I recently finished Kate Harding’s book, Asking for It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture-and What We Can Do About It (2015). In our current moment, when courageous survivors are coming forward every day to share their experiences of rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment, it continues to be a timely read. It is both accessibly written and rigorously researched.
In the book, Harding takes on misunderstandings about what consent means, and spends significant time correcting the myths and misperceptions about false reporting, noting that “based on the best available data, we can assume that somewhere between 92 and 98 percent of the time, a person reporting a rape is telling the truth” (61). She goes on to provide examples of what happens when people, particularly law enforcement and the criminal justice system, act as if most reports are false.
Harding discusses the ways in which rape myths affect survivors and their willingness to go forward with their cases or not — and the mostly negative results when they do. She notes the impact of rape culture and gives multiple examples of it, including in advertising, in music (see here and here) and in comedy routines. Rape culture is what has produced a “culture in which most victims of sexual assault and rape never report it because they fear they won’t be believed – and know that even if they are believed, they’re likely to be mortified and harassed, blamed and shamed, throughout a legal process that ultimately leads nowhere” (1).
Harding pointedly rebuts the incorporation of the term “gray rape” into any discussion of rape. This term was popularized in Cosmopolitan several years ago and works to incorrectly and dangerously blur the lines between sex and rape. Harding writes: “The ‘gray’ in ‘gray rape’ is an imaginary fog of questions about what consent means and whether you really need it every time” (148, emphasis in original). Normalizing a term like ‘gray rape’ leads to victim-blaming and misplaced concern about false accusations of rape. There are really no questions about “what consent means and whether you really need it every time.” Consent is not ambiguous, as institutions and states are beginning to recognize with affirmative consent policies, and yes, you really need it every time.
Harding also highlights connections between reproductive justice and rape, arguing that “both rape and severe abortion restrictions spring from the same fear of women’s sexual autonomy” (126). She describes multiple examples of politicians making claims about rape and pregnancy that range from incorrect to wildly outrageous. Remember Todd Aiken’s bizarre comment about “legitimate rape,” or Linda McMahon talking about “emergency rape”? Harding does.
Despite the pervasiveness of sexual violence and society’s completely inadequate response to it, Harding finds “several causes for genuine hope” (211):
- The 2011 Dear Colleague Letter (DCL) from the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR), which made clear that sexual harassment and sexual violence are covered under Title IX. Title IX states: “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”
- Unfortunately, this DCL was withdrawn by the De Vos administration, which is currently crafting new guidelines.
- Significant activism from organizations like Know Your IX, EROC, and Survjustice, which led to the 2013 ED ACT NOW campaign, demanding that OCR enforce its own policies. One of the results of this campaign was the Obama administration’s creation of The White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault.
- As of 12/15/17, if you search for information about this task force on the current White House website, you’ll see this:
- The increasing adoption of affirmative consent policies by colleges and universities, and cities and states. Sometimes known as “yes means yes,” this approach to ending sexual assault recognizes the shortcomings of “no means no” policies.
Dickinson’s sexual misconduct policy relies on affirmative consent:
Consent to engage in sexual activity must be informed, knowing, and voluntary. Consent to engage in sexual activity must exist from the beginning to the end of each instance of sexual activity. Consent to one form of sexual contact does not constitute consent to all forms of sexual contact. Each participant in a sexual encounter must consent to each act of sexual activity.
Consent consists of an outward demonstration indicating that an individual has freely chosen to engage in sexual activity. Consent is demonstrated through mutually understandable words and/or actions that clearly indicate a willingness to engage in sexual activity. Relying on non-verbal communication can lead to misunderstandings. Consent may not be inferred from silence, passivity, lack of resistance or lack of active response alone. In the absence of an outward demonstration, consent does not exist (17).
I recommend Harding’s book for those interested in understanding rape culture and the current state of anti-sexual violence work.
Here are resources for Dickinson students in need of support and services related to sexual violence:
Students seeking confidential support related to sexual assault, dating violence or stalking, can make an appointment with the Wellness Center or stop in during open hours (M-F 11-12 and 2-3 p.m.). Confidential advocacy support is also available by calling the 24/7 Advocacy Hotline at 717-831-8850. Students also can make an appointment to meet with an advocate by email at email@example.com (non-emergency only).
Private but not confidential support
Students seeking to report cases of sexual violence, dating violence or stalking to the college and students wishing to learn about options and available support can do so by contacting Interim Title IX Coordinator, Joyce Bylander (firstname.lastname@example.org), or the Director of LGBTQ Services Erica Gordon Lawrence (email@example.com).
Written by Donna M. Bickford, Ph.D., Director, Women’s and Gender Resource Center
December 15, 2017