'Asking For It' Is a Harrowing Read, But Offers Hope, Too

by Hans Rollman

17 December 2015

Kate Harding offers a damning survey of rape culture’s tenacious hold on American society, and argues that recognizing the problem is the first step to fixing it
cover art

Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture - And What We Can Do About It

Kate Harding

(Da Capo)
US: Aug 2015

On 11 December 2015, former Oklahoma City police officer Daniel Holtzclaw was found guilty on 18 counts of rape and other charges, in a case brought against him by 13 black women. The jury has recommended he receive 263 years in prison.

The horrifying case is far from unique. As the New York Times notes, an Associated Press investigation “found that from 2009 to 2014, some 550 officers from 41 states had lost their law enforcement licenses for sexual assault, but not all had faced criminal charges.”

The case against Holtzclaw, of course, involves not only sexual violence against women but also the systematic targeting of black women, and of women whose prior criminal records made them more prominent targets for sexual exploitation and violence, given the likelihood that the justice system would consider their testimony less reliable than that of the police officer who attacked them.

A further horrifying dimension of the case is the vocal support Holtzclaw has received, with hundreds of supporters championing him on social media and publicly attacking the credibility of the victims.

The entire situation is a terrible if apt reflection of what is increasingly referred to as the ‘rape culture’ that clings tenaciously to American society. As author Kate Harding notes, the term has been around for decades, but is only now beginning to enter mainstream discourse. She cites a widely used definition offered in the 1993 collection Transforming a Rape Culture, which defines rape culture as:

a complex set of beliefs that encourage male sexual aggression and supports violence against women. It is a society where violence is seen as sexy and sexuality as violent. In a rape culture, women perceive a continuum of threatened violence that ranges from sexual remarks to sexual touching to rape itself. A rape culture condones physical and emotional terrorism against women as the norm ... In a rape culture both men and women assume that sexual violence is a fact of life, inevitable ... However ..  much of what we accept as inevitable is in fact the expression of values and attitudes that can change.

In her expansive and broad-ranging study Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture – And What We Can Do About It writer and blogger Harding sets out to chart the scope of rape culture in contemporary America. The picture is a depressing, and often horrifying one. Rape culture, Harding reveals, infects every corner of personal and political life in the United States (and beyond, but Harding’s book focuses on the US).

Rape culture perpetuates itself through social processes: rape myths; misogynistic standards and stereotypes about gender and sexuality; even ostensibly positive messages intended to convey advice on safety, but which wind up entrenching responsibility for preventing sexual violence on women instead of the men who perpetrate the crimes. Harding systematically debunks some of the most prevalent myths and stereotypes, and emphasizes the importance of education at the earliest possible age. Otherwise, she astutely warns, “every American boy is at risk of growing up to become a rapist.”

The term ‘rape culture’ might seem to denote a vast and overwhelming subject, but Harding relentlessly and determinedly tackles the breadth of this modern American nightmare. She explores the role and responsibility of bystanders (of all genders) when it comes to rape culture (from perpetuating rape jokes to intervening and preventing sexual assault), and the intractable quagmire of false accusations. The biggest problem with false accusations, of course, is not that they actually happen – the overwhelming majority of rape accusations are true – but that the illusion of false accusations serves to play a disproportionate role in deterring victims from coming forward (fear that they won’t be believed or able to prove their case) as well as deterring law enforcement officials from pursuing cases (for much the same reasons).

Harding then sets her sights on the justice system, both law enforcement and judicial processes alike. She looks at cases of officers (like Holtzclaw) who committed rape; at law enforcement departments that lose crucial evidence (both intentionally and through negligence) or fail to pursue cases; at retribution that is often directed against women who do come forward; and at the way in which victim blaming and the conduct of investigations can lead to terribly unjust outcomes in court.

One of the pernicious problems, explains Harding (and one doubtless related to the phantom of false accusations), is the notion of ‘unreasonable doubts’. The argument goes that in cases of rape, barring extenuating evidence there’s no way of knowing what happened: it’s two people’s word against each other. That’s nonsense, writes Harding: “You’re not being as objective as possible when you do that; you’re betraying a bias against anyone claiming to be a victim.” Police operate on suspicions all the time, and either way, a testimony of someone saying they’ve been raped is evidence, and one which juries and the public must then decide whether they believe.

“As human beings, we are endowed with discernment, which allows us to make decisions about whom to trust and whom to doubt… So when you hear that one person has accused another of rape, you most certainly are allowed to use your own reason, judgment, and lifetime’s worth of accumulated social skills to determine whether you believe what the accuser is saying.” Failing to do so – shrugging and turning away from an accusation while saying you have no ability to know the truth – only serves to perpetuate a rape culture that is biased against rape victims.

An important part of this involves believing victims. “The victim’s account is evidence,” writes Harding. “Even when she was drunk. Even when she’s accusing a celebrity. Even when she’s a sex worker. Even when she’s trans. Even when the victim is not a woman. Testimony is a real and admissible form of evidence. It’s not the kind of evidence prosecutors like to hang a case on, and on its own, it’s probably not enough to persuade a jury to convict. But we must stop putting the burden of proof on victims of sexual assault and rape.”

This is more than an academic exercise, Harding reminds us. Not only are the lives and experience of the victims at stake, but failing to respect and believe victims reinforces rape culture more broadly and means that rapists are routinely set free to rape again.

Rape culture is entangled in political culture, too. Harding looks at the complicated ways in which rape is taken up by pro-choice and anti-abortion activists. Political debates about rape frequently become infused with moralistic agendas, and in the case of recent US politics have led to entirely bizarre and ludicrously unscientific theories being propounded as fact by conservative politicians. The surreal biological fantasies of these politicians would sound almost comical were it not for the devastating impact they have in upholding a culture of violence against American women.

In the book’s final section, Harding explores the role of popular culture in reinforcing and spreading rape culture. In addition to perpetuating myths and flatly inaccurate theories, glorifying misogyny and rape culture remains a major problem in popular culture. Rape culture’s entanglement in pop culture spans the gamut, from music, film and television to gamer culture. Again, Harding systematically works her way through the trouble-spots, from internet trolls to Pick-Up-Artists to Men’s Rights Activists.

The breadth of Harding’s book is remarkable, offering a thoughtful if cursory overview of the many dimensions and facets of rape culture in American society. The tone is unapologetic, and refreshingly free of ciscentric/transphobic and ableist language.

The style is conversational, informal, and often reads like an extended blog. It’s not an academic text, although there’s a lot here that could be useful for instructional purposes. Some readers might be put-off by the conversational and informal tone of the book, and the blog-like way in which it reads, replete with colloquialisms and cursing. But the flip-side of this is that it enhances the accessibility of the text, which reads at a level accessible to those without any prior grounding in feminist theory or writing.

The discussion of rape in contemporary popular culture (she focuses on music and television) is particularly strong. Pop culture’s treatment of rape is becoming increasingly complex: on the one hand, some television programs are beginning to treat rape in complex and realistic ways, moving away from the worst myths and portraying the complicated realities, including the ignorant responses of law enforcement and offering a more realistic portrayal of victims and rapists. Yet other prominent programs, movies and performers continue to perpetuate damaging myths and wholly inaccurate narratives. A complicated dimension of this involves programs – Law & Order: Special Victims Unit among them – which purportedly try to educate by scripting myths and inaccurate stereotypes into the mouths of male characters (so they can be debunked and challenged, inevitably by the female leads).

Yet there’s a problem here, notes Harding. “I understand that the writers are only trying to present common reactions to claims of rape, but putting such remarks in the mouths of law enforcement characters is rape culture in action,” she warns. It leads to a culture “where a jury can listen to police officers describe going back to a drunk woman’s house at three to “snuggle” and think, “Yeah, that sounds reasonable.” The entertainment we consume both reflects and reifies the rape myths we cherish.”

Asking For It is a harrowing read, and offers many potentially triggering examples of rape culture and sexual violence. But it contains a message of hope, too. Identifying and acknowledging the multiple sources and expressions of rape culture helps us to recognize ways to tackle them. In countries like the US where a range of law enforcement personnel are elected to office, their records can be reviewed to identify the ones that subscribe to – and perpetuate – stereotypes and myths.

As Harding notes, many of those who perpetuate rape culture and the impunity of rapists “are elected officials – judges, sheriffs, prosecuting attorneys. The next time these positions come up for vote in your community, resist the temptation to blow off that part of the ballot. Take the time to Google the candidates beforehand, and see how they’ve handled past sex crimes. We might not be able to fix the fundamental problem of cases that boil down to one person’s word against another’s, but we can at least vote out the worst victim blamers, slackers, and rape apologists in positions of power… using your vote in every election is the number one thing you can do to keep ignorant clowns out of office.”

In pop culture, entertainment consumers and fans have greater power to affect and shape the entertainment they consume than ever before. “[W]e live in an age of unprecedented communication between entertainment creators and consumers,” writes Harding. “We can tweet at musicians and film directors, comment in TV forums that showrunners read, and ask our favorite actors “anything” when they visit Reddit… The walls that used to surround the entertainment industry have grown porous, and fans increasingly feel entitled to demand media that doesn’t insult their intelligence or humanity.”

Harding’s book demonstrates how grimly tenacious rape culture remains in our society. But increasingly, it is being talked about openly. Celebrities and law enforcement officials alike are finally being called out for their ignorance and charged with their crimes. A variety of creative and unapologetic movements, from our college campuses to the streets of our communities, are demanding change.

This new activism against rape culture, concludes Harding on a hopeful note, “will move us from a rape culture to one that respects women’s autonomy, takes sexual violence against any person seriously, and holds perpetrators accountable. As for the rest of us, the least we can do is try to keep their path forward clear.”

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