As I read through the studies of violence to Native American women, which were mostly anecdote mixed with statistics and a little art work to relieve the grimness, several thoughts began to form about why nothing seems to be effective in changing the situation in spite of decades of activism and its obvious atrocity.
Shame and fear are in the way of gathering decent statistics. Over and over the studies gave figures showing that NA women were raped more often, battered more often, killed more often, more likely to be attacked by white men, and so on, but ALL of them were accompanied by notes about how reluctant everyone was to be interviewed, how untrustworthy the figures were, how few women even bothered to go to the police, how many reports were simply lost, hidden, ignored or discarded. No one really knows or could prove how bad it is. But let me assure you that on the ground where it happens, people KNOW it is very bad indeed.
I’ve never forgotten the power of disclosure at the U of Chicago one spring.
Women had been complaining about violence against them — you understand these were hyper-educated, very hip, politically-empowered feminist women — but the administration had done nothing. The women made stencils that said, “A woman was raped here” and went out in small groups one night with a map they had gotten from police reports. They marked the places and they were EVERYWHERE. Talk about consciousness-raising. But there was always the nagging problem of not knowing who the predators were.
U of Chicago is on the South Side, surrounded by poor people crammed into bad housing. Black people. The liberal bias against portraying black-on-white rape was strong. The rapists were bad “because” they were poor, deprived, put-down. But in the case of white-on-red rapes the liberal bias goes the other way, to sympathy for the victim. Unfortunately, there are not a lot of liberals on reservations.
Rape has been discussed and expanded by one sector of the feminist movement until it is diluted to being impolite behavior on first dates. The sexual revolution, in trying to say women are entitled to sex, has seriously eroded our understanding of rape as a serious crime, not because it’s naughty but because it does bodily and emotional harm of deep seriousness. Because it has been defined as a crime of men on women because women were considered property — the real crime was taking a man’s woman and making children on her body without the MAN’S permission. We reject that now. But again rape has been trivialized. If “she” is no one’s woman, she is anyone’s woman.
We are living in a brutal society. The local kids here think it is very funny to kick a boy in the genitals because it is portrayed that way in movies.
BIG yucks. Indignation if rebuked. Rape of men is a joke, a source of plot devices in media tales, a “given” part of a prison sentence. Rape is thought of by many as something natural, inevitable, and not particularly harmful. But in fact it is thrusting into a person’s viscera, using force, without lubrication, carrying in infections, tearing through the walls of vagina or rectum, possibly carrying HIV. With Viagra there may be no exhaustion of the ability of the penis to stay hard so that assault can last for an hour or more. Without Viagra or even an erection, pushing in objects like bottles, sticks, guns, pipes, is devastating. What was it that cop used? The handle of a toilet plunger?
Rape is a crime of bodily harm that can lead to death. It is imposed on the weak by the strong, because they can and because they are enraged, damaged, possibly feeling that they themselves are raped by economic and social forces. Maybe just looking for a way to go up the pecking order, whether in prison or in the schoolyard. The “weak” might be younger, more stigmatized, signaling vulnerability because of previously being bullied or abused (often by parents), smaller, “other” in some ethnic or physical way or in sexual orientation: gay, Whatever “gay” means — originally it was supposed to mean desiring the same sex, but desire has nothing to do with rape.
While I was at our little clinic to get some blood tests, the receptionist’s son came in for some papers, a ten-year-old with a cowboy’s rolling gait and boots. Later in the conversation bullying came up. The mother said that she had taught her children to never, NEVER, let any belittling, shaming or mocking talk get into their heads. No matter how much other people try to put it there. Never look at yourself that way, she said, and she was so right. I hope she also taught him the converse: never make other people feel that way.
When people begin to think they deserve rape, are somehow attracting it, that kind of abuse becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. The stigma of rape is sometimes stronger in a community than the stigma of being a rapist (“blame the victim”) and having been raped can even constitute “permission” to rape someone again since they have “lost their cherry.” (Another value left over from the idea that men own women who ought to be virgins so the men can be sure the children were theirs.)
Great Falls has just been jolted by a sequence of babies killed by stepfathers and boyfriends: infants and toddlers struck, shaken, thrown, bones broken. It’s the same phenomenon as rape, just at a different place on the continuum. Women can get low pay jobs pretty easily because they turn over all the time. When men go out of work, maybe because they do something seasonal, they tend to be idle for weeks or months. With the economy the way it is, they may be out of work for years, even though they’ve had respectable continuous careers. They end up mooching. The cover story is “house husband” or “babysitting.” The actuality may be vicious depression — mixed with drugs or alcohol — that is taken out covertly on whomever happens to be handy.
Partly because of knowing the world of the bureaucrats, partly because of doing law enforcement and partly because of working alongside “drunks” and “bums,” I think the needed changes keep failing because the studies and changes are all at the top. The people at the top appoint a committee, pay for a report, and put it under the blotter. They don’t think of it as their problem, though rich white people are just as prone to violence. Covering it up is easier.
The place to start is first-line contact: training all emergency responders how to take a good report, including photos; how to use rape kits; how to proceed in ways that protect even the guilty. We must agitate to get police and EMTs the equipment and funding they need. We must accumulate evidence and statistics, support people who will testify, and keep the conduits to both the public and the supervisors open and flowing. Police are our witnesses. Society gives them permission to use whatever force can be justified. They must not allow themselves to align with violence, out of despair over not being effective.
I’m talking ride-alongs, victim advocates, volunteer witnesses in court, and neighbors who intervene in subtle ways. I’m talking calling the police about violence even if it’s only overheard, keeping a journal of when it happens, and NOT blaming the victim. If we wait for some big authority figure to solve the problem, then we are setting ourselves up for a kind of rape. The most basic empowerment in a democracy is the people themselves.
(Cover Photo: Haider Nakash)