Revised. Updates I & II below:
Apparently the U.S., unlike India, has moved past its own backward history of victim-blaming. Apparently, I am to believe, according to the New York Times and Nicholas Kristof, that it is India which must deal with its sexual violence. And the Good Mr. Kristoff and the New York Times know this because the US has dealt with its own sexual violence. It’s now in the past, judging from the smug authority of the Times.
The victim of gang-rape in India, as many of us know, died several days ago after having been brutally beaten, essentially to death. From the moment that the rape made the international news, even before she died, there was a collective audible, transnational gasp.
That gasp turned—-rightfully–into a loud protest by Indians, against an environment of fear and danger that is perpetuated from various segments of society. These include the police, who have been unwilling to protect women or arrest men who have been accused of rape. They include courts, who are unwilling to arrest and try accused rapists. These include politicians and media, who engage in victim-blaming. These include communities who are unwilling to defend their female family members who have been sexually assaulted.
That gasp also induced a gaping at what Margaret Kimberley calls the pornography of suffering—where first world denizens are mesmerized, horrified, by the spectacle of rapes in non-first world locales with darker residents. In the cases of Congo and Somalia, the spectacle is amplified by the long-standing racist fetishization of black men’s sexuality. While India may not have the same associations, it is nevertheless subject to its own version of Orientalism: India is either the peaceful refuge of Om Shanti Shanti yoga chants and ashrams, or invoked for its seemingly unmatched teeming poverty and malnutrition. The men in this picture, over the last 3 weeks, thanks to the focus by Western media, are now the singular demons of unchecked sexual predation.
Indeed, it is difficult to miss the incessant focus by first world denizens and media at the “backwards” culture of India, such that, as one interlocutor informed me, “they have a history of victim-blaming” there.
It must be a relief for denizens of the Global North to point fingers at the “regressive” cultures of the darker nations. Perhaps the spectacle of Indians marching in protest at the rape allows for the convenient, momentary forgetfulness (or maybe continued avoidance) of the US’s state-led policy of “inadvertently” or deliberately killing and torturing children, some of whom had the audacity to be born to irresponsible terrorist fathers—as Robert Gibbs reminds us. It allows Americans to be undistracted by the racial profiling thousands of Black and Muslim men, or incarceration of hundreds of thousands of Black men in a gratuitous war on drugs, renditions and imprisonment of hundreds of Muslim men—most without ever knowing the charges against them. But at least we know it is because “they are terrorists.” It is a good thing that the US doesn’t have a history of victim-blaming.
Perhaps the spectacle of 3rd world rape allows Americans to forget its own “rape culture”–the one where the US has had a long history of putting the victims of sexual assault on trial while ostensibly pretending that they were holding a fair trial for suspected rapists. The one where 11 year old girls are gang-raped— –continuously over a period of months. And in which the entire town and one of the nation’s leading newspapers—the same one which points to India’s need to straighten itself out—manages to blame the child. Yes, that moral beacon of colonialism and hypocrisy: the New York Times.
According to The National Women’s Study and the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 683,000 women are raped annually in the United States. That equals 1.3 rapes every 3 minutes, 78 rapes hourly, and 1,871 rapes daily. These numbers are hardly insignificant. And they only indicate reported rapes. Eleanor Bader points to a Department of Justice August 2012 study that states that 33% of sexual victimization of the general public goes unreported.
Combined, these numbers indicate a serious rape culture in the U.S., one where Sen. Todd Aikin can openly claim that “legitimate rapes” don’t cause pregnancy. Or as Senate candidate Richard Mourdock claimed, rape “is something that God intended.”
Consider Steuben, Ohio, where members of the high school football team are accused of drugging, gang-raping, urinating on, and carrying an unconsconscious female teen from party to party. One is accused of taking a nude picture or video of the girl. And no one in the entire town stepped forward to say what they saw—despite reams of evidence that appear to be circulating on Facebook, and elsewhere. Including statements about how “Some people deserve to be peed on.”
But it’s India that has a culture of “victim-blaming.” Clearly, the U.S. isn’t backwards at all. I now recognize the New York Times’ moral authority in wagging its journalistic finger at India’s “backward” culture. If I didn’t, I might be a little shaken by the statistics of sexual assault that occurred in US state and federal prisons, and jails, ICE special confinement facilities, and Indian reservation prisons:
Out of 81,566 inmates interviewed in 2008-9, 11,600 reported an unwanted sexual incident with another prison inmate. 15,800 reported an unwanted sexual incident that occurred with prison staff. 3,400 inmates reported unwanted sexual incidents by both inmates and staff.
1% of prisoners report having been the target of nonconsensual sexual acts: or approximately 815 inmates. And these are only the reported sexual assaults. If we assume that rapes in prison go unreported at the same rate as those in the general public (and the likelihood is that the percentage is even higher), then there is a very strong manifestation of rape culture in U.S. prisons.
In an earlier 2007 study by the Department of Justice, as cited by Eleanor Bader, out of over 40,000 inmates in local jails, 5.1% of women and 2.9% of men experienced some form of sexual assault.
Of course, it is easy to compartmentalize these statistics by somehow assuming that they are occurring to members of a criminal(ized), therefore deranged, primitive segment of the population—which is “rightfully” in prison. Until we remember the range of laws that can easily land someone in prison: 3 strikes, you’re out; material support statute violations, excessive drug laws, hate crimes laws (which disproportionately target minorities), etc.
In other words, the victims consist of many folks who are dangerously similar to many of us: one mistake, or skin color, or religion, or race, away from prison time. And like the western focus on India, the visual spectacle of dark men raping or dark women being raped somehow lands a collective Western audience in a state of horror that is strangely absent when considering rape in a whitely context:
In March of this year, a few media sources reported the death of a Ukrainian teen, who was gang-raped, strangled and set on fire by the sons of government officials. She had burns over 55% of her body, and had both of her feet and one arm amputated in an attempt to save her. Before she died, she made a video from her hospital bed naming her assaulters. Hundreds of Ukrainians marched in protest of her death. There was very little outrage from the rest of the world. There was no NYT editorial warning the Ukraine to get its house in order, even as it reported that 2 of the young men arrested in the incident were released by prosecutors.
It is hard, then, to argue that the reason so much attention was paid to the circumstances of the Indian woman was because of the horrific nature of the crime. Because she was gang-raped and beaten to death. Our hearts, mine included, went numb. But so did my heart when I learned of the 11-year old who was gang-raped.
So did my heart when I followed the news of the young boys induced to trust Jerry Sandusky, only to be brutally betrayed. Only to feel that they must keep silent because of the stigma surrounding male rape. Because their families relied on Sandusky to raise their boys, to provide care and a “male role model.”
So did my heart when I learned of the woman who was horrifically and brutally raped, beaten, and killed by members of a “cult.” Rape victims die in the US. They die horrific deaths. And somehow they don’t grab our attention in the way that the horrible fate of this young woman did.
But they should–in order to challenge the systematicity of rape in every single society. In order to challenge the patriarchy of every single society, the abuse of power that enables girl-children and boy-children, to be raped.
Ten of thousands of Indian citizens marched in protest of the fear and danger that surround Indian women. Imagine if mothers and daughters across the US had marched in protest of the rape and murder of Lalita Patel, a 62 year-old South Asian woman, who was killed by a U.S. army veteran this past summer.
Or after U.S. troops raped several Afghan women earlier last month.
Couldn’t we have drawn attention to the horror of rape? Many young women and their allies did march in Canada and across the US last year. It was called the “Slutwalk.” They marched in protest of victim-blaming—by a Canadian police officer who insisted that women learn not to dress like sluts. (Oh, wait—sounds a lot like the claims of Indian policemen who blame Indian rape victims). The name alone created such a distraction that the fact of the protests around the US and Canada was lost amidst the debates over the name.
Indian women fear traveling outside by themselves, or late at night, or traveling alone at all. So do many women in the US. Yet, only the horrific, horrible tragedy of a young woman in Delhi can make us pause and think about rape.
Shouldn’t the gang-rapes of children, teenaged girls, and women in the US, in North America, in France, by ordinary men as well as by political elites such as Dominique Strauss-Kahn, make us pause? Perhaps the NYT and Nicholas Kristof might be able to persuade the Western world to get its own house in order.
Update (12 pm, Jan 2): As of the latest NDAA, which goes into effect tomorrow, U.S. servicewomen will now be able to have Department of Defense-funded abortions in cases of rape and incest (Sec. 704). Sen. John McCain, feminist that he is, has endorsed a provision, according to NYT, that would “ensure” that U.S. servicewomen who are subject to sexual assault “will be treated with fairness.” This will be one of primary benefits of NDAA —a benefit that is not extended to women outside of the service, nor to those who are not federal employees.
How exactly does this ensure “fairness” for US servicewomen who are victims of sexual assault? It allows them to have access to coverage for abortions. It doesn’t exactly protect them or decrease the chances of sexual assault. Still, it is a huge feminist stance compared to Aikin or Mourdock’s positions, but also an admission of a rape culture in the U.S. Armed Services.
Update: (10:28 am, Jan. 15): According to this trailer for “Invisible War,” a Sundance Film on the pervasive rape culture in the U.S. Army, 16,150 sexual assaults occurred in 2009, and 500,000 men and women have been assaulted in total (I think that number refers to reported assaults; I wonder if the total number is significantly larger).