Sometimes I don’t know what to say.

In both my grad class and my undergrad class this week we’re discussing Sharon Block’s Rape and Sexual Power in Early America.  This is a book that goes over very well with college students, given their vulnerability to sexual assault as well as Block’s analysis of the racial and class dynamics of rape complaints and prosecutions.  I was pushing my students on the question of why more hasn’t changed over the past 300 years, and decided to ask them if they knew someone who had been raped.  All of us but ONE person out of 17 or 18 of us in the discussion section raised a hand.

I’m sure that most of us wouldn’t have raised our hands if I had asked if we knew any victims of car theft, or of embezzlement, or murder.  I should have asked them if the assailant of the rape victim they knew was tried, convicted, and found guilty, too.

Rape truly is a crime so terrible that it never, ever happens, isn’t it?

10 thoughts on “Sometimes I don’t know what to say.

  1. Jason, I’m sorry. There are communities in which murder victims are much more numerous. We are very sheltered in northern Colorado on our campus.

    Days like today make me realize what an incredibly sheltered life I have, so far.

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  2. Oddly, although I live in a pretty privileged/protected place, I know both a murderer and a murder victim (the former better than the latter, and no, it’s not the same crime, though that wouldn’t be uncommon, since so many murders are domestic, perhaps especially in privileged/protected places. The murderer committed a crime that was, in fact, domestic; the murder victim was attacked by a stranger, which of course is not the most common scenario). I can also name at least one victim of car theft, and two victims (including one community — a church) of embezzlement.

    In contrast, I don’t know which of my friends and acquaintances have been raped, although I’m pretty sure there are some who have. That may partly be a function of which crimes we talk about, and which we don’t (on reflection, I do know that a rape of a minor by a member of staff at my church occurred some years ago, but I don’t — appropriately — know exactly who the victim was. Similarly, I know that one of my grad school classmates was raped by a member of the faculty, but, once again, I don’t know exactly whom, and deliberately avoided seeking out that information, which was easily available. Whether that decision makes sense or not, since one could argue that having the information could lessen the danger of saying something accidentally hurtful, I’m not sure).

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  3. Depressing, and even with so many raised hands, perhaps an under-report, since any given person might learn about one (or more) instances of rape but not one (or more) others in hir network or circle of acquaintances.

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  4. Like CC, I know several murder victims and one murderer (whose victims include his wife, a former student, and his children). I know a woman who embezzled from the church where she worked. I know several people who had cars stolen — there was a time when Honda Accords just disappeared from parking lots in New Haven. But this is because (in part) I lived in city with a very high poverty and crime rate, and did not insulate myself from the community. When my church ran an outreach program for children, most of the kids knew someone who was in jail.

    I’m thinking about the rape question. I am sure I do know people who have been raped, but I don’t know who they are. I think that’s interesting. But it may be a feature of age.

    But your statistics are not surprising. And depressing. Also: ironic, perhaps, that the most familiar crime to your more or less middle class population is not the one that people worry about.

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  5. How saddening. I wonder how generational this knowledge is. That is to say, college students today are more likely to recognize, name, and/or talk about rape and sexual assault because of the more open campus discourse than those of us who are older? I had only two college friends who spoke about being raped, one a highly mediatized violent stranger rape case and another at a Take Back the Night rally. But never heard a whisper of the kind of acquaintance and date rape assaults that we now know are so common on campuses, even in circles where those are statistically likely to have taken place (athletes, fraternities). There was a sexual assault hotline and TBTN, but it was definitely not a high or prominent priority on campus.

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  6. I see Susan raised the age issue, too. It does seem important. Although it might be worth distinguishing between age and generation as factors. College students have larger circles of close friends than adults do, and in addition to the more intensive public discourse, may tend to have larger numbers of close friends in whom they might confide. Whereas adults are less likely to share this kind of experience with the more casual or professional acquaintances who fill our lives. So we may hear rumors or reports of rape within a community we belong to when it leads to some kind of disciplinary action, whether formal or informal, e.g. CC’s grad school cohort and church, or that senior faculty member know to harrass female students that we have to steer our advisees away from. But we are less likely to hear personal stories from the people we spend our time with: our co-workers, the parents of our children’s classmates a friends, our neighbors, people in our yoga classes, etc.

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    • @Ellie, when I talked about age, I was thinking generation. I came of age long before Take Back the NIght, and it really wasn’t spoken of. Though I’m sure it happened on my campus…

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  7. On the flip side, I had a disheartening exchange on this topic come out of nowhere last year. We were talking about a journal article on colonial Latin America, and one student — a grad student! — objected to the description of sexual relations between European men and indigenous women as rape: “They went with them to get a better position or more food, so it was almost consent.” You can bet I stepped on that, and HARD, and without a moment’s delay. But it was sad: students may understand the victim side of the equation better, but when it comes to translating that into what *men* should or shouldn’t do, and what constitutes consent, they’re still screwing up.

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    • We all do, I think. In my class, we had a long talk about how we would probably have seen more change over the past 300 years if women as well as men weren’t as eager to blame women for being rape victims.

      We all like to see ourselves on the side of the winners, and that usually means convincing ourselves that the victims brought it on themselves, or are somehow to blame for their fates. I think this is a key feature of humanity, and one of the only things recommending Christianity in my book is the emphasis on loving our neighbors and outreach to the outcast.

      Thanks for your comments, everyone, over the weekend. I’ve been a little overwhelmed lately–will post later today about that, maybe.

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