Wednesday, January 30, 2013

What Respectable, Middle-Class Catholics Can Do About Rape Culture

1. Be the family that will raise hell if any woman in the vicinity is harmed. Be known for this. Individual single adults can do this, too, but the effect is much less powerful than it is coming from a family. Don't assume that everyone just knows that you're nice people who would never blame the victim. Actively promote the idea that you find double standards, mild or overt misogyny, or anything that even hints at the mistreatment of women to be totally repulsive and something that you, personally, wish to fight against. If this seems silly and embarrassing, then don't be surprised when a woman who is on the receiving end of any of these actions will be too embarrassed to ask for help. She is in a far more vulnerable position than you are.

2. Lose the denial. The reality is that even in conservative circles, possibly even yours, there may be problems with sexual harassment and sexual assault. I grew up in a strict Catholic middle-class family. I have never had a "wild" phase and have always been cautious about what kind of men I spend time with, and I have personally known one "devout" Catholic man who committed date rape and another who attempted it and failed. It's pleasant and comforting to believe that these problems only affect those other people--promiscuous college students, people of other races or religions, poor people, whoever. This attitude is not just elitist and borderline racist, it's also dangerous and stupid.

3. Accept that men can control themselves. This means not making statements like, "If he's straight, he will make a pass at you," or "What did you expect? Men are just hardwired that way." Men have free will. If you or any man you know can choose to have self-control, so can every other man on the planet, including the one taking your daughter on a date or the one she might run into at a party. Never start a sentence, "Yes, men are responsible for their actions, but..." Chastity, the way it's currently spoken of and taught among conservative Catholics, puts most of the burden of purity on the shoulders of girls and women, an attitude which has moved seamlessly into questions of physical safety and assault.

4. Teach your sons to defend and protect others. Teaching young men to be chaste and not sexually aggressive, while necessary and commendable, is not enough. They must also keep their eyes and ears open, and speak up when their friends say or do things that are morally questionable, especially with regard to women. All women: not just their sisters or whoever they've decided is a "lady." In all Christian communities or cultures, there has been a high level of expectation from men to protect others, even total strangers. When men have a "not my problem" attitude, or are given the impression that it's prudent to stay out of harm's way, they are allowing the problems to flourish. It may be tempting to believe that keeping to yourself has a neutral effect on society as a whole, but it doesn't. There's no neutral as long as predatory people exist.

5. Teach your daughters the exact same thing. Being female is not a free pass to ignore problems. Sitting around waiting for someone else to act is not a good example of female fortitude. In the absence of any other kind of help, a woman still has to act, in whatever way is appropriate or necessary to the particular situation.

6. Don't assume church-attending religious men are worthy of trust. They might be, they probably are, but they don't automatically deserve a blind eye simply because they show up at Mass every Sunday. Men should not be offended by this. It is not a presumption of guilt, but rather the expectation that character counts and is based on each individual's chosen actions. Every Catholic girl has horror stories of Mass-attending boyfriends who pressured her for sex. I do, and I've gone out of my way to avoid men like that. It became obvious to me during those experiences that men can get away with problematic, immoral and manipulative actions while putting minimal effort into keeping up a good front simply because everyone assumed that they could do no wrong.

7. Understand that the culture we live in is in a state of emergency. It is not normal or common sense that a girl in a highschool in a first world country has to worry about getting raped at a party, even if she does something imprudent like getting drunk. Rape is not the natural result of mixing men with alcohol, and everyone needs to stop talking about it like it is. If a woman has to alter her behavior for her own safety, it should be made clear that this is not the norm and it is only necessary because of a pathological unwillingness to deal with a real and present problem of safety among "normal" people.

8. Do more than just tell women to stand up for themselves. Your daughter/sister/friend/cousin, whatever her age, should be able to say to a man, "If my dad/brother/friend/cousin knew what you just said to me, or tried, or asked for, you would be lying on the pavement with a broken jaw." It will do her very little good to say this if she knows, at the back of her mind, that you're too frightened of other men's opinions to speak up when something is wrong. If a woman, of whatever age, has no family or close male friends that she can turn to for this kind of support, see item #1.

9. Stop the femininity training. This doesn't mean discouraging girls from showing their own natural femininity, but it does mean Catholics must stop telling girls, in whatever subtle or underhanded way, that being a "lady" means putting on an act of always-gentle compliance and cheerfulness, and that any opinion has to be trussed up in a pink dress and high heels. Stop telling girls to hide their brains and show their ankles. The reason why this femininity training creates problems is because it is nearly impossible to unlearn compliant, male-ego-pleasing behavior in a moment of crisis. Saying "no" takes a certain amount of practice, and it's hard to get that practice if you're punished socially for saying anything that will make men uncomfortable or unhappy. Stop teaching young men that this is what "real" women are like, and stop tolerating this expectation in adult males.

10. Lose the embarrassment. Talking about rape, sexual harassment, domestic violence or any issue related to the personal safety of vulnerable people is not tacky and rude just because it makes you feel awkward. If it's not possible to discuss these issues without someone having a "well-I-never" moment, then it's not surprising that the victims of these crimes are unwilling to ask for help. Don't ask, "Why didn't she tell anyone?" if you have ever said something along the lines of "Such a thing would never occur outside of a Chicago ghetto."

11. Have a zero tolerance policy towards conservative misogyny. Rants against "evil feminists" will sound to a young girl like rants against all women. They will sound to a grown woman like they are coming from an environment that is hostile towards women speaking up against mistreatment, and that her dissenting or controversial opinion will not be treated with respect or charity. This is true regardless of your personal views on feminism, or whether you are the one making these statements or just standing by. It's true even if the men saying them are clueless, immature, or secretly mean well. If you, personally, do not speak up and make it clear that rough or aggressive language about women or towards women, regardless of their political affiliations, is always unacceptable in your presence, you are contributing to a hostile environment for women, which no one should have to put with just so you can keep your neocon friends.

12. Stop keeping secrets. If a man speaks about women in a denigrating or lewd way, tell everyone about it. If you see evidence of abuse in another family, talk about it, ask, make waves. If you're being pressured to have sex by someone you're dating, make that person a laughing stock. If you hear screaming, call the police. The likelihood of an innocent person being punished for something they didn't do is far less likely than people with something to hide would have you believe. Communities keep tabs on each other for mutual protection. Name names. It's necessary. It is criminal to protect the reputation of a criminal.

I hope this helps. Be careful out there: there's ice on the roads today.


  1. I wish there were a way to distribute this advice to all Catholic families (and indeed to other Christians, and people of no faith) as I think your words could prevent a great many crimes and a lot of unhappiness.

    In particular, I see merit in combining points 3 and 9. Catholic men understand that God expects us to provide leadership. One way we can demonstrate that ability to young women we're drawn to is to be the gatekeepers of chastity.

    While I understand you may not share my view, I believe the Bible is more permissive of sexual pleasure in women, especially before marriage, than it is in men. The moment a man starts pressurizing a girl he's dating for sex, he's showing a lack of self control and an absence of moral leadership that betray his unsuitability for marriage.

    Sadly, the conditioning you allude to encourages women to accept this kind of behavior, or al least tolerate it, which may in extremis include forgiving rape (I've read disturbing statistics about the number of such attacks that go unreported). Removing the conditioning that encourages girls to be the gatekeepers, says that men are victims of their rampant sex drives and expects women to forgive and forget vicious crimes helps empower them to ensure that men who can't control themselves spend the rest of their lives unmarriageable and imprisoned.

    1. There were a few points that were originally one point, but I split them for clarity. I think 3 and 9 might have been one of them.

      It would be interesting to see people talk about chastity in terms of men being the stronger party; it's funny how reluctant most are to do that even when they believe that men are stronger in other ways. I have actually come across the idea a few times, but pretty rarely, and I seem to remember it getting a lot of backlash. (That was on a Catholic message board, I think.)

      "The moment a man starts pressurizing a girl he's dating for sex, he's showing a lack of self control and an absence of moral leadership that betray his unsuitability for marriage."

      I know...really! And I think most Catholics would agree when it's spelled out like that, but in practice or in everyday life they revert immediately to, "You be the breaks. Men are just wired that way," etc. It's pretty tiresome.

      I mean, wouldn't it be nice for all Catholic men to start taking a bit of pride in having self-control? Heck, even if they were lying about it. How about "I hope you don't think I'm that weak" instead of "Oh my heavens, your leggings/yoga pants are scandalizing mine eyes."

      Or, even better, just be too embarrassed to talk about their temptations with anyone except a priest if necessary? And same would go for women.

  2. This is a great post. Every point in it is important, but I particularly want to 'second' point nine. It's all very well to grow up with stories of heroic purity, but when a woman has been trained always to suppress complaint or disagreement, when the moment of crisis comes, all that happens is a psychological rupture which is then worsened by also having been trained to believe that the great sin is the failure to say 'no', rather than the act of pressuring or attacking the woman in the first place. Great post.(Not sure why it's calling me 'Anonymous' - it's Lucy from R.R)!

    1. This is SO hard to convince people of. And it's very hard to piece together when you're the victim of it, so everyone just goes on their merry way like we're living in an Edwardian suburb like Betsy and Tacy who never had to face challenges remotely like the ones any young woman, no matter how sheltered, will have to face to some extent or another today.

      However charming they might find it, women now simply don't have the luxury of being naive and placating. Maybe in another time and a better world, but not this one.

  3. This is such a good post, as usual. You've broken down the issues in a really succinct way.

  4. As I was saying in your "Boy in Outer Space" thread, there is an older TLP post that reminded me of this one. (So that you see more clearly where I'm coming from, let me add that I read this post in the light of everything else you've written about domestic abuse and not specifically about rape.) I'm not sure whether you would agree with TLP, though. Here is the link . . .

    <a href=">Penelope Trunk, Abuser</a>

    TLP's analysis that an abused wife who also has BPD might be happier with her husband than without him helps me articulate a problem I don't think this post addresses at all. Here, you very kindly assume that the women suffering from violence at the hands of men want someone to help them, because that would be a sane reaction on their part. But what if there is also a mental disorder in play?

    I'm not saying that mental illness as a factor means that we should not help someone in need, but that there is a major element you haven't considered. On the Darwins' blog, you said that you called the police when you saw someone being beaten up. Did you also hang around long enough to see the aftermath of that phone call? (I ask that question because I suspect that nothing much changed after you intervened, but if you have a happy ending to share, I'd welcome it.)

    One of the women I am closest to has managed to get out of two bad relationships since the time I met her (three, if you count the guy she broke up with right before we met). What all those men have in common is drug use. Her friends and family worked really hard to rescue her from the first bad relationship . . . I joined them in helping her out of the second . . . and by the time the third guy started abusing her, even I was fed up, although I still went through the motions. I am willing to bet that her next boyfriend will also have a substance abuse problem, and if he hits her like the last two did, I'm going to be too damn weary to step in. Her boyfriends may have been assholes, but all the friends she has exhausted will agree that she can be quite the emotional vampire. (Translation: she's an asshole to us, too.)

    I bring her up not to say that she is "undeserving" of help or to suggest anything of the sort about other women. But I think this story shows that there is something that you haven't factored into your calculations. If the only cost of getting a woman out of an abusive relationship were providing temporary help so that she could get back on her feet again, I think people would do it more often. But don't discount the experience of people who have done many of the things you recommend only to see their good deeds valued for nothing by the women they tried hardest to help.

    1. First! Do you think TLP is a man or a woman? I'm convinced it's a woman who enjoys having everyone assume she's a man.

      I get what you're saying here; there is definitely only a limited amount of interfering that ordinary people can do, and that's not really addressed in my post. What I had in mind was more aimed towards helping to create the kind of a environment that would make it at least possible for someone to ask for help if they needed it and wanted it, rather than putting an obligation on people that it's their job to fix every problem. For example, a lot of people probably have no idea that #11 would have any negative effect except to maybe offend a few liberals, but it does. When it comes to complicated situations like the one you described, that's way out of the expertise of normal people and definitely not something I would be qualified to give opinions on how to fix. Sometimes you just have to step away from people like that for your own good or because there really isn't anything you can do to help.

      Gosh, what a weird person that Penelope Trunk must be. I say that without any real sympathy, TBH. To mix up professional blogging about self promotion and then writing about your husband beating you is just...wrong. That's attention whoredom on a whole new level. This woman makes money from her writing? Oy.

      Also, I'm going to a Wisconsin farm on Friday. I hope I don't run into her.

      I'll tell you more about the time I called the police in my email--which is on its way, I promise!

      So, yes, there's a pretty big difference between someone who needs help and would ask for it if she felt safe doing so, and, on the other hand, someone who may or may not be creating her own problems and may or may not be a victim but who actually can't be helped by regular, everyday people just living their my nonprofessional opinion.

    2. I actually think that TLP is more than one person! So I wouldn't be surprised if one of them were a woman. :)

      The "soft" creation of environments rather than the "hard" implementation of policies is also something I've had on my mind for some time . . . but of course, not with respect to this specific issue. So I see that the problem is that it's easier to have an action plan for the second method than for the first. I mean, how do you go about creating an entire culture?

      Another reason I find your list incomplete is that it doesn't mention the kind of art we should create and support, the kind of social activities we should have, or even (God forbid!) the kind of clothes we should wear. ;) It's not that I expect you to address absolutely everything in the universe :P . . . but if we're going to talk about creating a better culture, then we have to admit that art, literature, holidays and other celebrations, and even fashion are going to be among our best tools. (There is a shallow level on which I can't really blame people for trying to dictate what women should wear, because they are approaching the matter from the right direction. Their problem is that they're trying to influence "artistic policy" without being even decent artists themselves.)

      Good luck not running into Penelope Trunk this weekend! If you do, however, keep a low profile or else you might end up fodder on her blog, too. Hahahaha!

  5. Bellita, what exactly do you mean by "the type of clothes we should wear?"

    Because Charming's post centered on creating a culture of accountability. This is not the same as a simple "better culture," as if everyone wearing the most beautiful dignified clothes will convince people that, no, maybe today they won't fuck someone without their consent, just out of the goodness of their heart and the beauty of the world.

    And I use the word fuck advisably. What most of us do is have sexual intercourse. What rapists do is fuck people without their consent.

    1. I mean that there are people (mentioned in other posts by CD) who talk about the kind of clothes we should wear. I bring them up them here because this post reminded me of them. CD may disown uber-traditionalists these days, but it's interesting to me that her "accent" remains the same. It's obvious which "country" she came from.

      Charming's post centered on creating a culture of accountability.

      This is where you and I (and perhaps CD and I) see things differently. I don't think her guidelines are enough to create a whole environment, much less an entire culture. If you want to talk about culture, then you have to talk about art, which includes fashion.

      Yet inasmuch as fashion becomes reduced to "the kind of clothes we should wear," it is also nothing but rules. So that approach is as incomplete as CD's approach, and what's interesting to me is that they're incomplete in the exact same way. They're "hard" rather than "soft." That's my point.

      Before you misunderstand me further, let me clarify that this is not to say that "hard" guidelines are without merit.