Today I’m on The Catholic Feminist Podcast

The delightful Claire Swinarski graciously invited me to be on her podcast, The Catholic Feminist. My episode, #50, is up today. It was so refreshing to talk to a young Catholic woman who both loves the Faith and isn’t allergic to the word “feminist.”

Among other topics, we talked about “#metoo,” about why Damien and I covered the Christendom story, how virginity culture objectifies people, how to teach consent so it dovetails with a Catholic understanding of human dignity, and how to come back to Christ after the Church has failed you. You can hear the podcast on The Catholic Feminist Podcast site, or listen to it right here:

Are women safe in Christendom’s bubble? Part I

Christendom College, a small, Catholic, liberal arts school in Front Royal Virginia, celebrated its 40th anniversary last year. Christendom is praised as a safe haven where young students can focus on their studies, grow in their faith, and “breathe the Catholic air.” But several former and current students say the school’s sheltered, highly structured campus culture actually facilitates sexual assault — and that the administration works harder to protect its reputation than it does to protect its students.

The Cardinal Newman Society, which publishes an authoritative annual guide to Catholic Colleges, says Christendom “makes a point to emphasize virtuous living, which translates to a faithful Catholic lifestyle and strong friendships. With this goal in mind, the College utilizes single-sex dormitories, visitation policies to promote chastity, planned weekly events as a way to proactively promote sobriety and counter any temptation toward a ‘drinking scene,’ and spiritual programs to foster students’ prayer lives and spirituality.”

Adele Smith, class of 2012, experienced some culture shock when she arrived at Christendom. Accustomed to a large, sociable, extended family, she knew Christendom would be conservative, but was bemused by the strict segregation of males and females. She describes the “open houses” that would take place in the dorms once a semester.

“The girls would get baked goods and candy, and the guys would come into the dorm and take a tour. It was very much like a museum, like an exhibit. It was the same with the guys’ open house, except they’d have TVs and video games. ‘This is how the native people on the men’s side of campus live!’ This is not how young people engage in a normal way. It felt like a human zoo.”

The school’s rigid rules governing male and female interaction weren’t just awkward, though. Smith claims they are dangerous.

Rigid student life rules drive students off campus

She says that the rules against romantic public displays of affection were so restrictive, it drove couples off campus. Because Christendom is in a rural, isolated spot with few restaurants, clubs, museums or theaters, going off campus generally means going into the woods or into a field.

“It’s just a natural human need to connect with someone you’re in a relationship with,” Smith said. “Just to hold hands, they’d go off campus for a date; and by ‘off campus,’ it could in be in the woods, or in a field down the road. There are not a lot of options if you don’t have a car. So you end up having couples potentially isolate themselves. They should be able to express themselves romantically in a public setting, which is a safer setting to learn how to navigate as a couple. Instead, you’re put into remote, isolated areas where things can get out of hand.”

That’s precisely what happened when Smith was raped by her then-boyfriend, a fellow Christendom student. The rape occurred on Friday, October 2, 2009, on Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park, about thirty minutes away from the college campus. We contacted the young man and he has not yet responded, so we are not using his name at this time.

“He had sex with me, and I didn’t want to.”

Smith, who was then a sophomore, says she was so naive, she didn’t even know to use the word “rape” until many months later. She told her friends, “He had sex with me, and I didn’t want to.”

Smith had hurt her back in a car accident when she was a freshman. On the day of the rape, she re-injured her back while cleaning her room for Homecoming Weekend, and so her new boyfriend suggested that they have a low-key, relaxing date.

He didn’t have a license, so, at his suggestion, they borrowed a friend’s car and she drove them up to a scenic point overlooking the Blue Ridge Mountains. He told her her back might be more comfortable in the back seat, and they could put the laptop in the center console to listen to music.

“In retrospect, I can say, ‘You’re a dummy!’ But back then, I was nineteen. He was my friend, I knew him, I knew his sister, and it felt very natural sitting in the back,” Smith said.

He started kissing her. She had no objection, as they had kissed before. But when he started putting his hand inside her shirt, she told him “No,” and pushed his hand away. She said, “I’m not comfortable with that,” and he said, “Okay.”

“Then he tried it again, and I pushed his hand away, and said, ‘Please, I don’t want to do that.’ He said, ‘Okay.’ Then he tried a third time,” she said.

They were in a confined space; the young man was around six feet tall, and Smith is five feet tall.

“If it was me vs. a kitten, the kitten would win,” Smith says.

“I can’t stop him, apparently.”

She had been diagnosed with depression and an anxiety disorder after graduating high school, and her anxiety kicked in at this point. She said she realized she could not stop the man.

“He’s not stopping. I’ve told him three times not to. I can’t stop him, apparently,” she recalled thinking.

The young man then started unbuttoning her jeans, and she again told him “No.” He pulled her down so she was flat on the back seat.

“I had my arms pushed together, my elbows to my hands pushed together in front of my chest, trying to keep myself covered. He pushed my arms apart with his hands. My legs were tightly closed. He took his knee and pushed my legs open, pulled my shirt off, and pulled my jeans down. I felt him,” she said.

“Up until that point, I considered myself fairly knowledgeable,” she said. “But it took me a second to realize what was happening. I remember thinking, ‘Is that what I think it is? Is that what’s happening right now?'”

“Why are you making such a big deal of it?”

Smith does not remember getting dressed after the rape. She remembers standing outside the car, smoking a cigarette and shaking, and her boyfriend saying he didn’t know why she was making such a big deal out of it. So she drove them down the mountain and back to campus.

It took all of her strength not to drive off the mountain. She returned the car to her friend, went back to her dorm, sat down in the shower fully clothed, and cried.

Although Smith’s patron is Maria Goretti, the teenaged saint who was stabbed to death while resisting rape, Smith said the concept of rape was foreign to her. She didn’t want to accept that something so ugly had happened to her.

“When I tried to figure out what had happened, I would say, ‘He had sex with me, but I didn’t,’” she said.

Smith texted her boyfriend the next day, saying she didn’t want to see him again. He responded by calling her a bitch and a prude, and saying, “You know you liked it.” She blocked his number.

The victims always blame themselves.

Smith skipped many classes her sophomore year, unable to endure being in the same room with him. Her GPA slipped to 1.2.

It wasn’t until the beginning of her junior year that she heard the word “rape” applied to her ordeal. She was at a party hosted by her theology teacher, Eric Jenislawski, after a meeting of the Chester-Belloc Debate Society. Smith and her brother stayed long after midnight talking, and Jenislawski told her he knew something had happened to her. He said she noticed a change in her, and wanted her to know he was there to help her if she wanted to talk.

Smith told him what happened

“I’m so sorry you were raped,” Jenislawski said.

At first she didn’t want to allow that word, and grew defensive, blaming herself for the assault.

“When you’re Catholic you’re taught that your virginity is one of the best gifts you have, a gift you can give your husband,” Smith said. “I had been a virgin. I had been waiting for marriage. I was that fallen woman, and I didn’t want my parents to see me that way. That was not how my parents were, but sex assault is unique crime. The victims always blame themselves.”

But Jenislawski was the first one who made her feel like the rape wasn’t her fault. He encouraged her to get counseling and to tell the school administration what had happened. An RA friend, Elizabeth Foeckler, also encouraged her to go to the administration.

“I had seen already something was wrong, something had happened,” Foeckler said.

The idea of reporting her rape scared Smith. The young man was charismatic, well-known, and well-liked on campus. When she told a few of her friends that something had happened between them, he began circulating the story that she had seduced him and then regretted it.

“Hit me.”

He then began approaching and provoking her on campus. One day, she was sitting and waiting for a friend to come out of his dorm, and the young man who had assaulted her came out. He sat beside her and began to make small talk, putting his hand on her leg. She felt frozen and could not reply. After what felt like hours, he left. She fled to her dorm and went to bed.

Another day, while other students played some sort of game on campus, the young man approached her and began to insist that she slap him across the face.

“He kept saying, ‘Hit me.’ He kept grabbing my hand and trying to make me slap him,” Smith said.

Smith thinks he might have been trying to make it appear that she was the one who assaulted him. He also told some students that she pulled a knife and forced him into sexual acts.

Smith’s grades continued to slide, and her mental and physical health suffered as students and even outsiders, people she didn’t know, would approach her in the dining hall to talk about the ordeal.

The chances of going to trial are very low.

In April of 2011, Smith decided to tell the police about the rape. Front Royal Police told her it was out of their jurisdiction, since it had happened in a national park. Discouraged, Smith hesitated, then eventually called law enforcement rangers and met with them at Shenandoah National Park.

They explained to her that a prosecutor would take her case, but that the chances of going to trial, much less of the young man being prosecuted, were very low.

Smith’s father consulted with a lawyer friend, who said that the best they could realistically hope for would be that the young man’s record would include an accusation of rape. If he was accused again in the future, the record would help support that accusation.

“But the job of the press would be to make me out a liar,” Smith said, noting that rape victims often find the trial to be more traumatizing than the actual event. “The idea of being torn apart in court by someone with a law degree, and it being in the paper, was too much for me to imagine. So I pinned all my hopes for justice on my Catholic, conservative college, to uphold moral principles.”

So she went to the then-dean, Jesse Dorman, and reported the rape and subsequent harassment. The school promised to conduct a “complete and careful investigation.”

In loco parentis

Next came many months of frustration for the Smith family. In a letter dated May 16, 2011, Scott Smith, her father, wrote to Timothy O’Donnell, the president of Christendom,

“Adele’s grades plummeted that first semester of her sophomore year. She sought psychological help from Dr. Patrick Divietri. She has nightmares about the incident. She developed Crohn’s disease, a disease exacerbated by severe stress. Adele has no ‘bad girl’ reputation on campus. Her subsequent behavior is entirely consistent with that of someone who has been traumatized and assaulted. She implored [her brother] Peter to continue to live in Front Royal and to visit the campus often because she felt so unsafe.”

Scott Smith states in his letter that he left messages for nearly a week before he was able to arrange to speak to the dean, and that the telephone conference was “disquieting.”

“We clearly received the impression that Mr. Dorman wasn’t going to do anything . . . Mr. Dorman showed no apparent interest in pursuing any sort of investigation,” Scott Smith wrote.

Dorman, who no longer works for Christendom, did not respond to requests for an interview for this story.

Smith’s parents also drove the four hundred miles to meet with the dean, hoping to encourage him to take the charges against their daughter’s rapist seriously.

“Forgettable as most commencement addresses are, I remember yours clearly,” Scott Smith wrote to O’Donnell. “You spoke to the parents of the graduating students gathered there of the profound sense of responsibility you felt of acting in loco parentis for our children and your gratitude that we, as their parents, had entrusted our children to you . . .

“But here Christendom has done the opposite. It has sent the implicit message to women at Christendom that the such attacks ‘within the Christendom family’ will be tolerated, that the attacker will receive no punishment, that women who are attacked will have to endure the fear of retaliation, both on a physical level, and on the level of damage to their reputations.”

“So now my daughter must endure the presence of her attacker on the campus. Each day that goes by, she is reminded that nothing will happen to him. Each day she is persuaded that the college has no intention of supporting her.

A week later, in a letter dated May 23, 2011, President O’Donnell responded.

“Respectfully, I must disagree with your recollection . . . [in loco parentis] is not a phrase that I use with any frequency,” O’Donnell wrote toward the end of his letter to Scott Smith. “But more importantly, I think that you might be using the term more broadly than is appropriate in this matter. In speaking with our counsel, it is my understanding that under Virginia law, the doctrine of in loco parentis as applied to colleges and universities simply means that Christendom has a responsibility to provide a safe campus for its students. Christendom is very diligent in making sure that it provides a safe campus for the education of our students.”

Throughout the letter, O’Donnell refers to the young man by his last name, but refers to Adele Smith by her first name.

In the letter, O’Donnell tells Smith’s father that the school “understands the anguish” the Smith family is feeling as they wait for a judgment against the young man, and that the college will make “a complete and careful investigation of [Smith’s] allegations before rendering a decision that will impact both the life of the accused and the accuser.”

“After a prior incident”

Two months later, the school explained what the young man would be charged with: harassing Smith “after a prior incident.” The charges do not mention rape.

In the charge letter delivered to the young man on July 19, 2011, then-dean Jesse Dorman wrote:

“The intent of the Student Life Office is to support each student as he or she works to grow in virtue . . .

“we have reports that indicate that you have violated the Code of Student Conduct by harassing another student and causing emotional harm. The reports indicate that Adele Smith indicated, after a prior incident with you, that she no longer wanted a relationship with you. Then on November 24, 2009, you sat next to her on a bench and made unwanted contact with her by placing your hand on her knee. Furthermore, it is alleged that you continued to harass her by trying to provoke her to slap you, hit you or kiss you. Another student instructed you to leave her alone but you continued. After Adele did slap you, you allegedly said, ‘If you slapped me really hard and it really hurt, I wouldn’t want to kiss you.’ It is further alleged that on other occasions you went out of your way to volunteer with groups of friends that Adele had seduced you.

“Therefore, you are being charged with violating the Code of Student Conduct.”

A disciplinary conference was scheduled for July 28 of 2011. The school determined the young man was “responsible for the violation of Harassment.”

His punishment: He could not live on campus for one semester, and he could not contact Adele Smith.

Smith and her family were floored. There was no mention of her accusation of rape, either in the charge letter or in the sanction letter. The entire passage describing his offense is as follows:

“Specifically, you admitted: to placing your hand on Adele Smith’s knee, attempting to provoke her to slap you and or to kiss you to deal with her frustrations with you, and finally for telling some students around campus that she had seduced you. You did emphasize at length with regards to the first two incidents that they were not done maliciously and you found them to be normal interactions. As I informed you at the meeting, I do not find these interactions with Adele to be acceptable, appropriate, or in keeping with our Code of Student Conduct. Therefore I found you responsible for the violation of Harassment.”

What does the handbook say?

The school apparently based its response on two facts: First, there was, in 2011, no clause in the student handbook prohibiting sexual assault. Amanda Graf, the current Director of Student Affairs at Christendom, confirms that student handbook did not include a policy against sexual assault until 2013, two years after Smith reported her rape.

Second, the rape occurred off campus; and so the school considered itself helpless to respond to it.

“[T]he alleged assault of Adele did not take place on campus. Rather, the incident apparently occurred in a national park several miles away from Christendom’s campus,” O’Donnell wrote in his letter to Scott Smith. “Moreover, both Adele and Mr. [redacted] are adults — meaning that Christendom faculty and staff have inherently limited options for enforcing standards of appropriate (or even prudent) conduct, especially when students leave the confines of campus.”

When you come back to campus, you’re still a rapist.

Students are, however, punished for coming back to campus drunk, even if the drinking took place off campus — for instance, at “The River,” a popular drinking spot where even professors are known to visit and socialize. “The River” and the drinking that occurs there is an open secret that the administration is aware of.

“I always find it interesting they always try to punish students for drinking off campus, if you come back to campus drunk,” Smith said. “I say, if you rape off campus, when you come back to campus, you’re still a rapist.”

Smith says that the administration cracked down on professors hosting off-campus parties, because they involved drinking. The message delivered was clear, according to Smith.

“We care if you drink off campus, but not if you rape off campus,” she said.

Sanctions

Although the school imposed sanctions on the young man, he was taken under the wing of one of its founders and professors, William Marshner, and he lived in Marshner’s house for the semester he was barred from living on campus. Marshner has since left Christendom.

After the sanctions were imposed, Smith and the young man still had classes together, including core classes that were required for all students.

“It was up to me to avoid him,” she said. “I would go down the road to the convenience store, and he’d be sitting outside, and I couldn’t walk in. I would go to the only cafe in town, and he’d be sitting outside. I would turn around and drive right back. All his body language was hostile and arrogant.”

Her focus and concentration were gone.  Her grades continued to be low for the rest of her junior year.

“It was my story.”

Then, one day during her senior year, her friend texted her that Marshner was talking about her in his moral theology class, using thinly veiled language.

The teacher gave the class a hypothetical example of a young man and woman who were dating and decided to go off campus to Skyline Drive. In the example, they decide to fornicate, but then the young woman regrets her choice, and decides to claim the young man attacked her.

“In what world is this okay?” Smith said. “It was my story. Everyone knew.”

Smith complained to the school, and she says they gave Marshner “a slap on the wrist.”

Smith considered leaving the college, and looked into other schools. Her parents, brother, and friends encouraged her to transfer.

“But the stubborn Irish in me determined if I left, he would win. He’s taken enough from me; he’s not gonna take this.”

But he did take it away from her, she says.

“I can’t get into grad school with my GPA. It’s hard to explain why my GPA is so poor.”

It takes a long time to change the handbook.

The young man left Christendom in Smith’s senior year. His absence helped her reclaim some of her focus. But in that year, 2012, a year after she reported her rape, the school still had not added a policy against sexual assault to their student handbook.

“There was nothing to stop this from happening again,” Smith said.

Smith says the school claimed it “takes a long time” to implement changes in school policy.

“No, it takes opening a word document and writing it up: ‘Don’t rape people.’ If there’s a single member on your board who has an issue with that, they shouldn’t be on that board,” Smith said.

Smith continued to call the school after graduation to see if they had changed the policy. In 2013, after Smith had graduated from the school, she again downloaded the student handbook and was aghast to see there was still no language forbidding sexual assault by students. It wasn’t until August of that year  that the language was added to the handbook.

The student handbook now includes a sexual assault policy.

Christendom College does not receive federal funding, and so is not subject to Title IX regulations, which would legally require it to respond to and remedy hostile educational environments. This also means there is no publicly available data about sexual assaults or other crimes taking place on campus, as is required of Title IX schools.

***

This story was researched and reported by Damien and Simcha Fisher.

 This is the end of part I. Part II can be found here. Below are pdfs of the four letters referenced above.
***
Image credits:
christendom sign: By AgnosticPreachersKid (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Mary Statue By AgnosticPreachersKid (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
regina coeli hall By AgnosticPreachersKid – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=49352616
student center By AgnosticPreachersKid – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=49352611
front royal clock  Clevergrrl via FLickr
church By AgnosticPreachersKid (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
men’s dorm By AgnosticPreachersKid (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
seal By Niall ODonnell (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

If she was sexually assaulted, why didn’t she say something sooner?

“Me too” has passed, but in its wake, more and more women are publicly accusing powerful men of sexual assault.

2017 being what it is, there are no good guys, left or right. We elected an open sexual predator to lead our country in the paths of goodness and grace, and now republican hero Roy Moore is (please God) on his way out; but Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Louis CK are beloved of the left, and they too are guilty as hell.  Vox, ABC news and NPR are yielding up their pigs. The Atlantic has suddenly noticed that Bill Clinton is super guilty, and so is everyone who made excuses for him.

So, that’s new. We can no longer pretend that it’s only the deviant left or the hypocritical right who harbor sex predators. It’s everywhere. It’s everyone. And that makes it harder to cling to the old binary political fairytales of good us vs. evil them.

One thing hasn’t changed, though. When a woman comes forward and says she’s been assaulted, we can still come together as a country and tell her it’s all her fault. I wrote this essay back in 2014, at the height of the Bill Cosby scandal, and was discouraged, if not surprised, to see how few edits were necessary to make it relevant today.

Here is what I have learned about sexual assault:

  • If you tell the police you’ve been sexually assaulted, it’s because you’re looking for attention. You should file a civil suit, instead.
  • If you file a civil suit, it’s because you’re looking for money, and are not telling the truth.
  • If you don’t file a civil suit, that shows you don’t have a case, and are not telling the truth.
  • If you tell someone right away, that shows suspicious presence of mind, and proves that you engineered the whole thing to embarrass the alleged perpetrator.
  • If you don’t tell anyone right away, that shows a suspicious lack of urgency, and proves that you are making up the story for no reason other than to embarrass the alleged perpetrator.
  • If you don’t file a civil suit, it shows that you don’t need the money and are just doing it for attention, because people love the kind of fabulous attention they get when they accuse someone of sexual assault, especially if that person is popular or powerful.
  • If you do file a civil suit, it shows that you’re such a gold digger, you don’t mind getting all the horrible attention that no victim in her right mind would want to get, especially if the alleged perpetrator is popular or powerful.
  • If you’re the only one who accuses someone of sexual assault, it shows that your story is unbelievable.
  • If lots of other people make similar accusations, that is suspiciously orchestrated, and shows that your story is unbelievable.
  • If you were in the same room with the person who sexually assaulted you, that shows that you are just as guilty as he is, because you’re in the same room with a sexual predator, and who would do that?
  • If the person you’re accusing of sexual assault is rich, famous, or powerful, then that shows that you’re just looking for attention, and it never happened.
  • If the person you’re accusing of sexual assault is rich, famous, and powerful, that shows that you should have known he is a sexual predator, and you wanted it to happen.
  • If you tell someone right away, they will assume you’re lying.
  • If you don’t tell anyone right away, they will assume you’re lying, because you didn’t tell anyone right away.

If you tell, that’s a count against you. If you don’t tell, that’s a count against you. If you speak alone, that’s a count against you. If you speak as one of a crowd, that’s a count against you. If you sue, that’s a count against you. If you don’t sue, that’s a count against you.

If you tell someone that you’ve been sexually assaulted, it probably didn’t actually happen the way you said, and even if it did, it was your fault in some way, and you should have realized that it would happen, and there is no particular reason anyone should believe you, and if you think the rape itself was painful and humiliating, just wait till you see what you’ve got coming next, when you try to tell someone.

So why didn’t you tell someone sooner?

Clearly, because it didn’t happen. There can be no other explanation.

Here’s a recent tweet from Dinesh D’Souza:

And he’s answered his own question. If she was really sexually assaulted, why didn’t she come forward sooner?

This is why. What he said. When a victim does come forward, she is assaulted all over again.

This is what I’ve learned. If you’ve been sexually assaulted, your only real recourse is not to have been sexually assaulted. Anything and everything you do from that moment forward is evidence against you. The deck is stacked against you as a victim because you are a victim. They very moment you even breathe the phrase “sexual assault,” that’s evidence in the minds of many  that no such thing happened, and anyway it was your fault.

So tell me. What is a victim of sexual assault supposed to do, in order to be believed? What? You tell me.

Your recourse if you have been raped

My friend R. was raped many years ago. It was not a story with any gray areas. She was walking home from work when a large man grabbed her, beat and choked her, tied her up with duct tape, locked her up, and raped her dozens of times over the course of days. She eventually escaped and reported what happened as soon as she was able. The man was caught, convicted, and sent to prison.

She kept it a secret when it happened. She didn’t say anything until the day her story came up much later in the news, and she heard some women discussing  . . . her.

Not the rapist. Not the rape. They were discussing her — what she had been wearing, what her sexual history was, what she had been wearing, why she had been in that neighborhood, what she had been wearing, whether she had fought hard enough to get away, and why she hadn’t gone to the police sooner. Why had it happened in the first place? What should she have done differently? What had she been wearing?

And how do we know she’s even telling the truth?

I knew this woman. A gentle, generous, self-effacing human being, a lover of babies and kittens, honest to a fault. The women who wanted to talk about her skirt length didn’t know any this, because they didn’t know her. All they knew was that she had been raped.

And that in itself was a reason not to believe that she had been really raped. It must be her fault somehow. How do we know? Well, she says she was raped, and we know what kind of woman says a thing like that.

Bill Cosby’s attorney knows full well this is how people think, and he’s banking his entire defense argument on it.

Cosby is accused of drugging and sexually violating Andrea Constand. Constand is the only alleged victim in this case, but she is one of over sixty women who have publicly accused Cosby of sexual assault. As the accusations have filtered in over the course of decades, literally every circumstance surrounding the accusation is used against the alleged victim.

Last time Cosby was in the news in 2014, I compiled a list of arguments I heard over and over again — arguments that made me wonder if there was anything a raped woman could say, any way she could respond, any action she could take, that would make people believe her, or even give her the benefit of the doubt.

Here’s what I learned:

  • If you tell the police you’ve been raped, it’s because you’re looking for attention. You should file a civil suit, instead.
  • If you file a civil suit, it’s because you’re looking for money, and are not telling the truth.
  • If you don’t file a civil suit, that shows you don’t have a case, and are not telling the truth.
  • If you tell someone right away, that shows suspicious presence of mind, and proves that you engineered the whole thing to embarrass the alleged perpetrator.
  • If you don’t tell anyone right away, that shows a suspicious lack of urgency, and proves that you are making up the story for no reason other than to embarrass the alleged perpetrator.
  • If you don’t file a civil suit, it shows that you don’t need the money and are just doing it for attention, because people love the kind of fabulous attention they get when they accuse someone of rape, especially if that person is popular or powerful.
  • If you do file a civil suit, it shows that you want the money so badly that you don’t mind getting all the horrible attention that no victim in her right mind would want to get, especially if the alleged perpetrator is popular or powerful.
  • If you’re the only one who accuses someone of rape, it shows that your story is unbelievable.
  • If lots of other people make similar accusations, that is suspiciously orchestrated, and shows that your story is unbelieveable.
  • If you were in the same room with the person who raped you, that shows that you are just as guilty as he is, because you’re in the same room with a rapist, and who would do that?
  • If the person you’re accusing of rape is rich, famous, or powerful, then that shows that you’re just looking for attention, and it never happened.
  • If the person you’re accusing of rape is rich, famous, and powerful, that shows that you should have known he is a rapist, and you wanted it to happen.
  • If you tell someone right away, they will assume you’re lying.
  • If you don’t tell anyone right away, they will assume you’re lying, because you didn’t tell anyone right away.

If you tell, that’s a count against you. If you don’t tell, that’s a count against you. If you speak alone, that’s a count against you. If you speak as one of a crowd, that’s a count against you. If you sue, that’s a count against you. If you don’t sue, that’s a count against you.

If you tell someone that you’ve been raped, it probably didn’t actually happen the way you said, and even if it did, it was your fault in some way, and you should have realized that it would happen, and there is no particular reason anyone should believe you, and if you think the rape itself was painful and humiliating, just wait till you see what you’ve got coming next, when you try to tell someone.

So why didn’t you tell someone sooner?

Clearly, because it didn’t happen. There can be no other explanation.

What I’ve learned is that if you’ve been raped, your only real recourse is not to have been raped. Because anything and everything you do from that moment forward is evidence against you. The deck is stacked against you as a victim because you are a victim. They very moment you even breathe the word “rape,” that’s evidence in the minds of many that no such thing happened, and anyway it was your fault.

Your only real recourse is not to have been raped.

***

Photo by dilettant:nikki via Flickr (Creative Commons)

A portion of this post originally ran at the National Catholic Register in 2014. 

No, “Baby It’s Cold Outside” doesn’t need to be updated to emphasize consent

Unpopular opinion time! “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” isn’t a rape song. It’s not even a rapey song. It’s a seduction song, and we used to know the difference between seduction and rape, before we elevated consent to the highest good.

Apparently there is an arch parody that updates the song to emphasize consent. I despise arch parodies, so I refuse to watch it, and you can’t make me.

For the record, I don’t even especially like the original song. It’s okay, as far as cutesy duets go. It does an adequate job of capturing a familiar relationship between a man and a woman. As with any song, you can make it come across as creepy and criminal; but you can also make it come across as it was originally intended: as playful.  The couple is literally playing a game, a very old one, where the man wants what he wants, and the woman wants it too, but it’s more fun for both of them when he has to work for it a little bit. It’s a song about persuasion. That’s what seduction is, and that’s what makes the song interesting: the tension. If there is no tension, there is no song.

Here are the full lyrics. The woman’s lines are in parenthesis. If you’re convinced this song is a rape song, please do read through the lyrics before you read the rest of this post!

You’ll note that the only protests the woman makes are that her reputation might be soiled. She doesn’t say that she wants to go, only that she should. This is because  . . . I’m dying a little inside because I actually have to say it . . . she actually wants to stay. As women often do, when they are already in a relationship with a man they are attracted to and with whom they have been spending a romantic evening, and whom they have been telling repeatedly that they are actually interested in staying.

Most critics get hung up on the line, “Say, what’s in this drink?” The assumption is that he’s slipped a drug into her cocktail (or, occasionally, that he’s spiked her virgin drink with alcohol). Okay. Or maybe, at the end of an evening of dancing and drinking, he’s added a little more liquor than she’s expecting. Or maybe he hasn’t done anything, other than give her the “half a drink more” she just asked for, and she’s playfully making an excuse for what she’s about to do:  Whoo, what’s in this drink? I’m acting all silly, but it can’t be my fault, mercy me!  This was a standard trope of that era. Anytime something weird goes on, you blame the bottle.

Again: there is no indication, unless you take that one line out of context, that there is anything sinister going on. There is overwhelming evidence, if you listen to the whole song, that it’s a song about a pleasurable interplay between the sexes.

Heck, if we’re going to give this song the darkest possible reading, and single out one line while ignoring the context, why not call it the False Rape Accusation song? After all, the woman says, “At least I’m gonna say that I tried!” You see? She’s calculating a malicious plan to claim that she didn’t give consent, so that when her family and neighbors look askance at her for spending the night, she can make it seem like it was against her will!

Humbug. This is what happens when we’re all trained to see consent as the highest good. This is what happens when we’re trained to ignore context. People who can’t tell the difference between persuasion and force are people who have forgotten why consent is so important.

Consent isn’t valuable in itself. If it were, then it would be a holy and solemn moment when we check the “I agree” box when signing onto free WiFi at Dunkin’ Donuts. Consent is only a good thing because it’s in service to other things — higher things with intrinsic value, such as fidelity, free will, self sacrifice, respect, happiness, integrity, and . . . love. These are all things that you can’t have unless you have consent.

But when all you look for is consent, and you ignore the context, you get two human beings who see each other in rigid roles — business partners with black and white contractual obligations. In short, you have what modern people say they despise about the bad old days: love as a business arrangement.

My friends, I firmly believe there is such a thing as rape culture. When we wink and smirk and say, “Boys will be boys,” we degrade both women and men, and we teach women that they have a duty to give men whatever they want so they’re not a tease or a downer. We teach men that they can’t control themselves. We teach women that they can’t really say no, and that if they do, they’ll be scoffed at or blamed or disbelieved. When we tell the world that “no means maybe,” we’re setting the stage for rape.

But is this song doing that? Or is it just a little vignette of that deliciously warm in-between place, where reasonable people can have fun together? Because when we step outside, and make everything black and white, then, baby, it’s cold. So cold.

We degrade both men and women when we tell them that sex is just another contractual obligation — and that there’s no difference between a violent encounter between strangers, and a playful exchange between a romantic couple, and a violent exchange between a romantic couple, and a loving relationship in marriage, and a violent relationship in marriage. We’re told that the relationship doesn’t matter, and that the actual behavior has no intrinsic meaning. The only thing that matters is consent. We think that focusing on consent will ensure that no one will be degraded or taken advantage of; but instead, it has won us abominations like “empowering porn” and 50 Shades of Gray and even the suggestion that children can give consent.  It wins us a generation of kids that asks things like, “How can I tell if she consents or not, if she’s not conscious?” (A real question I read from a high school kid; I’ll add the link if I can find it again!) These miseries are not a side effect; they are the direct result of a culture that elevates consent to the highest good.

It’s not only promiscuous, secular types whose lives are impoverished by the cold rule of consent. I’m a member of a group of Catholics where one young woman wrote for advice about her husband, who, she tearfully reported, kissed her without first asking consent. This made her feel violated.

It was her husband.

Who kissed her.

And she thought he needed to ask consent every time.

This is where the pendulum has swung. We’ve pathologized the normal, healthy, give-and-take of love. We’ve taught people that there is no such thing as context: that’s it’s fair game to ignore the entire relationship and to reduce each other to business partners.

Now, if you’ve been victimized or abused, then this is probably not going to be your favorite song. You’re free to find it creepy, and you’re free to change the station. But we don’t heal from abuse by turning the whole world into an isolation ward. Healthy relationships, where the context does allow for some interplay and ambiguity, should be the norm, and they should dare to speak their healthy name.

And one more thing (and I could write volumes about this): not everything is a lesson. Not every pop song is a primer for how to behave. I tell my kids that it’s our duty to be aware of what the world is teaching us, for good or ill; but just because we’re learning something doesn’t mean there was a life lesson intended.  Sometimes art, including pop art (like pop songs) is just giving you a slice of human experience, and when it feels familiar, then it’s done well, period.

No wonder people have no idea how to stay married anymore. They expect everything to be a lesson, and they expect those lessons to be black and white. They think that life is going to give them crystal clear boundaries. They think that it’s always going to be obvious what they can expect from other people and from themselves.

I’m not talking about sex, here; I’m talking about love, and about life in general — life without context, life without tension, life without ambiguity, life without play. Baby, it doesn’t get any colder than that.

***
Image: Pedro Ignacio Guridi via Flickr (Creative Commons)
This essay ran in a slightly different form on Aleteia in 2015.

This post is not about Bill Cosby.

If you want to talk about Bill Cosby (or Bill Clinton, or Woody Allen, or Roman Polanski) please find a conversation somewhere else. This post is about what you are supposed to do if you’ve been raped. What’s the next step?

Reading comments by self-identified Catholic conservatives in the last few days, this is what I have learned . . .

Read the rest at the Register.

Bite this, CNN.

don lemon

So I very, very reluctantly watched the clip of someone apparently named “Don Lemon” interviewing the woman who says that Bill Cosby raped her when she was 19.

Gawker transcribes the really hair-raising part of the interview, as follows:

Lemon: Can I ask you this? And please, I don’t mean to be crude, OK?

Tarshis: Yeah.

Lemon: You said this last night, that he — you lied to him and said, “I have an infection, and if you rape me, or if you do — if you have intercourse with me, then you will probably get it and give it to your wife.”

Tarshis: Right.

Lemon: You said he made you perform oral sex.

Tarshis: Right.

Lemon: You — you know, there are ways not to perform oral sex if you didn’t want to do it.

Tarshis: I was kind of stoned at the time, and quite honestly, that didn’t even enter my mind. Now I wish it would have.

Lemon: Right. Meaning the using of the teeth, right?

Tarshis: Yes…I didn’t even think of it.

Lemon: Biting.

Tarshis: Ouch.

Lemon: Yes. I had to ask.

I know I’m supposed to be horrified at the idea that everyone is still, still focusing on telling women that they should have done a better job of defending themselves.

I’m supposed to be horrified that that message far outpaces the messages that men should not rape, must not rape, must not joke about rape, must not fantasize about rape.

I’m supposed to be horrified that that message far outpaces the tremendously useful message that men who hear another man talking about rape, joking about rape, or doing something that seems even a little rapey should beat the shit out of that other man.

But the thing that got me was . . . this is CNN? We’re now talking about biting penises on CNN?

Try this one weird trick for ending the war on women

You know what would cut through 99% of this crap, where we find ourselves arguing about whether or not saying, “Yes, I want to have sex with you” counts as sufficient consent, and whether or not “bystander intervention training” is sexist, and who’s waging a war on whom, and who’s winning?  Try following this simple rule:

If you are not married, assume there is never consent; and if you are married, treat your spouse like a person, not a thing.

I know I know I know. I know all the things, about marital rape and patriarchy and women’s sexual autonomy and the microaggression inherent in chivalry and bias against dads in family court and alllllll the things.

I also know there will be a neverending fountain of confusion and recrimination as long as we treat sex like something that can just happen between anyone at any time, and if we just figure out the right new rules, then no one gets hurt.

We already have figured out the rules. It’s called abstaining before marriage, getting married, having children if you can, and working hard at staying married.   Trying to figure out sex in any other context besides heterosexual marriage is like trying to grow tomatoes in a post-tomato cage era.  Congratulations, you’re free! And now you’re going to fall over and die.

Girls Cannot Give Consent

5034480793_12efd0ce92

Even if she puts on lipstick and arches her eyebrow.

In the third world, they stone a girl to death for being raped.  In the United States, we just give her rapist and de facto murderer a slap on the wrist, and reassure the world that she was asking for it.

Think I’m exaggerating?  Cherice Morales was fourteen when her 49-year-old teacher began to rape her.  Three years later, she killed herself. The reason her story is in the news is because her rapist, Stacey Rambold, got 30 days in jail for the rapes.

After Morales killed herself, Rambold was supposed to complete a sex offender treatment program, but he didn’t.  His case was revived when it was revealed that he was, among other offenses, having unsupervised visits with minors.  His sentencing judge, Judge G. Todd Baugh, who never met the victim, said that she was “as much in control of the situation” as Rambold was, and that she was “older than her chronological age.”  “It was not a violent, forcible, beat-the-victim rape like you see in movies,” he said.  (What kind of movies are you watching, your honor?)

Yesterday, after there was an outcry, the judge apologized for his statements about Morales.  He says that he doesn’t know what he was trying to say, and that his statements are not relevant to the sentencing.  But he isn’t rescinding the sentencing, either.  Thirty days is what the man gets, minus one day already served.

In this raw and profane piece in xo jane, a woman who suffered repeated statutory rape starting at age 13, reminds us why there are laws about statutory rape in the first place:

The fact is, a 14-year-old girl may be capable of agreeing to sex with a 49-year-old man, but she doesn’t have the emotional and mental maturity to consent.  I was 25 before I realized that every man I’d slept with as a teenager was a pedophile. It seemed to me that since I’d courted the attention, that I was fully culpable. What teenager believes she is not mentally or emotionally capable of full consent? I thought I was an adult, although when I look at the picture of myself from the time period above, I see a child.

I thought I was the exception for these men, the girl so precocious and advanced that it superseded social norms. I thought that I was “older than my chronological age.”

Well, what do you expect from the modern, secular world, right?  What do you expect from a culture that simultaneously glorifies and degrades human sexuality?  Of course you’re going to have needy girls and lecherous men.  Of course there will be suffering and heartache, and innocents will suffer and predators will go free.

But surely we Catholics know better than that, yes?  Surely the Church on earth, imperfect as she is, is a safe haven for the young and vulnerable.

Well, just yesterday I ran afoul of a prominent Catholic writer, a professor who often works with college students.  The last time I talked to him when he said in public that the way to deal with a teen mom who’d given birth at age fourteen is to tell the “slut” to “keep her legs closed.”

No long ago, I was speaking to a Catholic priest about how difficult life seemed when I was a teenager, and he went into a long reverie about the teenage girls that cross his path.  “Those short skirts, that heavy eye makeup—” he said . . . “Ohh, they know exactly what they’re doing.”

Think rapists come from nowhere?  Think they would dare to do what they do, if it were not for men like these?  You don’t have to be a rapist to be part of the problem.  All you have to do is make sure we all remember that the girl is to blame.  No matter how young she is, the girl is always to blame.

  • It’s her fault because she knows how to look like a woman (even though she’s not).
  • It’s her fault because she wears padded bras and skanky clothing (even though her body is tender and unfinished on the inside).
  • It’s her fault because she knows all the moves (because she’s been trained since toddlerhood to writhe to a beat, because that’s what makes the adults in the house point the camera at them).
  • It’s her fault because she works hard to look sexy (even though she really only wants to look pretty, and sexy is the only pretty she’s ever been shown).
  • It’s her fault because she’s loud and dirty because she knows it gets her something (and she knows that something is better than nothing).

It’s her fault because she’s learned that she has power, and she does wield it (because the only time men speak to her is to say two things, “Do what I tell you to do” and “I want you.”  If you were a lonely girl, which would you rather hear?).

The xojane writer tells us,

[I]t doesn’t matter if a young girl is saying yes, it’s an adult man’s job to say no.

And she’s not just talking to Rambold and other men who happen to have a thing for young girls.  She’s talking to all adults who should know better:  the judge, the defense attorney, the professors, the priests, the therapists, the school principles, the combox snipers, men and women.  She’s speaking to us.  To me.

What do I say when I meet a young girl in trouble?  What do I see when a teenage girl sashays by in skintight jeans, made up like a porn star?  Do I see a girl?  Or do I grimace and avert my eyes from just another young slut who’s out to ruin the world?

What do we tell girls, besides, “Do what I tell you to do?”  Do we tell them, “You are still young”?  Do we tell them, “Stand behind me, and I will protect you”?  Do we tell them that there is still hope, there is a way to get love and attention without being used?  Or do we tell the girls that it’s their fault, always their fault?

I don’t want to be the background music for the song and dance of the likes of Rambold and Judge Baugh, who say that there is no such thing as innocence.  Keep on saying it, and it will come true.

***
photo credit: Cat Eyes via photopin (license)

This post originally ran in 2013. I’m reposting it in light of recent conversations about Maria Goretti.