(Trigger warning: While this post does not discuss rapes and assaults in detail, several of the linked articles do.)
Now that the Steubenville rapists have been convicted and sentenced, we have in front of us a sterling example of the kind of coverage the media considers appropriate for a story about two young men who raped a young woman, photographed the rape, distributed the photos on social media, and took time out from the rape to text jokes to their friends about their crimes.
In a remarkable example of tone deaf media coverage, CNN’s Poppy Harlow referred to the sentencing of two men who made their victim’s suffering into a visual joke as “incredibly difficult to watch.” She then urged viewers to stay tuned because “for the first time in this whole trial we have now heard from these two young men.” In a classic example of why I find the passive voice so sinister, Trent Mays then stood up in court and gave the classic non-apology, “No pictures should have been sent around, let alone even taken.” Viewers were then treated to a weeping apology from Ma’lik Richmond, and to Harlow’s bizarre attempt to put a heart-warming spin on the story by noting that Richmond’s father, who had never said “I love you” to his son, said it then. Coverage from other CNN reporters and several other news outlets was equally sympathetic towards the perpetrators.
Somehow, I find myself moved to write about rape culture today.
In a previous post I argued that libertarians should start to think about rape, and the institutions that shelter and protect rapists, as a topic that could benefit from a libertarian approach. After all, the action of rape violates our belief that “interactions should be peaceful exchanges between consenting parties.” And the culture that protects it confirms everything that public choice theory has taught us about the “dangers that come into play in dysfunctional institutions.”
Several commenters on my earlier post suggested that I was merely telling everyone something we all knew already. Rape is bad. Yawn. Perhaps now we can get back to a topic that really matters? Like raw milk?
I’m not so sure everyone knows rape is bad. And with left-leaning CNN’s sympathetic–even maudlin–coverage of the young lives destroyed when rapists are convicted for raping people swirling in a noxious stew with the asinine statements about rape made by so many of last year’s Republican candidates, maybe it’s time for what Students for Liberty calls the “radical center” to do a little talking about rape culture?
Though it’s probably the best term we have, I actually hate the term rape culture. It’s a blanket term that is all too often expanded to cover anything the user finds obnoxious or offensive. I will never forget, for example, a freshman year discussion about Andrew Marvell’s poem “To His Coy Mistress” where several students in my English class objected to being made to read this relic of rape culture. (The professor handled it admirably, by the way, in case you were wondering if I was oppressed.) So, I want to be very careful about this.
It might be best to think about rape culture as a set of concentric circles that surround the center point of rape. (I’m leaving aside the legal definitions of rape that vary from state to state and just relying on the general definition of “non-consensual sexual contact.”)
Circling out from that center point are such activities as:
- Legal protections for certain kinds of rape—for example, spousal rape
- The institutional protective instinct we see in military rape cases, prison rape cases, church rape cases, university rape cases, and so on.
- Indifference to and mismanagement of victims and physical evidence in rape cases by police and medical facilities.
- Media coverage, like CNN’s, that focuses on the crime’s effect on the perpetrators rather than the victims
- Faux-scientific explanations that suggest victims are complicit in their own rapes—such as Todd Akin’s comment about how pregnancy doesn’t occur from “legitimate rape” and the infamous case in the Italian Supreme Court where it was declared that it is impossible to rape a woman who is wearing blue jeans.
- Cultural blindness to rapes that do not conform to the stereotypical “Stranger jumps out from behind bushes and grabs woman, rapes her, runs away” pattern.
- Arguments such as “The victim shouldn’t have been in that place/had that drink/worn that outfit/attended that party.”
- Excuses such as “boys will be boys” or “men can’t be raped” or “it must have been a misunderstanding” or “it’s just morning after regrets.”
- Rape jokes.
Let me be very clear here. Everyone will have a different reaction to the above list. Everyone will rate the severity of these items differently. Everyone will find things on the list that seem to them to be worth taking action about and some that seem trivial. That’s fine. What matters is that we know that rape culture includes that whole list (and probably a great deal more that I haven’t thought of just now) and that when we talk about and think about and write about rape and rape culture, we have that list in mind, instead of some parody version of rape culture that leads to visions of humorless feminists demanding the blood of kindergartners who dare to kiss their classmates.
What matters, now that we have that in mind, is what we do. And what we do will depend upon who we are.
- Is the rule of law your particular passion? Why not make it a point to write and talk about the ways in which the law fails rape victims? Or the ways in which the police fail them? Or what happens to prisoners who are raped behind bars?
- Are you concerned about character education and the need for a virtuous citizenry? Maybe a look at what our culture does to men and women when it trivializes rape and makes it entertainment is in order.
- Are you a public choice theorist? Next time you’re thinking about the ways that institutions fail, why not consider the question of rape and institutional protection?
There are all sorts of ways to make libertarian arguments about rape. We just need to make them. And when we make arguments about rape in general, we need to let people know that the arguments are being made *by* libertarians. We could:
- Wear our best libertarian /anarchist/liberty loving t-shirts to a Take Back the Night March or a SlutWalk.
- Volunteer to be campus SAFEwalkers, and wear some liberty gear while we do it.
- Turn some of our blogging/column-writing/You-tubing attention to stories like Steubenville, Penn State, and so on.
- Take responsibility for calling out, and calling attention to, the kind of rape culture that strikes at the heart of the particular libertarian principles that matter the most to each of us individually, in a way that is consistent with those principles.
We don’t have to stop talking about raw milk. Or flat taxes. Or drones. We shouldn’t. We should just consider talking about this too.
After all, when the left and the right are saying incredibly stupid things, it’s a really good time for libertarians to say something smart.