Saturday, September 19, 2015

Asking For It by Kate Harding


Rating: WORTHY!

The problem with this book is that the people who need most to read it will not, and if they mistakenly happen upon it, they will dismiss it as "more feminist propaganda". It's an uncomfortable experience to read it, but I think people need to read it until they get beyond discomfort and get downright angry that this crap not only goes on in 2015, but that it evidently doesn't even cause widespread outrage. The problem is that when people are talking about "rape-rape" (like it's a baby topic that no real grown-ups waste their time with), or about "legitimate rape" or about "the rape thing", then you know as well as I do that despite recent progress, there's still a hell of a long way to go. That's what's disturbing.

What also outraged me is that this didn't show up in the first page of results on Goodreads. Asking For It it is evidently a really poorly-chosen title because Goodreads showed over 500 screens of titles that were triggered when I typed that in. Even when I typed in the author's name it was second in a long list! The title is even one in a fictional series, which reportedly attempts to retro-justify rape - because she liked it in the end. What the hell kind of a fantasy that is, and how dangerous is it? That's rape culture in all its shabby glory.

The book explores the topic of rape in civilian and in military life, and how rape culture (which the author defines) enables rapists and does serious injustice to those who are raped, to the point where those who have gone through this horror can be even more victimized by the aftermath than they were by the original atrocity itself. Even to the point where survivors have subsequently been charged with a crime - essentially charged with the 'crime' of reporting it!

That's not to say it was all plain sailing. I had some issues with the way this was written. For example, the author does explore the wider implications of a rape culture, but nowhere near enough for me, and in nowhere near enough detail, especially for a book that is specifically about the rape culture rather than specifically cases of rape. She covers, for example, the absurd clamoring of celebrities to support other celebrities - such as those who came out for rapist Roman Polansky who ostensibly couldn't distinguish between a thirteen-year-old and a consenting adult, and others like Bill Cosby and people from other celebrity ventures like the sporting world where victims aren't even given a sporting chance in popular reporting.

Having said that, she fails to address the wider picture (except briefly in passing, and tangentially) of the whole culture we live in - the movies, the video games, the comic books, the novel, the TV shows. Yes, she briefly covers some of them, but briefly isn't sufficient in a book like this which is supposedly aimed at this very problem. Rape culture isn't just rape victims getting a raw deal and rapists getting a good deal - it's the entire ethos of how women are treated and viewed in society and I felt this got short shrift.

Another issue I personally had is that the author's tone felt a bit preachy and strident at times and thereby at risk of undermining a really strong case. In this kind of environment, lists didn't help as much as they ought, and her love of lists to me was counter-productive to her aim. I'm not a fan of lists and regimented structures because life is neither, and neither are personal interactions except in crappy rom-coms. Once you start relying on a fixed list, you're in danger of missing things that are important but have failed to make the "official list". One list which I felt which was particularly confusing at best was the first one, on page 14. Clearly the author fully expects us to answer "No", but the lists are full of ambiguity which, to someone who is not clued in (and no rapist is, by definition) is going to miss, or misinterpret.

This goes to what I've been saying about taking wise precautions, and about making a "No" quite clear. Yes, lack of clear consent means no, that's a given, and yes, even a clear and unequivocal no has indeed failed to stop rapists, but given the pervasiveness of rape culture, a lack of a clear "No!" has also been used to try to muddy the waters in rape cases. A clear "No!" will cut that off at the knees. Remember, we are not dealing with an ideal society here. We're not even dealing with a rational one, much less a victim-friendly one. Here we're dealing with one which facilitates criminals getting away with rape the bulk of the time. You simply cannot play fair in that environment. You're a fool if you think you can hold out any hope that a rapist will be reasonable, considerate, nuanced, decent, or amenable to argument or persuasion.

I'm not even sure what the author was trying to demonstrate, but let's look at the list:

  1. I'd love to, but I already have plans.
  2. Sweet of you to offer, but I'm afraid I won't be able to make it.
  3. Oh geez, maybe another time?
  4. I so wish I could!

Not one of these actually says no (not that this means 'yes', understand!). If you're sensitive, which rapists are not, you will suspect that this person does not want to be involved with you, but even so you may feel free to ask again at some point, because you want to be sure, and because the answers equivocated at best and invited a "return match" at worst. Indeed, three of them say the opposite of no: "I'd love to", "Maybe another time?", and "I so wish I could!". Einstein is often quoted as saying something along the lines of "You cannot simultaneously prevent and prepare for war," which is nonsensical, but it's that kind of approach which is being pursued here. Rather than give an unequivocal "No!", the person in question here has offered what might well be seen as an "invitation" to further predation from those who are given to viewing women as prey and are blind to subtlety. Even those who are not predators are at risk of being thoroughly confused by such ambiguous answers.

If you have no intention of becoming involved with a guy, you do not say you'd love to! You do not offer another (what may be seen as an) opportunity to stalk you. You do not utter wishes that you could be together. You do not use the word "afraid" in your response. You say "No!" It's better to be perceived as rude than to offer what a potential pest at best and rapist at worst will see as weakness, equivocation, or invitation.

If you like, you can soften it with "I'm involved with someone" or "I don't want to be involved with anyone here" or whatever, but don't omit the clear "No!". Having given that, you are in no doubt as to whether you "encouraged" someone, and neither are they - if they are even remotely reasonable. If the worst happens, you will be confident you made it crystal clear that your answer was no, and you will not be haunted with concern that you somehow "encouraged" this guy. Rape is god-awful enough without bringing self-doubt and self-recrimination into it, on top of whatever other horrors you're going through.

On this same topic, it bothered me that on some occasions the author appeared to be disparaging rape prevention advice and campaigns by presenting an anecdote which "proved" all the advice was wrong. Yes, in an ideal society, women should not have to do these things. It's reprehensible that they're forced into this position, but the fact is that we do not live in an ideal society, and we're a long - probably impossible, I'm sorry to say - way from ever getting there, so until and unless we do live in that ideal society, the advice isn't wrong and people are foolish not to take it and follow it.>/p>

It's like saying that it's foolish to wear a seat belt, because there are some occasions where the seat belt has been the problem - the victim died anyway, or the seat belt trapped them in the car. Indeed, I was once trapped in the back seat of a car fortunately not due to an accident, but because the car was old and the seat belt was shitty. We had to find some scissors and cut me out! Did I give up wearing seat belts because of this fail? Absolutely not. This doesn't mean that a victim who has failed to take this advice is the problem and no crime has been committed. Far from it. There has still been a crime and the victim's lack of forethought isn't a mitigating circumstance by any stretch of the imagination, no matter how hard the police or the commanding officer, or courts might dishonestly pretend it is - because of this rape culture. But there are nonetheless ways in which, regardless of whether we're talking about rape or any other crime, you can endeavor protect yourself from harm and it's just plain stupid not to heed them.

They're not guaranteed, by any means, and they will at times fail despite the best efforts, but on balance, they will make women and men safer, and this author's single-minded focus on the need to address the rapist problem, not the victim non-problem, commendable and accurate as that approach is, did a disservice to prevention in a society where it is a real a present danger, as they say. It's this evident inability on the author's part to separate the wheat from the chaff which for me weakened the message she was bringing - a message which is long overdue.

By that I don't mean it invalidated it, but I think it served to tint water which could have been clearer. For example, I would have liked to have seen the author outright condemn binge-drinking for an assortment of reasons, but because her focus was solely on rape, she tended to gloss over this problem because, it seemed to me, she felt it took away from her message that even if the person who was raped was drunk, she was still the victim of a crime and this does not mitigate the rapist's criminal behavior. This is unarguably true to anyone with half a functioning brain, which rapists and anyone else who buys into the rape culture quite evidently doesn't have, but more instead of addressing the real and unarguable issue

In the same vein, I would have liked her to have talked about educating men not to be criminals rather than zero in on the narrow field of educating them not to be rapists. That needs to be a distinct and pronounced part of such an education, but there needs to be a wider focus.

There are also issues with the prevalence of rape, which I admit is a doomed thing to try and calculate given how little of it goes reported because of the very fact that we do live in a rape culture. Numbers are tossed around without very much verification, so we end up with a one in five or a one in four number which then becomes folklore without anyone going back to see how that number was arrived at in the first place. Lisak's 2002 study was evidently flawed. We can see how hazy the numbers are by looking at this article on the Drew Sterrett / CB "affair" which is well covered by the author. "...a reported sexual assault rate of 0.03 percent" Even multiplied by ten that's a far cry from one in five.

The Sterret case is interesting not only in and of itself, but also because it makes it clear that not all cases of rape (or in this case alledged rape) are about power. This one clearly was not. And neither is the power always with the guy - in this case the power to ruin his life was clearly in his supposed victim's hands.

In a 1996 study, researchers at the Medical University of South Carolina set out to determine the rape-related pregnancy rate in the United States. They estimated that about 5 percent of rape victims of reproductive age (12 to 45) become pregnant — a percentage that results in about 32,000 pregnancies each year. If 5% become pregnant and that's 32,000 per year, it's an atrocity, but that's not what I want to address here. Multiplying that 32K by 20, should give us 100% of rape victims, which is 640,000 annual rapes. Even one is too many but over half a million is phenomenal and shocking beyond polite words.<.p>

Reading elsewhere, we get this number: "...there were overall 173,610 victims of rape or sexual assault, or 0.1% of the US population 12 or older in 2013". That's a far cry from 640,000, unless of course 466,390 failed to report the crime - but that's entirely possible. Elsewhere still, we learn that according to RAIIN, every 107 seconds, someone in the United States is sexually assaulted. There is a yearly average of 293,000 victims we're told, but a rape every 107 seconds comes to 294,729. This is good enough to fall in with that average, but it's a far cry from either 640,000 or 173,610.

My point is not to belittle the magnitude of the numbers, which regardless of which number is most accurate, are appalling, but to point out that the numbers vary wildly, and this is the kind of thing which will be the very one that nay-sayers latch upon to try to call "the rape thing" into question. Look," they will claim, "they're making wild guesses! No one knows, clearly they're making this all up as a scare tactic!" Obviously that's blind nonsense, but that doesn't mean that it would not help to get better, more reliable numbers, because quoting poorly substantiated or discrepant numbers isn't going to do anyone any favors. A look, in this book, at the accuracy and sources of the numbers would have been appreciated, and while the author touches on this more than once, she never really pursues it as a legitimate topic in its own right. We do not want to give those who would continue to try and sweep this rape culture pandemic under the carpet any ammunition even if they're firing blanks.

I like that the author covers the fact that while the overwhelming number of rapes is indeed male on female, rape isn't just male on a female. It's very much cross-gender despite the British rather Victorian idea that girls can't rape guys. I liked the discussion of the focus on college versus focus on 'civilian' rape, but this was a relatively short book and the author obviously could not go into great detail on every topic. Focus on college is important, but in one way it's a bit of a mis-focus because college female students are only about half as likely as non-college females of the same age range to be affected by violence:
http://www.latimes.com/local/la-me-sexual-assault-legal-20140608-story.html
http://yaledailynews.com/blog/2014/11/07/after-uwc-complaint-two-students-wait/
That doesn't mean it's not a problem, by any means, but it does mean we can be smarter, use better resources, and be more effective across all areas, instead of focusing on one and pretending we're addressing the problem.

I like that the author called into question some of the at best ill-advised, and at worst, situation-exacerbating ad campaigns aimed at reducing rape, but done in a wrong-headed manner. The problem isn't so much those, however, as the very effective ad campaigns which are aimed in the opposite direction, and which flood our senses throughout our lives almost subliminally. Indeed, they are so pervasive and so common and so readily available that we don't even consider them, much less talk about them.

This is why, for me, where this book most fell down is in its almost complete failure to address the far more widespread, and often very subtle rape culture problem: that which shamelessly pervades TV, advertising, movies, and literature. The author did cover, briefly and in a limited way, some movies and some TV, and even took a very small dip into advertising, but nowhere near enough. In my opinion, it's in these areas that rape culture is seeded, because it is all-pervasive and it hits men and women alike from childhood. Note that I am not saying here that some guy watches a TV show or sees a commercial, and suddenly is filled with the idea that he can simply go out and rape him some women! It doesn't work like that. But when you have, for example in movies, been subjected to a lifetime of stories where the tough hombre battles the odds and is rewarded with the helpless "chick" every time, a "babe" (not the infantilization in play here) who pretty much literally falls into his arms, a wilting violet subservient to his every command, it's not hard to see that this cultivates a mind-set which takes only a weak will not to act upon.

Every time I'm in the grocery store waiting at the check out line, I'm bombarded with a host of magazines aimed at women, and what do all of these magazines have on the covers? Curiously enough, semi-naked woman. What text do the covers most often carry? Something about sex, about improving your technique, making yourself sexier, spicing things up, and on and on. I rarely stand at the check-out without seeing at least one mention of sex on the cover of at least one magazine. These are magazines that used to cover the model's head with the magazine title, as if to make it clear that only her body was of interest - you can safely ignore the mind. Only a professional idiot (aka a rapist) would view this as a guide to your average woman's mind-set and inclinations, but if you're one of the idiots, this tells you quite unequivocally that women want sex, they're desperate for it, they crave it, they need someone to deliver it to their open door. That's all the "consent" a rapist needs.

These magazines, to me, are more abusive to women than actual pornography is, because they are much more pernicious and sly, and they're everywhere. TV and movies send the same message - a message that a woman is only waiting for the right man and she;ll hop right into bed and the hell with worrying about STDs. Books are just as bad, especially the ones showing a woman in a state of undress with a manly man on the cover, and even more-so, ill-conceived and misguided young adult novels. The worst of those are ones which purport to deliver a strong female character the main protagonist, yet almost inevitably have this character wilt and take second place when a man shows up, as though she's really quite weak, if not outright incompetent, by herself and in truth needs a man to whip her into shape. All of this contributes to a comprehensive and overwhelming, if seriously deluded, view of women. I find ti a bit sad that this author who does so well in other areas, barely mentions these areas, if at all.

Overall though, despite some issues (one of which is the author's unilateral declaration that couples in happy long-term relationships are pretty much rapists if they wake their partner up by means of foreplay!) this book is well-written, well-researched, and full of useful, needfully disturbing, information and I unreservedly I recommend it.

Here's an addendum based on a recent report, which cast previous figures into doubt - so once again we're stuck with the problem of which numbers can be relied on and how the hell we get any kind of handle on a problem which we evidently cannot measure reliably! These numbers were here:
http://www.aau.edu/Climate-Survey.aspx?id=16525

KEY FINDINGS

*Overall, 11.7 percent of student respondents across 27 universities reported experiencing nonconsensual sexual contact by physical force, threats of physical force, or incapacitation since they enrolled at their university.

*The incidence of sexual assault and sexual misconduct due to physical force, threats of physical force, or incapacitation among female undergraduate student respondents was 23.1 percent, including 10.8 percent who experienced penetration.

*Overall rates of reporting to campus officials and law enforcement or others were low, ranging from five percent to 28 percent, depending on the specific type of behavior.

*The most common reason for not reporting incidents of sexual assault and sexual misconduct was that it was not considered serious enough. Other reasons included because they were "embarrassed, ashamed or that it would be too emotionally difficult," and because they "did not think anything would be done about it."

*More than six in 10 student respondents (63.3 percent) believe that a report of sexual assault or sexual misconduct would be taken seriously by campus officials.


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