Dear Abby: WTF?

rape-culture-t-shirt

I went to protest rape culture, and all I got was this crappy t-shirt.

Advice columnists have a lot of power to shape our opinions. Or misshape them, as the case may be. Case in point: a recent Dear Abby column, in which the advice columnist — the daughter of the original “Abby” — has inadvertently gone the rape-culture route. “Uncertain in Illinois” wrote to her recently, seeking clarification as much as advice:

DEAR ABBY: I am a junior in high school. Last year, a guy I have known for two years began showing a sexual interest in me. I rejected his advances. Last week, he began expressing his interest again, letting me know he wanted to have sex. He invited me to study — only study — but said we “might” make out.

I was a virgin and had never even kissed anyone before. I had just gotten out of a relationship that didn’t end very well, so I liked the attention. I decided I was fine with just kissing, but as soon as I got in his truck, he started to feel me up. He took me to a semi-isolated area and we ended up having sex. It wasn’t fun or pleasurable. I told him he was hurting me, but he didn’t stop until the third time I said it. He was very upset with me. He only cared about me pleasuring him.

I told two of my close friends about what happened. One said he had essentially raped me. The other said it doesn’t count as rape because even though I said it hurt, I didn’t say it forcefully enough. Abby, what do you think?

The first friend is “essentially” right: This is a rape. The guy telegraphed his intent beforehand, and the girl made it clear that she didn’t want him. But he persisted. He lied to her. He isolated her. And then, when he had her alone, he attacked. And didn’t stop until the third time she told him that he was hurting her. He wasn’t a bit remorseful even then, just “very upset” with her for not letting him finish.

At no point did he care what she wanted. It couldn’t be more clear that this guy raped her, and meant to rape her all along. And that she — a virgin who hadn’t even kissed anyone yet — could hardly have known what was going to happen if she went anywhere with him.

But Dear Abby seems to have taken the second friend’s side, the side that holds the victim should have known, and is thus at least partly responsible for what happened to her:

DEAR UNCERTAIN: It appears you and that boy had a severe breakdown in communication, which led to your being sexually assaulted. He had made no secret that he wanted sex with you, and may have interpreted your willingness to kiss him after he took you somewhere other than what was agreed upon as a signal that you were willing, even though you didn’t say so.

Date rape happens when a fellow ends up coercing or forcing a girl to have sex without her consent. Unless a girl explicitly expresses her willingness to proceed, it is the responsibility of the boy NOT to proceed.

To me what happened illustrates how important it is for parents to talk to their sons and daughters about responsible behavior because failure to do that can have lifelong consequences for both. If you haven’t already done so, you should tell your parents what happened. However, if you don’t feel safe doing that, tell a counselor at school.

Did you spot the rape culture in there? It’s tricky, because it’s all mixed up with what would, on its own, be sound advice. So here is the sound advice, on its own:

DEAR UNCERTAIN: Date rape happens when a fellow ends up coercing or forcing a girl to have sex without her consent. Unless a girl explicitly expresses her willingness to proceed, it is the responsibility of the boy NOT to proceed. If you haven’t already done so, you should tell your parents what happened. However, if you don’t feel safe doing that, tell a counselor at school.

And here is the rape culture:

It appears you and that boy had a severe breakdown in communication, which led to your being sexually assaulted. He had made no secret that he wanted sex with you, and may have interpreted your willingness to kiss him after he took you somewhere other than what was agreed upon as a signal that you were willing, even though you didn’t say so.

To me what happened illustrates how important it is for parents to talk to their sons and daughters about responsible behavior because failure to do that can have lifelong consequences for both.

See, that’s the problem with rape culture: Too many mixed messages! Shit happens when you fail to communicate just right! You have to be clear and unambiguous at all times.

And here’s the fucked-up part: Even if you make your true feelings known, someone can still willfully misread you, choosing to disregard whatever doesn’t suit his original intent, and proceeding according to plan. Just as the guy who raped “Uncertain” did.

And now it’s going to have “lifelong consequences for both”, all right: “Uncertain” going to spend the rest of her life feeling, well, uncertain, and terribly guilty for not having “communicated” correctly. And possibly also for “ruining his life”, if she decides to press charges and he is prosecuted for sexual assault.

Outside of the doubtful legal ramifications, though, it’s quite certain what consequences this guy will face. Because we live in a patriarchal society that elevates male whims above the will of any female, he will be exonerated in the court of public opinion. And he will be aided and abetted by those who have internalized misogyny, like Friend #2, who thinks it was up to “Uncertain” to push him away forcefully enough, and that if she didn’t, she must have wanted it after all. Patriarchy and rape culture thrive on uncertainty, especially when it falls in a direction advantageous to the rapist.

And the worst part is, he’s even got Dear Abby to back him up. Because she can’t communicate clearly and unambiguously, either.

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