March 11, 2018

To Whom Should I Complain?

Reading Video “Quiet”

Composed for the January 21, 2017 Women’s March by MILCK (professional name of Connie Lim, Chinese-American artist and performer from Southern California). This performance took place in Sweden, March 8, 2017 (International Women's Day)


Apollo is one of the most powerful gods of the ancient Greek and Roman pantheon. His powers are associated with the sun, healing, prophecy, music, and truth; he is the leader of the nine muses. His attributes seem pretty attractive, and he's one of the Olympians who belong to the court of Zeus (Roman Jupiter), king of the gods.

The story of “Apollo and Daphne” is included in a collection of mythological tales dating to the the turn of the first century (around year 8 of the Common Era). In this book, there are so many stories of rape (and attempted rape) by the gods that college syllabi nowadays sometimes include “trigger warnings” letting students know about the content in case any of them are survivors of sexual trauma.

Apollo's lust for Daphne is the subject of lots and lots of artistic interpretations in western European art, sculpture, and music. As Apollo pursues her, Daphne prays to her father, a local river god, for help. To avoid Apollo's advances, she turns into a laurel tree. This is just one of countless stories from the ancient world that resonate with what we in the 21st century are learning to name “rape culture.”

It's in Shakespeare, as well—Measure for Measure. When the good duke leaves town, he deputizes Angelo to rule in his absence (hint—ironic name). Angelo immediately begins enforcing an old, disused law against “fornication” that makes premarital sex punishable by death. Isabella's brother is arrested for having an intimate relationship with his betrothed. Isabella (a nun) loves her brother and appeals to Angelo to spare him. Angelo says he will relent, on the condition that Isabella sleep with him. Outraged, she threatens to tell everyone about his proposition. He responds that so pious is his reputation that nobody would believe her. Her soliloquy, beginning with “To whom should I complain?” rings down to us through the centuries.

We are finding now that such complaints can have extraordinary power. In January of 2015 a Stanford University athlete was caught assaulting an unconscious woman on campus grounds. Her widely disseminated “victim impact statement” at his trial began a national conversation. That spring, I was part of an impromptu circle of women telling our stories of sexual assault. I've found there is a cost to voicing the memory of an old trauma, and a there is also a huge payoff. It helps to know you are not alone and to experience the solidarity of others with similar experiences—I feel it strongly watching the video of “Quiet.” Our collective testimony helps de-stigmatize the victim identity, and it will make a difference in our culture and institutions.

Last October after news broke about multiple allegations against Harvey Weinstein, a film producer, the phrase “#MeToo” spread on social media. It started with a tweet from a white actress, Alyssa Milano. Milano did not know the origin of the phrase. African-American organizer and activist Tarana Burke created it in 2006 to give survivors of sexual violence in her community a comfortable way to come forward and seek support. She didn't imagine it as a large-scale public movement until Milano's tweet went viral on several platforms. Milano and Burke have since met and appeared together on TV. Both are featured in Time Magazine's “person of the year” issue, “The Silence Breakers.”

What we now call “rape culture” is not about sex, it is about power. This is how sexual harassment and gender discrimination relate directly to sexual assault. Harassment can be a gateway to more serious abuses of power.

As Burke explains, the term “rape culture”communicates to survivors of assault, “it isn't your fault.” Rape culture emphasizes teaching young women how to avoid being assaulted. As a consequence of emphasizing women's need for caution, when it happens to us, we examine our own behavior and actions to see what we should have done differently.

I remember coming across an article giving safety advice to women based on interviews with convicted rapists—about what they look for in a potential victim. Avoid those things, was the message. Sounds like a good idea, right? At some point I embraced the idea that the best way to address the risk of sexual assault would be to get self-defense training. I'm not saying there's anything wrong with such approaches. But it's taken me a long time to recognize there is a lack of discourse aimed at dismantling the culture of rape: a lack of emphasis on educating and socializing boys and men how not to do it. Which is one of the things we teach in the lifespan sexuality curriculum we UUs offer: Our Whole Lives (OWL).

Statistics about sexual misconduct in this country are staggering—and confusing. Estimates vary widely depending on sources and demographics and definitions. Whatever the source, incidents of misconduct are vastly underreported due to shame, cultural norms, and fear of retaliation.

PBS News Hour recently aired a series on the unfolding story of rape, harassment, and gender discrimination in the Forest Service. Women firefighters interviewed on camera said they had been involuntarily transferred, excluded from training programs, and demoted when they reported abuse. The head of the agency resigned amid the scandal just this past week.

I won't try to report numbers here, but based on the explosion of #MeToo, you can bet that a high percentage of the women in this room have had an experience somewhere on the continuum between harassment and sexual violence. Every day, new reports of discrimination and abuse make the headlines. When we consider how to deconstruct rape culture, there are a number of things we need to keep in mind.

Let's talk about intersectionality. Rape culture intersects with other forms of oppression in what bell hooks calls the “imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.” For example, when Alyssa Milano posted #MeToo on Twitter, a conversation ensued about how the contribution of Tarana Burke, a Black woman, had been overlooked. Just as it took the death of James Reeb, a white man, to get Federal action on voting rights in 1965, it is the complaints of white women in positions of privilege and power—Hollywood actors—to create a national movement against sexual misconduct. Middle class white feminists have come into conflict with activist women of color before.

Where rape is concerned, we must also remember that while most perpetrators are men, not all victims are women. Men are also assaulted, and the statistics for sexual violence against LGBTQ people are high—especially for trans women of color.

Another thing to remember. One reason so many rapes go unreported is that victims have routinely been re-traumatized by being cross-examined in court. The goal of the defense is to undermine the woman's credibility, which necessarily involves shaming her. The practice is underpinned by the biblical narrative of Potiphar's wife, in the Egyptian court. She tried to seduce Joseph and then accused him of rape when he rejected her advances. It happens.

Thankfully, #MeToo has now created a context where women are more likely to be believed. In fact, only a tiny percentage of false reports occur. Back in November, I clicked the headline “The Real Reason Why We Can't Just Believe All Women.” I gasped when the link navigated to a portrait of Emmett Till. This was a 14-year-old boy visiting relatives in Mississippi who, in 1955, was murdered by white supremacists for allegedly whistling at one of their wives. His accuser, Carolyn Bryant, admitted in an interview with historian Timothy Tyson that “nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him.”

To consider this context from another perspective, I find the exploitation of enslaved women almost too painful to mention. It is not by accident that children of such women would by law themselves be enslaved, whoever fathered them. Even if they were not otherwise motivated to rape their female workers, the sexual violence of our slave-holding ancestors effectively rewarded them with material gain.

As with any meaningful cultural shift, this work will for many of us involve venturing out of our comfort zones. Some of us may choose to tell stories of traumatic experience, in a group or to a trusted friend. Others may choose to disclose how you have yourself participated in the cultural norm of discrimination, harassment, and assault. Some may choose to apologize or make amends.

Let's do it, for the sake of justice, equity, compassion, and peace. For all of us—men, women, those beyond the binary—resources are available for support, meaning-making, and learning. We can all support survivors and embrace activism for social transformation. We will all benefit from working together to challenge male privilege and toxic masculinity. For starters, I recommend a PBS series called “#MeToo: Now what”: interviews and round-table conversations hosted by Zainab Salbi.

Ovid's Metamorphoses preserved stories of rape culture that were already hundreds of years old at the dawn of the Roman Empire. These oppressive cultural norms run deep. As he watched Oprah Winfrey at the Golden Globes, Steve Bannon is quoted in a recent biography as having said, “The anti-patriarchy movement is going to undo a thousand years of recorded history.” Well, recorded history goes back much farther than a thousand years, and so does patriarchy. It's not going to happen overnight, but we're doing our best.

So may it be.