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  • Published on: 21st September 2019
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On the night of November 18th, 2016, I was sexually assaulted by an acquaintance. We had "hooked up" before, but on that night, I had explicitly and repeatedly expressed my disinterest in pursuing such an interaction. Unfortunately, my words and wishes held no meaning to him. My body was an entitlement, a guarantee. My repeated rejections of his advances must have seemed like a silly game of seduction, and the injuries that he inflicted on my body, spirit and mind, a simple accident in his eyes. He still smiles at me when we pass each other; I scurry away like a scared little child, my eyes desperately searching for anywhere but him. About a month after my sexual assault, a label which I had difficulty accepting at first, due to the lack of strangers jumping out of bushes and grabbing me, I told my mother. I hadn't cried since the night of my assault, but when my mother asked me why I hadn't simply walked away, why I had put myself in such a vulnerable position, I broke down. I knew that I held some liability by putting myself in a vulnerable situation, but why had my attacker grown up in a society where he did not recognize his coercive and lascivious actions, and held no accountability, internally, and to a certain extent, externally, to seek out a consenting partner?

Faced with these conflicting and confusing thoughts, I started to research and question how we had arrived at our current societal perceptions, classifications, and discussions surrounding the topic of sexual assault. My research has led me to surmise that throughout the history of the United States, the various manifestations of discourse surrounding sexual violence – which have effectively suppressed the legitimacy and experiences of victims – reify and exemplify the exploitation and suppression of female sexuality as an enduring tool in the keeping of America's patriarchy.

So, what exactly is the patriarchy? For many, the word conjures up an image of screaming feminists - their armpit hair proudly exposed to the world - shaking their fists in fury about seemingly ancient inequalities, which they blame on the faceless "patriarchy." Patriarchy is a social system stemming from patrilineal property rights in which men control and define moral authority, social hierarchies, and political leadership. In her book Theorizing Patriarchy, Feminist scholar and sociologist Sylvia Walby further classifies the patriarchy into six overlapping structures; the state: women are less likely to hold prominent positions of political power, the household: women are expected to be domestic caregivers, violence: women are more likely to be abused, paid work: women are consistently paid less, sexuality: female sexuality is regarded negatively (whether through objectification or policing of bodily autonomy), and culture: women are portrayed and misrepresented in the media. In short, Walby's system of classifications indicate that the patriarchy, while ruled by men, is structurally based on the oppression of women, and even more extensively on the sexuality of women.

According to Susan Brownmiller, feminist scholar and author of, Against our Will: Men, Women, and Sexual Assault, sexual violence is a tool used by those in power to assert their control and dominance over those whom they subordinate whether by perpetrating the crimes themselves or disseminating fear relating to the crimes (Brownmiller, 15). Brownmiller’s assertion gives credence to how patriarchal society marginalizes the legitimacy and experiences of any and every woman, especially women of color (who are ranked even lower in America's patriarchal hierarchy) affected by sexual assault, to maintain control over the narrative of sexual violence, and therefore control of society overall. The changing ways in which we view, treat, and include women within the public domain are reflected in the ways that we regard those involved in and affected by sexual violence. Therefore, while the manifestations of public discourse surrounding sexual violence in America may have shifted over time, all forms effectively manipulate and suppress the legitimacy and experiences of victims to maintain - and in many cases, reinforce - the patriarchy.

Today, we live in a society which supposedly rejects overt demonstrations of patriarchal oppression, but societal norms in revolutionary-war era America were quite the opposite, as white male property owners were unquestionably accepted as the heads of society.  This allowed for the complete removal of women from the sexual violence narrative. In her article “Rape without Women: Print Culture and the Politicization of Rape 1765-1815,” author Sharon Block unboxes the public, private, and legal perceptions of rape as crime of property occurring in between two men. According to Block, “rather than see rape as a fundamental feature of patriarchies, early Americans publicly discussed it as an affront to proper patriarchal rule.” Based on a synthesis of newspapers, court cases, and various other publications, Block proposes that in Revolutionary War-era America, women were removed from the public discourse about rape to emphasize “men’s interactions with one another, [as] rape stories could provide an unequivocal assignment of right and wrong, unencumbered by concern over women’s sexual desires or acts” (850). In short, Block believes that the lack of women in the public discourse surrounding rape in America was used by revolutionaries to vilify their British overlords. The control of fathers and husbands, and by extension the control of white patriarchal society, could not be absolute if other men violated their women. This supported an overarching anti-British sentiment, acting as an example of how the British held no respect for their life, liberty and especially property, which wives and daughters were.

The exploitation of sexual violence and female sexuality as a method in maintaining the patriarchy is further exemplified in the Antebellum-era South. This can be seen in the widespread prevalence and acceptance of master-slave relationships, which were intrinsically nonconsensual due to the legitimate threat of violence that female slaves faced in rejecting the advances of their masters. These "relationships" were widely regarded as within the limits of legitimate use of property, and therefore rarely classified or viewed as sexual violence (Allain, 1). In her journal article “African American Women’s History and the Metalanguage of Race,”  to Evelyn Brooks Higgenbotham, a preeminent historian in Afro-American studies,  “The Southern way of life, and the institutions that defined it—white supremacy, slavery, and the planter aristocracy—were inextricably linked with the sexual regulation of women, especially upper class women; the purity of white women, when contrasted with the sexually lascivious black Jezebel archetype, served to highlight the alleged superiority of white womanhood, and by extension, whiteness (Brooks Higginbotham, 1992, p. 263)." In short, Higgenbotham theorizes that maintenance of the patriarchy in Antebellum-era South was largely dependent on the sexual exploitation black female slaves and regulation of white southern belles. Female sexuality and the power that one draws from controlling and/or exploiting it, are central in maintaining many societal hierarchies, such as those seen in the Antebellum South.

In the last century, major strides have been made in the treatment and rights of women at home and in the public domain. Gender roles seem to have shifted, with women taking to colleges in workplaces in great numbers. Women are seemingly now a vocal part of the narrative surrounding sexual assault, which some attribute to women’s sexual liberation in the 1970s’. However, the idea that women were taking control of their own bodies was inherently threatening to the patriarchy. Recall how Walby’s six interconnected pillars of the patriarchy all related to restrictions on the autonomy of women. Those wishing to adhere and maintain to societal standard created and inherently needed by the patriarchy, saw women’s sexual liberation as a direct threat. If a woman is in charge of her own body, then she theoretically cannot be beholden to the limitations and oppressions of patriarchal society which rely on sexual oppression in order to maintain social order, and therefore could conceivably compromise the whole system.  Sexual liberation, and women’s liberation in general, theoretically allowed for women to subvert and discard with such restrictions and almost immediately, backlash occurred.

The most overt example of this backlash can be seen in the development of modern day purity culture, which manifested in Chastity Balls in which adolescent girls make “a pledge of purity to their father and to God” and promise rings galore (Anderson). Coinciding with rise of conservatism in the 1980s, purity culture sought to reign in young girls who were at risk of finding their own autonomy in the new world of sexual liberation. Dianne Anderson, a journalist who herself pledged to keep pure at age 14, offers further insight into this phenomena in her article “Purity Culture as Rape Culture: Why the Theological is Political.” Anderson, drawing from her own experiences and extensive research on the topic, theorizes that purity culture makes women even more vulnerable to sexual violence, while simultaneously claiming to guard them from the evils of sex.  According to Anderson, “Prior to marriage, women are instructed that they must say no to sex at every turn, and if they do not they are responsible for the consequences. This method of approach— ‘always no’—creates situations in which women are not equipped to fully understand what consent looks like or what a healthy sexual encounter is.” In short, this “just say no” ideology leaves a huge portion of the female population vulnerable to sexual assault. Furthermore, if these young women break their promise and “say yes” to sex, then any act of sexual violence committed against them is either questioned or seen as brought on by their own promiscuity. You can either be “rapeable” in the eyes of society, and seemingly more vulnerable to rape, or “unrapeable” in the eyes of society, and most likely just as unable to handle nonconsensual encounters, just like I was.

A vivid example of this concept of "unrapable" women is exemplified by South Dakota Republican lawmaker Bill Napoli's argument for a total ban of abortion (including cases of rape and incest) in 2007. Napoli gives his thoughts on what scenario could possibly necessitate an abortion: “A real-life description to me would be a rape victim, brutally raped, savaged girl was a virgin. She was religious. She planned on saving her virginity until she was married. She was brutalized and raped, sodomized as bad as you can possibly make it, and is impregnated.” Notice Napoli's focus on the women's virginity as a qualifier for the legitimacy of her rape and further need for access to proper healthcare. In short, any woman who does not meet the ridiculously high standards of Bill Napoli, or any of the many others who subscribe to this purity culture, is deserving of her rape (Valenti, 22).  

The modern-day narrative of sexual assault, which fixates on the actions of the victims rather than those of the perpetrator, is a thinly veiled attempt at controlling the bodies of women, simply in ways deemed acceptable by today’s standards. A powerful example of the potent effects of victim blaming can be seen in the documentary Audrie & Daisy. In this picture, directors Cohen and Shenk examine the effects of sexual assault on several young women in the age of social media and cyberbullying. The documentary primarily focuses on the stories of sexual assault victims Audrie Pott and Daisy Coleman. Only eight days after her attack, and feeling as if her reputation was irreparably and permanently damaged due to the documentation of her assault, Audrie Pott took her own life aged 15. Daisy Coleman, whose attacked was a member of a prominent family in her town, attempted suicide multiple times after reporting her assault. Coleman and her family faced an onslaught of threats and denigration through social media, with social media posts and hashtags such a “#daisyisaslut” circulating endlessly; They even had their house burned down. Both Pott and Coleman were intoxicated at the time of their attacks, which leads for many around them, even the town Sheriff in Coleman’s case, to contend with whether it was a “legitimate rape” or they “had what was coming to them.” As exemplified by the stories of Pott and Coleman, whose stories are unfortunately not unique, one can see that the toxic force of victim blaming is pervasive in almost every discourse surrounding sexual assault, whether that be on Twitter, Facebook, or through barrage of news media and information that we encounter every day. This culture of victim blaming makes women like me, women whose attacks do not meet Representative Bill Napoli’s definition of what a “legitimate rape” constitutes, ever the more afraid to speak up and speak out about our experiences, for fear of the responses that we will receive. Victim blaming has effectively allowed for the patriarchy to flip the script on women’s sexual liberation, creating an environment in which many women fear being ostracized or delegitimized for reporting their assaults. To me, this indicates that sexual violence is still being used to oppress female sexuality and autonomy, which are pillars in the keeping of America’s patriarchy.

In 2017, I can sit down with my shiny laptop and write about my experiences with sexual assault, connect with others who have been in similar situations, reads endless pages of research- often conducted by women- on sexual assault, and walk five minutes to the nearest rape crisis center and report my assault (something that I have not done yet). I am grateful that women are being included and leading discussions about sexual violence, as millions of women in the decades and centuries before did not have such a privilege. However, I would like to qualify this statement: while I, and many women in my situations are afforded more resources than our sisters in the decades and centuries before us, the situation is still urgent: one in six women experience an attempted or completed rape, and one in two women experience any kind of sexual violence in their lifetimes (RAINN). I do not seek to take my own privileges for granted, but instead highlight how the narrative has shifted from expressly removing women from the narrative of sexual assault, as happened in revolutionary-era America, to the extreme fixation on the actions and purity of female victims (and resulting lack of perpetrator accountability) that we see in public discourse today. Both narratives, though seemingly disparate, serve as reinforcements white patriarchy in changing political and moral climates, which are also underlined and ultimately dictated by the patriarchy.

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