Watch Your Language!

By Katie Feifer

I've written about this before, but the subject is worth talking about a lot, especially when there are new perspectives on the subject of how the language we use when we talk about rape gives power and protection to those who rape, shames victims, and perpetuates rape culture.  One example comes from the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault which recently published a message that calls the culture to task for labeling sex as "consensual sex."

“Consensual sex” is just sex. To say that implies that there is such a thing as “non consensual sex”, which there isn’t. That’s rape. That is what it needs to be called. There is only sex or rape. Do not teach people that rape is just another type of sex. They are two very separate events. You wouldn’t say “breathing swimming” and “non breathing swimming”, you say swimming and drowning.

On the heels of MECASA's message comes another brilliant article by Soraya Chemaly, illuminating many of the ways our use of language around rape perpetuates rape culture and even makes us complicit in the perpetuation. In addition to making excellent points, with many examples, Chemaly's article contains a wealth of links to more information, insight,  and wisdom. Well worth reading and following the links.

What are we talking about? Phrases like "classic rapist" that perpetuate the myth that "real rape" ( or "rape rape" pace Whoppi Goldberg) is perpetrated by strangers jumping out from the bushes rather than the "nice young men" who "simply couldn't control their natural urges." How many times have we read or even talked about "a hook-up gone wrong," "drunk sex," or "grey rape." What about all the reporting in the media about a child who "performed oral sex" on an adult man, instead of calling it what it is: a man forced a child to fellate him.

In fact, we are particularly loathe as a society to label rape and sexual assault perpetrated against children as what it actually is. I get it - it's very difficult to think about, let alone talk about. But there's danger in not calling  it what it is, whether the victims are children or adults. Case in point: Josh Duggar, of 19 Kids and Counting fame, who is said in the media to have "fondled the breasts and genitalia of young girls (his sisters) while they were sleeping." I have not seen any articles - outside feminist press - calling it what it is: sexual assault and rape of his sisters. Incest. "Molestation" is as far as most outlets go. And Josh himself said only "I acted inexcusably." Which God, his parents, and many other people apparently forgive. Would we be so forgiving if we said "Josh Dugger sexually assaulted his sisters?" If Josh had come clean and confessed "I raped  my younger sisters?"

What's the danger? Soraya Chemaly says,

Every time you hear or say these types of expressions, the question should be “Who benefits from not saying ‘rape?’” Who is helped when we refuse to be accurate about rape?

Because it’s certainly not rape victims....

As long as we live in global culture where shame is assigned to the raped and not the rapists, the only people allowed to use euphemisms should be survivors.

Writing last year, Bishop Desmond Tutu, Jacob Lief, and Sohaila Abdulali explained, “Rape is utterly commonplace in all our cultures. It is part of the fabric of everyday life, yet we all act as if it’s something shocking and extraordinary whenever it hits the headlines. We remain silent, and so we condone it.”


Dylan Farrow Touched a Nerve: Are Women and Girls to be Trusted?

By Katie Feifer

Last year, Vanity Fair published an article that reported (again) Dylan Farrow’s claims that Woody Allen, her mother’s partner, had molested her when she was seven. A few weeks later, Woody Allen was given a lifetime achievement award at the Golden Globes. Mia Farrow took to Twitter to proclaim her disgust that he would be honored in this way. The battle began anew. Is Woody a child molester, a creep, a degenerate (albeit a wildly talented one)? Is Mia a vindictive, manipulative, jealous bitch who just can’t forgive that Woody had sex with and then married her daughter?

And then, the adult Dylan Farrow wrote an open letter, published in the New York Times, in which she testified to the abuse she endured at the hands of Woody Allen. And here’s where it gets really interesting.

Unbelievably – to some – the fact that we heard evidence from the victim, in her own words, from her adult perspective, escalated, rather than resolved the battle. Rather than saying “there you have it; now we know, she said in public what he did to her” many went wild trying to discredit her, and her mother, and to re-frame Dylan’s experiences of trauma and abuse into a case where Woody Allen is the victim, framed and vilified by Mia and her minions, including her children.

We’re living in “he said, she said” land. And in our culture – our rape culture – he and she are just not equivalent. Aaron Bady exposed our cultural bias against women’s truth telling in The New Inquiry: . "...you can’t presume that both are innocent at the same time. One of them must be saying something that is not true. But “he said, she said” doesn’t resolve to “let’s start by assume she’s lying,” except in a rape culture, and if you are presuming his innocence by presuming her mendacity, you are rape cultured.”

Soraya Chemaly deepened our understanding of how and why this happens in a brilliant article. “Dylan Farrow is in a situation that thousands deal with every day. In general, people want to look away, muttering some variant of "he said/she said." But, that phrase implies an equivalence where we have a gross imbalance, because "he" is more trusted, virtually always, in every capacity, than "she." “

It’s important to ask ourselves why we, as a society, have such a hard time simply believing the testimony of a girl or a woman. Chemaly and others have used the Farrow firestorm to showcase – again – our society’s deep mistrust of female people. If you care to look, or to think about it, the evidence you need is right in front of us.

Those who are trying to discredit Dylan (and Mia) Farrow have been coming up with all sorts of arguments – “proof” why Woody Allen couldn’t have done such a thing (“He’s claustrophobic! He wouldn’t go into an attic!”), and why Mia was absolutely plotting to destroy Woody (custody battle, woman scorned, etc.).  Why Dylan Farrow’s own account, her testimony, can’t be trusted. (And by the way, for those who claim “there is no evidence” to support the charges, testimony is evidence. Except perhaps when it comes from a female testifying about sexual violence.)

One of the most widely read defenses of Woody/attacks on Dylan was written by a friend of Woody Allen’s, Robert Wiede, in The Daily Beast. And a week later, Woody Allen himself wrote a long and ridiculous (if you know anything about the case and about child sexual abuse) self-defense piece in the New York Times.

On the (somewhat) bright side, as a result of the attacks on Dylan and Mia Farrow, many respected experts on child sexual abuse have weighed in to discred the myths that abound, and in so doing educating those who care about the realities of child sex abuse and its prosecution. If you want to educate yourself, check out the following articles. All well-written, all by experts talking about what they are expert in. 

Roger Canaff.  Legal expert and child protection advocate. He exposed some of the unfair and false notions that are floating around about what “real” child sex abuse looks like, and how to prove it. Among them…

"No physical evidence “proving” the case. Anyone with a cursory understanding of both the typical nature of child sex abuse and pediatric anatomy knows that child cases almost never yield compelling physical evidence, even when reports are immediate. Very few abusers seek to inflict injury and know that doing so will likely interrupt the grooming process and trigger a report. Further, the genital area is blood-rich and heals very quickly even if tissue is damaged. Dylan reported nothing to my knowledge likely to yield physical evidence.” 

Wendy Murphy, who noted in her “Open Letter to Woody Allen,”  

 “In one of the statements from your representative, it's said that the allegations of your adoptive daughter, Dylan Farrow… are false because a 7-year-old child cannot be trusted to distinguish between fantasy and reality. This claim makes you look particularly guilty, Woody. See, little girls fantasize about becoming princesses and doctors. They don't "fantasize" about being told to lie face down and watch a toy train go by while being sexually abused from behind. They have no context to conjure up such a fantasy.”

Lisa Bloom. She gave us “Six Reasons Why Dylan Farrow is Highly Credible” and struck at the claim that this was all conjured up by Mia Farrow, lying and conniving as part of a custody battle, and out of general spite, being a woman scorned and all.

“Blaming the mother is a tired, common strategy for those accused of sexual abuse. (Mothers also get blamed when they fail to act promptly in response to a child’s accusation.) A loving, healthy mother will be sickened and outraged when a child tells on an adult for sexual abuse. This is how Mia behaved. She should not be faulted for it.

The claim that Mia Farrow manufactured all of this does not ring true because (i) Dylan reportedly told a babysitter first; (ii) Mia Farrow reportedly gave her daughter multiple opportunities to recant if she wanted to; and (iii) Dylan is now a mature, happy adult who would have no motivation to continue to lie for her mother, twenty two years later, who lives a thousand miles away from her.” 

Natalie Shure, a victim of child sexual abuse at the hands of an older cousin, gave us some compelling insight into how a child deals with what happens when s/he reports being abused - and why young children may not tell what adults consider to be "coherent" accounts - and why that doesn't mean they are making it up.

“Yet there is something inherently imbalanced about a child abuse case. The very secrecy that makes the truth “unknowable” is an instrument of the crime. With no witnesses or credible legal evidence, the “he said/she said” conundrum prevails. The assailant knows this, and he can use it to his advantage. As soon as children make allegations, they enter a world filled with adult concepts—ideas they themselves don’t entirely understand. In order to even tell their stories, they have to learn a new language, putting vague, undefined feelings into unfamiliar words. The whole drama plays out in a grown-up context, which means the grown-up always has the upper hand. Neutrality never even has a chance.”

And Maureen Orth, the author of the original Vanity Fair piece in 1992 and a second published last fall, weighed in with 10 "undeniable facts" about the allegations against Woody Allen. All of which should go a long way toward defending the veracity of Dylan Farrows account - which should never require this much defending. 

But still does.