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Talking in circles

I don’t usually watch documentaries, but The Central Park Five (you can watch the video here) is gripping. I haven’t heard about it before D brought up the case during our discussion of Steubenville rape case, and I want to get more details about it, but so far it’s heartbreaking. I watched it over a week ago, and I’m still reeling.

It is so devastating to watch young kids be brutally intimidated and coerced into writing down “stories” simply because the figures of  authority scare them into oblivion. The desire of conviction, the need to hold someone, anyone, responsible for a vicious crime seemed overwhelming. I don’t know if it’s the general human tendency to want to find someone to blame and hold responsible for what we abhor, but it is unforgiveable in this case. They say race was an issue – it looks like it really was (as mentioned in the film, Donald Trump did not make a comment about a black woman who was raped and thrown off a roof around the same time). It’s the “us versus them”, the tendency to sympathize with those we find similar to us against those who are “other”. I know it’s everywhere – the West against the East (or Middle East), the US against USSR during the Cold War, the women against the men in some feminist movements, the religious conservatives against the gay marriage, and so on. Yes, I am aware that this is not an all encompassing phenomenon, and I know that not everyone subscribes to such a divisive worldview, but I also believe that stereotypes exist for a reason, and in examining them we can learn about ourselves.

It disturbed me for so many reasons, not the least of which was how easily the boys were forced to point the finger at each other. I do not mean that it was easy for the boys to give false statements – they were young, terrified and unaware of the consequences for themselves, it was perfectly natural for them to try to defend themselves and all they wanted to do was go home. I mean how easy it was for the adults to manipulate the words of a few teenagers, how inconsequential was the truth, how meaningless were the lives of these boys, how terribly easy it was to give them a story to write down. I am not in any way saying that suspected rapists’ “potential” should be a factor in trial or conviction (I will get to that later), but I find that the police treatment of the Central Park Five was less than exemplary and showed (to me) a complete and intentional disregard for who these people actually were. They were not much more than figureheads, the stand-ins for an unknown menace. In reality, there were a bunch of terrified kids who had no idea how the system was about to turn on them.

It was heartbreaking to watch the men recall the details of that night, their arrests and interrogations. The quiet terror, the tears, the desperation – there is nothing to erase that, to somehow make up to the grown men for the lack of childhood. They were fucked from the beginning, for absolutely no good reason or evidence, and that is devastating. The soft spoken, articulate men will always have a piece of them taken somewhere in the justice system, and that is simply unforgivable. If I felt this overwhelming sense of helplessness, I don’t even begin to imagine the horror they went through.

D mentioned this case during our discussion about Steubenville. I haven’t been following the story for long at that point, but tried to find details from all sides of the story. While I admit that I had an immediate bias and sympathy for the victim, and it would have taken a lot for me to truly consider the boys’ innocence, D’s first question was (and he didn’t know anything about the case except one article that came up on his phone about the verdict) if perhaps the girl partied one night, then felt guilty when details of what she did came out and freaked out, crying rape. The reason behind the question was that he, himself, was once accused of rape by a girl he had sex with. He said he was absolutely horrified that this girl he knew, who came over and basically jumped him, would say afterwards that he was not just rough but did something against her will. I know that people change, and people say things they don’t mean all the time, but I know he is just not the person who would be able to do that. For one, he himself had an instance of unwanted sexual contact, from a friend’s parent no less, and is very sensitive to adequate communication. Also, when we just started hooking up, and I would feel overwhelmed (he made me extremely nervous because of how I seemed to lose control around him) and freak out, and ask him to stop for a moment, he would – no questions, no guilt, no pressure, only calm understanding and checking back if I was ok and if everything was alright. He made a joke once (after leaving me in bruises, which I enjoy immensely) that maybe he should ask me to sign a contract that states that the damage I incur is consensual, in case I ever get mad and decide to go after him. I laughed because it seems ludicrous to me that anyone would be so vicious, but he got serious and told me about his experience with the false accusation.

I found that the two cases couldn’t have been further apart. The treatment of the girl in Steubenville was astounding in its cruelty. She was reduced to nothing more than a ridiculed object for someone else’s pleasure, and that was not about sex, it was about humiliation and destruction. I understand that there is probably more to the whole context of the story than what is apparent from the interviews, videos and pictures, but at the center of it all is the disregard for someone’s humanity, and a sense of entitlement to another person’s body. What shocked me most, though, was the idea that the boys’ “potential” was somehow important in how their crime should be treated. Nevermind the fact that the victim’s “potential” and trauma were not present in these discussions, but to think that because of one’s standing in a school/team/town one should be treated more lenient? Unbelievable! The girl’s intoxicated state was used as an excuse, and it somehow meant that she was able to consent to the activities for the evening (how does this even make sense?!), but the boys’ drinking would be probably excused as a reason they couldn’t be responsible for their actions. Crazy, huh?

This made me really angry, for many reasons and for a long time. The conversations and articles that came out of it were very frustrating and sad, but they also brought up a lot of issues that I think are important. One of them is our seeming difference of treatment of victims and perpetrators based on who they are, specifically the belief (still) that a person can be “asking to get raped” and others might “not be able to help themselves”. I believe in personal responsibility and that saying that men somehow can’t control themselves is demeaning to an entire gender. For the record, I know I am using the heteronormative “men” as “aggressors” and “women” as “victims”, but that is in no way to diminish the fact that men suffer from sexual abuse and discrimination (which gets reported more rarely). I firmly believe I should be able to walk naked down the street and not have some guy “lose control”. I honestly do see how “putting myself in dangerous situations” is not the smartest way to go around, but I resent the dangerous situation being in proximity to another human being in full control of his/her mental state and bodily functions.

At the same time, I think a lot of problems and opportunitites to use these sort of arguments to excuse the behaviour of certain individuals stem from complete lack of education about sexuality and consent, for both parties. While I think blaming the victim (for being drunk, wearing short skirt, being provocative, agreeing to sex beforehand) is deplorable, and I do not want in any way to come off as if I want people who are assaulted to not come forward (I think it is essential not only to make those who commit these crimes be responsible for their actions, but also to prevent others in the future), there needs to be more discussion about communication. Bad sex or unwanted sex that was still not communicated or regretted the next morning, is not rape. Yes, I believe that nonverbal communication is key, and yes, there is a responsibility on both partners to make sure there is enthusiastic consent on both parts, and ambivalence should never be counted on as an automatic yes. But we also have to teach that no one can read your mind, and engaging in sex when you don’t want to doesn’t mean your partner knows that, which in turn is not rape. This is in no way a response to the particular Steubenville case, but more of an accumulation of news, articles and opinions I’ve heard over the last few months about the general “rape culture”, interactions between the sexes and, of course, all my mean misogynistic blogs.

My thoughts are jumping all over the place, but the reason behing linking these stories, which have nothing in common other than the subject – rape – is that there is a delicate balance to be preserved. On one hand, victims of sexual assault need to be cared for and listen to without further damage being done to them by somehow blaming them for the attack. On the other hand, those accused must be dealt with in a fair manner, and utmost effort must be made to make sure that innocent people are not caught in the crossfire. I honestly know that no legal system is perfect, and there is always a chance for error (here is where my exam studying kicks and I try to figure out which is type I error and which is type II – the whole guilty verdict when innocent, no guilty verdict when guilty – but this is a total aside to me nerding out), and the Central Park Five prove that neither one is “less bad” than the other.

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