Consider the standard rape narrative in television and film.
A young-ish woman, alone at night. She’s walking to her car in a dimly-lit parking lot. Or she’s returning home through a sketchy neighborhood comprised of burned-out buildings, abandoned businesses and boarded-up houses, the streets and sidewalks littered with the urban tumbleweed of fast food wrappers, crushed beer cans, and used condoms. The siren of an ambulance, the curses uttered in a distant argument, the cries of a baby are the faraway sounds she hears. As she walks, ominous music filters over the soundtrack. From somewhere nearby, the glass crash of a broken bottle catches her attention. We hear another pair of footsteps, a snigger. The woman tenses up, hunches her shoulders, tries to make herself small, unseen. As she passes a shrub, a trash dumpster, a burnt-out husk of an abandoned automobile, a dark figure leaps out from behind her, drags her to the pavement. He slaps his gloved hand over her mouth to prevent her from screaming. Should the camera focus on the assailant, we’d recognize him as belonging to the loser-dude stereotype: overweight, poor and/or recently laid off from a dead-end job, slovenly-dressed, with perhaps a smattering of whiteheads erupting over his acne-scarred face. Moonlight glimmers on the stainless steel knife blade he holds against the woman’s neck. And then the scene fades out, leaving it to the viewer to surmise what happens next in this grisly sequence.
As familiar as this narrative is, it is so far removed from what actually happens in the majority of rape cases as to be socially irresponsible.
According to the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center (BARCC), more than 80% of rapes occur at home. Victims knew their assailants 75% of the time. Roger Williams University found that, in 51% of the cases, the sexual assailant was a current or former intimate. Rather than the random act it is often portrayed to be, most rapes are premeditated. Today’s rapists usually don’t rely on weapons. Instead, they emotionally or physically isolate their victims, coercing them through with what BARCC characterizes as “psychological weapons” and alcohol. A 2002 study found that, “By attacking victims within their social network—so-called acquainances—and by refraining from the kind of violence likely to produce physical injuries in their victims, these rapists create ‘cases’ that victims are least likely to report, and that prosecutors are less likely to prosecute.”
So that guy who hangs out in the bushes hoping to attack some unfortunate woman walking home late at night? Sure. He’s probably out there, lurking. However, attacks by total strangers represent such a small sliver of the sexual assault pie that, by continuing to hold such instances up in our standard rape narrative, we inadvertently sow doubt into the claims of all women who are raped or sexually assaulted by men previously known to them.
One of the more depressing aspects about the ongoing Bill Cosby situation is the number of people who reflexively defended Cosby and/or cast aspersions on his many victims. Time and again, people doubted the victims’ stories. Or outright shamed them. Or, through innuendoes, suggested the women actually “wanted” Cosby. A boatload of articles psychoanalyzed us, the American public, on the reasons we weren’t prepared to believe the allegations. That his best-known role was that of a genial, upstanding family man (Dr. Cliff Huxtable on TV’s The Cosby Show) made it hard to conceive of him as a real-life monster. Others said we defended him because he represented the kind of “safe” African-American who “made White America feel good about race.”
Me? I think something else was at play.
The Cosby story ran so contrary to the standard rape narrative that most people didn’t know how to process it. Wildly successful, Cosby bears no resemblance to our standard loser-dude stereotypes. In most cases, his victims were professionally acquainted with him. He had been friends with them. In some of the cases, the rape occurred after a longstanding consensual affair between the two had ended. He wasn’t jumping them in darkened parking lots, wasn’t brandishing a machete or threatening to bash their skulls with a baseball bat.
The public mind is an economizing mind that seeks to contextualize current controversies against the standard narratives it has memorized. When situations arise that don’t map up to those narratives, the public becomes naturally suspicious. People didn’t doubt the women had sex with Cosby, but they turned to other narratives to discern the women’s rationale and motives.
Some mistook the victims for the participants in a Casting Couch narrative—women who willfully let a movie star/director/producer/impresario “take advantage” of them in exchange for the tacit understanding that the entertainment honcho would pull a string or two to advance the woman’s career.
Others turned to the Movie Star narrative. Cosby was the type of rich and famous star we’ve been told women naturally want to sleep with. In this narrative, the victims are groupies flittering around him at red-carpet industry galas screaming out their availability for conquest in a myriad of subtle and not so subtle ways.
Then there’s the Gold Digger (aka, “The Bitch Set Me Up”) narrative in which the women are scam artists who employed their wiles to induce Cosby to bed them, and then leveled false accusations about the nature of their seduction so he would fork over cash to buy their silence.
One suspects more people would have believed the woman had they claimed Cosby pursued them down an alley, flashed a nickel-plated Saturday Night Special, and physically forced himself on them. The standard rape narrative let these women down. Which is a shame. According to Roger Williams University, only about 2% of sexual assault allegations turn out to be false—about the same number as for other crimes—yet in this case, people thought they were lying.
Last week, people contacted me in response to an essay I wrote that touched upon rape and sexual abuse. Some liked it. Some were ticked off at me. But the response that touched me most was from a woman who, herself, was a survivor of sexual assault. She wrote,
“As a woman who understands this stuff well, I have to say thank you for being a man and just saying this stuff about assault. Because, seriously, most of my male friends say nothing, OR they defend the guy who was accused.”
If you read through the BARCC link above, you’ll find that the organization is on record as suggesting, “While most assailants are male, most males are not assailants.” I’m inclined to believe this, which, paradoxically, explains our difficulty understanding the rape phenomenon: most men have no first-hand experience to guide us. Most women also, luckily, will never be directly involved in a rape situation. Lacking first-hand knowledge, many of us retreat back to collectively memorized narratives to provide us a means of understanding rape. Only when we dig past the standard narrative and delve into the statistics do we grasp how false and misleading that narrative is.
A woman I know is in litigation stemming out of accusations she made about a former fiancé who raped her. The ex-fiancé’s lawyer states, in court-filed paperwork, that the activities my friend accuses her former fiancé of committing do not meet the definition of what is normally considered “rape.”
In a certain sense, the attorney is right: the standard, culturally-accepted rape narratives just do not account for rapes committed by intimates or former intimates. This is the hardest part of rape for me to wrap my head around: more than half of all attempted sexual assaults are committed by people with whom the victim had once enjoyed consensual sex. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t doubt the accuracy of these statistics. I just have a hard time understanding the mindset of a man who could so violently and heinously assault a former lover. Before I looked into these statistics, nothing prepared me for this. Two weeks ago, I wouldn’t have believed more than, say, three percent of rapes were committed by former lovers. It was that inconceivable.
BARCC reports that 60% of rapes go unreported to law enforcement officials. The fear of not being believed is one reason women don’t report the crime. In many cases, a woman survives in silence, not even telling friends and family about the assault. She’ll view herself through the lens of the standard narrative, ruminating on what happened, the standard narrative becoming a form of gaslighting from afar that will cause her to question herself, doubt her recollections, doubt her sanity. The same questions that the standard narrative provokes in us will weigh on her thoughts. Had she led on her assailant? Had she dressed provocatively? Unconsciously titillated him with a smile, a giggle, a previously unknown come-on? It’s horrible, the questions the standard narrative can provoke.
Consider the difficulty a rape victim faces in seeking justice when the particulars of her rape run contrary to the standard narrative. No matter how impartial jurors intend to be, their intuition on such matters will already be clouded. When the cases are vastly different, and more complex, than the standard narrative allows, is it surprising they succumb to defense attorneys’ obfuscating tactics? How many cases don’t even go to trial because law enforcement officials and prosecutors doubt their ability to convince jurors to let go of that standard narrative?
According to one study, “acquaintance rape cases, often referred to as ‘nonstranger’ rape cases, are much less likely to be formally charged by prosecutors, and are often viewed with more suspicion by police officers… [In rape cases], the suspect was significantly more likely to be questioned by police, and the case referred for prosecution, if there was no prior acquaintance between the victim and the perpetrator…. [D]efendants in stranger cases were significantly more likely than defendants in nonstranger cases to receive prison sentences.”
Had the standard rape narrative been more reflective of the actual truths behind most rapes, Cosby’s victims (and indeed all victims of similar crimes) would have had a better chance of initially being believed. In some cases, the victims stayed quiet for decades, so uncertain were they that they’d be believed. Where’s the justice in that?
Which brings us to the need for change. Until we begin actively promoting a more realistic rape narrative in our screenplays, books, stage dramas, and television scripts, we’re letting down the one in six women who will be sexually assaulted during their lifetimes. Perhaps content providers and media consumers still cling to the facile generalizations one can make in a man-jumps-woman-in-parking-lot rape narrative, but something more is needed if we truly wish to end rape culture.