
Part of the reason our thinking is so limited also arises from a lack of available solutions. Eesha Pandit notes at the Nation that we haven’t even begun to consider all the avenues for helping victims in a manner consistent with their own lives and desires. We’re constrained by a criminal justice system that doesn’t always work. In particular, our police and court system exposes perpetrators to more violence in prison and doesn’t protect undocumented immigrants. This is a very limited avenue for justice. Thinking about Smart’s words and Pandit’s piece, I realized that perpetrators have a whole misogynist culture in their toolboxes, helping them hurt others. That’s why advocates for survivors and victims need a broader way to fight back: more tools and more forms of justice, aid and restitution at our disposal.
Stopping the abuse, trafficking, kidnapping and rape of women unfortunately doesn’t just call for simplistic heroic rescues. It calls for a massive overhaul of how we think about gender, sex and consent.