Friday, September 24, 2010

Rape Culture 101 -- Haunting, maybe, but was it rape?

by Connie Chastain*

Earlier this month, ran a "human interest" story in its "Life Stories" section titled "Haunted by the Morning After." A first-person narrative by Elizabeth Kennedy (which is a pseudonym), the piece tells the story of a high school party at which Ms. Kennedy may or may not have been raped. She doesn't really know for sure; she was too drunk to remember.

What happened, in a nutshell, is that Ms.Kennedy went to a party with friends, drank too much and hit on a guy. They traipsed into the woods together and made out. After sending the boy mixed messages about having sex, she passed out. When she awakened to the sound of her friends calling her, she was half undressed and the boy, naked, was passed out beside her.

She couldn't remember what happened, but it must've been bad because she was a basket case the next day, a state that lasted on into her freshman year of college. She saw a therapist for her depression; the therapist concluded that she had been raped. There was some comfort in the diagnosis, but Ms. Kennedy wasn't sure that was truly what happened. In any case, through her early twenties she engaged in boozy, highly unsatisfying hookups until at age 26 she'd had enough and quit drinking.

On the surface, Ms. Kennedy's experience is a cautionary tale with an uplifting ending -- wayward girl faces some unpleasant truths and takes responsibility for herself, her actions, her life. But that's only part of the story.

I was fascinated and appalled when I first read it. Part of it is generational, I'm sure. In my high school days, nobody "did it" just for fun. Sometimes girls with long-term steady boyfriends would give in, in a moment of weakness, but they didn't write human interest stories about it, and only their closest confidants knew.

But since those days, feminism and the sexual revolution have worked their evil spells, and "hook ups" are common even in high school. Our whole culture has become sexualized, starting with preschool girls in makeup and sexy costumes strutting on a pageant stage, to sex-ed in the schools, and from there moving into every aspect of the popular culture, particularly movies, television, and now the Internet.

Women, so feminism says, should be in charge of their own sexuality. In the days of second wave feminism, that meant taking control of a woman's sexuality from men, mainly her husband, so that she decided when and if to have sex, permit pregnancy, and have children.

Somehow, now, it has come to mean that women should be able to be as promiscuous as men -- at least, to the extent they believe men are promiscuous -- without harm to their reputation and, significantly, to their chances at marriage, when they're ready.

But evidently there is enough of a stigma left, in some circles (Ms. Kennedy is from a Catholic family and attended Catholic schools) that women can feel morning-after regret. Sometimes this regret morphs into accusations of rape. By now, readers of this blog are familiar with how and why that happens.

In Ms. Kennedy's case, it didn't end in a rape accusation, but it easily could have.

One thing that stands out about her tale is that it is liberally sprinkled with her attempts to give herself the benefit of the doubt -- to present her inexperience and naiveté, which are evidently supposed to absolve her of responsibility for her part in her predicament.

In fact, she begins the piece with a bid for sympathy, putting forth the possibility that she'd been raped in the very first sentence and describing her bouts of suicidal depression that presumably resulted from it. Excuses and pre-emptive explanations continue throughout her narrative -- she got so drunk the night of the party because she was "selectively bulimic in those days" (bulimia being a female malady) and drank on an empty stomach at the party. She gives some backstory about never having had "the talk" with her mother, about her fascination with her friends' tales of their sexcapades.

The self-absolvement continues in her recounting of the encounter with "Tony," who may or may not have raped her.

I must admit I was surprised at the comments following the story at Salon. Some took a practical, level-headed view of her predicament, declared it was not rape, and put the responsibility for her problem squarely where it lay. Nevertheless, there were many poor-little-thing sentiments that raveled my patience.

Whatever she was trying to accomplish by writing the story and having it published, here's the bottom line for me: She got herself drunk. She initially hit on the guy. She asked him for sex once. She answered in the affirmative when he asked her if she still wanted to.

Read that one again. He. Asked. Her. And. She. Said. Yes. That is consent. Consensual sex is not rape.

It is a rather depressing story, and I have to wonder how many other young women in our permissive society have similarly ruined their lives. About the only good thing to come out of this one, to me, is that she didn't report the boy to the police and get him thrown in prison for thirty years.

*Connie is a member of the FRS team whose column appears here every Friday. Her blog is