When Carol Tarvis talks about rape

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image: here (its a wall decal)

LETTER TO THE EDITOR: LA TIMES

In her October 4th op-ed, “What we talk about when we talk about rape,” Carol Tarvis states that “we need to draw distinctions between behavior that is criminal, behavior that is stupid, and behavior that results from the dance of ambiguity” because “labeling all forms of sexual misconduct, including unwanted touched and sloppy kisses, as rape is alarmist and unhelpful.”

I am a rape survivor. I have also experienced unwanted kissing and fondling, the kind of sexual misconduct discounted by the author as “clumsy” and “stupid.” I wish that these things were not done to me. No, these incidents are not rape, and I am not advocating that they be called rape, but they are products of rape culture.

Carol Tarvis expresses concern about the widely cited statistic that 1 in 5 college women are sexually assaulted, and cites that 3-4% of college women are raped. Sexual assault encompasses a wide range of acts, including non-penetrative assaults. When working to reduce sexual violence, to only be concerned with rape (non-consensual penetrative acts) and not all sexual assault is exclusive towards survivors who were not raped but whose bodies were violated, including LGBTQ survivors whose assaults were non-penetrative.

Carol Tarvis’ fear that young girls are going to conflate unwanted kissing with rape is illegitimate. We must teach young people the definitions of rape, sexual assault, and sexual harassment without dismissing the latter two. Young people must be taught that consent is mandatory and that sexual violence is never deserved.

As stated in the article, sexual partners may dread rejecting their partner or being rejected, creating a “dance of ambiguity” in which consent is not asked for or given. The California affirmative consent law for colleges addresses this “dance of ambiguity,” mandating a clear “yes” from sexual partners, and requiring accused perpetrators to defend not only that their accuser consented but what language used and behavior exhibited caused their belief that consent was given. This puts the responsibility on sexual partners to be certain the acts occurring are wanted. Instead of “no means no,” partners must ask and freely give a “yes.” Consent has not been given if an individual is silent, unconscious, or too drunk to be an active consenting participant.

Carol Tarvis brings up an often-voiced concern that women claim to have been raped when they regret sex, and would rather blame men and alcohol than take responsibility for their actions. She states women do this because “if they are inebriated, they haven’t said yes, and if they haven’t said yes, no one can call them sluts.” But if these women haven’t said yes, then they have not consented. Women and girls are often accused of crying rape because they regret their choices, but a person cannot choose to have sexual contact to which they did not consent. If we stop shaming women for desiring sex, we will also stop shaming and blaming them when they are assaulted.

Further on the subject of inebriated sex and consent, she says, “Men who are drunk are less likely to interpret nonconsent messages accurately, and women who are drunk convey less emphatic signs of refusal.” No matter their gender, drunk people function worse than sober people. If a drunk person is initiating sexual contact and misinterpreting another’s messages, they are responsible for violating that person, regardless of how emphatic the refusal was, because consent was not given. Drunk drivers aren’t given a pass for the damage they cause just because their inebriation caused them to misinterpret messages on the road.

The author warns not to let the statistic that 1 in 5 women will be sexually assaulted in college “be used to generate a national panic or institute university policies that may cause more harm than good.” I believe there should be a national panic and uproar at the frequency these violations occur within and outside of universities. Which university policies does the author fear will cause more harm than good? School policies already in place have sanctioned perpetrators by having them work in a rape crisis center and write essays on “how to approach a girl you like.” Far more students have been expelled for plagiarism than committing sexual violence. Universities and courts do not define unwanted kissing as the same as rape, but currently, neither offense is being treated like a problem.

Many people are apathetic about sexual violence nationally and within their own circles and relationships—we activists call this wide-spread apathy rape culture. Whether or not individuals are in romantic relationship, a compassionate person cares whether they hurt their sexual partner physically or emotionally, and whether they want that activity to be taking place. Consent is not currently a priority and it needs to be made one.

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Get Off My Foot: Entitlement, DGAF, and Why I Need Feminism When I Party

The other night when I was out at a bar, a man crushed my foot as he was making his way out. I yelled over the music that he was on my foot and he turned around and shouted, “YOU’RE A BITCH!”, smiled, stuck his tongue out and flipped me off.

This mirrors pretty well the party scene that I thought I was leaving behind when I graduated, the same one I was so shocked and disillusioned by when I first got to college.

And that was no small thing. The disillusionment drowned me, because I was raped at one of my first college parties.

When I hear on the news that consent is a buzzkill I am alarmed and outraged, but when I think about the party scene and how our culture embraces and enables such disregard, phrases like that have a perfect context and justification. Because on a night out, pursuit of one’s own happiness trumps all. Every interaction is fleeting and meaningless- and that is exactly what makes it fun. So to assign meaning to those interactions – to inform someone that they are hurting you – is to pop the “fun means not giving a shit” balloon. That’s how if you crush my foot, I’m the bitch.

That’s how if a college student reports she was raped at a frat, she’s the bitch.

That’s how when a sixteen-year-old is raped at a party, and those standing by take pictures mocking her unconscious “pose,” and she comes forward on the news and strikes her own pose,

she.

Is.

A.

Bitch.

Because it shouldn’t have mattered. She should have just forgotten it, laughed about it, or better yet not gone to the party that night. By getting hurt (because rape and all pain are delivered by unknown agents) she ruined it for everyone. “It” being the basic right to fun and destruction.

Later the other night as I was looking for my friends, a woman turned around and yelled, “DON’T TOUCH ME!” to me though I was pretty sure I hadn’t, even accidentally.

It would have been so easy to write that off as psycho-bitchness, but I also tell strangers not to touch me almost every night I go out. I hate it when men put their hands on my waist to move me as they’re going by instead of just asking me or tapping my shoulder. When I bring this up with them they are 1) too drunk to comprehend 2) don’t care anyway and 3) have no idea why that would be wrong, as it’s probably the least-bad thing happening in the bar at that moment. It was considerate to gently move me and I admit that it beats being completely trampled. (but why are you touching my hips though.) Things like that in a bar are considered overreactions.

So while it would be easy to write off “DON’T TOUCH ME” as crazy and overreactive, I actually have to say it’s a defense mechanism we must rely on when we go out. When we go out we sacrifice the privilege of personal boundaries. If you can’t play hard, stay home.

#DGAF.

As women, we have created elaborate ways to navigate through the web of disregard and entitlement. That night, a woman behind me was dancing with a man behind her. She was smiling and laughing but then turned to me and told me she wanted to get out of it. I confirmed with her that I had heard her right and then shouted “OH MY GOD! So good to see you!” pulled her into a hug, spun around while still hugging so that I was between her and Dude, and then she was free. She thanked me and went to look for her friends.

 Party-disregard created a new need for feminism for me. Some elements of it were exciting. I liked how interactions could be meaningless, how you could tell someone a different name or talk in an accent and then never see that person again. But I also thought a lot about the dark repercussions. I wrote a paper researching rape culture for my freshman writing class. Sophomore year I started a blog just to record the harassment my friends and I experienced at parties. Since everything that happens at parties is transient and meaningless, I wanted to make sure I remembered.

One of the things I recorded was: I had met a freshman guy at a USC concert one day. He was a really sweet kid and told me about how things were going so far. So when I saw him out at a party it was like Jekyll and Hyde. Already the party-entitlement had engrossed him. I asked him if he remembered me and he started dancing with me, which was fine, but when I wanted to stop and tried to get away,  he wouldn’t let me. He restrained me by grabbing my wrists and pulling me into him and grinding on me. I couldn’t get out of his grip so I stood rigidly still and like a robot, repeated over and over that I was done dancing and wanted to get away. Finally he gave up and let me.

Why? Why is it “losing” when someone doesn’t want to dance anymore? Why couldn’t no be taken for an answer? Why would anyone want to keep going if the other person isn’t down? Oh yeah, because it’s scoring if they stay and end up sleeping with you. Or so you’re taught.

This isn’t isolated. This happened over and over throughout the years. My friends and I like to dance, so we came up with a system of making a protective circle so that we could dance without being harassed. My friends also embraced party-feminism, often rescuing women who were too incapacitated or otherwise unable to get out of whatever situation someone had put them in.

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This was a poster made by USC Men Care against sexual assault. Someone in my dorm decided to add (his?) own spin on it.

If it sounds very gendered, it’s because it is. As the USC frat email that went viral proclaims, women are “targets” and “aren’t people like us men.” All sexual activity, even rape, is something to brag about later.

But party-cultures outside of college look very similar. The foot crushing, “DON’T TOUCH ME” and the switcheroo hug all happened at The Abbey, West Hollywood’s famous gay bar.

At one point a man came up to me while waiting for his girlfriend and her friends and bemoaned that while he loves the gays, he hates being harassed by them. He explained that none of the gay men at this bar seemed to care that he was straight and actually there with his girlfriend. I replied that straight guys never care about a woman’s relationship status or even think to ask what her sexuality is in a bar. Even at a gay bar!

It’s because who you are and what you want doesn’t matter there. You consented to everything that could happen to you that night when you walked in the door. Everything is fun and nothing counts!!!

I’m so happy that Governor Brown signed the “Yes Means Yes” bill, making affirmative consent the law in California. This is definitely going to lead to more conversations.

I hope that means we’ll start talking about how fun it is when everyone is having a good time, and how incredibly important it is that what happens is something everyone actually wants to remember.

Come out, come out

I just walked out of a screening of Kill your Darlings, a movie I’ve been waiting to see since I first heard it was being made.

Just time traveled back five years to when I first fell in love with the gay man who would change my life and wake me up to the concept of living fearlessly and recklessly in the name of love.
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Today is also National Coming Out Day. It’s made me so happy to scroll through a newsfeed full of beautiful words all day long, and it’s inspired me to contribute.

Looking back to five years ago, I realize that reading Allen Ginsberg’s poems inspired me to explore a  new possibility: that love need not conform to any prescribed tradition. Love doesn’t have to fit in a box. Love doesn’t discern between bodies. Love doesn’t even have to be between bodies. That’s why we can love across oceans and feel love towards people we’ve lost, and children who have yet to come into being. We can assign one another roles in our relationships based on our genitals, but I didn’t even realize how oppressive that ideology is until I was liberated from it.

And even once I was liberated myself, I still wasn’t free to express it. I still wasn’t ready to apply this new ideology to my life. Who can I tell? Who can I express this to, if in the back of my mind I am fearful that in telling I risk rejection? Of changing my confidante’s perception of me as a human being? What would be the incentive to position myself that I must defend my existence? This thinking trapped me. In Kill Your Darlings, it drove a character to (**spoiler**) attempt suicide and eventually (**spoiler**) to murder. This thinking is ever-present. The culture can be called hetero-normativity, and the experience can be called internalized homophobia. It sounds like a disease. And because the people are treated like they are diseased, they feel diseased.

With a great deal of mentorship and friendship, I have, for now, put away that anxiety. It serves me no purpose. There is no point in worrying about hatred or those who harbor it. But, struggling has made me realize how much the homophobes are right: Queerness is a lifestyle choice. It’s only a choice because they pose a threat, but it’s an active choice to resist societal pressure in the name of love. In other words, a choice to liberate oneself in order to pursue actual happiness.

That’s why I’ve come to believe that sexuality must be much more than a feeling of attraction – we can fight those, and more than physical experiences – those lose meaning pretty quickly. It demands an openness of spirit but also a social environment that is willing to witness those expressions of love. Otherwise the struggle will continue. The darlings will keep on with their loving, but we’ll be holding hands in the dark.

EDIT: I wanted to include a Ginsberg poem in the spirit of happy love. This is titled “Song.”

The weight of the world 
     is love. 
Under the burden 
     of solitude, 
under the burden 
     of dissatisfaction 

     the weight, 
the weight we carry 
     is love. 

Who can deny? 
     In dreams 
it touches 
     the body, 
in thought 
     constructs 
a miracle, 
     in imagination 
anguishes 
     till born 
in human-- 
looks out of the heart 
     burning with purity-- 
for the burden of life 
     is love, 

but we carry the weight 
     wearily, 
and so must rest 
in the arms of love 
     at last, 
must rest in the arms 
     of love. 

No rest 
     without love, 
no sleep 
     without dreams 
of love-- 
     be mad or chill 
obsessed with angels 
     or machines, 
the final wish 
     is love 
--cannot be bitter, 
     cannot deny, 
cannot withhold 
     if denied: 

the weight is too heavy 

     --must give 
for no return 
     as thought 
is given 
     in solitude 
in all the excellence 
     of its excess. 

The warm bodies 
     shine together 
in the darkness, 
     the hand moves 
to the center 
     of the flesh, 
the skin trembles 
     in happiness 
and the soul comes 
     joyful to the eye-- 

yes, yes, 
     that's what 
I wanted, 
     I always wanted, 
I always wanted, 
     to return 
to the body 
     where I was born. 

                         San Jose, 1954