[Trigger Warning: I included a few somewhat graphic descriptions of rape in this post in order to get through to the imaginatively impaired reader. They might not be so graphic that they're disturbing to you, but they still disturb me. Be warned.]
Rape in the Alt-Lit community is in the news this week. I personally don’t know much about Alt-Lit. I’m in my forties and learned how to work Twitter in May of this year, so that should tell you all you need to know about how out-of-touch I am with an online community that calls itself Alt-Lit. However, I did sit up and take notice when folks on my Facebook feed (yes, even oldsters like me do Facebook) started passing around stories about how Stephen Tully Dierks, a well-known Alt-Lit writer and publisher, had been outed after he raped two different women. Both stories, the outing, Dierks’s predictably whiny, self-pitying Facebook response, and other reactions have now been posted in a Gawker article, and–also predictably–the comment section of the article is bursting at the seams with well-educated, articulate posters, male and female, who can’t say enough about how the rape victims, Sophia Katz and an anonymous Tumblr blogger, were terribly stupid, naive, suspect, weak, and/or complicit in their interactions with Dierks.
I didn’t have to write that last part of the sentence, did I? We all know how the story goes. It’s the rape victim’s fault. Even if we don’t want to be accused of “victim-blaming,” which education and rape awareness programs have taught us is a bad thing, we still want to emphasize how the victims made bad decisions and got themselves into a mess and dug themselves into a hole and–what? I’m not sure what the point of emphasizing this is. Shouldn’t be surprised? Should have seen it coming? Should shut up and leave us alone, because we want to think about cases of “real” rape and not “gray” rape or (wait for it, and try to hold the vomit in while you do) “rapey” rape?
Here are the details of the victims’ stories:
Twenty-year-old Katz says she met Dierks online. A Toronto resident, Katz wanted to spend a week in New York to see if she could connect with writerly types in that self-proclaimed City of Writers and All Things Literary. (Okay, I added that bit of snark about the City of Writers. I’m not a particular fan of pretentious New York Writer types, but it’s certainly true that, if you’re a writer and you want to network, New York is the place to go.) This apparently was something of a project for Katz, as she didn’t have much money at the time. Dierks started emailing her about the impending trip, and after about a week had convinced her to stay at his apartment. Katz could even sleep in his bed, he told her. Katz politely declined, although Dierks didn’t seem to notice and kept lobbying her for what he wanted.
Dierks’s insistence on compliance with his wishes quickly became a pattern: when Katz arrived at his apartment, it was 2:30 in the morning. She and Dierks chatted until 3 or 4 am, at which point she started unrolling her sleeping bag. He insisted that she lie on his bed, told her “we don’t need to do anything.” He badgered her until she followed his instructions. He started touching her. She told him she was tired. The first night, he backed off, but for the rest of the week, he simply bulldozed over all her other objections, including not wanting to have sex with his roommates in the next room and not wanting to have sex without a condom. She left New York cowed and humiliated.
The anonymous Tumblr blogger only spent one night with Dierks, but her description of Dierks’s pattern of insisting and not listening is similar. He invited her to a poetry reading. He bought her drinks. He decided she was too drunk to go home, so he insisted she stay with him and sleep in his bed. She left her coat on. He insisted he hang it up for her. He started fondling her despite her protests. Then he proceeded to roll on top of her and rape her over the course of the night.
So these are the complaints against Dierks. Both stories portray Dierks as having the hallmarks of the non-stranger rapist, also known as the acquaintance rapist, date rapist, or, as David Lisak in a 2002 study dubbed them, “undetected rapists.” Such men do most of the raping in the U.S. and are just as predatory as men who grab women off the street at night. According to Lisak’s research, undetected rapists
• are extremely adept at identifying “likely” victims, and testing prospective
• plan and premeditate their attacks, using sophisticated strategies to groom
their victims for attack, and to isolate them physically;
• use “instrumental” not gratuitous violence; they exhibit strong impulse
control and use only as much violence as is needed to terrify and coerce
their victims into submission;
• use psychological weapons – power, control, manipulation, and threats –
backed up by physical force, and almost never resort to weapons such as
knives or guns;
• use alcohol deliberately to render victims more vulnerable to attack, or
Again, I thought this profile of date rapists was pretty common knowledge. Apparently, I’m wrong.
Post after post on Gawker shows how little even the well-educated, well-read, logical and reasonable Internet user understands about rape and her complicity with rape culture. Yes, many female posters had numerous criticisms for Katz and the Tumbler blogger. Why did Katz think it was okay to stay with someone she’d only known for a week? And had never met in person? Why didn’t she leave when she had the chance? (At least the Tumblr blogger had the good sense to escape in the morning when Dierks was showering, huh, female Gawkers?) Both women described a point during their rapes where they gave up and let Dierks do what he wanted. Why didn’t these young women defend themselves? shout the Gawkers. Why didn’t they bite or kick or scream? (Only a few fellow posters pointed out that getting physical might have cost these women their lives. How did they know Dierks wouldn’t give them black eyes, or put them in a choke hold, or cover their faces in a pillow?)
Male Gawkers tend to fault Katz mostly. They argue that she should have known that if a guy was offering her a place to crash, she should expect to have sex with him. Never mind that this basically boils friendship–not just dating, folks, friendship–between a man and a woman down to a sex transaction. Never mind that sex transactions are commonly known as prostitution. Never mind that a lot of women would rather not sell their bodies for the price of dinner, or a cheap hotel, or at all. Nope, Katz and the Tumblr blogger can’t possibly expect sympathy for their own stupidity. All guys want from women is sex, and whenever a guy’s penis twitches with sexual anticipation any available partner in the vicinity must fulfill the obligation of the almighty Phallus.
Of course, I’m simplifying here for the sake of satire. Not all men are rapists. That’s reductionist alarmism. However, buying into the beliefs of rape culture, such as the idea that women owe men sex or that whenever a woman is raped we really need to focus on how her behavior may have created a problem, completely takes the pressure off of the criminal in question–the rapist–and allows him to slither into the background again and go find someone else to prey on. Because that’s what we’re talking about here: sexual predators. Just as not all men are rapists, not everyone with a penis is going to be an average Joe that all other average Joes ought to sympathize with and defend.
Here’s a question for the guys, especially those who commented on the Gawker article: do you like it when your sexual partner is in tears? Do you like beating your woman bloody before you fuck her? (I’m not talking about kinky, 50-shades-of-gray-style fetishes. Fetishists tend to have consent from all parties involved before they begin their fantasies, and they have safewords and other protections so they won’t, say, go to jail for their behavior.) Would you rather your partner lie motionless and catatonic as you lie on top of her (or him)?
What? That doesn’t sound like fun? Well, then, you’re not like Dierks. Dierks gets off on capturing women and using them however and whenever he wants. Dierks treats women like living blow-up dolls. If this isn’t your style, if you like it when your women want you and interact with you, well then, I’m not talking about you, am I?
If I’m not talking about you, don’t feel you need to defend yourself against me because I’m attacking all men, or male sexuality, or you specifically. Don’t defend yourself by overanalyzing and criticizing the behaviors of Katz and the Tumblr blogger and other women like them. The fact that they were raped isn’t an attack on all men, or male sexuality, or you specifically. If you don’t rape, you don’t have to defend rapists to defend all of mankind.
If you do rape, get help. Seriously. Everyone would be much better off, including you.
And now, a question for the ladies: all you women who commented on Gawker know that rapists are predatory and that predators set traps for their prey, right? If you are so certain you wouldn’t have fallen for Dierks’s traps (the invite to New York, the insistence on an escort to his place), then Dierks probably wouldn’t be into you. You’re not his type if you don’t take his bait. He wants his women unsuspecting and easy to control. Preferably young and inexperienced, new to town, drunk, doped up, exhausted, broke, out of their element. He wants to overwhelm his women until they’re too scared or sickened or ashamed to protest anymore. That isn’t consent. That’s rape. And the argument that you wouldn’t have just given up–you would have fought back? Are you sure about that? After all, you have the luxury of knowing how these stories turned out. The women who lived these stories didn’t. Dierks was an unknown quantity. They didn’t–and couldn’t–know if physically resisting Dierks would leave them raped and battered, or raped and dead. In case you didn’t realize this, physical violence and rape often go hand in hand. If you need evidence of this, look up the three-part rapist typology written by Nicholas Groth and notice that two out of the three rapist types incorporate beatings or torture into their sexual assaults. (Lisak briefly describes Groth’s categories in his paper.)
Bottom line, ladies: don’t get defensive when you read about women who don’t behave in a way you consider appropriate as they’re getting raped. Don’t feel as though you have to defend womanhood and its value against actions you consider foolish or ill advised. It’s not going to protect you or anyone else from getting raped, because women by and large don’t cause rape. Rapists do.
To be fair, I admit that my knee-jerk reaction to Katz’s story was like that of many female Gawkers: outrage and maternal admonition. (Not the good kind. The dismissive kind.) I, too, was stunned that Katz would accept an invitation to stay with a stranger she met online. To my ears, it sounded like a typical situation that a 1980s PSA would tell you to avoid, like taking candy from strangers or hitchhiking. And he invited her to stay in his bed? Christ! How could a person put herself in such a dangerous position? Later, though, I realized that this is exactly the kind of thinking that rape culture instills in all of us. Yes, some women engage, knowingly or not, in high-risk behavior. They still don’t deserve to get raped. Yes, I can imagine Dierks, or any man (or woman, for that matter) getting pissed off when a week-long hookup turns out to be a friendly sleepover. And yet, he could have just sent her back to Toronto. Or, he could have said, “My mistake,” and swallowed his pride, and let her sleep on his floor for a week, and seen if anything developed between him and Katz. That’s called Being in a Relationship. Or (if a relationship doesn’t materialize) it’s called Being a Decent Person.
Rape culture is the force that skews our expectations toward rape. Rape culture tells men that paying for dinner is not a date but a social contract for sexual favors, and any woman who doesn’t put out is stealing your money. Rape culture says women should be available for sex 24/7. That women’s vaginas are not their own. To women, rape culture says the way to prevent rape is to police your own actions. You can’t tell men not to rape. It wouldn’t do any good, because like animals or ameobae men have no control. It’s all part of the laws of nature. (Helpful tip: you can usually spot a false bit of “wisdom” if it relies on the Laws of Nature.)
What rape culture is really doing, of course, is covering up rape with the respectability and authority of the status quo. Rape culture doesn’t want you to see the rapist. Rape culture would rather a rapist commit crimes than have an iota of social power taken away from the penis. This isn’t a knock against men. It’s a knock against how our whole society works–upheld by men and women both–to keep itself intact.
Surely I don’t have to mention that things don’t have to be this way, right?
Surely I don’t have to mention that we’d all be a lot better off without rapists and others who strive to beat us into submission.
Surely I don’t have to point out that when I say “us” I mean both women and men.
I would say that a good place to start changing minds and attitudes would be to stop picking away at the actions and motivations of rape victims and start looking at rapists. Let’s have a close look at Dierks. Notice how his behavior, as described by Katz and the Tumblr blogger, mirrors the traits of Lisak’s undetected rapist. In fact, Dierks follows the formula so closely, you’d think Lisak was the copycat here, except that Lisak published his findings six years ago. Go to Gawker and read Dierks’s statement about Sophia Katz. Notice how many times he uses the word “I.” Notice how many times he uses a general noun, like “anyone,” versus how many times he refers to Katz by name. Notice how he uses passive constructions to describe his actions (“consent seemed to have been given”), while he piles on copious dramatic descriptors when he discusses his feelings (“I clearly gravely misread the situation…I am horrified and ashamed.”) And notice how he manages to blame the rapes he committed on everything from his writing to his social group to “our society’s patriarchal structure.” I’m guessing he tacked that last one on to show how culturally aware he is, so that he can gain some sympathy points with his Social Group.
Does anyone get an inkling that this guy feels sorry for himself? Does anyone think he actually feels sorry? What amazing things you discover when you stop rehashing old arguments and start looking at what’s right in front of you.
UPDATE: Wow. Just learned that Tao Lin, Alt-Lit Uber-Star, has now been accused of rape and abuse toward a girl (now a trans man) who was just 16 at the time of their relationship. In his “defense,” which he initially posted on Facebook before he edited and then removed it (Facebook: the Place to Confess Your Misogyny), Lin doesn’t deny any of the allegations and yet gets disgruntled at being called a rapist. He even says, yes, he “used” his then-girlfriend’s emails as material for his book, but he didn’t plagiarize them because she totally said it was okay. So to recap…no, I’m sorry, I can’t wrap my brain around this one. Not this late at night, anyhow.
UPDATE #2: And the hits just keep coming. Last night, after I added the update above, I discovered that Allegheny professor, award-winning writer and Pomeranian owner Kirk Nesset has been arrested by the FBI after an enormous stash of child pornography was found in his home. Outside the literary world but still sharing territory with the contemporary Internet-nerd establishment, YouTube vloggers such as Alex Day, Tom Milsom, and Sam Pepper have come under attack for being flaming misogynist assholes, if not statutory rapists or child porn afficionados. What does all this mean?
One thing that seems quite clear, as Erin Gloria Ryan points out in the link above, is that the stereotypical sensitive, creative, computer-savvy geek/nerd mindset does not make one immune to the corrupting influences of patriarchal power. Also, as these popular, fame-ordained “good guys” are unmasked, we might start seeing some rape-culture blowback over how to define rape and consent. In this Salon article from yesterday, Katie McDonough discusses how society continues to be blinded to criminal actions by certain famous men because they carry the “good man” label. (McDonough also notes that David Lisak’s undetected rapist study was actually first published in 2002, not 2008. That has been corrected in the link in my main post, above.) I imagine that, in the scramble to make sure the power to define rape never resides in the mind of the rape victim, we’ll be seeing a lot of ass-covering and sensitivity from those who think they’re soon to be the targets of vengeful false accusations. Case in point: this new app, called Good2Go, which involves filling out a rudimentary digital sexual consent form before two people can head off to hookup land. The problem: the initiating party is never asked whether or not he (or she) is “good to go,” and the fact that “consent” is recorded in the app’s system, which might then be accessible to government subpoena, could mean that parties who consented at first but withdrew their consent later could have their Good2Go “contract” used against them in court. Guess who that has the most potential to hurt?
UPDATE #3: I didn’t particularly want to update this post again. I was more than willing to let my words on this subject fade into the background noise of Internet opinion surrounding AltLitGate. (Are we calling it that now? Has this nightmare officially earned the “-Gate” suffix?) And then, after discovering I spelled Kirk Nesset’s name wrong (yes, along with everything else, I have a painful case of Editor’s Angst), I stumbled across this essay by Kate Stoeffel in New York Magazine. Glibly titled “It Doesn’t Have to be Rape to Suck,” Stoeffel discusses how, when stories of sexual assault and abuse surface, polite, well-educated society tries to walk the line between sympathizing with victims and not pissing off men who don’t want to be called rapists. Guess who inevitably wins in these cases?
“[I]t seems like every time someone explains that women and men do not always meet for sex on equal footing, the conversation collapses into a black-and-white debate of Was It Rape — one that, paradoxically, serves to protect men,” Stoeffel observes. She presents as an example the case of a group of female students at Quest University in Canada, women who filed sexual assault complaints against two male students, whose complaints were ultimately deemed false, and who were then ordered not to divulge information about their cases on campus in order to (surprise!) protect the reputations of the male students. Curiously, though, Stoeffel labels these male students “serial gropers and sneak-attack kissers,” whereas the Buzzfeed article she cites about the Quest controversy describes not just a few smooches and butt-pinches here and there (although a few women claimed little more harassment than that) but women who reported being forced into sex and/or fighting off unwanted sexual advances. One woman came away from her encounter with bruises on her nipples. What could this be called but rape, or at least attempted rape?
Katie J.M. Baker, the author of the Buzzfeed article, doesn’t debate the definitions of rape and sexual assault. The story she tells is about women trying to establish credibility in an environment where officials have an institutional reputation to uphold. Stoeffel, on the other hand, seems to be more interested in semantics. Here’s how Stoeffel characterizes the situation, which includes both the Quest students and the individuals who have accused the so-called alt-lit “golden boys” of rape:
Now women are speaking up about situations that fall outside the conventional definition of rape but nonetheless reflect a gender power dynamic that leaves women sexually vulnerable. Katz never used the wordrape, but her essay spells out many of the reasons women have sex when they don’t want to. There’s baseline need (she had nowhere else to stay), physical intimidation (he was on top of her), and, most insidious, a deeply internalized sense of obligation. I know so many women who, late one night, decided it would be rude or un-chill to deny a guy sex after enjoying his company or drinking his alcohol or doing his drugs — or at least not worth the confrontation and social retaliation that could follow.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but things like “baseline need” (or taking away a baseline need) and “physical intimidation” have always been part of the definition of rape. Let’s see what the World Health Organization has to say on the subject, shall we?
[On sexual violence:]
Sexual violence is defined as: any sexual act, attempt to obtain a sexual act, unwanted sexual comments or advances, or acts to traffic, or otherwise directed, against a person’s sexuality using coercion, by any person regardless of their relationship to the victim, in any setting, including but not limited to home and work.
Coercion can cover a whole spectrum of degrees of force. Apart from physical force, it may involve psychological intimidation, blackmail or other threats – for instance, the threat of physical harm, of being dismissed from a job or of not obtaining a job that is sought. It may also occur when the person aggressed is unable to give consent – for instance, while drunk, drugged, asleep or mentally incapable of understanding the situation.
Sexual violence includes rape, defined as physically forced or otherwise coerced penetration– even if slight – of the vulva or anus, using a penis, other body parts or an object. The attempt to do so is known as attempted rape.
By these definitions, virtually everything that Stoeffel identifies as “situations that fall outside the conventional definition of rape” are, in fact, part of the conventional definition of rape. Women who “have sex when they don’t want to” because of “baseline need”–say, because otherwise they’re going to be tossed onto the street at 4:00 am in an unfamiliar city where they could easily get mugged, stabbed, shot, or otherwise harmed–have been raped. Women who have been “physically intimidated” into sex have been raped, because their rapists are holding them down and/or threatening to stab, shoot, or otherwise harm them. Women who hook up with someone and just feel like what the hell? they should be nice and have sex with the guy is a bullshit argument designed to cloud the issue if ever I saw one. Women aren’t babies. They can tell the difference between giving consent (what the hell?) and not giving consent (getting your chest crushed and your nipples bruised while you’re forced onto your back).
I was about to ask, where did these wacky millennial perspectives that don’t recognize rape as rape come from? But then I realized I don’t need to. Stoeffel and others like her are parroting the same old arguments wrapped in sparkly new Internet-age packaging. I understand the discomfort, too: men don’t like being called rapists, and women don’t like the idea that they could be raped. The fact remains, however. Rape is rape. Rape happens. Arguing over the nuances of linguistics in general and victims’ (never victimizers’) experiences in particular won’t change the reality of things.