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Relationships in the digital age

Photoshopping Violence: "Date Rape" and the Hookup Culture

Why we have to stop calling it "date rape."

Magritte,"The Rape"
It was the late spring of 1971 and I was 22, just finishing up my M.A., and I was going out to dinner with "Faulkner." I'll call him that because his first name was actually a surname—a legacy from his maternal line—and while he'd gone to an Ivy college, he was very much a Southerner, complete with a charming drawl, a love of horses and the countryside, and homesick for the genteel world he'd abandoned for the canyons of Wall Street. Tall, blond, and handsome, he was the kind of man who opened doors for you and stood up when you came back to the table. He lived in my building and I'd met him when I moved in the previous August. Two of my roommates had known him even longer—he came to their impromptu parties where young adults drank Chianti in raffia-covered bottles that were destined to become candlesticks—and they were jealous he'd asked me out. I had chatted with him at the mailboxes, in the elevators and laundry room, and we'd been out to drinks once or twice. I thought he was right out of Gone with the Wind—was he Ashley Wilkes or Rhett Butler?—and I was happy to go out with him. He'd kissed me goodnight the last time, lightly, on the mouth.

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Dinner was fun and since we lived in the same building, saying "hi" to the same doorman as we headed toward the elevator, it seemed fine to go to his apartment, three floors above mine, for a nightcap. We'd both had two wines over dinner. His apartment looked like it belonged to a grownup, compared to mine—he was five years older and had been working and earning all that time. My place—a tiny two-bedroom crammed with two girls who'd been working for a year and two in graduate school—was makeshift, with hand-me-down furniture and boards and cinder blocks instead of bookcases. We sat down on his white couch, and I looked at the furniture which was dark and gleaming.

He poured us a brandy and we sat there talking for a few minutes. Then, suddenly, his 6"3" frame was on top of me, pushing me down, his hands on my breasts.

I said either "What?" or 'Wait." I don't remember. I pushed at him, trying to get up.

"No," he said. "You're a cockteaser."

Somehow, I wriggled out from under him and stood up. "I'm going home, "I said. I still was more freaked out than scared since "home" was just three floors down.

A second later, he pushed me so hard that I flew into the wall. He was right there, straddling me, his hands between my legs, his breath hot on my face. "Teaser. Why don't you show me what you can do?"

My 1970s platforms gave me an extra three inches and I did what my father always told me to do if I had to. I lifted my knee and I kicked him in the groin as hard as I could. He gasped and doubled over, swearing.

I ran for the door, down the three flights of stairs, and into my apartment. I wasn't sure of what had happened or what I should do about it. After all, I wasn't hurt. But my roommate—the one taking Psychology classes at night—was very sure: "If you hadn't kicked him, he would have raped you.  How do you know he won't come after you?"

I didn't, but in 1971 all the word "rape" brought to mind was a scenario of a stranger with a knife in a dark alley. No one had coined the word "date rape" yet; no one had defined "stalking." At my roommate's insistence, we went to the police station the next day. The young policeman at the desk was skeptical. He wasn't sure I wasn't to blame. I'd gone to his apartment, hadn't I? Wasn't that some kind of promise? Was I provocatively dressed? He lowered his voice and asked if I'd had sex with him before. His tone, just short of accusatory, made me uncomfortable. But an older policeman was listening in and he volunteered that he had a daughter my age. "Listen," he said. "Let me go talk to him, informally. Maybe he just needs a lesson in how to treat women."

Two days later, I got back from school and found a vase stuffed with two dozen white roses in the front of my door. There were two words on the card—"I'm sorry"—and no signature. I tossed the vase and the flowers down the garbage chute. A few weeks later, the doorman told me that Faulkner had broken his lease and moved out. I counted myself lucky because I'd learned an important lesson about keeping myself safe at no cost. Not every woman is as lucky as I was then.

Fourteen years after my near-miss, Ms. Magazine gave what almost happened to me a name in an article with a title that was, alas, more tabloid worthy than not: "Date Rape: The Story of an Epidemic and Those Who Deny It." In retrospect, it's too bad that the article was published in a venue so closely associated with the "A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle" brand of feminism since, all these years later, there's still talk about whether the statistics were somehow fudged by feminists with an agenda. They weren't, in case you were wondering. Ms. didn't pay for the study; the federal government did. The research by Mary Koss was, in fact, peer-reviewed and published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. None of that has stopped the naysayers whom I won't mention by name because I don't want to give their point of view any traffic.

Leaving aside the feminist framework which saw rape as part of patriarchal oppression, the term "date rape" was culturally useful because it focused attention away from the stranger-in-the-alley scenario to the milieu of relationship and domesticity in which most violence in the United States, including murder, takes place. Most violent acts are perpetrated by people we know, not people we don't.

That said, I think the term has outlived its usefulness. "Date rape" sounds more benign, less scarring, and less traumatic somehow than just "rape" and it carries with it an assumption of the victim's complicity—as though being on the "date" to begin with is part of the problem. Dr. Karyl McBride—her blog " The Legacy of Distorted Love" is on this website but she also spent nine years working with law enforcement doing forensic interviews on sex crimes—tells me that "We see less violence in date rape and more psychological coercion or coercion with drugs and alcohol." When it comes to assessing the damage inflicted by date rape, Dr. McBride notes "Trauma is always assessed based on the individual, rather than the actual acts committed. Date and marital rape are very psychologically damaging because they impact a trusting relationship and cause the victim to blame him or herself for being involved with that offender in the first place. It often takes significant therapeutic work to assure the victim that rape is rape and he or she cannot be to blame. Sex offenders are masters at blaming the victim and not taking accountability."

Simply using the word "rape" helps us cut to the chase and focus on the issue of consent, without being distracted by the "he said/she said" Rashomon view of events. This strikes me as particularly important when the situation is muddied by the hookup culture, the presence of alcohol and drugs, and emotional and psychological immaturity. It may be even more important in years to come as we see even younger people explore their own sexuality, with their ability to read emotional cues diminished by relying on technology to communicate and their capacity for intimacy whittled down by their lack of privacy, as Sherry Turkle has suggested in her book Alone Together.

I'm also thinking about today's teenagers who have cut their emotional teeth on the cat-and-mouse game of text exchanges and sexting. Estimates on how prevalent sexting is vary but the Pew Research Center, in 20009, put the percentage of teens 14-17 who'd received one at about 18%.  Then, too, there are the 9.8% of high school students, reported by the CDC, who have been hit or hurt by their girlfriends and boyfriends and who are in danger of accepting violence as a "normal" part of intimacy.

We need girls and boys, young women and men alike, to focus on the issue of consent, rather than what he/she might have said before, the expectations raised by a sexual script or anything else that might seem to underscore the victim's participation in "date rape."

Why the focus needs to be solely on consent is captured in a fictionalized dialogue featured in a pamphlet about Rape and Sexual Assault on the Bates College website. I've chosen Bates because it's a school I am familiar with (my Millennial daughter was class of 2010) and, unlike Yale or other colleges I've written about, Bates does not have fraternities and has been co-ed since it was founded in 1855. The scenario described in the pamphlet is that of "Mike and Jen" who have been dating for two months but haven't yet had sex. While Mike allows as how he is attracted to Jen and "eventually expected to have sex with her," she calls him a gentlemen who, although they've kissed, "never gave me any reason not to trust him." They are going to a party and Jen wears her roommate's dress, something she describes as "a little flashier" than what she normally wears.  Mike understands the "sexy, low-cut" dress as a signal of something else: "I thought maybe this was her way of saying she was ready." They drink beers which apparently hit Jen hard and she wants to lie down. Here's how Mike understands that: "When she said she wanted me to go lie down with her and snuggle with me, what was I supposed to think? Granted, she did grumble a bit when I started to undress her but I just figured she wanted to be persuaded. Lots of women feel a little funny about being forward and want men to take responsibility for sex."

What happens, pure and simple, is that Mike rapes her. Not surprisingly, Jen feels complicit somehow: "Maybe I shouldn't have suggested we both lie down together but it felt weird to just go upstairs by myself and leave Mike all alone. The next thing I knew, he was all over me, forcing me to have sex with him. It was horrible. I didn't want to scream and make a fool of myself with all those other people in the next room but I tried to fight him off. I guess I was too wiped out to be very effective." The pamphlet rightly calls this scenario "rape"—not "date rape."

Dr. David Lisak offers another compelling reason to give up the term, one founded in disturbing research. Just as the fictional Mike in the pamphlet offers up a self-serving explanation—that "she wanted to be persuaded"—so the term "date rape" conjures up a fundamentally good guy, who, under the influence of alcohol, misreads the situation and makes one "bad" decision. That happens not to be true. In a 2002 study, written with Dr. Paul M. Miller, Dr. Lisak studied "undetected" rapists—that is, men whose acts had never been reported but who admitted to having had sex forcibly.  The study, conducted in a university setting, showed that not only did these undetected rapists have much in common with men incarcerated for rape—namely, high levels of anger toward women, the need to dominate women, hypermasculinity, lack of empathy, and antisocial traits—but that, like those charged and convicted, a  high percentage of these undetected rapist had raped more than once. (In another article, "Understanding the Predatory Nature of Sexual Violence," Dr. Lisak notes the high rate of serial offending and recidivism among incarcerated rapists. While most rapists are convicted of a single act of sexual assault, one study showed that the average number of victims was 7. Another put the number at 11.)

These are, I think, compelling arguments to stop calling it "date rape." 

Writing this makes me think of Faulkner who probably is a grandfather by now. Was I the first girl he tried to rape? I'm guessing not. Was I the last? I doubt it.

--

www.karylmcbridephd.com

http://abacus.bates.edu/admin/offices/scs/salt1.html

Lisak, David and Paul M. Miller. "Repeat Rape and Multiple Offending Among Undetected Rapists."Violence and Victims, vol 17, no.1, 2002.

Lisak, David. "Understanding the Predatory Nature of Sexual Violence," Sexual Assault Report, vol.14, no 4, March/April 2011.

Mooore Sarah.  "Tracing the Life of a Crime Category: The shifting meaning of' date rape.' Feminist Media Studies, vol. 11, no. 4, 2011.

Peg Streep, author or coauthor of nine books, is a New York City based writer currently working on a book about the Millennial generation.

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