The Year In Consent
THE RICHMOND GANG RAPE
Verdict: She had been drinking.
America keeps waiting for the acquaintance rape that is so horrific—its facts so irrefutable, its perpetrator so evil, its victim so innocent—that it shakes the gawking public into finally recognizing the problem of sexual assault. That rape never comes.
Last October, the inconceivable happened. A 15-year-old girl was brutally gang-raped just outside of her high school gym. According to media reports, as many as 20 students participated in—or watched—the two-hour assault before discarding the unconscious girl under a bench in an alley. No one on the scene alerted the police. For those who require a snapshot of the victim’s character before determining fault: She was a devout Christian dolled up in a sparkly purple dress for her school’s homecoming dance.
But then: Some media reports mentioned that the victim had been drinking prior to the assault. For some people, that turns this girl’s horrific rape into a valuable morality tale that will put the fear into our nation’s drunk girls. “People are saying it’s her fault because she got drunk,” Kami, a friend of the victim, told the Los Angeles Times.
On the Internet, that grand repository of higher thinking, commenters weighed in with such insights as “Perhaps the boys are not all to blame. The young lady had one too many,” and “Geeeeee, I got raped.…Duuhhhhh! These guys are low life scum bags, your 15 and you want to get drunk with them! YOU STUDPID IDIOT.” In the court of public opinion, the victim was also found guilty of knowing her attackers and wearing a dress. “im not sayin its her fault or she deserved this or anything but shes 15 and drinking outside on a bench by herself in a dress…what she was doin in the first place was asking for trouble.”
Blaming the Richmond gang rape on the alcohol allows armchair rape commentators to dispense with the difficult business of actually preventing rape, while excusing themselves from the list of potential future victims: “I won’t get raped, because I don’t get drunk/I don’t wear dresses/I don’t go outside after dark/I’m not stupid/I don’t know any rapists/I’m not a woman.”
In September, a Hofstra University freshman who had accused a group of men of gang-raping her recanted her statement. The 18-year-old student, who had told police that the men had lured her into a dorm bathroom, tied her up with rope, and raped her, admitted to the Nassau County District Attorney’s office that the “incident” was, in fact, consensual. A video taken on one of the men’s cell phones revealed that there was, in fact, no rope.
After being released from jail, where they had been held for nearly 24 hours, the four men who were cleared of the rape charges posed in a series of celebratory photographs, smiling, raising their hands in the air, and offering thumbs-up signs to the press. Overnight, the men turned from accused rapists to…four guys who had had consensual sex with a woman together.
Imagine a young woman proudly mugging for news cameras after taking part in a consensual bathroom gang-bang. Not gonna happen. Admitting you’ve been raped by four men is noble. Admitting you had sex with them willingly? That’s vile. In the eyes of the public, you’re either a victim or a whore.
Once our Hofstra freshman admitted she had falsified the charges, she was quickly shunted into the “whore” category. The New York Post’s Andrea Peyser called the accuser a “venal vixen” and a “whore.” Men’s News Daily Editor Paul Elam wrote that the accuser “cheapened herself by taking on [a group of] men willingly on a men’s room floor and lied about it later out of what little capacity for shame she had.” On Urban Dictionary, “Hofstra” is now a synonym for “Someone who is infested with STD’s”; “A slut/someone who sleeps around”; and “The act of being slutty.”
As the New York Post points out, there is evidence to suggest that the accuser lied in order to avoid being called these names. She didn’t want to be labeled a “whore” or a “slut,” “cheap,” or “shameless,” because she chose to have sex with these men (though I’m betting she didn’t anticipate “venal vixen”). But the Hofstra rape case also relies on another false dichotomy of consent: Either the victim is tied down and subdued while her rapists have their way with her, or the whore is an entirely willing participant in the affair.
When four men are having sex in public with one drunk woman they’ve never met before, how likely is it that the woman provided full, enthusiastic, and un-coerced consent to each sex act? Once the victim had lied about the extent of the coercion in that dorm bathroom, media gawkers rejoiced in recasting her as a whore and her sex partners as heroes. Discarded in the middle was a sadder possibility: that a woman who felt she had been violated didn’t think anyone would believe her if she wasn’t tied down by a rope.
Verdict: Rape and pre-marital sex are both sins in the eyes of the lord.
Back in the spring of 2008, the Catholic University of America campus experienced an incident frighteningly similar to Hofstra’s: A group of students—four male, one female—engaged in drunken group sex of dubious consent in a Catholic U. freshman dorm. The female student later reported the incident as a sexual assault; a male participant, who was expelled, maintained that the incident was consensual.
At Catholic, the process of determining consent in the matter was complicated by the university’s strict no-sex policy, which outlawed both rape and consensual premarital sex in the same sentence: “physical conduct of a sexual nature that is unwanted by either party and/or that is disruptive to the university community, such as any sexual expression that is inconsistent with the teaching and moral values of the Catholic church.”
Catholic U.’s policy suffered from the opposite problem of most of these armchair critics: While the public can only recognize rape as the product of the vilest of monsters, Catholic University saw anyone who had sex as a sinner. Today, the university still bans premarital sex on campus, but it’s tougher on the non-consensual stuff: Last summer, the Catholic University of America revised its student rules to clarify that the school condemns sexual assault more strongly than it does sex.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery